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Bunky Green

Marcia Hillman By

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Vernice "Bunky" Green (born Apr. 23rd, 1935) is a product of Wisconsin, where he was raised and learned to play the alto saxophone. His first big break came when Charles Mingus briefly hired him in the '60s—an association that left a lasting influence on Green's own style.

Green left Mingus to relocate in Chicago where he performed regularly, appearing with such players as Sonny Stitt, Yusef Lateef and Louie Bellson among others. His style was ever-evolving and succeeded in integrating traditional and contemporary improvising techniques. Green has a list of wide-ranging musical heroes that he credits for his development: Bach, Beethoven, Coltrane, Chopin and Louis Armstrong. But Green says, "Bird was my original hero. He used to tell me to keep my ears open and keep moving forward."

For a while, moving forward for Green was performing but by the early '70s, he was turning his attention to jazz education. After teaching at Chicago State University from 1972-89, he accepted the position of Director of Jazz Studies at the University of Northern Florida (UNF) in Jacksonville where he is currently ensconced. Green also was president of the now-defunct International Association for Jazz Education (IAJE) and his work in jazz education earned him election to the Jazz Education Hall of Fame.

Green's focus on education was a conscious choice. "I had gotten tired of traveling and really wanted to concentrate on education because you have to really go beyond just performing." Green's love of teaching is apparent as he speaks of guiding his students and learning from them as well. "I learned in the streets and I still think the real school is still in the streets," but he feels that the jazz programs in the schools lay the foundation for the "on-the-job-training" that should follow.

Even with his focus on teaching, Green managed to maintain a recording presence during the '60s-80s. He worked with Sonny Stitt (Soul in the Night) and Elvin Jones (Time Capsule and Summit Meeting). Notable among his releases during this period is his 1989 album Healing the Pain (Delos)—a moving piece of work commemorating the death of his parents. His most current recording is The Salzau Quartet Live at Jazz Baltica (Traumton).

This brings Green to the present point in his career. "I started traveling again in 2006 just to plug into the system. They want to know that you're still part of it." Green has been back and forth across the pond many times since then and is well known in Germany and France. This return to performing has led to his two-night stand this month at Jazz Standard, Speaking about this, Green's voice was full of excitement, energy and smiles about playing in New York City again. He recalls that the last time he performed in New York City was at Birdland about two years ago, but before then it was way back when he was working with Mingus.

On the upcoming gig he shares the bandstand with fellow alto saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa. This event has been long in coming; as Mahanthappa tells the story, he first heard about Green as a student at Berklee, tracked him down at UNF and sent him a tape of his playing. Mahanthappa recalls that Green "called back a few weeks later with some really supportive and encouraging feedback." A few years later when Mahanthappa was a graduate student at DePaul University in Chicago, Green attended a concert, came backstage and "gave me a big hug" and said that we needed to continue doing what we do in order to take the alto saxophone into the future. Green and Mahanthappa have been friends ever since and finally had a chance to play together at the same 2008 Jazz Baltica Festival. The next opportunity for them to perform together came in 2009 when Mahanthappa organized a concert for the City of Chicago. Since both of them had lived in Chicago at some point in their individual lives, it seemed appropriate for them to join forces.

Fast forward to April in New York City and more performing for this duo. This time, however, the group will go into the studio to record so that the music can be captured on a CD. At this stage in his ongoing career, Green has arrived at an enviable place: teaching at an institution which allows him to take time out to travel and satisfy his love for performing. Ah.... the best of all possible worlds!!!

Selected Discography:

Bunky Green—My Babe (Exodus, 1960)

Sonny Stitt/Bunky Green—Soul in the Night (Cadet, 1966)

Bunky Green—Places We've Never Been (Vanguard, 1979)

Bunky Green—Healing the Pain (Delos, 1989)

Bunky Green—Another Place (Label Bleu, 2004)

Bunky Green/The Salzau Quartet—Live at Jazzbaltica (Traumton, 2007)

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