Thursday, June 29, 2017

A Herman Green playlist

Posted By on Thu, Jun 29, 2017 at 12:17 PM

click to enlarge B.B. King with Herman Green
  • B.B. King with Herman Green

We were honored to present the life and achievements of Dr. Herman Green in this week's cover story. Here we present a playlist to accompany Dr. Green's life in music. While much of his work was never recorded, such as his years leading the house band at the the legendary Blackhawk jazz club, a few snippets here and there can give us an idea of his milieu. But before we jump into Dr. Green's accomplishments, let's go way back to his roots: the W.C. Handy band, of which Green's father, Herman Washington, Sr., was a member. While we don't know if Washington was on this recording, here's a taste of that Handy sound:

Cut to 1945, and a 15-year-old Herman Green begins playing with Rufus Thomas, Jr. on Beale Street. Those rowdy talent shows and revues weren't recorded, but a few short years later, Rufus made some recordings at Sun Studios, with his young protege on sax, and those were released on Chess Records. No doubt Thomas' sound had become a little more 'modern' by then, but these are some fine blues and R&B sides:

Shortly after starting on Beale Street, Rufus Thomas recommended Green to a young, aspiring blues man named Riley B. King when he was putting together a band. B.B. King  and Green played together for years, until Green joined up with a "bally troupe" and took to the road. After Green left Memphis, King began a recording career that would make him an international star. Here are his first recordings.

Herman Green didn't make these sessions, but these sides, recorded by Sam Phillips, give you a taste of how he sounded in 1949. As King told Blues Access magazine, "My very first recordings [in 1949] were for a company out of Nashville called Bullet, the Bullet Record Transcription company," King recalls. "I had horns that very first session. I had Phineas Newborn on piano; his father played drums, and his brother, Calvin, played guitar with me. I had Tuff Green on bass, Ben Branch on tenor sax, his brother, Thomas Branch, on trumpet, and a lady trombone player."

The Phineas Newborn, Sr., band was a fixture on the local scene back then, all of them close associates of Herman Green. Here's the sound of Memphis, ca. 1949, and that lady on trombone sure can blow!

While the above sessions were going down, Herman Green was very likely touring the East Coast and Canada. When he'd had enough of that, he landed in New York for a spell. Practically as soon as he arrived, he attended a jam session at Birdland hosted by Sonny Stitt and Art Blakey. Here's a Sonny Stitt record from 1950. Although Green never recorded with Stitt, this is a taste of what he walked into when he visited Birdland for the first time:

After leaving New York, being drafted into service in Korea, and finally returning stateside, Herman Green settled in as leader of the house band at the Blackhawk. No recordings (that we know of) exist of this period of Herman's life, but here's a taste of Miles Davis and his touring band (not including the house band or Herman) playing that legendary club a few years later. Soak in the murmur of the crowd, the sound of the room, and you can almost taste the cocktails and smell the smoke.

By the late fifties, Green had joined Lionel Hampton and His Orchestra. Fortunately, we do have some of their performances from his time on record. Here are a couple from 1960-61, live at the Metropole in New York. Herman Green is listed in the orchestra credits. Is that him taking those sizzling sax solos?

By the end of the sixties, Green had left Lionel Hampton and settled back in Memphis for good. Playing many sessions in the hopping recording scene back then, he also quietly pursued his love of jazz. You can find some CD's of his band, The Green Machine, though little of it exists on YouTube. But here's a little gem of Green and colleagues blowing on Monk's "Round Midnight". An informal, loose session, it captures what happens when jazz players just want to play, for whoever may show up:

By 1987, Herman Green had helped to found the band Freeworld, and he's been playing with them ever since. Here's a tune he wrote and recorded with them in 1996, from the album You Are Here. That's Green on flute.

Green still plays Beale Street every week with Freeworld. We'll wrap things up with a little taste of how it sounds when he steps up to the mic. It's a bit stunning to think that he could have been playing this very song when he first stepped on a Memphis stage in 1945. And it would have been every bit as bawdy...

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