GEORGE BARNES COULD DO IT ALL, AND HE DID

"Georgie," youthful

“Georgie,” youthful.  Photograph reproduced with permission from the owner.  Copyright 2013 The George Barnes Legacy Collection.

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.

George Barnes Country JAzz

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.

george-barnes_thumb

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!

7 responses to “GEORGE BARNES COULD DO IT ALL, AND HE DID

  1. Sordoni III, Andrew

    Bravo Michael, This is an imaginative and reflective post. Many thanks for sharing. Co-leaders is an oxymoron when used for Ruby and George. All the best, Andrew

    Andrew J. Sordoni, III 45 Owen Street Forty Fort, PA 18704 (570) 283-6202

  2. Well said about George Barnes. Bucky Pizzarelli (who knows a bit about guitar) said this about George during our October, 1997 interview.

    “MR: You recorded some marvelous duo records, if fact I think you said some of your best things are duos?
    BP: Oh yeah. My favorite records are — the first duo I made was with Tony Mottola, then I got hooked up with George Barnes who is one of America’s great individual guitar players I ever heard, nobody played like George, and he was in the studio scene with us.
    MR: When you got together to do a duo record with some of those people, mostly just talking through tunes, picking out tunes, did you rehearse it a lot?
    BP: George and I went through a fake book one night out in Jersey with the machine, the recording machine on, we played one tune after another, like just turned page after page. Go into it, play it, and we had, oh we had enough for about ten albums. But it was the beginning of the duet. And we finally honed it down and we made a couple of great albums, because we were playing in the evenings. I was playing at the St. Regis. After the Tonight Show I’d go over there and play with George. It’s communication more than preparing. We knew, we perceived what the other was doing all the time. And I’ll tell you, with George Barnes, sparks used to fly when he was on. Whew. I mean he used to go into high gear once in a while, I mean I wish I had a tape machine. I mean I remember it all here. So I mean when somebody tells me that somebody else is a great guitar player, I says you better watch out because I worked with George Barnes.

  3. Don "Zoot" Conner

    I saw George and Carl Kress in the late 60s at “Lennies on the turnpike”At that time the duo was touring together.Zoot preceded them and he stayed a day longer just to catch them(he went back to the apple).They were magnificent and I came back four more times to hear them.Zoot was right,he told me not to miss them and as usual,he was right.Thanks for the post,Michael.

  4. A wonderful read! Thanks for this. Discovering Barnes in my youth led me to a cavalcade of wonderful music I might not have otherwise known.

    My own homage to GB mentions his influence upon later guitarists across all musical genre, even if some have never heard his name. I am certainly among them.

    My own foray into playing Jazz has been limited to a current stint with the Paul Ukena Trio, in NYC. And while working up new tunes by Django, Irving Berlin, and the like, for an upcoming festival gig, I approached every solo by asking myself, what would George Barnes do?

    I may not come close in chops or technique, but keeping the maestro in mind goes a long way toward evoking that bountiful spirit, musical joy, and in-the-moment expression, by George!

  5. George Barnes had an even more remarkable role during the 1930s when, as a teen-ager, he backed some of the greatest blues artists on a series of recordings for RCA Bluebird in the Chicago area.

  6. David O'Connor

    I heard the first chord on the CD and I said “…it’s George”. What a beautiful listening experience. Michael thanks for your blog and efforts. Be Well.

  7. Don "Zoot"Conner

    Great.

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