Grant Green: Rediscovering the Forgotten Genius of Jazz Guitar

Grant Green: Rediscovering the Forgotten Genius of Jazz Guitar

by Sharony Andrews Green
(Miller Freeman Books, San Francisco, 274 pages, $22.95)

by James Hale

copyright © 2000 James Hale

Falling between Wes Montgomery and George Benson -- the two dominant mainstream jazz guitarists of the '60s and '70s -- Grant Green has never gotten his due. Blame it on his short life, the debilitating drug habit that aided his early demise or his penchant for funky recordings during his final years; whatever the cause, Green is seldom cited in the six-string canon.

Former newspaper journalist Sharony Andrews Green sets out to correct the situation, as much for personal reasons as professional curiosity. The guitarist was little more than a name to her when she fell in love with his youngest son, Grant Jr.

Just 16 when his father died at 43 in 1979, the younger Green had little knowledge of the jazz musician's importance. As their relationship evolved into marriage, he and the author delved into the guitarist's life beyond the family.

That approach is both the book's charm and its major weakness. Andrews Green follows her father-in-law's trail to various family members and a colorful cast of musicians and friends. Those interviewed include the famous -- guitarists Benson and Mark Whitfield -- and little-known characters like St. Louis hipster Ollie Matheus. Along the way, the author discovers an enduring rift among the Green children, and her unblinking inclusion of it gives the story a heightened sense of reality. This is the story of a man who struggled to reconcile divergent forces in his life: family and the road; a drug habit and the Muslim religion; the desire to create and the lure of commercialism.

It is an interesting story, but possibly not one that requires telling in such detail. There is much repetition that might have been excised by a tougher editor, and many contradictory viewpoints that don't really add up to much.

When it comes right down to it, Grant Green was much more interesting as a musician than as a person, yet Andrews Green devotes few pages to trying to get to the bottom of what made the guitarist special.

Another problem -- more an annoyance than a serious flaw -- is Andrews Green's unfamiliarity with jazz and the lack of an editor's keen eye to compensate for it. This combination leads to a statement that places Charlie Parker at Minton's circa 1960 -- five years after his death -- and another that has John (sic) Faddis and Lew Soloff -- both trumpeters -- playing trombone on a Green recording. Still, Grant Green has an appeal that outweighs many of its shortcomings, and that is its honesty and Andrews Green's determination to keep digging until the full story is told.

Jazz fans are constantly fed stories of colorful, charismatic characters -- Ellington, Bird, Miles, Coltrane, Jaco, Joshua Redman, pick a decade -- but few writers bother with the second liners. Despite his talent, Green led a pretty ordinary, hard-working life. He was a man with some serious flaws, and he wasn't one of those chosen to be elevated to the pantheon.

Andrews Green has taken the time to raise her father-in-law out of the darkness, and in the process she has created an interesting -- if overly long -- picture of a jazz musician trying to cope with a lifestyle that is outside the mainstream.

[This review appeared originally in Coda magazine and is reprinted with permission. -- Editor.]

C o m m e n t s

Grant Green Bio 1 of 2
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September 17, 07

I'm a huge Grant Gree fan, so jumped into this book with interest. Mr. Hales pretty acurately sums up the book's strengths (a few) and weaknesses, so I will only add that, possibly to make up for the author's minimal knowledge of jazz, there is an excellent annotated discography of Green's recordings by a knowledgable Swiss (I believe) fan (whose name escapes me at the moment). Worth picking up for some bits and pieces of Grant's life not previously known, and for the discography.

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