You Never Miss Your Water ‘Til Your Well Runs Dry: Philly sax legend Bootsie Barnes passes

West Philadelphia-born Jazz Legend, Robert “Bootsie” Barnes, the Man with the Tenor Touch, passes away.

The other day, I was speaking with Philadelphia tenor man Immanuel Wilkins about his time at The Julliard School, and how he related to going back-and-forth from Philly to New York City. While he loved NYC and its players, the one thing he recalled about those valued student moments was the awe he witnessed from Manhattan jazz locals about Wilkins’ relationship to Philadelphia’s jazz masters.

“Mickey Roker, Jamalaadeen Tacuma, Marshall Allen, Bootsie Barnes – you know those guys?’ was always the reaction when I talked about my proximity to some of Philly’s finest,” noted Wilkins of men he’ll always consider mentors, friends and familiars.

That was Robert “Bootsie” Barnes – everyone’s jazz man with whom every Philadelphian was familiar.

You didn’t have to know that he all but created the hard blowing bluesy sax sound that Philly’s jazz vibe was known for – just as this city is renowned for its thick Hammond organ jazz groove to which Bootsie contributed on live dates and recordings by Jimmy Smith, Jack McDuff, Papa John DeFrancesco, Jimmy McGriff, Shirley Scott and Don Patterson. Or that Bootsie was jazz royalty courtesy his blood relationship to clarinetist Jimmy Hamilton from the Duke Ellington Orchestra.

He was Bootsie motherfucking Barnes, tenor jazz man in excelsius deo, and he was playing somewhere at a bar, club or live room near you. Name a weekend where you didn’t hear that Bootise was playing at the Clef Club or at Chris Jazz Café. He wasn’t necessarily famous for making albums as a leader – the French Riviera label released 1995’s “You Leave Me Breathless” and 1998’s “Hello!” He went sadly un-acclaimed for his cool contributions to other artists albums such as 1998’s “All in the Family” from Joey and Papa John DeFrancesco and several albums from Odean Pope’s Saxophone Choir, 1993’s “Epitome” and 1987’s “The Saxophone Shop,” or 2005’s “Shelf-Life” from Philly-born pianist Uri Caine. Fuck any connection that Barnes had with Bill Cosby – The Cos’ pulled out Barnes’ name and their one-time friendship whenever the now-jailed comedian wanted to prove his connection to jazz and the area. Forget this.

Bootsie Barnes was live jazz, personified. Check out the raw, crust jazz blues of the 2000 release “Live At Ortlieb’s Jazzhaus” or the videos online where he’s playing with another Philly axe legend Larry McKenna, with whom Barnes recorded 2018 “The More I See You.”

The West Philadelphia-born Bootsie passed away yesterday, April 22, at Lankenau Hospital. The Man with the Tenor Touch – he will be missed. Jazz and Philadelphia nightlife will be empty without him.


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