Alec Wilder told George Barnes that the latter’s music offered “Reassurance, reaffirmation, wit, warmth, conviction and, best of all, hope!” I agree.
I first heard the magnificent guitarist (composer, arranger) George Barnes without knowing it. His sound cut through the Louis Armstrong Musical Autobiography sessions for Decca — in the late Sixties. Even listening to Louis — as any reasonable person does — I was aware of this wonderful speaking sound of George and his guitar: a man who had something important to tell us in a short space (say, four bars) and made the most of it. Not loud, but not timid.
As I amassed more jazz records, George was immediately evident through his distinctive attack. I believe that I took in more Barnes subliminally in those years, in the way I would hear Bobby Hackett floating above my head in Macy’s. (George recorded with Roy Smeck, Connie Francis, Richard M. Jones, Bill Harris, Anita O’Day, Artie Shaw, Pearl Bailey, Jeri Southern, Connee Boswell, the Lawson-Haggart Jazz Band, Dinah Washington, Coleman Hawkins, George Wettling, LaVern Baker, Earl Bostic, Joe Venuti, Sammy Davis Jr., Don Redman, Little Willie John, Della Reese, Dick Hyman, Milt Hinton, Jo Jones, Hans Conried, Solomon Burke, Sy Oliver, Buddy Rich, Bud Freeman, Tony Bennett, Bucky Pizzarelli, Carl Kress — just to give you an idea of his range. And those are only the sessions documented in jazz discographies.)
In the early Seventies I actually saw George and heard him play live — he was sometimes five or six feet from me — in the short-lived quartet he and Ruby Braff led. And then he was gone, in September 1977.
But his music remains.
And here’s a new treasure — a double one, in fact.
Now, some of you will immediately visit here, bewitched and delighted, to buy copies. You need read no more, and simply wait for the transaction to complete itself in the way you’ve chosen. (Incidentally, on eBay I just saw a vinyl copy of this selling for $150.)
For the others. . . . I don’t know what your feelings are when seeing the words COUNTRY JAZZ. Initially, I had qualms, because I’ grew up hearing homogenized “country and western” music that to me seems limited. But when I turned the cardboard sleeve over and saw that Barnes and friends were improvising on classic Americana (OLD BLACK JOE, THE ARKANSAS TRAVELER, CHICKEN REEL, IN THE GLOAMING, MY OLD KENTUCKY HOME) I relaxed immediately. No cliche-stew of wife / girlfriend / woman / dog / truck / rifle / beer / betrayal / pals here. Call it roots music or Americana, but it’s not fake.
And the band is exciting: George on electric guitar, bass guitar, and banjo [his banjo feature is extraordinary]; Allan Hanlon, rhythm guitar; Jack Lesberg, string bass; Cliff Leeman, drums, percussion; Phil Kraus, vibes on one track; Danny Bank, mouth harp on one track. The sixteen tracks (and one bonus) come from this 1957 session recorded for Enoch Light — in beautiful sound. The improvisations rock; they are hilarious, gliding, funky, and usually dazzling. There’s not a corny note here. And gorgeously expansive documentation, too.
That would be more than enough fun for anyone who enjoys music. But there’s much more. George began leading a band when he was 14 (which would be 1935) but made a name for himself nationwide on an NBC radio program, PLANTATION PARTY, where he was a featured from 1938 to 1942. The fourteen additional airshots on this generous package come from the PARTY, and they are stunning. Each performance is a brief electrifying (and I am not punning) vignette, and sometimes we get the added pleasure of hearing announcer Whitley Ford introduce the song or describe George’s electric Gibson as a “right modern contraption,” which it was.
I can’t say that it’s “about time” for people to acknowledge George as a brilliant guitarist and musician, a stunning pioneer of the instrument — because the jazz and popular music histories should have been shaken and rewritten decades ago. But I’d bet anything that Charlie Christian and a thousand other players heard PLANTATION PARTY, and that a many musicians heard George, were stunned, and wanted to play like that.
I’m writing this post a few days before July 4, celebrated in the United States with fireworks. George Barnes sounds just like those fireworks: rockets, stars, cascades, and explosions. I don’t know that fireworks can be said to swing, but with George that is never in doubt.
To buy the CD, visit here — and at the George Barnes Legacy site, you can learn much more about George, his music, his family, his career. Worth a long visit.
May your happiness increase!