SKF NOTE: My interview with Sonny Greer took place at Sonny’s New York City apartment on March 4, 1981, published in an edited version in the November 1981 Modern Drummer.
Brooks Kerr, a pianist and Duke Ellington aficionado, was performing with Sonny as piano/drums duo at New York City’s West End Cafe when we met. I was glad to have Brooks taking part in the interview. He knew much more about Sonny Greer as a person and as a musician that I did.
Sonny’s interview transcript is full of Sonny’s verbal character sketches of well-known drummers I think worth preserving. Here is one example:
Brooks Kerr: Sonny, what was your first rememberance of Buddy Rich?
Sonny Greer: He hung around Chick Webb and all those guys. That’s where he got a lot of his stuff from.
Scott K Fish: Buddy got a lot of his stuff from Jo Jones too.
SG: Well, Jo wasn’t in New York. Jo was out West there in 1936. Jo Jones! That’s my number one man. He’s something else.
SKF: When did you first see Jo Jones play?
SG: I saw him with Basie out in Kansas City somewhere. With the Bennie Moten band. I liked Jo right away. He was the same Jo Jones that you know now. He ain’t never had no hair.
BK: Sonny, the last time Jo Joes was up at the West End, you looked at him and said, “If you’re so rich, why don’t you buy yourself a toupee?”
SG: Yeah. He got mad.
BK: Jo’s nickname for Sonny is “Mr. Empire State Building.”
SG: That’s what he calls me all the time.
One Christmas time he found the oldest pair of shoes that he could find, gift wrapped them and said, “Here’s your Christmas present. Cost me a lot of money.”
They were shoes, man, he must have had them a thousand years. Said, “Here’s your Christmas present.” All wrapped up nice, man. I threw them in the garbage can. He’ll tell you about it. Next time you see him thell him, “Sonny told me about the Christmas present you gave him.”
SKF: As drums progressed through the ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s — with people like Jo Jones and then on up — did you [like] what was happening?
SG: Well, Jo Jones played then like he does now. He never changed his way of playing. Not that I know of. And I’ve seen him many times.
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