Academic journal article Canadian University Music Review

"I See the Fretboard in Diagrams": An Examination of the Improvisatory Style of Herbert Lawrence "Sonny" Greenwich1

Academic journal article Canadian University Music Review

"I See the Fretboard in Diagrams": An Examination of the Improvisatory Style of Herbert Lawrence "Sonny" Greenwich1

Article excerpt


In this article, the author examines the improvisatory style of jazz musician Herbert Lawrence "Sonny" Greenwich. While numerous extra-musical sources inform the guitarist's performances, the cubist paintings of Paul Klee are particularly meaningful. Through transcription, analysis and interview, the author demonstrates that fretboard "diagrams"-which Greenwich suggests originate from Klee-act in a threefold manner. First, they afford Greenwich a personal way of discussing his craft, second they offer a formulaic and perceptual strategy for traversing various harmonic terrains and third these diagrams act as a surrogate music theory for the self-taught musician, affording him a unique method of organizing the guitar.


L'auteur se penche sur le style d'improvisation du musicien de jazz Herbert Lawrence « Sonny » Greenwich. Si de nombreuses sources extra-musicales nous renseignent sur les prestations du guitariste, les tableaux cubistes de Paul Klee s'avèrent particulièrement significatifs. À l'aide de transcriptions, d'analyses et d'entrevues, l'auteur démontre que les « diagrammes » des positions sur le manche - qui proviendraient de Klee, selon Greenwich - jouent trois rôles. D'abord, ils fournissent à Greenwich une manière personnelle d'approcher son art. Ensuite, ils offrent une stratégie convenue et perceptive pour traverser les différentes zones harmoniques. Enfin, les diagrammes jouent le rôle d'une théorie musicale de substitution pour cet autodidacte, lui procurant une méthode unique d'organisation de la guitare.

Although listed in the New Grove Dictionary of Jazz as among the "most important Canadian jazz musicians," Herbert Lawrence "Sonny" Greenwich (b. 1936), who emerged on the Toronto scene in the late 1950s, is not as well known as such contemporaries as guitarist Ed Bickert, alto saxophonist Morris "Moe" Koffman or trombonist/bandleader Rob McConnell (Kernfeld 1988, 91). There is, however, an oral history about the guitarist that speaks to his importance. Interview and documentary research indicates that such major jazz figures as Elvin Jones, Jack DeJohnette, John Handy, Lee Morgan and Wayne Shorter all knew and admired Greenwich, demonstrating confidence in his abilities by hiring him for recordings or live performances. For example, John Handy employed Greenwich for the 1967 "Spirituals to Swing" concert at Carnegie Hall, and both Lee Morgan and Horace Silver (independent of one another) approached Blue Note Records about recording the guitarist.2 Greenwich did ultimately record for Blue Note, as a side person on Hank Mobley's 1967 recording Third Season with Lee Morgan, James Spaulding, Cedar Walton, Walter Booker and Billy Higgins (Mobley 1998). Further, Greenwich signed a recording contract with Orrin Keepnews of Riverside Records, and was preparing to make his first album (with Joe Zawinul on piano) when his employment authorization expired and he was forced to return to Canada in 1967.3 Immigration issues were a consistent problem for the guitarist. Lacking a permanent work permit that would enable him to enter the United States for purposes of employment, Greenwich was forced to turn down potentially career-altering job offers from Lena Home and Miles Davis, with whom Greenwich performed at Toronto's Colonial Tavern in December 1969.

One of the most intriguing aspects of Greenwich's history is the reputation he holds among fellow jazz guitarists. For example, Phil Upchurch, a guitarist and bassist who enjoyed longstanding musical relationships with George Benson, Donny Hathaway, Otis Rush and The Ramsey Lewis Trio, told me how excited two-time Grammy award winning guitarist Wes Montgomery was after hearing Greenwich "sit in" with his Montgomery Brothers band at New York's Half Note.4 According to Upchurch, Montgomery promised to take Greenwich's name to saxophonist John Coltrane who was hoping to add guitar to his band. Similarly, Greenwich recounted that pioneering jazz/rock fusion guitarist Larry Coryell was so intimidated by his skills that he didn't want to perform after hearing Greenwich at the Village Vanguard with Teddy Saunders, Jimmy Garrison and Jack De Johnette (Greenwich, pers. …

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