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Jazz Goes Green: Musical Explorations On A Secondary Color Of Note

Dan Bilawsky By

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With spring taking hold and summer on the way, it's hard to avoid encounters with the color green. The drab gray and white of winter is now no more and a vibrant green color scheme has taken over. A drive along the Long Island Expressway—which leads to Manhattan and some of the greatest jazz clubs in the world—might be a burdensome, traffic-filled journey to some, but it also provides colorful explosions across the whole spectrum of this color's family. While green is often explained as the exacting visual representation of blue-meets-yellow, it has also come to stand for so much more in the verbal lexicon of the English language. One who is "green" is inexperienced, or not fully-grown to maturity. Jealousy is often regarded as the "green eyed-monster," and, similarly, people are often "green" with envy. Along the same lines, we tend to want what other people have because we think, "the grass is always greener on the other side." Some people associate green as the evil—and/or desirable—color of money and those with good intentions, who are trying to save the environment, are always talking about "going green."

Benny Green

Music has also had more than its fair share of run-ins with this secondary color of note. While one can toss off a list of artists with surnames born of this color, like the inimitably soulful Al Green, punk rock purveyors Green Day or swooning pop singer Jackie Greene, the relationship goes deeper. Yes, jazz also has its list of individuals who fall into this category—like the legendary guitarist Grant Green, big band trombonist Urbie Green, saxophonist Bunky Green and pianist Benny Green—but they had no control over their relationship with this color and were born into it. With all of its brilliant shades and hues, the color green has worked its way into the jazz color spectrum in countless ways and this month's Old, New Borrowed and Blue explores many of these relationships.


When Bronislaw Kaper was commissioned to write the music for the 1947 film called Green Dolphin Street, it's doubtful that he could have imagined where the theme song would eventually go. This film is merely one entry on a long list of movies—including Gaslight (1944), Bataan (1943) and Mutiny On The Bounty (1962)—that feature music written by the Polish-born composer. Within ten years of its creation, the theme song for this motion picture—"On Green Dolphin Street"—would find new life in the world of jazz. While Miles Davis is often credited for crystallizing this song into the form that made it a jazz standard, other jazz musicians tackled it on record before he did (for example, the aforementioned Urbie Green), and an endless list of people have taken to it since Davis' version staked its claim. I happened to discover one of my favorite takes on this song while exploring drummer Roy Haynes' legacy.

When A Life In Time: The Roy Haynes Story (Dreyfus Jazz, 2007) found its way onto shelves, I was tempted to buy it right away but I already owned a good amount of the material so I held off. About a year after its release, I gave into temptation and purchased this set and anxiously began digging into the music. While journeying through Haynes' recording career—enjoying recordings he made with Lester Young, Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, Oliver Nelson, John Coltrane and many others—I encountered a version of "On Green Dolphin Street" that he recorded with woodwind wizard Eric Dolphy. Outward Bound (Prestige, 1960) is just one of many extremely creative musical projects that Dolphy took part in—ranging from other leader dates to work with Charles Mingus, Coltrane and Nelson—but it gives the listening public an opportunity to hear what he does with one of the most popular jazz standards of the time.

While he plays flute, bass clarinet and saxophone on this album—his first as a leader—he focuses on bass clarinet for this specific track. Bassist George Andrew Tucker and Dolphy are joined at the hip as they dole out a hip bass riff to start things off. As the song unfolds, this riff helps to underscore Freddie Hubbard's muted, nonchalant delivery of the melody. Dolphy takes control of the melody and then launches into an inspired flight over the rhythm section before handing it back to Hubbard. Haynes remains for Tucker's solo—providing some solid swing support—but everybody else sits this one out. While pianist Jaki Byard remains in a purely supportive role here, his tasteful comping—including his ascending little jabs as the song begins—adds volumes to this performance and Dolphy's take on this green giant-of-a-song deserves to be heard by a greater portion of the jazz listening public.


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