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Bootsie Barnes, Philadelphia tenor sax great, has died of coronavirus at 82

Mr. Barnes had a formidable reputation in the jazz world as a rigorously disciplined and adventurous musician.

Bootsie Barnes, the legendary tenor saxophone player
Bootsie Barnes, the legendary tenor saxophone playerRead moreMICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer
  • Bootsie Barnes
  • 82 years old
  • Grew up in Philly
  • He was a major influence on Philadelphia jazz

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Robert “Bootsie” Barnes, 82, the widely respected tenor saxophone player whose hard-driving sound and restless creative spirit become synonymous with Philadelphia jazz over a six-decade career, died Wednesday, April 22. His wife said he died from the coronavirus.

Mr. Barnes died at Lankenau Medical Center in Wynnewood. His wife. Sandra Turner-Barnes. said he had been hospitalized for 22 days.

Mr. Barnes had a formidable reputation in the jazz world as a rigorously disciplined and adventurous musician. “If you went to another city and they knew you were from Philadelphia,” said Larry McKenna, a friend and fellow sax player. “the first thing they asked you was: ‘Do you know Bootsie Barnes?’”

“I had Bootsie on my show a couple of dozen times,” said Bob Perkins, jazz DJ on Temple University radio station WRTI-FM (90.1). “And I always used to say he was as indigenous to Philadelphia as cheesesteaks, hoagies, Philly scrapple, and probably Billy Penn.

“I met him around 1970, and I just fell in love with the very robust, masculine sound that he had. A couple of notes and you could tell it was Bootsie Barnes. Right off the bat.”

“Bootsie Barnes was the consummate Philadelphia musician,” said Lovett Hines, the artistic director of the Philadelphia Clef Club of Jazz and Performing Arts.

“Globally, he could play with anybody. His musicianship was impeccable. He was meticulous," Hines said. "But he was also a product and a part of the community. You didn’t have to be a musician to know Bootsie. Everybody knew Bootsie, all over the city. He was the ultimate corner boy.”

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Mr. Barnes grew up in the Richard Allen Homes in North Philadelphia. One of four brothers, he came from a musical family, Turner-Barnes said. His uncle Jimmy Hamilton played clarinet for Duke Ellington, and mentored Mr. Barnes. His father played trumpet in the Air Force jazz band.

He started out of a drummer, as did his childhood friend Bill Cosby, whom Mr. Barnes met in kindergarten. In time, Cosby switched to comedy, and Mr. Barnes settled on tenor sax. He was featured on several episodes of The Cosby Show, and was the opening act on Cosby comedy tours.

Mr. Barnes traveled the world, but remained rooted in Philadelphia. Organists in the great Philadelphia jazz tradition, from Jimmy Smith and Shirley Scott to Brother Jack McDuff and Papa John DeFrancesco, had one thing in common: Bootsie Barnes played sax in their bands.

Turner-Barnes, who was married to Mr. Barnes for 35 years, first met him on a Sunday afternoon a North Philly speakeasy and first heard him play at the Downingtown Inn in Chester County.

“I knew his music," she said. “I had the Don Patterson album Why Not …” — a 1978 effort by the jazz organist on which Mr. Barnes excels. “I used to do my Saturday afternoon cleaning while listening to it. But then I went to see him play, and that was it. That closed the deal.”

Turner-Barnes said her husband could "brighten up a room with his smile and his music and his kindness. A little bit crazy, but that’s OK.”

She recited a poem she wrote after they met: “I heard the music of your soul, before I heard you play / One glance at the twinkle in your eye, and I could not turn away.”

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Mr. Barnes and McKenna released a joint album, The More I See You, in 2018, the year both turned 80.

“Bootsie never let me forget that I’m four months older,” McKenna said with a laugh. “He was a funny guy. He called himself the baby of the group.”

The album was the product of a 30-year friendship that began when Mr. Barnes had a gig at a Center City club called T&T Monroe’s and persuaded the owner to hire McKenna, who was playing weddings and bar mitzvahs.

Both players came up on bebop, “influenced by Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, those guys,” McKenna said. “You could tell us apart instantly, though. Bootsie had a harder sound. That’s not derogatory, it’s actually a compliment. His sound was more gutsy than mine. But we made a perfect pairing. Some guys, you just start playing with and you know you’ve met your partner.”

Mr. Barnes’ presence on the jazz scene was a constant.

“When it came to any jazz event in the Philly area, he was always there,” said Maureen Malloy, jazz program director at WRTI. “He and Larry are like the patriarchs of the Philly jazz scene.”

Mr. Barnes always took an interest in mentoring younger musicians. Hines recalled playing with him in Atlantic City venues like Club Harlem and the Wonder Bar in the 1970s, where musicians played nearly around the clock, including matinee and breakfast shows. “Bootsie was always the one taking you aside and explaining how to pace yourself.”

Though Mr. Barnes could have attained greater exposure on the national and international circuit, “he established himself in Philadelphia, and he was comfortable with it,” Hines said.

“It you take certain things out of Philadelphia, it feels like there’s something missing,” he said. "If you take the Liberty Bell out of Philadelphia, then there’s something missing. … And now there’s no more Bootsie Barnes in Philadelphia.”

In addition to his wife, Mr. Barnes is also survived by daughters Richelle and Renelle, and five grandchildren.

There will be a private funeral service. Turner-Barnes said a celebration of Mr. Barnes‘ life would take place “when the world changes back to where we can recognize it.”