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Unsung Jazz Great: Lenny Breau

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Regarded as one of the world’s master guitarists, international acclaim passed Breau by. Tom Porter asks why.

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“Lenny Who?” I asked. I’d just moved to Maine and was being questioned over my tastes in music. Now I’ve been a jazz nut since the age of 5, and worked professionally as a jazz pianist back home in Britain, so I thought I knew a thing or two about the history of the music I love and the musicians who shaped it. Seminal jazz guitarists? Sure – I could reel off a list including Django Rheinhardt, Charlie Christian, Joe Pass, Herb Ellis, Grant Green, John McLaughlin, John Scofield, Pat Metheny and George Benson to name only a few. But Lenny Breau wasn’t even on my radar. I’m ashamed of that ignorance now. And I’ll bet he’s still not on the radar of a lot of jazz-lovers, especially those in Europe. For outside of his native Maine, his adopted homeland of Canada and the tight world of professional jazz guitarists, he was never recognized for the genius he clearly was.
Breau’s star shone briefly in the late 1960s when he was lauded as a great new musical talent and signed to RCA Records. But he failed to leave a big mark and by the time of his murder in 1984, he had only mustered one regular weekly gig at a small club in North Hollywood. According to Ron Forbes-Roberts, author of the biography One Long Tune: The Life and Music of Lenny Breau, Lenny “had lived on the far margins of the jazz world for so long that many jazz fans were surprised to hear about his passing simply because they assumed he had died many years earlier.”

So who was this diminutive New Englander with French-Canadian roots that all my new jazz buddies were raving about?
Lenny Breau was born in Auburn, Maine in 1941 into a musical tradition: his parents, Hal ‘Lone Pine’ Breau, and Betty Cody, or Coté to use the original Quebecois spelling, were well-known Country and Western artists, who had been performing since the ’30s. It may seem incongruous today, but Country and Western performers like Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family were hugely popular in those days amongst the sizeable French-speaking immigrants who had flooded across the Canadian border earlier in the century to work in the textile mills of Northern New England.
It didn’t take Lenny long to master the family trade: by age the 8 of he was obsessed with the guitar and within a few years he was being billed as a boy wonder, performing under the moniker ‘Lone Pine Junior.’  Lenny’s obsession with the instrument left little time for other more traditional teenage pursuits, recalls his younger brother Denny Breau – himself an accomplished professional player. “What can you say, he was just born with it, you know? While everyone else was at the drive-in watching movies, he was at the drive-in playing his guitar!”

Lenny Breau’s musical origins were very much steeped in the finger-picking traditions of great country music guitarists like Chet Atkins and Merle Travis, and tunes like The Cannonball Rag and Nine Pound Hammer remained part of Breau’s repertoire long after he had established himself as a jazz artist.
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One of Breau’s most astonishing qualities, says the drummer Steve Grover, who worked with Lenny in the ’70s, was his ability to master pretty much any musical style, thanks to his flawless technique and to a perfect ‘ear’ (musician slang for someone’s ability to play exactly what they hear, without the need for sheet music).  “He mastered many different styles of music separately,” he told me, “it wasn’t just a question of taking influences from different styles – he mastered them.” So it was with Country and Western, flamenco and classical guitar. Indeed one piano player recalls lending Breau a recording of Bach’s G Minor Keyboard Suite as a way of introducing him to classical music; he was completely gobsmacked when Lenny returned the record the following day having learned the entire Suite and adapted it for guitar.

[singlepic id=63 w=630 h=480 float=center]By the late ’50s the Breau family had moved to Winnipeg in Canada where they broadcast a popular half-hour daily country music show on CKY radio. Young Lenny, though, gradually began to drift towards the jazz scene, where he used his own ‘perfect ear’ to learn note-for-note the solos of some of his favorite jazz guitarists of the day, such as Tal Farlow and Barney Kessel. By the early 1960s he was well on way to developing his own unique style. Breau’s biggest single musical influence was probably not a guitarist but a piano player named Bill Evans who had risen to prominence as Miles Davis’s sideman on the now-legendary Kind of Blue album (1959). Evans was known for his hallmark rich harmonic style and tasteful improvised melodic lines. Lenny Breau achieved what many, including Canadian jazz critic and guitarist Gene Lees, thought was “virtually impossible” by adapting Evans’s style for the guitar. This, said Lees, required “seemingly impossible stretches of the left hand and enormous strength in the fingers.” In 1962 Lenny Breau told a Toronto journalist that his ambition was “to make the guitar sound like a piano, like it’s being played with two hands.” Anyone listening to Lenny’s recording of There is No Greater Love from The Velvet Touch of Lenny Breau Live (recorded in 1969 and according to some, one of the classic jazz guitar albums of all time), would agree that Breau achieved this ambition.

By 1967 Lenny really looked like he was going places. After a meeting in Nashville with his childhood hero Chet Atkins, Lenny was persuaded to sign with RCA, and he recorded an album the following year. So why did commercial success prove elusive? For one thing jazz – Lenny’s first love – was on the wane as a popular art form by the late ’60s. A second reason was Lenny’s personal problems, including an increasing reliance on alcohol and drugs (although Forbes-Roberts points this was no bar to many other jazz musicians achieving success and recognition). But another factor, according to those who knew him, was Breau’s own attitude toward success.

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“Success to him was a measure of his musicianship and how much his peers appreciated what he did,” says his younger brother Denny. “He really didn’t care about money, he really didn’t.”

It was all part of Lenny Breau’s easy-going and friendly nature, according to Grover: “if Lenny could have made a living just sitting around on the couch in someone’s living room, playing for people after a good home-cooked meal for fifty bucks, he would never have wanted to do anything else.”
It was this attitude that helps explain Breau’s decision in 1962 to turn down an offer to go on tour with popular jazz crooner Tony Bennett – a gig most musicians would have killed for. Lenny at that time was involved in a Toronto-based experimental jazz trio and didn’t want to be distracted from that.

Despite Breau’s apparent indifference to the business side of things, the failure of his first two RCA albums to achieve big sales numbers did take its toll on him and he became increasingly disillusioned with the music industry. The early ’70s saw no significant recordings out of Breau, who eked out a living doing sporadic gigs and session work mostly in Toronto and Winnipeg. Addicted to heroin and with his marriage failing, he developed a reputation among fellow musicians for unreliability.

In 1976 he returned to the US. At first he came to his home state of Maine where he hooked up with his soon-to-be-dead father. It was not to play music like in the old days, but to indulge in a series of monumental drinking binges.
When he wasn’t blowing his mind with substances, Lenny was still able to produce beautiful music and I’ve met several people here in Maine who have fond memories of listening to, and playing with Breau. Despite his personal demons, they remember him as a good-hearted and sweet person.
“I considered him a close friend and a genius level musician and such a kind, gentle and lovable guy,” says renowned jazz clarinetist Brad Terry, whose collaboration with Lenny Breau, The Living Room Tapes, was released after the guitarist’s death. Breau was more than just a virtuoso, Terry recalls, he was a fantastic accompanist: “He could have buried me at any time with all sorts of technical stuff, but he was always there, holding me up and making me sound better than I knew how.”

The rest of Lenny’s life was spent drifting across the states: Nashville, Stockton, New York, and finally Los Angeles. He spent these last years performing – much of the time in small clubs and bars – teaching, and writing columns for Guitar Player Magazine.

On August 12th 1984 Lenny Breau’s body was found floating in the rooftop swimming pool of a downtown LA apartment building. He had lived there with his wife of 4 years, Jewel Breau – a country singer previously known as Joanne Glassock. The coroner ruled that Lenny had been strangled. His wife, with whom Breau had reportedly had a tempestuous and often violent relationship, was the chief suspect, but she was never charged. The case is still unsolved to this day.

Lenny Breau died penniless a week after his 43rd birthday. His remains lie buried in an unmarked grave.

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