“THE JAZZ GUITARIST”
March 13, 2015
In 1984, Winnipeg jazz guitarist Lenny Breau was found strangled to death in a Los Angeles swimming pool. The murder remains unsolved.
To musicians, Breau is a legend: a man who could effortlessly play a guitar as though it were three, strumming bass lines and chords with his thumb and first two fingers while the rest of his hand plucked melody. Despite this, he never achieved any degree of commercial success during his lifetime. That life, which was consumed by music and later ravaged by addiction, ended just after his 43rd birthday.
Breau is now getting the attention he deserves. LA Bootleg 1984, a recently released live recording made just two months before his murder, has been nominated for best solo jazz album of the year at this weekend’s Juno Awards being handed out in Hamilton.
Breau’s family moved to Winnipeg from Maine in 1956. They were a travelling country band, and Lenny was billed as their “wizard” lead guitarist until he quit at the age of 17 after his father slapped him across the face for improvising onstage.
“He would practice every waking moment,” Winnipeg country singer, and Breau’s brother-in-law, Ray St. Germain remembers.
“For his 17th birthday, I bought him a Barney Kessel album because he said he wanted to learn jazz. Within the week, he’d learned both sides.”
Breau was omnivorous in his tastes and style. Classical, flamenco, blues, rock, Indian ragas and country — he could do it all. But in jazz he found his calling.
He started in the clubs in Winnipeg, inspiring other young guitarists like The Guess Who’s Randy Bachman, before playing in cities like Edmonton, Ottawa, Hamilton and Toronto.
TORONTO, JAZZ AND DRUGS
After moving to Toronto in 1962, Breau came into his own, becoming a regular fixture in Yorkville cafés and long-faded venues like George’s Spaghetti House.
“It was love at first sight,” jazz singer, musician and actor Don Francks, says of meeting Breau in 1962. “We both loved to find the truth in all the different kinds of music there are.”
After that meeting, Francks, Breau and bassist Eon Henstridge formed the group Three. They played extensively in Toronto and New York in the early 1960s.
“He played guitar like nobody else and nobody ever will play like neither,” Francks says. “One of the greatest musical gifts I was ever offered was my association with Lenny Breau.”
It was also in Toronto, however, where Breau started using drugs.
Breau only made a handful of uneven records during his lifetime. He would make ends meet as a session man, and for a while, he even had his own television show that was recorded at CBC’s Winnipeg studio.
In his later years, Breau played on a custom seven-string guitar — that extra string extending the instrument’s upward range. But with the 1970s came more drugs and Breau’s tight downward spiral as he withered into obscurity. He still toured the United States and Canada, solo and as a sideman for performers like Anne Murray. On several occasions, he had to be taken off stage.
“The drugs took over,” Francks says. “Pharmaceuticals, and robbing people’s medicine cabinets, and taking all kinds of other drugs . . . No matter how many people wanted to help him, there were always people who’d say, ‘Hey, Lenny. Come on over to my place.’”
In his later years, Breau mostly played out of Nashville and Los Angeles — seamlessly alternating between finger-picking country songs and meandering city jazz — while teaching and writing articles on guitar playing.
“In the later ’70s and into the early ’80s, Lenny really began to get a lot more notoriety beyond just the jazz world,” Winnipeg music historian John Einarson says. “It’s sad that he died so tragically at the moment when things could have turned around for him.”
LA BOOTLEG 1984
LA Bootleg 1984 was recorded at Donte’s, a prominent Hollywood jazz club, on June 4, 1984, a little more than two months before Breau was mysteriously killed. Breau is joined by the late Ted Hawk on drums and Paul Gormley on bass.
The record is a glimpse of Breau in a rare moment of sobriety, deftly picking and strumming his way through a set of 11 jazz standards.
“That was the first and only time that I ever played with Lenny,” Gormley recalls from his Los Angeles home. “He just started calling tunes . . . he’d count it off and away we went.”
Imagine Breau: dark thinning hair, moustached, hunched over that strange seven-string guitar, his picking hand with its long manicured fingernails, his fretting hand with nails filed down to the skin. You can hear him feeling the small crowd on the record. You can hear the band’s synergy growing as the set progresses. This is Breau as he is meant to be heard: live and spontaneous; not locked in a studio; not locked into addiction. This may be the last recording Breau ever made.
“He didn’t sound like anybody else,” Gormley says. “He was Lenny.”
We have Randy Bachman to thank for bringing this obscure recording to light. Bachman credits Breau for expanding his guitar-playing mind when the two were discovering their musical footing as teenagers in Winnipeg.
To keep Breau’s music alive and his memory from fading, Bachman has become Breau’s archivist, collecting thousands of hours of recorded material from a diverse array of sources. Since the 1990s, Bachman has issued several previously unreleased Breau recordings through his Guitarchives label. LA Bootleg 1984, which came from a tape Bachman acquired, is one such recording. More are expected in the coming years. This is the Canadian Music Hall of Fame inductee’s second posthumous Juno nomination.
“I’m doing just what I’ve wanted to do since that day I was 15 and heard Lenny Breau play the guitar,” Bachman told the Star in 2012. “I spent every minute I could with Lenny from then on. I introduced him to girls, he taught me music. It worked out just fine.”