By Sharony Andrews Green
Miller Freeman Books
To fans of the Blue Note label - and in the history of jazz there has never been a label with such a clearly defined ethos or sense of purpose - the name Grant Green is a very familiar one. Like label mate Bobby Hutcherson, Green was not only prolific as a leader, but also a ubiquitous session sideman as well. His name appears on scores of those dynamic Reid Miles album covers, and the music he left inside them features one of the greatest - if underrated - guitar sounds of the 1960's.
Unlike Wes Montgomery, the premier 'brand name' in 60's jazz guitar, Grant Green has always been more of an aficionados choice. Though he recorded upwards of 100 sessions both under his own name and ably supporting others, he never made the mainstream breakthrough that contemporaries like Montgomery and George Benson did. This is of course a great shame. Green had a clean, concise, but deeply soulful style, and managed to play with great confidence across the jazz spectrum. From the straight-ahead bop of his sessions with Sonny Clark, to his countless soul jazz sessions with Big John Patton, Lou Donaldson and others to the post bop sounds of dates like Larry Young's 'Into Somethin' (where he played alongside Sam Rivers) and Lee Morgan's 'Search For The New Land', Grant Green proved himself to be one of the most adaptable and diverse of many such players at Blue Note.
'Grant Green', by Sharony Andrews Green (a journalist who was married to one of the guitarists sons) is an attempt to capture the life and times, and the influence of one of jazz's great instrumentalists. Sadly, this book, while brimming with good intentions, fails on many counts.
Any good biography, should first and foremost, tell the story of it's subject. Yet in 'Grant Green', the subject takes on an almost supporting role in the telling of his life. The book, as a historical narrative, is poorly organized, and not very well researched. Though the author concedes that visual source material was difficult to locate (she relies heavily on Blue Note co-founder Francis Wolff's session photography), the actual 'story' of Grant Green seems to hover only on the fringes of the book. The fact that the session photographs are not tied into the narrative (i.e. placed in an order in relation to the time, or actual sessions mentioned in the book) does a disservice to the book, and the photographs. Of the interviews in the book, many are with Green's early St. Louis associates, and not nearly enough are with his Blue Note contemporaries.
Much is made in this book of Green's conversion to the Nation of Islam (perhaps too much). The author never really gets to the heart of what brought her subject to this end of the spiritual spectrum, and she never really brings into focus why, if this was so important to his life, he seemed to flaunt the doctrines of this religion so openly. In a related thread, the book also draws in a rather unfortunate anti-Semitic tirade from one of Green's associates (especially ironic in light of Green's long-time association with Blue Note).
Less prominent, is any real analysis of Green's growth as a stylist, and his importance to, and place in, the Blue Note picture, and in 1960's jazz as a whole. Any artist that was asked to be a part of as many classic (and diverse) sessions as Green was, must have had an appeal beyond the obvious, and this territory remains relatively unexplored. The real story lies somewhere inside the discography at the end of the book.
Too much of the book is spent with the author reflecting on her own life with Green's son, and the story of his sons finding their way in the world. This is not to say that that story in itself is not interesting, or well told (which at times, it is), but rather that as a biography of Grant Green, it fails. We see the effect that Grant Green had on those around him, but precious little of the man himself. Certainly, if someone unfamiliar with Green's body of work picks up this book, and is subsequently led to his music, the author has done her job. However, if you already know the music, and your quest is to look at the life and times of its maker, this book will surely leave you wanting for more.