George Barnes

“I’ve often said that there aren’t enough lifetimes for me to do all the musical things I want to do. I recorded some classical tunes in the Sixties. I’d like to do more of that. But, right now, I’m happier, musically, than at any other time in my life.” -from an interview in Guitar Player Magazine, February 1975

George Barnes

Born and raised in South Chicago Heights, Illinois on July 17, 1921, electric guitar pioneer George Barnes already excelled at piano by the time he was 6 years old; when the instrument was sold for groceries, 10-year-old George found an old Sears Roebuck Silvertone guitar in the attic; his father showed him a few chords, and George’s career as a guitarist was launched.

Young 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 the soloists no guitarist could be in the 1930’s, and George heard himself playing his own solos. His older brother, Reggie, figured prominently in George’s historical status as a pioneer of the electric guitar, crafting for his sibling one of the first guitar amplifiers in history. Suddenly, George’s unique style — his clarity of tone, definitive attack, his fluid phrasing — was given a voice that everyone could hear.

He joined the local musicians’ union when he was 12…was discovered by Tommy Dorsey at 16…and, in 1938, the 17-year-old white kid was the first electric guitarist to record commercially, soloing with blues icons Big Bill Broonzy, Blind John Davis and The Yas-Yas Girl.

At 17, George was the youngest staff arranger at NBC in Chicago and soon became a featured artist on the nationally-broadcast Plantation Party. When WWII intervened, George spent 4 years intercepting enemy code at the Pentagon until his 1946 discharge, when he returned to Chicago to indulge his increasingly sophisticated tastes in composition and orchestration. Organizing an octet of musicians from the Chicago Symphony, George created non-traditional jazz with the unusual instrumentation of electric guitar with clarinet, bass saxophone, English horn, oboe, flute, piccolo, piano, vibes, bass and drums. The George Barnes Octet became a highly-acclaimed 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 unique for the time, allowing George to compose, arrange, and produce his own albums. He also immediately became one of the most sought-after studio musicians in New York City, paying the bills by recording with Sam Cooke, Jackie Wilson, Paul Anka, Bobbys Darin and Vinton, Sinatra, Como, Ella, Sarah, Dinah, Barbra. Connie Francis, Brenda Lee, Louis Armstrong, Bob Dylan. No matter how old you are, no matter where in the world you live, you’ve heard him at least a hundred times.

True satisfaction came for George, of course, out of playing and recording his own music. In the 1960’s, George’s guitar duos with fine rhythm guitarist Carl Kress — then with accomplished 7-string guitarist Bucky Pizzarelli — produced seven albums in all. Of their five recordings, Barnes & Kress’ highly acclaimed Town Hall Concert is the most famous, hailed as a triumph of live performance. 10 years later, again in New York’s Town Hall, Barnes & Pizzarelli received the same universal acclaim.

In 1973, George and eloquent cornetist Ruby Braff, long aware of their musical empathy, formed a quartet for the 1973 Newport Jazz Festival, joined by rhythm guitarist Wayne Wright and bassist John Giuffrida. The Ruby Braff/George Barnes Quartet made an auspicious debut in Carnegie Hall, opening for the classic Benny Goodman Quartet, complete with jazz giants Gene Krupa, Teddy Wilson and Lionel Hampton. 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 celebrated Braff/Barnes as “a marriage made in heaven.” George and Ruby recorded five albums under their own name (with brilliant bassist Michael Moore replacing Giuffrida after the first concert), and an elegant Rodgers & Hart tribute with Tony Bennett. The quartet toured the U.S. and Europe, collecting fans and receiving accolades from the press. But an increasing acrimony between the co-leaders took its toll on George’s health, and the quartet split up after their 1975 European tour.

The Braff-Barnes Quartet had played at a jazz festival in a small Northern California town called Concord. A successful local car dealer named Carl Jefferson was a jazz fan, and launched a festival in his home town, recording the events and releasing them on a tiny label he’d founded. Two of the albums George and Ruby recorded were for the Concord Jazz label. Jeff’s 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 he recorded, performed, and taught master classes to a select group of fine Bay Area musicians. His incredible 44-year career abruptly ended when he died of a heart attack at the age of 56, still in his creative prime.


When he’d come home from a long day “slaving over a hot guitar,” George would cleanse his musical palate with Brahms, Beethoven, Mozart, Respighi, Ravel, Moussorsky, Tchaikovsky, Wagner — and Bach. It was the Bach Fugue in G Minor, played by organist Virgil Fox under the baton of Eugene Ormandy that inspired him to explore its joy (a hallmark of George’s playing) and complexity (a reflection of his musical genius) in the context of his Jazz Renaissance Quintet.

The six men who participated in this recording — all close friends, masters of their art, and highly-respected in the New York studio scene — were guitarist Bucky Pizzarelli, clarinetist Hank D’Amico (who honed his craft with Benny Goodman and Tommy Dorsey, among others), bassist Jack Lesberg (well-known for his work with Louis Armstrong, but just as much at home under the baton of Leonard Bernstein), and drummer Cliff Leeman (invaluable to such diverse bandleaders as Glenn Miller and Raymond Scott, and a key member of The World’s Greatest Jazz Band). The original session, which took place on 25 February 1962 at A&R Recording, was recorded and remixed by engineer Phil Ramone, who began as a classically-trained violinist and became the world-renowned producer of such iconic recording artists as Paul Simon, Billy Joel, Ray Charles and Frank Sinatra.

Under George’s first contract with Decca Records in 1951, he recorded COUNTRY JAZZ, still heralded as an innovation of musical convergence. 9 years later, Barnes signed with Mercury Records, where he recorded three albums. In GUITAR GALAXIES and GUITARS GALORE, Barnes wrote arrangements for his 10-guitar “choir”; MOVIN’ EASY was a collection of standards and Barnes originals recorded with the Jazz Renaissance Quintet. It was during those sessions that Barnes proposed the idea of recording an album of classical jazz with the quintet. After hearing Barnes’ Bach Fugue demo, Mercury loved the music, but deemed the project too esoteric, and the recording was shelved. The only remaining material from the one-day session were two acetate discs — reference lacquers created in 1962 (the mono edit) and 1972 (the outtakes and full unedited performance in stereo). The discs, intended only for limited use, had been played many times over the years. Most of the considerable damage to the discs has been digitally removed, while preserving the dynamics of the music and the voices of the participants.

The inclusion of the musicians’ conversations between “takes” affords the listener a rare opportunity to join the players in the unique creative process that occurs in the rarefied environment of a recording studio.

Art of Sound Projects:

Bach Fugue in G Minor: The Session Title: Bach Fugue in G Minor: The Session

Artist: Alexandra Leh

MusicianGeorge Barnes

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