Book review: Legendary Canadian guitarist Sonny Greenwich followed his muse

Of Stars and Strings: A Biography of Sonny Greenwich, by Mark Miller, (Tellwell) 320 pages.

This revealing and wide-ranging biography of one of the great Canadians in the modern jazz saga is more than just the story of guitarist Sonny Greenwich.

Among its highlights is a meticulous analysis of the music he played over a 50-year career, some of which biographer Mark Miller heard live, and in the 16 LPs and CDs in which he was leader or co-leader.

It also is a look back at the musical partners with whom he shared bandstands, the context of his development, and the legendary venues in which the Hamilton-born musician was most active, much of it in Montreal and Toronto.

This book is the 12th by the Toronto-based music journalist, author, and photographer, and it has all the qualities of a lifetime of work as a chronicler of Canadian jazz, written artfully about the music and its heroes for the Globe & Mail.

From the outset, Miller lays out the contrast between Greenwich’s status in the community as a “fabled figure” and “something of a legend” and what ended up as “a modest yet private career.” It was a career interrupted by health issues, including pleurisy, and a freak accident that made Greenwich prone to seizures, restricting his ability to travel by air. A spiritual group he spearheaded diverted his focus on music.

As Greenwich once put it: “I’m not a working musician. When I decide to play I play to awake people spiritually. That’s the only reason.”

That spiritual aspect is why the source for Greenwich’s musical concept so often has been traced to the mid-1960s spirit of saxophonist John Coltrane, but Greenwich himself points to classical music and the mystical-abstract painting of Paul Klee as conceptual sources.

Greenwich, now 84 and living in Vaudreuil-Soulanges, sprang from the same generation of African-Canadian musicians that includes pianists Oscar Peterson, Oliver Jones, and Wray Downes, saxophonist Richard Parris, and drummer Norman Marshall Villeneuve, who grew up in Montreal or grew their career in the city.

But Greenwich was more than a product of his background, always something of an enigma, Miller observes, in that he always stood apart – “a creation of his own invention, cultivation, and perhaps even calculation.”

“Sonny’s different,” noted Toronto pianist and bassist Don Thompson, who collaborated with Greenwich for over 30 years. “He doesn’t play like anybody else. He doesn’t think like anybody else. He doesn’t do anything like anybody else.”

The book recalls the long-gone venues here, from the Old Vienna café and Esquire Show Bar at the start of his career to the clubs where Greenwich often played in the 1980s – a bit of nostalgia for those of us who frequented Club 2080 on Clark St. and L’Air du Temps on St. Paul St. in Old Montreal.
Greenwich was often compared to the Montreal-based bop guitarist Nelson Symonds, but as guitarist Peter Leitch observed, Symonds had a “flashier” style.

“Sonny was playing things we hadn’t heard before, and he didn’t play chords, while Nelson was throwing block chords around like no one else on earth. And he did it with such fire and passion,” Leitch said.

Named Herbert Leonard Greenidge (he adopted the name Sonny Greenwich in 1959), his initial response to having a guitar at home, belonging to his pianist/guitarist father, was “not to play it, but to play with it.” His father taught him some basic chords, and Greenwich taught himself to play by ear.

That “painstaking and intuitive process” likely contributed to Greenwich becoming “resolutely convinced of his own originality,” Miller observed.

He started out playing R and B, using a cutaway archtop Guild guitar and amplifier his father helped him purchase. Though he had skipped two grades in school there was no way he could afford university, and got manual jobs to sustain his emerging career as a musician.

Using cheaper, low-wattage tube amplifiers was how Greenwich developed his timbre, saying, “I have to force the sound out of it and that’s how I get the tone – by forcing it. That’s another reason I seldom play chords. These amps aren’t meant for chords.”

When it came time to seek broader recognition in the 1960s with visits to the jazz mecca in New York City, things did not work out as expected and disappointments outweighed the interest Greenwich had generated, in particular with trumpeter Miles Davis and Wayne Shorter who were about to embark on major innovative projects.

Sour grapes or not, Greenwich was determined to pursue his own path, telling an interviewer, “If I go to the States I’ll go with my own group and play my own music.”

Over time, the essence of his music was becoming more defined, “more inside the chords” than out, as he put it in the early 1970s.

In the 1980s, however, other musicians either moved back to playing music based on the values of swing, blues and bebop, the most prominent being the neo-traditionalist trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, or forward in various directions when it comes to composition and improvisation, which is what the avant-garde players did, and still do.

This left Greenwich to carry on, following, in Miller’s words, “his own muse at his own pace – just as in truth he had been doing all along.”

He last played in public in July 2005, with pianist Marilyn Lerner, at the Atlantic Jazz Festival, but asked whether he had made a conscious decision to stop performing, Greenwich was categorical, saying he had done no such thing.

The book is illustrated with wonderful photos and concludes with a detailed discography.

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