Tag Archives: Nat Jaffe

GEORGE BARNES, AT HOME WITH FRIENDS: MASTER IMPROVISER, 1941

Ask any jazz scholar to name another early innovator in jazz electric guitar in addition to Charlie Christian.  A few scholarly types will remember Eddie Durham, Leonard Ware, Floyd Smith, Les Paul. Someone will think of Allan Reuss’s PICKIN’ FOR PATSY.

But few will think of George Barnes.

That’s a pity, because Barnes was exploring the instrument’s possibilities in the late Thirties.

BARNES 1941

Proof of just how inventive he was — at 19! — has recently been offered by the George Barnes Legacy Foundation: a series of delightful home recordings of Barnes and friends in mid-1941.

On these tracks, Barnes improvises masterfully not only on electric guitar but also piano, and he’s aided by Bill Huntington and Bill Iverson, rhythm guitar; Ralph Hancock, cello; Jerry Marlowe, piano; Bill Moore, string bass; Benny Gill, violin; Adrienne Barnes, vocal.

Here’s the story behind the music (from the notes):

In the spring of 1941, 19-year-old guitarist George Barnes had already been a national radio star for almost two years, and enjoyed jamming with his colleagues after they’d wrapped their respective NBC shows. In March, June, and September of 1941, George’s friends — including violinist Benny Gill, rhythm guitarist Bill Huntington, and bassist Bill Moore — dropped by his Chicago apartment in The Chelsea Hotel and played into the wee hours. These 15 tracks were recorded directly to acetate discs by recordist Joe Campbell, who had been a Barnes fan since the first time he heard 17-year-old George play at Gus Williams’ Nameless Cafe on Chicago’s West Side.

The fifteen selections are BARNES’ BLUES / BARNES’ BOOGIE WOOGIE / BODY AND SOUL / JA-DA / MEMORIES OF YOU / NIGHTFALL (four versions) / SUNNY SIDE OF THE STREET / SHE’S FUNNY THAT WAY (two versions) / SOMETHING TO REMEMBER YOU BY / SWEET LORRAINE / TEXAS BLUES.

And for those who shy away from “old private recordings,” these sound good for their age.  The originals have been well-mastered, and they were originally 12″ acetates, which afforded longer playing time. Barnes’ colleagues, although their names are not well-known today, are rewarding players who hold our attention throughout. Violinist Gill plays beautifully on BODY AND SOUL, MEMORIES OF YOU, SUNNY SIDE, SOMETHING TO REMEMBER YOU BY — in an Eddie South mood; Adrienne Barnes (George’s first wife) reminds me beautifully of Ella Logan and Maxine Sullivan, and the supporting players are first-rate.

In addition, the collection offers two rare October 1941 electric guitar duets by Barnes and Ernie Varner, G MINOR SPIN and SWOON OF A GOON, as well as a brief audio reminiscence by recordist Campbell.

A video and audio taste:

And here, a little reiteration is necessary.  Barnes was 19.

What does it all sound like?  Since George’s first instrument was the piano, it’s fitting that the set begins with a violent but precise boogie-woogie that sounds as if Albert Ammons had been studying the Romantic tradition (Rachmaninoff, not love ballads); the guitar blues that follows is delightful, a subtle mixture of harmonically deep chordal playing and sharp single-line inventions, a JA-DA that alternates between musing interludes and straight-ahead swing. MEMORIES OF YOU has touches of Louis and of what we would come to call “American roots music,” and is the work of a compelling melodist, someone with his own sound on guitar, someone more than able to make electricity work for him.

When he is backing Adrienne Barnes on NIGHTFALL (the first version), his accompaniment is a beautiful orchestral tapestry, moving the melody along while creating a rich hamonic background. The three versions that follow — solo, duo, and trio — are also lessons in what can be done, so evocatively, with lyrical material.

The solo piano SHE’S FUNNY THAT WAY is also a pleasure, combining an endearing simplicity with harmonic experimentation (think of, say, Nat Jaffe two and three years later) and an audible sense of humor: had Barnes chosen piano as his instrument, he would be known in jazz histories.  SOMETHING TO REMEMBER YOU BY, which begins with extravagantly rhapsodic piano, shifts into fourth gear when Barnes begins his guitar solo. SWEET LORRAINE has a melody statement worthy of Eldridge in its contained force; the closing TEXAS BLUES is rocking from the start, merging Western swing and the hot jazz of the time.

The Barnes-Varner duets that close the set are intricate, twining duets — compositionally rich, the sort of playing Barnes and Carl Kress, Barnes and Bucky Pizzarelli did later on.

It might be hard for some to hear how radical Barnes was in 1941, but that’s tribute to his mastery, for all of his style has been subliminally integrated into the mainstream of jazz guitar playing: the pistol-shot single notes, the audacious harmonies, the singular way of constructing a solo — in these solo guitar performances, he has the mastery of Django or Lang, weaving even the most simple material (JA-DA) into a concerto with shifts of mood and tempo.

This set — which I hope is the first of many — has been produced by George’s daughter, Alexandra Barnes Leh, who hopes to make more people aware of her father’s swinging, innovative playing.  For more information on how to order this set — available only as a digital download — click here.  There, you can learn more about what the Legacy Project — how you can purchase instructional materials (audio and print) created by Barnes for beginners and for advanced students — and more.

May your happiness increase!

I’LL TAKE THEM ALL (1947)

Nothing more than a one-page ad listing the new issues for the Signature label — an impressive roster of jazz stars — with an appropriately modest description by the label’s founder Bob Thiele.

But the real treat is a little portrait (new to me) of a typically elated Leo Watson.

Now I have to go to my local record dealer, which isn’t going to be easy.

May your happiness increase.

STARS IN THE JAZZ SKY

I’ve been reading an advance copy of Nat Hentoff’s latest book — a collection of his Jazz Times columns, called AT THE JAZZ BAND BALL: SIXTY YEARS ON THE JAZZ SCENE (University of California Press), which will be published next month. 

In a chapter devoted to Thelonious Monk, Hentoff presents an interview done at Monk’s home in 1956 which contains this short passage: “Charlie Parker?  I met him in Vic Dickenson’s room where he was visiting one day.  Charlie wasn’t well known uptown around this time.”

It pleases me to imagine a jazz universe where Monk, Vic, and Bird hang out in each other’s rooms.  Some of the jazz ideologues, busily dividing the music into “schools” to be arranged in chronological order, have relegated players such as Vic to a kind of Dixieland-limbo.  You won’t find his name in Robin G. Kelley’s exhaustive biography of Monk, by the way. 

The musicians I know are remarkably open-minded about their associates and associations.  “Can (s)he play?” is the question, stated or implied.  Frank Chace told me that when he was a young man he listened to all the jazz records he could find — “modern” as well as “traditional,” thinking that it was his responsibility as a musician to hear and learn from as much as he could. 

Jazz didn’t necessarily have “a star system” until it began to be publicized.  Rankings and polls were a way to sell magazines.  And the “star” mentality has a particularly exclusionary turn — which jazz listeners and writers of all persuasions are prone to.  It’s delightful to celebrate Duke, Louis, Bird, Bix — but what about the worthy players who aren’t spoken of?  Some musicians are made much of for reasons that have little to do with their music — their obscurity or the tragedy of their short lives.  But many remain in the shadows as if the jazz pantheon was limited rather than spacious. 

Admiring Art Tatum shouldn’t mean that Nat Jaffe has to be pushed aside or ignored; where did Dicky Wells and Benny Morton get to? 

The night sky has millions of stars.  Discover or re-discover someone worthy who’s been ignored or passed by.