I don’t “get” jazz guitar. There, I said it. It’s not that I don’t appreciate the talent involved but a) I can’t really play it b) I find too much of it impenetrable noodling. My bad!

However, if a fellow player asks me if I’m into jazz guitar, I have the perfect answer. I say, truthfully, “Well, I really like Grant Green.” And those few words are the perfect “bluffer’s” response. For one, Green’s music is so accessible, it’s near impossible to dislike. Plus, he’s hardly a mainstream name which makes me look so on the money that I choose my jazz heroes carefully. Double-win!

That, of course, is a somewhat cynical approach to schooling yourself about any genre of music, but if you don’t think you like jazz guitar, I’d argue there are few better introductions than Grant Green.

Grant Green

Who was he?

St. Louis-born Grant Green (1935-1979) is arguably one of jazz’s great unsung heroes. Never as lauded as Jim Hall, Kenny Burrell, West Montgomery, Joe Pass, et al, he was nevertheless incredibly prolific. He was pretty much “in-house” guitarist for Blue Note during the soul-jazz glory years (‘61 to ‘65, Green played on more records for the label than anyone else) and as his own band-leader cut some sublime albums.

His main 6-string hero was Charlie Christian, but Green's primary influences were saxophonists, particularly Charlie Parker – as such, he was a “linear” rather than chordal player, making his soloing style more accessible to guitarists raised on blues licks. Green’s simplicity and immediacy underpinned all is work, whether hard bop, funk/soul or Latin influenced. Yet for all his versatility, Green was often described by jazzniks as a “blues player”, and one memorable review called his music “thinking man’s grits-and-gravy.” Listen to the swinging “Down Here On The Ground” for some great jazz blues.

Recurrent personal problems – drug addiction, prison for possession – saw Green’s talent wane in typical jazz cliché style, though he did return strongly from the late ‘60s on with a funkier edge. Indeed, his later recordings split opinion in the jazz purist’s world but some regard him as “the father of Acid Jazz” – A Tribe Called Quest, Public Enemy, Wu Tang Clan and Kendrick Lamar are just some of the hip-hop artists who’ve sampled Green’s recordings. But he was still out of step with ‘70s jazz as it morphed into fusion: John Scofield recalled that in the 1970s, “speed was everything… Green played everything as if it were slowed down. It was only later that I realized the he swung hard. I saw him at Connelly’s in Boston with an organ group and it was mostly funk. He had unstoppable swing.”

As is so often the way, Green’s talent wasn’t truly appreciated until after he died: many of his recordings were released posthumously, after he died of a heart attack at just 43.

Green was in New York in 1979 to play shows at George Benson’s Breezin' Lounge – quite simply, he needed the money. As Green told Guitar Player in 1975: “You have to be a businessman first, and an artist along with it. You can't play something people dislike and stay in business.” And those Green suits and his green Cadillac didn’t buy themselves...

He was even playing to play against doctor’s advice, as he’d recently suffered a stroke. But Benson, then a jazz pop titan, was happy to help out. Benson later remembered how he had told Green: “You’re a better guitar player than me, it’s not right, Grant. But they have made me greater than you. I can’t go around saying I’m the Number 1 jazz guitar player and I know you are Number 1.”

Grant Green

Signature sounds

One reason I think I might like Green so much is his discipline – even his most jazzy cuts never go so off-piste as to become avant garde, and his inner rhythm was superb. His single-line stabs and melodies, use of staccato notes, trilling hammer-ons and clean, fluid touch make him not only recognizable but supremely listenable. He’s the jazz player for blues guitar fans.

This doesn’t mean he’s “dumbed-down” jazz, not at all. Green simply knew the value of melody over chops for chops’ sake, and he was also one of the funkiest jazz guitarists you’ll hear. Bless Jim Hall, but face it – have you ever danced to Hall?? Green’s favoring of tight trios – guitar, organ, drums – helped too. But that’s not to say he couldn’t do jazz balladry, though – his takes on “‘Round About Midnight” are both smokily romantic and deeply funky.

Bottom line, Green was a riff and melody-led jazzman – he may have lacked the harmonic intricacies of some peers, but who really cares? Some jazzers still look down on George Benson for daring to be successful, too, but Benson fully understands Green’s appeal. “He was an icon,” says Benson, “Guitar players were trying to learn what his secret was, and there were people in general who just loved his groove. Grant made the guitar come alive and sing... Only he could do it like that.”

Grant Green and Gibson

Jazz guitar tone can sometimes be “woolly” to my ears, and although Green’s fruit didn’t fall far from the tree, he did add some spice. Like many jazz players, he was largely a Gibson fan but Green wasn’t a copycat. From when he first arrived in New York City around 1960, Green used a Gibson ES-330, later a non-cutaway Gibson L-7 with a Gibson McCarty pickguard/pickup, a non-cutaway Epiphone Emperor (with the same p’up) and finally a custom-built D'Aquisto.

Gibson ES

Gibson’s ES-330 is often considered an offshoot of the ES-335 – it is visually similar – but the two guitars differ considerably. Like a “classic” jazz guitar, the ES-330 is fully hollow (unlike the semi-solid ES-335) and of thinline depth. Because of its hollow construction, the ES-330 demands a trapeze tailpiece – there’s no center block to mount a “stopbar” tailpiece – and the guitars were sometimes prone to feedback and boom. Green had an edgier tone than many of his jazz peers, even toying with mild distortion as early as 1961’s “Grant’s Dimensions”, though that was likely down to the ES-330’s P-90 pickups. That said, Green’s friend Benson said that Grant’s tone came more from his amps’ settings – low bass and treble, boosted midrange than his guitars.

He was also a fan of the now very rare Gibson Les Paul LP-12 amp, fitted with four 12-inch cones and two 10-inch horns, also briefly used by B.B. King.

Essential listening

The greatness of Green is that he covers plenty of ground. There are Latin collections, ballad, gospel, covers, and harder funk compilations. But possibly the confusing thing is so much of his playing is on records primarily credited to other band-leaders.

Where to start? Retrospective does the overview job with aplomb. Here’s Green on tracks by Jimmy Smith, Lou Donaldson, Big John Patton and more, as well as his own compositions. Idle Moments, the super-hot Live At The Lighthouse and the down-tempo Matador are original albums that keep getting reissued whole.

For his steeping stones from jazz to funk, Green Is Beautiful (1970) and The Final Comedown (1972), the cover-versions soundtrack to a Billy Dee Williams “blaxploitation” movie, are essential listening for sample junkies. Compilations Ain’t It Funky Now! and For The Funk Of It are superb - “Ain’t It Funky Now”, “Cantaloupe Woman”, “The Windjammer” and “Sookie Sookie” are all familiar funk cuts you probably know, but may not know as being by Green.

Jazz experts out there may think differently. I admit it: I don’t really understand jazz. I just know I like Grant Green.