I cannot be objective about the music you are listening to; the leader of the quartet is George Barnes, and he is my father. And when it comes to describing Dad’s music, I am naturally given to hyperbole. As of this writing, he’s been gone 25 years – but given the gifts he left behind, which surely include this recording, he couldn’t be more alive.
I was present at hundreds of his performances, onstage and in the studio, in the relatively few years I knew Dad. And, as familiar as I would become with each arrangement, I was always surprised by some fresh improvisational twist, ever impressed by his unlimited enthusiasm. This performance is no exception.
My mother and I did not attend this concert – I was in New York City, and Mom was visiting relatives in North Carolina. But Dad let us know via phone how wonderful it was to play with his new quartet for the people of his new hometown. Now there’s a true artist for you: he was 56 years old, and everything was wonderful and new.
Dad was fearless: can you hear him fly? He had such a solid foundation of skill and soul that he could lift effortlessly off the runway of the chart, soar and sweep, break the song barrier and come down on three points every time. He was the Chuck Yeager of guitarists. Listen to him dance, to his elegant footwork: flawless ballroom, infectious soft-shoe, twirling and tapping and leaping and landing with ineffable grace. He was the Fred Astaire of guitarists. He raises an eyebrow with a gleam in his eye, peeks impishly around a corner, interpolates a laugh to unexpectedly lighten the phrase with innuendo and double entendre. He was the Groucho Marx of guitarists. Unabashedly romantic in his approach to a ballad, he tenderly wears his artist’s heart on his sleeve. He was the Jimmy Stewart of guitarists.
15-year-old George was greatly influenced by black blues guitarist Lonnie Johnson, but he listened avidly to horn players – particularly cornetist Bix Beiderbecke, clarinetist Jimmie Noone, and Ellington’s alto saxophonist Johnny Hodges. They were his primary inspirations because they were the soloists no guitarist could be in the 1930’s. Dad would not be relegated to the rhythm section – he had solos to play. And those solos influenced countless guitarists over four decades, from Chet Atkins to John Pizzarelli. His clarity of tone, his definitive attack, his fluid phrasing, were utterly unique. He was the George Barnes of guitarists.
It’s too much fun to listen to him play; but for me, it’s just as enjoyable to be hearing his voice. I miss him. Yet here he is, right in the room with us, joking and expounding. How he relished embellishment! “And, why not?” he’d ask. For him, it made the tale worth telling – and hearing. At one point during this concert, in the wake of warm applause, Dad cracks wise with San Francisco guitarist Duncan James. He teasingly alludes to the fact that they’re playing to an East Bay audience which might not have the same level of sophistication when it comes to jazz: “See, now what’d I tell you, Duncan? These people have terrific taste out here…they know what the good stuff is!” Sure. He made it easy for all of us to recognize “the good stuff.”
In case you’re not familiar with the man behind the guitar, here’s just a slice of his story: George Warren Barnes was the child of Zenas Otto Barnes and Ruth Eliza DeJarnette, born and raised in South Chicago Heights, Illinois on July 17, 1921. Zenas – a decent singer and guitarist – was a piano maker and, with Ruth, sang in the Chicago Light Opera company. George’s older brother, Reggie, would figure prominently in George’s early development as a pioneer of the electric guitar. Reggie loved to fool around with electronics, and crafted for his sibling one of the first guitar amplifiers in history. Harry, the youngest, loved to play guitar, as well. He idolized George, and later said his brother was born with the most talent – but there are those who say Harry was damn good.
At barely 6 years old, George excelled in his piano studies; two years after the stock market crash, Zenas had to sell the instrument for groceries. Ten-year-old George, rummaging around the attic, found an old Sears Roebuck Silvertone guitar belonging to his father, who showed him a few chords. Thus began George’s career as a guitarist.
By the time he was 12, George belonged to the local musicians’ union, supplementing the family income by playing weddings and Kiwanis Club dances. He tracked his finances in a diary he kept at the age of 15; out of the $9.50 he’d earn from three socials, $5.00 went to “Ma for groceries,” $4.00 to “Pa for rent” -- and he’d keep 50 cents for himself. In the same diary, he scribbled original melody lines and listed his favorite movie tunes. He also wrote about making his first recording (“This experience of hearing myself for the first time makes me all the more enthusiastic about making more and better discs. I have a feeling it will be a large stepping stone.”) In 1937, George’s remarkable talent was discovered by another South Chicago Heights native, Johnny Mince, a clarinetist with Tommy Dorsey’s band. Johnny was riding past George’s house, perched on the car’s running board, when he heard the 16-year-old playing on his front porch. Johnny set up an appearance on Dorsey’s Amateur Hour – George won, and was awarded $75 and a week’s gig at the Chicago Theatre.
By 1939, George was the youngest staff arranger at NBC in Chicago -- the money was great, the studios were clean (unlike the nasty nightclubs he’d been playing), and he could write and play whatever he wanted. He soon became a featured performer for three years on the popular radio program, Plantation Party. Then the U.S. Army snapped him up and, in the basement of the newly constructed Pentagon, George fought World War II with his acute hearing, intercepting enemy code.
Discharged in 1946, George returned to Chicago and began to indulge his unique tastes in composition and orchestration, organizing an octet of musicians from the Chicago Symphony. Like Duke Ellington, the jazz George heard in his head often took non-traditional forms. The unusual instrumentation of electric guitar with clarinet, bass saxophone, English horn, oboe, flute, piccolo, piano, vibes, bass and drums allowed him to create pieces that approached symphonic proportions – without the strings. The George Barnes Octet became a weekly feature on the ABC Radio Network.
In 1951, George was offered a recording contract with Decca Records by legendary producer Milt Gabler; the deal was unusual for the time, allowing George to compose, arrange, and produce his own albums. He also immediately became one of the most sought-after freelance studio musicians in New York City. In addition to seven years as an integral member of Raymond Scott’s Your Hit Parade orchestra, George recorded with the most famous artists of the 50’s and 60’s: that’s him on all of Sam Cooke’s hits; he invented the snappy pizzicato riff on Jackie Wilson’s “Lonely Teardrops”; those are his liquid lines on “Blue Velvet.” The flashy guitar accents on the original “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” and “Jingle Bell Rock?” George Barnes. From Sinatra to Como. The Mills Brothers and the McGuire Sisters. Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughn, Dinah Washington. Paul Anka, Bobby Darin, Bobby Vinton. Connie Francis, Brenda Lee. Louis Armstrong. Barbra Streisand. Bob Dylan.
Studio work paid the bills. But true satisfaction came, of course, out of playing and recording his own music. In 1961, he formed the first full-time jazz guitar duo with close friend and fine rhythm guitarist Carl Kress. Of their five albums, Barnes & Kress’ highly acclaimed Town Hall Concert is the most famous, hailed as a triumph of live performance. And when Lyndon Johnson heard one of the Barnes & Kress recordings on a campaign train, he requested their presence at the White House Staff Christmas Party in 1964 – the same year First Daughter Luci became famous for dancing the Watusi in New York discos. George composed “Watusi for Luci” in her honor, and George and Carl rocked the East Room with the song’s debut. The record got fair airplay and became the theme for the American Bandstand-style Clay Cole Show. In 1965, after a successful month-long tour of Japan, Barnes & Kress returned to the States to play a week in Reno before heading home to New York. In the middle of their Nevada stint, Kress died of a heart attack, and George lost his most compatible partner and dear comrade.
The guitar duo format still appealed to George, and he teamed with accomplished 7-string guitarist Bucky Pizzarelli in 1968. For four years, this formidable duo toured the college circuit, had a recurring gig at New York’s prestigious St. Regis Room, and were favorites of talk show hosts Johnny Carson, David Frost and Mike Douglas.
George and eloquent cornetist Ruby Braff became aware of their musical empathy during a jam session in 1971. Two years later, each of them was asked by concert promoter George Wein to play in an all-star band at the 1973 Newport Jazz Festival. George and Ruby had played these two-chorus-per-player events, and always found them musically dissatisfying. So George called rhythm guitarist Wayne Wright and Ruby tapped bassist John Giuffrida, creating the Ruby Braff/George Barnes Quartet. Wein booked them to open for the classic Benny Goodman Quartet, complete with jazz giants Gene Krupa, Teddy Wilson and Lionel Hampton. It was big news that Goodman and his original band were reuniting for the event; however, the praise went to the inventive approach of Braff/Barnes, whose debut at Carnegie Hall to rave reviews blew the celebrated Goodman and Company off the stage. The late John Wasserman of the San Francisco Chronicle wrote, “They were not the reason the old hall was standing-room-only; but for sheer musical enjoyment, they cut the Goodman band to ribbons.” Playboy Magazine called Braff/Barnes “a marriage made in heaven.” George and Ruby recorded five albums under their own name (with bassist Michael Moore replacing Giuffrida after the first Carnegie Hall concert), and an elegant Rodgers & Hart tribute with Tony Bennett. The Braff/Barnes Quartet toured the U.S. and Europe, collecting fans and receiving accolades from the press. But an increasing acrimony between the unmistakably talented, however personally mismatched, co-leaders took its toll on George’s health, and the quartet split up after their 1975 European tour.
Among the events at which George played with the Quartet was a jazz festival in a small Northern California town called Concord. Carl Jefferson, wealthy owner of a successful car dealership, was a jazz fan. In the early 70’s, “Jeff” used his resources to launch a festival in his home town, record the proceedings, and release the recordings on a tiny label he’d founded. Two of the albums George and Ruby recorded were for the Concord Jazz label. Jeff’s generosity with, and respect for, jazz artists was attractive to George, as were the East Bay surroundings. In 1975, George and his wife Evelyn moved to Concord where, for the last two years of his life, he recorded and performed live with this quartet, and taught master classes to a select group of fine Bay Area musicians. One of those students was guitarist and songwriter Greg Hofmann who, after George’s sudden death from a heart attack on September 5, 1977, offered this revealing appreciation:
“...certainly, George was one of America's greatest (and surprisingly unheralded) jazz guitarists -- a guitar player's guitar player, who explored his instrument completely. He could attack a note fifty different ways. He could play like a clarinet, a horn section, and a bebop trumpeter. He had it all; hot chord solos, liquid and intelligent lead lines, and masterful exposition of a melody. He was a complete musician – an arranger, a vocal coach, he played piano and could show a violin player the right fingerings. He knew it all. And at 56, he was in full stride. When I talked to him a few days before his death, he had just finished 50 new masters for his mail catalogue of chord and lead solos. He had just put together his own studio for recording and lessons. He was writing a book of reminiscences about music and musicians, and anyone who knew George was treated to his incredible fund of stories, always a delight to hear. He was composing a cycle of instrumentals...At twice my age, he had three times my energy. George was a natural teacher. Always positive, stressing what you could do. A sensitive and discriminating ear, he knew what you need to learn far better than you yourself did. You learned not just guitar or voice or whatever you were studying with him but musicianship, professionalism, the right way to do things, from preparing lead sheets to conducting recording sessions to handling temperamental sidemen – you name it. George shared himself totally. It was his delight and good pleasure to give you what he knew. He had no secrets; there was no holding back. No guarding certain hot licks that were his alone. He funneled himself into you, explored your strengths, and gave you what you needed most, along with a generous amount of positive encouragement...We will miss him terribly. And we are all much richer for having known him...”
You didn’t have to know my father to love his music. But if you did know him, you also knew that his music was a direct reflection of the man. You can hear each nuance of his complex character in every note he played. If you never met him, trust me: this recording is a fine introduction.
-Alexandra Barnes Leh