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Jazz Philadelphia's Hometown Heroes: Spotlight on the Late, Great Bootsie Barnes

Anthony Dean
Bootsie Barnes

(Note: this profile was written prior to the passing of Mr. Barnes in April, 2020) Tenor giant Bootsie Barnes has been the epitome of a “Hometown Hero” for most of his 82 years. He’s never left the city, instead becoming a cornerstone of the Philadelphia jazz scene, remaining constant even as styles and generations changed around him. With a husky, soulful sound honed in smoky organ clubs, corner bars, and the stage of the legendary Uptown Theatre, Barnes exudes the grit and attitude of Philly in every note he plays.

“It takes guys like me in every city to keep the music alive,” Barnes told me in 2008. To prove his point, he listed the names of heavyweight “local legends” from scenes around the country: most notably Von Freeman in Chicago, who passed a few years later. “All the guys that I’ve taught are carrying the music on.”

Barnes’ protégés are numerous; curmudgeonly as he could be, his brusqueness was always tempered by a salty but genuine warmth. The eclectic pianist Uri Caine spent his formative years touring the chitlin’ circuit with Barnes, and many bandstand students graduated into lifelong collaborators, including trumpeter John Swana and keyboardists Lucas Brown.

Born in 1937, Barnes grew up in North Philly’s Richard Allen Homes; his father was a trumpet player in the big band led by organist Bill Doggett and had played alongside Dizzy Gillespie in bandleader Frankie Fairfax’s orchestra. The Barnes’ neighbor, altoist Howard Cunningham, would host informal conclaves of local saxophonists. The young Barnes, then an aspiring drummer, would drop in and soak up the music and conversation, learning only later that he’d sat at the feet of John Coltrane and Benny Golson. Later, bassist Spanky DeBrest, trumpeter Lee Morgan, and drummers Lex Humphries and Tootie Heath could be counted among his contemporaries and friends.

Inspired by Jackie McLean, Barnes eventually switched to the alto, but he found his soulmate in the tenor. In his early years he spent much of his time playing rock and R&B gigs, backing groups like Smokey Robinson and the Miracles and the Jackson 5 at the Uptown and touring the south with renowned organ masters like Jimmy Smith, Brother Jack McDuff, and Charles Earland. He occasionally flirted with the notion of leaving town for the increased opportunities in places like New York or Chicago but preferred to keep busy in Philly’s unique scene.

In its heyday, venues took myriad forms, most of them relatively makeshift, Barnes recalled in 2017. “Every little corner bar had a jazz band. A place becomes a jazz club when jazz musicians play in it.”

Though he’s remained aware of the music’s evolution, Barnes remains a hardcore bebopper at heart, which may have made him seem out of style for a few brief moments, but ultimately translates into a hard-earned timelessness. “I really enjoy everything I hear that’s kind of cutting edge,” he explained. “But there’s certain roads I just don’t see myself traveling. If everybody went down the same road, where would the music be? You always have to have a variety, so there’s something for everybody.”

That’s not to say the tenor titan has ever rested on his laurels. After decades of dogged playing, he insisted on practicing as much as humanly possible even as health issues intruded. “Every day is a learning experience,” he concluded. “You never learn it all. When my time comes to play, I just play what I play, my own natural self. It usually turns out good.”