Freddy Guy

Biography by

+ Follow Artist

Keeping time is serious business in all music and definitely never a laughing matter in jazz, where reputations are made or broken in the passing of a dotted eighth note. The saga of Duke Ellington sideman…
Read Full Biography

Artist Biography by

Keeping time is serious business in all music and definitely never a laughing matter in jazz, where reputations are made or broken in the passing of a dotted eighth note. The saga of Duke Ellington sideman Freddy Guy is a woeful chapter from the annals of American rhythm sections. Born near the close of the 19th century, he was self-taught and leading his own bands by the early '20s. He started out on banjo, but was one of the influential players whose decision to switch over to guitar pointed the way toward the exit sign in terms of the banjo's involvement as a crucial part of a jazz rhythm section. He never led his own band again after going to work for Joseph Smith, and in 1925, got the banjo chair in what would become one of the great American big bands, Duke Ellington & His Orchestra. Many members of this group were known for their extensive loyalty and Guy was not the only player whose entire career was spent helping Ellington realize his personal musical vision. However, unlike a lot of these purveyors of Ellingtonia, such as clarinetist Barney Bigard and baritone saxophonist Harry Carney, Guy was not an important soloist, did not inspire his boss to write works featuring him, and is actually not credited with contributing much of anything to the band's music, other than keeping time. Not that this wasn't a contribution, at first. Great as it was, the music of various Ellington outfits from the mid-'20s on have been described as lacking a steady rhythmic compass. These are the opinions of nit-pickers, perhaps, because many jazz listeners enjoy these sides without falling to pieces over situations where the drummer might be pushing the tempo whilst the bassist is laying back. Guy was supposed to have been the only one who actually could keep the right time in these groups, at first on banjo and then on guitar around 1935 under the advice of Eddie Lang, a totally despised fellow among many banjo players due to this sort of advice. The arrival of bassist Jimmy Blanton was a dynamic event for Ellington's band, as he was not only one of the first acknowledged virtuosos on the instrument in jazz, but because his sense of time was flawless. Now the guitarist really had nothing to do, his rhythmic chording rendered superfluous. He stayed in the band until 1949, nonetheless, and then retired from music. He began working as a dancehall manager in Chicago, and committed suicide in 1971. In a morbid bit of irony, the Internet adds insult to injury as surfers looking for information about Freddie Guy tend to be confronted with endless information about horror film character Freddie Krueger, for some reason constantly identified as "that Freddy guy." Perhaps the story of this guitarist should be called "Nightmare on Duke Street."