Bootsie Barnes, Saxophonist and Cornerstone of Philadelphia Jazz, Dies of COVID-19 at 82

Apr 24, 2020
Originally published on April 29, 2020 12:09 pm

Bootsie Barnes, a tenor saxophonist and bandleader who set a rigorous standard for hard bop, presiding as a master and mentor in his hometown of Philadelphia, died on Wednesday at Lankenau Medical Center in Wynnewood, Pa. He was 82.

His wife, the poet Sandra Turner-Barnes, said the cause was the coronavirus.

Barnes was a modern Philadelphia jazz icon. Through the power of his example, the depth of his clout and the sheer persistence of his presence, he held down the deeply swinging center of the city’s jazz community for over 40 years. During that time, he maintained a steadfast commitment to the bebop language and a no-nonsense connection to his audience.

“He was one of the pillars of the Philly jazz scene,” attests bassist Christian McBride. “I would say one of the top five most influential musicians in the whole city.”

Barnes had a big, brawny sound on tenor, with a touch of coarse grain in his tone but a lightness and agility in his attack. He was at home in organ combos, bebop units and a range of other settings. And over the years, he had a hand in shaping several generations of gifted young musicians in the city, on and off the bandstand.

Trumpeter Duane Eubanks — who like his brother Robin, a trombonist, was among them — credits Barnes with instilling the bedrock values of professionalism. “What he really did was help everybody become a sideman,” Eubanks says. “He’s helped me immensely — and my brother as well, in terms of learning how to play in a band.”

For a good stretch in the mid-1990s, Barnes held court every week at Ortlieb’s Jazzhaus, a beloved, smoke-filled joint in the Northern Liberties neighborhood. “That was the school of higher learning,” says Mike Boone, who played bass in his quartet alongside pianist Sid Simmons and drummer Byron Landham. “With all due respect to any college or university – for Philadelphia, that was the place.” (Full disclosure: as a college student I spent many hours hearing Barnes in that room, ususally staying afterward to sit in with Simmons and Boone, and whichever horn players were on deck for that week’s jam session.)

Pianist Orrin Evans, who first played with Barnes when he was 13, boils down the saxophonist’s contribution to three essential qualities: “Number one, it was his sound: any time you walked in the room, whether it was at Ortlieb’s or wherever, you knew it was Bootsie. Number two is melody: he had such a respect for the melody and the song. Number three, honestly, and I don’t even think he realized he did this, but it’s the finer qualities of leading a band.”

Like most musicians who ever encountered Barnes, Evans is quick to add that he was demanding, even harsh. “He was hardcore — because he loved the music,” Evans says. “Ortlieb’s used to call it the ‘Tuesday night prayer meeting.’ That’s what it was. You stepped into that church, and you’d better know your scriptures.”

In a 2008 feature in the Philadelphia City Paper, Barnes readily owned up to his tough reputation. “I have a folder of music that I pull out with about 50 tunes written by great musicians that kicks your ass,” he said. “And I wrote on the folder, ‘Ass-Kickers.’”

That gruff intensity came naturally, but it also served a purpose: protecting and preserving a time-honored set of musical values on the Philly scene, and beyond. As he told Shaun Brady, the writer of the City Paper profile: “It takes guys like me in every city to keep the music alive.”

Robert Manuel Barnes was born on Nov. 27, 1937, and grew up in the Richard Allen Homes, a North Philadelphia housing project. His father, Wilbur Jones, was a trumpeter who had played in big bands led by Bill Doggett and Frank Fairfax. His mother, Esther Barnes, did housekeeping work. Bootsie was the youngest of four boys; his nickname was bestowed, teasingly, by his brothers.

In addition to his father, he had an early musical role model in his mother’s older brother, Jimmy Hamilton, a clarinetist and saxophonist with a prestigious chair in the Duke Ellington Orchestra. Still, up through his teenage years Barnes aspired to play drums; he recalled being let in the stage door of the Earle Theatre, where he was given a pair of sticks by Ellington’s drummer, Sonny Greer.

Barnes played drums in the band at Ben Franklin High, switching to saxophone only at age 19, after his grandmother gave him an instrument. He started on alto, inspired by Jackie McLean, and took up the tenor initially because it could lead to more gigs. But the register and heft of the larger instrument proved ideal.  

From the 1960s on, he played constantly in Philly — notably with an honor roll of organists, including Jack McDuff, Jimmy Smith, Shirley Scott and Don Patterson. He played in the house band at the Uptown Theatre; at institutions like Pep’s Musical Bar; and in an array of spots otherwise not known for their jazz bookings. 

“Sometimes on the weekends we’d have three or four gigs,” recalls pianist Uri Caine, who started playing with Barnes in the mid-‘70s, at age 18. “We’d start in the afternoon in one place, go somewhere else and play until 4 in the morning.”

Caine, who kept this pace with Barnes for about six years, describes a musician who had friends in every corner of the city. “For me it was a beautiful learning experience, because I got to play a lot, which was amazing. And with musicians like Philly Joe Jones, Bobby Durham, Mickey Roker — those were his drummers. My whole orientation was changed by being with him.”

Barnes had his brushes with the national spotlight, but they tended to involve a hometown connection. Bill Cosby, an old pal from the Richard Allen Homes, enlisted him for an episode of The Cosby Show; Cosby also hired him for the occasional all-star gig, including a 2001 appearance at the Newport Jazz Festival.

In 2008, Christian McBride was the artist-in-residence at the Detroit Jazz Festival, whose theme that year was “the Philly-Detroit Connection.” Asked to involve an unsung hero from Philadelphia, he brought in Barnes. “And Bootsie said that that was only his second time in Detroit, ever,” McBride says. “His first had been in 1977, playing with Jack McDuff. It felt really good to see him appreciated in another great jazz town.”

For the most part, though, Barnes preferred to stay in his own jazz town, which he’d done so much to define. He played with a stable of regular collaborators — some of whom, like trumpeter John Swana, honored him on their own recordings, and sometimes with special dedications.

In addition to Turner-Barnes, his wife of 30 years, Barnes is survived by her two daughters, Shelley Turner and Renelle McDowell; his sister Doris; and five grandchildren. The oldest of his grandchildren, Reggie Barnes, is a saxophonist active on the Philadelphia scene; in some circles he’s known as Baby Bootsie.

In recent years, Barnes forged a fruitful collaboration with his fellow Philly tenor Larry McKenna; their joint album, The More I See You, earned favorable coverage on its release in 2018. Among Barnes’ other albums were You Leave Me Breathless, in 2001, and Hello, in 2003.

But in some ways his most emblematic album is his first, at least in terms of the attitude. A quartet date released in 1984, it’s titled Been Here All Along.

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