As a young up-and-coming musician growing up in Philadelphia, I struggled to find where I belonged. My mother raised me in the COGIC church, and although she loved my appreciation for “jazz,” I knew she’d prefer me accompanying the choir or playing for devotions every Sunday. My father also took me to church, but this service took place every Tuesday night at Ortlieb’s Jazz Haus. The pulpit was the bandstand, and the church folks had names like Deacon Durham, Mother Scott, Reverend Harper, Minister Roker, and everyone loved when Deacon Barnes showed up. Both churches served up soul-saving, foot-tapping, swinging music, and as a young man, I would dream about the two having service together.
Deacon Barnes, a.k.a. Robert “Bootsie” Barnes, was seldom mentioned when people named their top five saxophonists, but he was a chief musician to many of us in Philadelphia. Even though Deacon Barnes was top on my list, there weren’t many opportunities for us to fellowship. At 14 years old, I learned to be seen, not heard, especially when visiting Tuesday night service. So I listened and tried to absorb everything I could. Then it happened!
One Sunday morning, my mother came into my room and said, “Get dressed. We’re going to the Clef Club.” Along with Ortlieb’s, the Clef Club was also a church. My uncle, Ellsworth Gooding, was a saxophonist and the original treasurer for the Clef Club, so I spent most of my Saturdays hanging and helping out there. This Sunday, instead of Mom’s church, we went to the Clef Club because they were honoring my uncle. Today was the day! My churches were going to meet. My uncle attended the same COGIC church we did, so friends, family, and folks from church were all coming to help us honor Ellsworth Gooding.
I walked in the door, and the first person I saw was Deacon Barnes on the stage warming up. Maybe I’ll get a chance to meet and talk to him, I thought. We sat through speeches, tributes, prayers, musical selections, and such. Eventually the band started, and I enjoyed every minute. Deacon Barnes led the band and audience into a musical wonderland. I had heard of and witnessed a few jam sessions, but today was about to be one to remember. I saw the whispering but never imagined they were whispering about me!
Deacon Barnes grabbed the microphone and invited up the great Edgar Bateman, soulful guitarist/vocalist Jimmy O’Dell, and then looked at me, saying, “So I heard you play … come on up.” My heart dropped. First, I had no idea how to play the organ, and second, I only knew about three songs. “What you wanna play?” Mr. Barnes asked. I nervously answered, “All the Things You Are?” What made Deacon Barnes special was not just his playing but also his knowledge of standards, not only his powerfully beautiful sound but also his heart. To this day, I can’t tell you how I sounded that afternoon 31 years ago, but Deacon Barnes could! Up until the day he passed away, he always reminded me of what I played that afternoon, what chord changes, what key, and most importantly, what song we played. For 31 years, he encouraged, mentored, and respected not only me but a multitude of young artists that he felt were respecting the tradition.
On March 11, 2020, I put together a recording session to feature my mentors. Deacon Barnes was to play three songs on that date, but I couldn’t work out transportation, so we talked about rescheduling. I don’t have many regrets, but I’ll always kick myself for not getting Deacon Barnes to the studio. He passed a month later.
We can all read his biography and listen to some of the records featuring Deacon Barnes. He taught us how to sing a lyric, swing a melody, project your sound, play with others, and most importantly, how to hang. Those lessons may not be documented in textbooks, but if you had the pleasure of knowing Mr. Robert “Bootsie” Barnes, your life would never be the same.