When Duke Ellington’s band was labeled as ‘his Famous Orchestra’ it was, perhaps, an example of early 1930s adman’s exaggeration. As history has shown, this particular piece of hyperbole was undoubtedly justified. Not only has the band remained famous, but many of Ellington’s sidemen of the period have retained their fame long after their deaths. Consider just a few of the names that most jazz fans will instantly recognize and whose careers they followed in and out of Ellington’s bands and in some cases long afterwards: Barney Bigard, Lawrence Brown, Harry Carney, Johnny Hodges, Tricky Sam Nanton, Cootie Williams. But one name that does not come so readily to mind is that of Sonny Greer. This is despite the fact that he was an important member of Ellington’s team from the start. Greer played drums with Ellington’s earlier band, the Washingtonians, recording with this group in 1926 and remaining faithful to the leader for a quarter century.
He was born William Alexander Greer on 13 December, probably in 1895, in Long Branch, New Jersey. It was in his home state that he made his first professional appearances but by 1919 he was playing in Washington, DC. It was there that he first encountered Duke Ellington, a local musician who was to change not only the drummer's life, but the lives of everyone who played in his band over the coming decades. In the early 1920s Greer and Ellington played often together in Washington and in New City. The drummer became one of Ellington's closest acquaintances, and was an integral part of the music the bandleader was creating. A subtle player whose relaxed style sometimes drifted into casualness and poor timekeeping, Greer's style, especially when using brushes, was ideally suited to the band's seemingly effortless swing and he contributed much to the tonal palette that Ellington needed in order to realize his compositions. The timekeeping lapses were underpinned in the early years by guitarist Freddie Guy and a little later on by bassist Jimmy Blanton but Greer played an important part in generating the easy, loping swing that the band generated. Visually, Greer was flamboyant, surrounding himself with a spectacular array of gleaming percussion instruments, including bells, gongs, timpani and xylophone. For all the quantity of instruments, however, Greer's aural contribution was muted; he never thundered, preferring to add color to the Ellington band's sound and to supply a pulse that was felt rather than heard.
Only rarely during the 1930s and 1940s did Greer work outside the aegis of Ellington. Apart from a few small group sessions led by other Ellingtonians, and an appearance on one of Lionel Hampton's famous Victor recording sessions, on which he was again in Ellingtonian company, his career was spent inside the Ellington orchestra. By the end of the 1940s, however, Greer had outstayed the welcome of even Ellington, who tolerated more indiscretions from his sidemen than almost any of his fellow bandleaders of the era. Greer never shook off the smooth-talking, sharp-dressing, hard-drinking persona that had been a part of him from the beginning when he had often kept himself in funds by moonlighting as a pool hustler. Most of that persona was not detrimental to his playing, but the drinking was. Gradually, his on-stage behavior deteriorated towards the end of the 1940s and at the start of the following decade Ellington was forced to hire another drummer to stand by when Greer was unable to take his regular place on the bandstand. This was something that could not last and in early 1951 Ellington was obliged to ask Greer to leave the band.
Thereafter, Greer freelanced, recording with other ex-Ellingtonians, such as Johnny Hodges and Tyree Glenn, and also with contemporaries like Henry 'Red' Allen and J.C. Higginbotham. In the late 1960s and 1970s Greer led his own groups, usually a trio, and he also appeared at concerts celebrating Ellington where he consistently proved that he was never more at ease than when playing his old boss's music. Despite the lifestyle he chose, he lived a long life, eventually dying in New York on 23 March 1982.
In retrospect it is apparent that Greer was just right for Ellington for the era in which he occupied the drum chair. As the years passed other fine drummers came into Ellington's band, but by then, however much familiar music might be played, the style was different. It is aurally apparent that Sam Woodyard was ideal for later Ellington, is similarly clearly the perfect drummer for early Ellington was Sonny Greer. With anyone else, the band would not have sounded the same and if it had not sounded the same then it could not have lived up to its label as ‘famous’. As for that adman’s appellation, it was, after all, a reasonable way in which to describe the greatest jazz orchestra of its own and any other time.
Recommended CD: with Duke Ellington Early Ellington 3CD set (Decca/GRP 063640-2)
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