Herman Green, in 1955, about twenty-three years old, just returned from overseas military duty, was on his way home to Memphis, Tennessee; when his plane stopped in San Francisco for an unknown amount of layover time and he decided to visit a bar near the airport for a drink.
A three piece combo began to play and Herman heard some of the same sounds that he had been playing in Memphis, but he also heard some new sounds, something that was not known in Memphis. He decided to stay a while and he got to know some of the musicians that played in the local clubs. They were as fascinated by his stories of Beale Street as he was by their stories of playing with artists like Miles Davis and Dave Brubeck.
Memphis Flyer cover story: Herman Green Living Legend
In a short time, Herman found himself in the house band of the “Blackhawk”, a famous San Francisco Jazz Club, that many believe helped to found the sound that would be known as West Coast Jazz. From 1955 to 1957, he played with artists such as Cannonball Adderly, Miles Davis, Dave Brubeck, the Modern Jazz Quartet and many others on a very long list. He was there when the experiments with Jazz were first starting and when Jazz became more than a few instruments improvising on “old standards”.
In 1958, Herman became the leader of the House Band at a new place called, “Box City” in San Francisco. This was a late night club set up just for the musicians who played other places in town and then wanted a place to go and relax after they got off work. Box City did not even open until 1 AM in the morning. Herman had with him a young lady vocalist, then unknown, Dinah Washington.
In Herman’s own words, “I worked Box City, Say When, and the Jazz Workshop. These had to be the most amazing clubs I have ever played in. They were where you came after a night on the town or after you had been working. Frank Sinatra dropped in and sat in with the Band when he was in town, and this was many nights. It’s where I got to know Sammy Davis, Jr. Many of what we would call the great artists of Jazz would come and sit in with the Band, for no pay, just for the fun, the company, and the relaxation. At the Jazz Workshop, we opened the place with Cannonball Adderly and it never went downhill from then.”
In a place like Box City or the Jazz Workshop in San Francisco, you get to know a lot of people and this is where Herman was brought to the attention of Lionel Hampton, who was probably at that time the King of Jazz Music. Lionel offered Herman a job playing with his band and when Herman accepted he found himself in New York and playing with a band that he would stay with, on and off, for eight years. One of the other band members, who would become one of Herman’s best friends, was John Coltrane.
In Herman’s own words, “New York was a blur in my memory for three years. It all happened so fast, it all was such a great time. We were musicians doing what we wanted to do and getting paid good money for it. I see today some of the concert listings for Jazz and the ticket is $50.00 to see just one of the top stars. I mean, we use to jam, for the fun of it, in my apartment in New York. There would be Miles Davis, Clark Terry, John Coltrane, Art Davis; all just sitting around my apartment playing what they wanted, how they wanted to play it, and all because we were having a good time.” “I might add that everybody wanted to experiment, everybody wanted to try something new, but there was no one that had that innovation of music like John. Even today when I do a Sax break and I get way out in outer space; I still turn to the others in the band and say, ‘Hey, I’m doing my John Coltrane thing’.”
Like all Memphis Musicians, Herman thought from time to time about returning to Memphis, but the jobs were good and he was with Lionel Hampton, the most recognized name in Jazz Music. Herman said, “We were playing the Riviera in Las Vegas and Sammy Davis, Jr. was there. I was walking in the Lobby with him and I said, ‘I’m worried, I invited my Mother out here to visit and I do not know what to show her, how to entertain her.’ ” Sammy said, “Why don’t you let me worry about it. When she gets here bring her down to my concert. We’ll think of something.”
When Herman’s mother arrived he took her down to the show and right on the front row was a table reserved for Sammy Davis, Jr. and Herman Green. Herman’s Mother got to watch the show sitting with Sammy Davis, Jr. except when it was Sammy’s turn to be on stage, and when Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin dropped by to sit at the table a while, Herman’s mother never complained about being “entertained”.
A few weeks later, Herman and some of the band members were having afternoon drinks in the lounge at the Riviera when the rumor began to circulate that the President had been shot in Dallas. All over America, things were never the same for most people and musicians were no different. Herman thought about what he was doing, what he wanted to do and where he had come from.
After taking care of all of his obligations to Lionel Hampton and the other musicians he had got to know, Herman was on his way back to Memphis.
Memphis Flyer article: A Herman Green Playlist