“We were a pretty wild bunch in those days, myself in particular” – Sonny Greer
With DUKE ELLINGTON AND HIS KENTUCKY CLUB ORCH. / WASHINGTONIANS, 1924-30
Some of the great drummers of the ‘twenties gained their reputations as journeymen, able to slot seamlessly into a wide variety of musical ensembles and consequently to play and record successfully with many different artists. Others, however, made their names as idiosyncratic individual stylists, who worked more or less exclusively with one particular artist for the majority of their careers. Today’s Hero falls into, and perhaps even defines, that second category. In the musical history books the name of Sonny Greer will forever be associated with that of the man for whose groundbreaking band he provided percussive drive for the best part of three decades: Duke Ellington. Although Greer had become a professional musician in the mid-‘teens and joined up with the young Ellington early in the twenties, for both men the the following decade was one of upward but nonetheless tough struggle professionally. Whilst Baby Dodds, Zutty Singleton and others were coming to national prominence as jazz drummers with the great bands in Chicago, Sonny Greer was still ‘scuffling’ with Ellington and his cronies in the obscurity of society functions in Washington DC, and later, New York. As time went on, however, Ellington’s star gradually rose and by the end of the decade he his band were at last at the brink of attaining the kind of worldwide fame they would enjoy for the rest of their lives.
William Alexander Greer was born in Long Branch, New Jersey, on December 13, 1895, the son of a railroad master-electrician and a dressmaker. Like innumerable drummers before and since, he began at home on pots and pans, whilst spending the rest of his early years working variously as newsboy, fish seller and golf caddy. He also learned to play pool to a lethal standard (“I practised pool like other kids practise violin or piano”) and to sing well. Visiting the Long Branch Keith vaudeville theatre one evening, young Greer was deeply inspired by Eugene ‘Peggy’ Holland, the drummer with J.Rosmond Johnson’s African-American choral group, later recalling, “He was tall and thin and immaculate – the picture of sartorial splendour. He could sing and dance and play, and he had great delicacy.” Note the emphasis Greer placed on Holland’s delicacy, as this was to have a deep and lasting influence on the young man.
Greer soon had the chance to make Holland’s acquaintance in person.
“The company was in town two weeks, and every time he came into the poolroom I’d beat him. I told him I admired his playing, and he said; ‘Kid, teach me to play pool like you play, and I’ll do the same for you […] Some of the things he showed me I still use.”
The teenaged Sonny quickly began to develop a reputation. He talked his way into the drum chair of his high school band, and also put together a smaller group which began playing for dances and country clubs. On leaving school, Greer became a regular at the Clef Club agency for black musicians in New York, and freelanced jobs around New York and neighbouring states with young contemporaries such as Fats Waller.
In 1918, at the age of twenty-three, he accepted a job offer to work as a member of the house orchestra in the pit of the Howard Theatre in Washington D.C. playing in a band led by Marie Lucas; “they invited me for three days, and I stayed three years”. Greer continued to develop his skills as a jazz player whilst in Washington, doubling at the Howard and a venue called the Dreamland Café (not to be confused with the more famous Dreamland Café or Harmon’s Dreamland Ballroom in Chicago!), and his percussive talents and flair for for showmanship was spotted by two young men of similar age – an aspiring pianist and his saxophonist friend.
“[Sonny] was supposed to be a very fly drummer […] we watched him work in the pit and he used a lot of tricks. He was flashy but our minds weren’t made up” – Duke Ellington
“He was sensational […] he did tricks with his sticks and things […] Everybody took a liking to him, there was a lot of Sonny Greer influence at that time. I mean the popularity began to grow with Sonny Greer and that was it.” – Otto ‘Toby’ Hardwick
Ellington and Hardwick accosted Greer outside the theatre and the three quickly became inseparable friends and musical collaborators, their band ‘The Duke’s Syncopators’ achieving considerable success in the world of Washington elite society. They first journeyed to New York together in March 1921, along with trumpet player Arthur Whetsol and banjoist Elmer Snowden, but were turned away when the booked discovered their callow age and lack of star status, leaving them stranded in New York. “We got jobs playing house-rent parties […] played a lot of pool. We survived”, remembered Greer. After a few years of ‘scuffling’ back and forth between Washington and New York, in 1923 Greer was offered a job with legendary vaudeville clarinet virtuoso Wilbur Sweatman’s band at Harlem’s Lafayette Theatre. The lure of Harlem – even at this early stage already famous as the place to be if you were young, black and creative – proved too strong to resist. Greer accepted on condition that Ellington and Hardwick be hired too. However, the gig soon finished and Sweatman moved away. But their previous work in New York had evidently made an impression, and when regular collaborator Elmer Snowden had an opportunity to put a band in at the Hollywood Club (later the Club Kentucky) at 49th and Broadway near Time Square, he called in Ellington, Hardwick and Greer. Calling themselves The Washingtonians, the band looked set to take a proper run at stardom at last.
However, there was one more hurdle to overcome. Snowden had evidently not been entirely honest with his sidemen about the fiscal arrangements behind the gig, and the band members soon discovered their nominal leader had been skimming money from on top of their earnings. Ellington himself later recalled:“So they fired Elmer, and Sonny was supposed to take the job, Sonny said, ‘No, I don’t want the job. Give it to Duke.”
It is interesting and perhaps indicative of the personal and musical respect that the musicians must have felt towards Greer, that he was the man to whom they first turned when in need of leadership. But for Greer’s reticence, perhaps musical history would have turned out very differently – the greatest jazz bandleader in history was in fact originally only the second choice to lead his own band! Under Ellington’s growing confidence as composer and bandleader, however, the nightly shows at the Kentucky club quickly gained caché amongst New York’s musical elite.
“We didn’t go to work till 11pm and we stayed open until 7 in the morning. After 3am you couldn’t get a seat […] All them musicians was coming and hanging out […] Paul Whiteman would bring all his friends and band down there.” – Sonny Greer
They also began to record, making eight sides in November 1924.
In recording ‘Choo Choo’, Greer’s (and Ellington’s) recording début, we can safely presume he was restricted to cymbals and wood blocks by the engineers according to standard procedure at the time. However, the small size of the band at this point (a sextet) allows us to hear what Greer is doing more clearly than do some of the later sides, and his fine, syncopated choked-cymbal playing clearly gives the band an extra kick along at key moments. It’s also presumably him playing the train whistle (part of the arsenal of sound-effect ‘traps’ which a drummer was expected to provide, and be proficient in playing) at the end of the number.
The Washingtonians’ records initially went relatively unnoticed, but throughout the decade their recordings grew more polished and successful – artistically, but also commercially, particularly once the experienced and ambitious Irving Mills took over the business side of the band. It was during the last few years of the decade that the Ellington band truly began to make their first really significant recordings – masterpieces that are still standards of the classic jazz canon today. I could have chosen almost any number of selections – the Ellington band made a huge number of sides during this period (under various guises) and Sonny Greer is prominent, and excellent, on virtually all of them – but let’s be content with two, first a relaxed medium tempo and then a stomp:
On these two sides we can hear two different facets of Greer’s playing: first his sensitivity and delicacy backing the orchestra on a relatively restrained number (‘Black Beauty’) with long washes and occasional trademark ‘tricky’ licks (apparently played on a smallish, thinnish cymbal) and secondly his ferocious technique and driving beat on ‘Jubilee Stomp’. Both tunes feature Greer taking improvised solo breaks; Ellington was becoming a very accomplished composer/arranger and writing for the specific individual talents within his orchestra, using their inventiveness and musical personalities as tonal colours. Greer’s delightfully hip rhythmic choices and occasional use of unorthodox percussion sounds (he uses a tambourine on ‘Jazz Convulsions’) was a valuable tool for the bandleader.
Greer himself had this to say about his style:
“I always dug colour and the drummers who knew how to use it. There were percussionists at the old Capitol Theatre on Broadway. Billy Gladstone was one of them. Duke and I would go by and see a picture, but it was the show that interested me. Those cats could play […] I took some of their stuff and used it in my own way.” – Sonny Greer
As we leave them at the end of the ‘twenties, Ellington’s band were at last beginning to rank amongst the most famous and successful jazz artists in America, and about to explode into worldwide fame via their own Hollywood short film entitled ‘Black and Tan’ (1929). Sonny Greer is thus one of our few ‘twenties drumming heroes that we’re lucky enough to be able to see and hear playing, not only later in his life but actually in the 1920s.
We first see our man, along with the rest of the band, from around 6:12, playing some hot choke cymbal and perhaps demonstrating some of the flashy ‘tricks with his sticks’ that had so impressed Ellington and Hardwick a decade earlier. The band then plays ‘Black Beauty’ (7:50) and Sonny can this time be heard playing his full kit rather than just cymbal as on the record – the punchy snare and bass drum are both clearly audible. Even more exciting is the snapshot we are briefly allowed of Greer’s considerable snare drum technique during the blistering introduction of the following number, ‘Cotton Club Stomp’ (10:01). During this tune he provides some very propulsive press-rolls and snappy cymbal-work. It’s a bit of a shame that we never get to see Sonny or his drums up close in this particular film, but perhaps that’s wishing for too much.
I should perhaps include a quick word about Sonny Greer’s equipment, since in later years as the humble Washingtonians band became the huge-selling and world-renowned Duke Ellington Orchestra (beginning not long after ‘Black and Tan’, in fact) his name became synonymous with a huge and elaborate percussion setup including timpani, tubular bells, tuned percussion instruments and all sorts of other effects custom-designed and emblazoned with beautiful art-deco ‘S.G.’ monograms. Yet during the 20s – the period I’m writing about – in photographs and in the aforementioned film Greer seems to have stuck with a fairly standard drum setup for the time. In the photo at the top of the page we see him in the early years of the decade with a 28” bass drum (one of the collapsible models for easy transportation manufactured by the Barry company amongst others), a Chinese tom-tom, large woodblock, snare drum and solitary cymbal suspended from a horizontal arm (the drum-like object in the lower right corner is a banjo).
Greer later recalled that he went through drum sets quickly in the early days: whilst the band was resident at the Kentucky club he lost no less than three drum kits in a succession of ‘accidental’ fires at the club. Each time the owners bought him a new set. In the 1929 movie above he appears still to be using more or less the same equipment, with the addition of what looks very like a small pair of hi-hats to his left. He later recalled: “I was the first one that tried the hi-hat. Leedy made the first hi-hat and they sent me one of the originals. I used it at the Kentucky Club.”
Sonny Greer would stay with Ellington for another two decades. Even having eventually fallen out and gone their separate ways, the composer would salute his original drummer as: ‘The world’s best percussionist reactor […] When he heard a ping, he responded with the most apropos pong. […] Any tune that he was backing up had the benefit of rhythmic ornamentation that was sometimes unbelievable.’ – Duke Ellington
As a person Greer seems to have been gregarious and charming, and from his surviving interviews certainly had a sharp brain, a very articulate way with words and a vivid sense of imagery. Like his first teacher, Peggy Holland, and his leader, Ellington, he was always sartorially immaculate, and placed great importance on elegance and delicacy. Yet as the band member who would look out for Ellington whenever they ran into a spot of bother (Duke’s nickname for him was ‘Nasty’) and a veteran of the poolroom, Sonny was evidently also a streetwise, worldly character who could handle himself in any kind of trouble. He also possesed a great sense of fun, and his wacky humour onstage was one of his greatest qualities. When he eventually died in 1982, his New York Times obituary hailed Greer as ‘an elegant and showmanly drummer’.