During a recent interview, saxophone great Larry Mckenna was right on target when he shared that often in other cities, when people found out he was from Philadelphia, they’d ask him if he knew fellow Philadelphia saxophone great Bootsie Barnes.
The question was posed even though some of the questioners had never heard Bootsie play, but had heard about him from those who had heard him, and had been singing his praises.
Well, the world at large--and the total jazz community in particular--lost the very popular Robert “Bootsie” Barnes last week. The news of his passing has rocked jazz lovers in the city of Philadelphia, which is trying to adjust to new ways of life under the COVID-19 crisis.
Philadelphia has been home to some outstanding jazz musicians, starting with John Coltrane and Dizzy Gillespie. Toward the latter half of the 1960s, the young man with the robust tenor horn and the rhythmic, boyish handle of Robert “Bootsie” Barnes, came into being. And from there he became something of a yardstick of measure for other young sax players to reach for, and for out-of-town visitors who love jazz to find out where ”Bootsie’s playing" before coming to town.
Philly was home to Bootsie, and he never strayed too far away because he loved the City, and he knew the City loved him; he traveled some, but did most of his work from around the home area.
I brought him on various stages over the past 50 years and wrote newspaper articles about him over the years. When I’d bring him on stage, most of the time I’d attach his presence to Philadelphia, being as close as its relationship with hoagies, cheesesteaks, soft pretzels and Billy Penn.
So…getting over this loss is going to take some doing!
And on a related note, the jazz community has lost a good number of jazz legends over the last several months, starting with Jimmy Heath in January; then there was McCoy Tyner, Ellis Marsalis, Bucky Pizzarelli, Wallace Roney, Jymie Merritt, Lee Konitz, Henry Grimes and now, “Bootsie.”
In the midst of COVID-19, and the toll it has taken on human lives, along with the lives of the joy-makers—the musicians mentioned-- these words to those who mourn the cumulative losses:
”I shall not die wholly; part of me will escape the grave.“ - (author unknown)