Words by Shelton Hull
Bunky Green turns 90 this spring, and that is cause for celebration among his friends and family, as well as the fiercely loyal fanbase that he’s cultivated over the course of seven decades in the music business. But it’s also a special occasion for the entire music scene of Northeast Florida, almost all of which has been influenced by his work, either directly or indirectly.
That legacy is being celebrated with a special tribute concert at UNF Music Department’s Recital Hall at 4pm on Sunday afternoon, April 23. That show, which is free, will feature many of Green’s former students, colleagues and friends, and it will surely be among the highlights of the year in local music.
“Bunky’s influence and impact on jazz music and jazz education has been tremendous, not only in Jacksonville but throughout the world,” says Al Maniscalco, a veteran saxophonist and UNF alum (’92) who is organizing the event, which is built around a rhythm section featuring Kevin Bales on piano, Ricky Ravelo on bass and Peter Miles on drums. “It is only fitting that there be an opportunity for the many students, friends, and colleagues he’s inspired through the years to have the chance to celebrate and pay tribute to him as he turns 90.”
If you have played music in this community over the past 30 years, you have almost certainly played with at least one musician who was trained in part by Green. And if you’re just a fan, there is no doubt that you have seen his students in concert countless times. You can probably name a few of them yourself. Green’s influence stretches far beyond Jacksonville, however. By the time Green took over the program in 1990, he was deeply ensconced in a career that had already taken him around the world.
Vernice “Bunky” Green was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin on Sunday, April 23, 1933. He got his nickname from the comic strip “Bunky”. “My mother had one of those old hats over my head, in the push-buggy; this was a long time ago. My mother and her friend were taking a walk with me, and her friend said ‘Helen, he looks just like Bunky in the funny papers!’ And it stuck.”
Green’s big break came when he was given the Herculean task of replacing alto saxophone legend Jackie McLean in the Charles Mingus band. The famously irascible Mingus (1922-1979) was the undisputed greatest upright bass player of all-time, and a potent, prolific composer whose influence remains as potentially now as it ever was. At that time. Mingus was right on the verge of doing the work for which he will always be remembered, a stunning series of records for Columbia, Atlantic and Impulse. Green wasn’t there for long, because Mingus was known for switching out sidemen with ruthless efficiency, but he left that experience as a vastly enhanced player, established as a star on the rise.
“Bunky was truly a lifelong student of the music in every way,” says trumpeter Ray Callender. “He was truly our ‘Jazz Yoda.’ Even just hanging out with him listening to recordings of Bird, Trane, KD, etc was so great because he was more excited and passionate about our music as a 20 year old, even well into his 70s (when I studied with him). He was so generous and even invited me to his home for Thanksgiving dinner when I couldn’t make it back home to Chicago back in 2001. His wife Edie (who was truly a lifelong partner and best friend to Bunky) gave me an 8×10 print of a photo of Bunky playing with Freddie Hubbard back in 1960 simply because they knew how much I loved Freddie. And the stories Bunky told? He could write a very compelling autobiography without question if he wanted to! It’s hard to pick just one story but I remember Bunky told me he was playing on a jazz festival in the late 50’s that Miles’ sextet was also on. He was in his hotel room and next door there was a tenor player that started ripping through a harmonic sequence that Bunky had never heard. He sat there transfixed by the seemingly endless wellspring of linear invention over this complex chord progression and he instantly knew it could only have been John Coltrane. A year or so later, he bought the new Coltrane record Giant Steps and he immediately recognized it as the same song he heard Trane shedding in his hotel room!”
From there, he went to Chicago and began leading his own groups, while also gigging with masters like Louie Bellson, Andrew Hill, Yusef Lateef and Sonny Stitt. Like every horn player of his era, Green was strongly influenced by Charlie Parker, but his mature sound was forged in the crucible of club life, in the jam sessions and cutting contests that are still the proving ground for new jazz talent. He was there in Chicago when the Sun Ra band began to coalesce. He ran around with guys like Von Freeman, Clifford Jordan, Pat Patrick and John Gilmore.
You can find articles about Green dating as far back as September 1957 and as recently as right now. He’s been a witness to jazz history, and helped make some of it himself. “You can hear it, as far as that goes,” he says. “I would have liked to play with Trane. He was so dynamic, so funny, so masterful. People like that, you want to be around, for the kind of music I play.”
According to jazzdiscography.com (an essential resource for fans and scholars of the genre), Bunky Green’s first recording session took place in Chicago for Vee-Jay Records on April 11 and 17, 1961. He had already been doing sideman work for the label dating back to the previous year. He’s made 15 albums under his own name since 1965, for a variety of labels like Arco, Cadet, Delos, Exodus, Label Blue, Leonard Productions, Mark, Pi, Vanguard and Vee-Jay. In fact, the first five were released between 1965 and 1967. Years later, his groups did a series of radio broadcasts in Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Switzerland.
The list of names that surface in Green’s CV is dense and diverse: The Dells, Randy Brecker, Donald Byrd, Hiram Bullock, Jimmy Cobb, Steve Coleman, Bob Cranshaw, Art Davis, Eddie Gomez, Jimmy Heath, Steve Jordan, Wynton Kelly, Joe Lovano, James Moody, Jason Moran, Lewis Nash, Lonnie Plaxico, Larry Ridley, Pete Laroca Sims, Sonny Stitt, Nasheet Waits. He also did a ton of sideman work for artists like Richard Evans, Eddie Harris, Elvin Jones, Herb Lance, Travis Shook, Ben Sidran, Billy Stewart, Clark Terry, Willie Thomas and The Soulful Strings, as well four split singles with singer Fontella Bass in 1965 and 1966; he also played on her debut album in 1966.
Bunky Green was always cool, a solid pro with none of the bad habits that destroyed so many of his peers. As popular tastes moved away from jazz in the late 1960s, Green got off the road and became one of the very first notable jazz artists to take up a spot in academia. He taught at Chicago State University from 1972 to 1989 before taking the chair of Jazz Studies at UNF in 1990. He remained at UNF for over 20 years before retiring in 2011, but he retains a presence on campus, emotionally if not always physically.
“He always used to tell us students that he learned from us all the time,” says tenor saxophonist Michael Emmert, who graduated in 2010. “I really didn’t get why he would say that when he was already considered a master of the music, but I started to figure it out after many years of teaching myself. He always felt like he was forever a student of the music – this has always kept me in a really humble place when I think back about him saying that.”
Emmert is not the only one who expressed similar sentiments about Green. “I only had one lesson from him, but it was one of the most memorable and formative experiences I’ve ever had,” says guitarist Taylor Roberts. “He sat at the piano and we played ‘Stella by Starlight.’ Very few words were exchanged, but every time I caught onto what he was doing, his eyes lit up like a kid on Christmas morning. For what it’s worth, it was the childlike fascination with music, and life experience in general, that struck me and stays with me to this day.”
Jazz education has been a thing for many, many years, but it’s really only been about 40 or 50 years that it was codified into its own particular discipline. What began with private, informal study under selected legends, or the occasional diversion from the traditional pedagogy, has long since evolved into a tightly-knit network of jazz education programs established at colleges and universities all over the country, institutions both large and small.
Here, that process really began at the University of North Florida in 1987. The program was founded by the late great Rich Matteson (1929-1993), a skilled pianist and master of most “low brass” instruments who holds the peculiar distinction of being one of only a handful of euphonium specialists in all of jazz history.
The UNF School of Music was established in 1972, and it remains the thing for which the university is best known for. Today it’s run by pianist Lynne Arialle, drummer Danny Gottleib and trombonist Dave Steinmeyer, all of whom also count Green as a mentor. The school is housed at their Fine Arts Center, a $22 million dollar complex that opened in 2001. It is the house that Jazz built, and it remains a centerpiece of a university that has never stopped growing since its founding in 1965. Hundreds of artists have come through the program, and they can be found almost everywhere that jazz is being played in America.
“I was super fortunate to land myself a weekly private lesson with Bunky for an entire semester,” says singer Angela Roberts (c/o 1996), an early protégé of Green’s who went on to become a fixture of the New York scene. “Those were magical hours. Later, when we lost William Brown [a beloved singer and vocal coach, who died in 2004], our beloved Bunky took all of his students under his wing and gave us weekly workshops while we tried to heal from such a heavy loss. Nobody else could have helped fill that void.”
From the start, UNF’s jazz program was known for producing not only great artists, but more importantly, solid professional musicians who have gone on to become top soloists and bandleaders in their own right. The famously competitive New York jazz scene, for example, always has a few UNF alumni in the mix, on a daily basis, and the same can be said about the music scenes in several other cities.
Other professors playing key roles in the program over the years include trumpeter JB Scott (who was the very first graduate of the UNF Jazz Studies program, back in 1989) his wife, singer Lisa Kelly and multi-instrumentalist Bill Prince. Each of these legends has their own specific sphere of influence, and their own cadres of padawans, but it has always been Bunky Green who stirred that particular drink.
“With the new jazz addition of applied voice, one course was uniquely adjusted in its teaching,” says Lisa Kelly. “How many vocalists can say they studied two semesters of improvisation with legendary Bunky Green? Dot Wilder, Suzanne Stewart, and I can. My biggest take away was how he taught us about I-V-I, Circle of 5ths usage in harmony, and flowing in and out of different keys within the same song. It greatly benefited my musicianship, writing, and arranging, and also my formal teaching of it to my students, middle school to college.”
“He said so many amazing things but the thing that stuck with me the most was, ‘Listen to everything you can. It makes you a better musician.’,” says tenor saxophonist Juan Carlos Rollan, who studied with Green from 1996 to 2001. “He said this in reference to me feeling bad about being a fan of the ‘smooth’ jazz of the day. I only felt bad about it because some of my peers were bagging on me for it. As usual, his wisdom lifted me up.”
Pianist Angel Garcia recalls Green as a mentor who provided encouragement at a key point in his development. “Bunky was so encouraging when Clay Hackett and I brought him an original tune we wanted to play for Clay’s senior recital,” he says. “I was terrified, but Bunky was so excited for our tune, he was so happy we wrote it and he loved the ‘church’ chords. He encouraged us to keep writing and playing and listening. I have this old ad for Selmer saxophones hanging in my studio as a reminder of his energy and joy and how important it is to share that joy with others through our music.”
Green was a major figure in the growth of the jazz education community in that era, serving a term as president of the International Association of Jazz Educators (IAJE), and later being inducted into that group’s hall of fame. (That group, which was founded in 1968, disbanded in 2019, and has since been effectively replaced as the Jazz Education Network.) Green was also inducted into the Jacksonville Jazz Festival hall of fame, along with a number of his UNF colleagues and students. Visitors to downtown can see his image every day while walking up the staircase that curves up the back of the downtown library.
“When I started at UNF,” says Roberts, “there were NO jazz voice majors. By the time he left us, Brown had 6 jazz vocalists in his studio.” Green’s presence helped draw more resources to the program, as well as a number of jazz legends who came there for concerts and master classes, a trend that continues to this day.
Bunky wrote letters of recommendation for me, important towards music career advancements,” says Kelly, who’s been among the most successful of his students. “Performing with Bunky was equally as special. Dot, Suzanne, and I sang his original songs in a dedicated concert, he played with us. Presenting my debut CD release party at Partners in 1997, Bunky came and performed on it. I put together a special UNF tribute set for the Jacksonville Jazz Festival, performing with him, and a UNF Faculty/Alumni group for a packed out room at the Roosevelt Hotel ‘Blue Room’ in NOLA for the Jazz Educators Conference.”
It’s not just students and other teachers at UNF who love Bunky Green, but also administrators, who have fully embraced this aspect of the school’s history. “Bunky is an international jazz legend, quietly teaching in Jacksonville for over 2 decades,” says John Delaney, who was the fifth mayor (post-Consolidation) of Jacksonville from 1995 to 2003, then served as UNF’s fifth president from 2003 to 2018. “As a person, he is kind, gentle, warm, friendly. Face to face, one would never know of his musical pedigree—he was not into braggadocio. Students absolutely loved him, as did everyone who met him. It was quite a gift to have him teaching at UNF.”
Through it all, Bunky Green kept making records. He never really slowed down, per se, but rather mellowed, making a cool and classy down-shift into the elder statesman status he enjoys today.
“Bunky is one of those people with the natural ability to inspire anyone,” says Maniscalco. “As a teacher he sees the potential in his students and knows how to celebrate their strengths while overcoming their weaknesses. As a musician he pushed the boundaries of melody and harmony, and challenged us all to hear what conventional music theory said should not be there, and created music that could reach your soul. And as a friend, he exudes love, support, and generosity.”
Green saved some of his very best work for late in his career. He released the album Apex on the avant-garde Pi label in 2010, at age 77, in collaboration with alto saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa. It was one of the most highly-regarded jazz albums of the 21st century, and for a generation of younger jazz fans, and artists, it was their introduction to the music of Bunky Green. It was also his introduction to their music, which he considers just as important.
“You’re always moving forward from the tradition,” says Green. At first it was a lot of chord changes, and then that became stagnant. And then they played music in from other countries: Latin sounds, African sounds, Indian sounds, Asian sounds. Everyone is using music from other countries–you draw from the best, if you can. In some cases, it’s hard hard work, sometimes it’s easy. It’s a matter of learning the learning process itself.”
“Bunky is the greatest human I’ve had the honor to be close to,” says Roberts, who repeats a sentiment that came up often when discussing him with people. Green has many fans all over the world who have never been to Florida, and who know little or nothing about his teaching career. The Society for the Promulgation of the Music of Bunky Green is a Facebook group that currently numbers exactly 451 people. Jazz is a niche market, but one whose fans are fiercely, ferociously loyal, and he is a case in point.
“I don’t really follow that,” he says. “The things that I’ve done, that’s behind me, and I try to move forward, staying in the game, not on top of the game. There’s so many great players out there, and that’s encouraging, just to know that guys are creating different things and moving on, respecting the things that were done before, but not staying there. Reaching for the stars, really.” Jazz has always been a business where people either die way too young, or else they live damn near forever. After all that Bunky Green has accomplished over the past 90 years, who knows what he’ll do with the next 90.
Event link: https://fb.me/e/3qNTeKYRv