Lenny Breau

I was in first year at the University of Toronto studying at Trinity College. I had enrolled myself in a course called MPC, which was short for honours maths, physics and chemistry. I decided to focus on mathematics. Having been an honour student pretty consistently my whole life, it never dawned on me that I would not be able to handle an honours course. There was also the pedigree complacency of having my father being a professor at the University of Toronto. How could I fail? It was a shock to say the least to find out that despite my high marks throughout school and the blood of scholars in my veins, my entire knowledge of math was apparently only slightly above that of a clay brick.

I remember sitting in a huge lecture hall in Sidney Smith Hall with two hundred other hapless students in my first math class. While the professor (Professor Barbari – his name is forever branded in my traumatized brain) scribbled madly on the blackboard and mumbled in a weird dialect I was unfamiliar with, my palms grew sweaty and my stomach turned into knots. Leaving the hall with leaden legs, I realized that in the entire two hour lecture, I had not understood a single word or equation – not a single one.

Within days, I had dropped out of that course and queasy with anxiety, enrolled in a fresh new set of daunting subjects, statistics, philosophy and economics. Again my choices quickly plumbed the depths of my hitherto undiscovered stupidity. How could I not have known I was completely uneducated? It was only later that I was told that these courses and in particular the MPC course used ‘scare’ tactics to whittle down the class size, in the MPC case, from two hundred to a more manageable fifty. Suffice it to say, these tactics worked admirably well. Of course, nobody cared that the fifty remaining students were in fact cyber-borg robots from Nasa’s boot camp in Yokohama.

I began to strongly consider re-visiting music as a career option more suited to my academic I.Q. (I said academic) and physical well-being.

One glorious fall day, I attended a free jazz concert held in Victoria College. In those days, free was all I could afford. The band was composed of such stalwart jazz veterans as Moe Koffman, Don Thompson and Terry Clark. It was a fairly large band with a couple of saxophone players, one trumpet player and a keyboard player.

I had arrived there early and I got a great seat up front as the players sorted out their music charts and chatted with each other. In the middle of the stage, sitting on a stool was a guitar player tuning up. He was a small man, with black bushy hair and moustache. He was playing a hollow-body guitar. I’m fairly certain it was a Baldwin guitar which was a brand you didn’t very often see. Then he strummed a few chords checking his tuning.

I bolted up.

What the…..? The sound coming out of his guitar was not a guitar – it was a very bell-like sound, more like striking a vibraphone or well…bells. I turned to the guy sitting beside me whose eyes were also glued to this guitar player.

“Ah, wow. I’ve never heard a guitar sound like that. Is that some sort of special amplifier?”

As the words came out of my mouth, I felt another rush of stupidity coming on – no matter what I did in those days, I couldn’t seem to escape it.

He turned and squinted at me through his horn-rimmed glasses as if I had crawled out from a Hobbits poster. In a voice dripping with disdain, he answered.

“Well, those are not actual notes, buddy. He is playing harmonics.”

“But that is impossible.”

For those who do not understand the mechanics involved, I should explain.

The sound of a guitar is created by striking the strings either with your fingers or a plastic pick or plectrum. You hit the string. It vibrates and creates a sound. Simple.

Not so simple however, is a technique that creates what guitar players call ‘harmonics’. To achieve this, the guitar player has to strike the string with one hand while his other hand, muffles the string precisely 12 fret lengths away. The resultant sound is a bell-like ping. Different notes played elsewhere on the neck require an instant repositioning of the right hand to maintain the 12 fret gap. Because of the devilish difficulty in producing harmonics, it is impossible to play differently positioned harmonics quickly ie. in a continuous scale and they are usually only used as a sparse highlight.

What my disbelieving ears were hearing that day were not just the odd harmonic ‘pings’ but cascades, grand, swooshing arpeggios of harmonics in a vocabulary I had never heard before and never dreamt possible.

So much for what was humanly possible or not. I looked closer. He had the pose of a classical guitarist. His hands were small, but at times were splayed out to unnatural lengths. With his head bent down, listening to the amplifier speaker checking out the sound, his fingers danced across the neck producing sophisticated clusters of melodies and harmonies with an ease that defied common sense. I knew I was seeing a true legend.*

*(footnote) It should be noted that though Lennie Breau was undoubtedly a trailblazer in this technique, many guitar players now have successfully incorporated his unique style.

Eventually, the band kicked in and started playing. The music was phenomenal and Lennie began to relax, smiling radiantly. Before the second song, Moe Koffman the leader of the band, introduced him and explained how he was new to the city.

“….and all the way from Manitoba is a guy you’re going to be hearing a lot about. We’re going to feature him in the next song. Ladies and gentleman, Lennie Breau!”

A humble, almost embarrassed nod from Lennie and then the band started playing. At some point, Moe pointed to Lennie and told him to take a solo. With brow furrowed and shoulders hunched, Lennie coaxed out some tentative melody searches, looking for a motif but like a roller coaster making its ascent, you could feel something big was coming –And then, whoosh! The guitar exploded in a flurry of dazzlingly beautiful notes all played at an impossible, maniacal tempo.

One by one, the other musicians turned in astonishment to gaze at this black-haired wizard bobbing back and forth on his stool, muttering to himself as his fingers flew in a blur across the fretboard. It was a tour-de-force display of artistic virtuosity that stood all of us collectively on our heads.

Unconsciously, I had gotten to my feet along with many others in the audience. We all looked at each other in delighted astonishment and broke into a spontaneous standing ovation. A little shocked by the response, Lennie bowed from the stage and then looked up. When he did, our eyes met for a brief moment.

Lennie Breau had entered my life.

For the next few weeks, I couldn’t stop myself. I was obsessed and followed Lennie Breau around from club to club rarely missing an appearance. The jazz scene was booming in Toronto in those days and you could hear incredible jazz every night of the week if you wanted. Lennie was playing with everyone: Doug Riley, Ronnie Parks, Don Thompson, Terry Clark, Don Francks, Jackie Richardson, Claude Ranger, Michel Donata, Beverly Glenn Copland ….the list just went on and on. There was a small group of us, guitar wannabees and my high school buddy Paul, who stalked Lennie throughout Toronto and it got to the point where Lennie would look up from the stage and see the same three or four faces in the audience and just smile, shaking his head.

Eventually, I worked up the courage to introduce myself and over two rum and cokes, an improbable friendship began. Lennie was instantly charming and one of the most humble men I had ever met in my life. Despite his hallowed perch at the very apex of musicianship, he was always asking me about my own music and my own guitar playing even though I felt like a kid with a broken crayon tagging along with Vincent Van Gogh.

He never made me feel anything less than equal.

At around the same time, I had just moved into a house with five other guys on Major Street close to the university. We were classmates all studying at Trinity College and when we decided to throw a house-warming party, I paid Lennie a little of my own money. Lennie put on a private concert for about twenty of us in the small common living room on the main floor. Imagine lava lamps, oriental carpet, sandalwood incense and lots of beer and red wine.

Lennie brought an acoustic nylon guitar and enthralled everyone with an intimate concert of flamenco and classical music, styles I had no idea he played. In all the time I knew Lennie, he never once failed to astonish and bewilder me with his extraordinary, seemingly infinite talent. At the time, I think all of us took it for granted. We were young; what did we know? But when I look back on it now, I realize how privileged we were to have been able to have had an artist of Lennie’s stature playing for us in our house of all things. We still talk about it to this day.

As our relationship grew, I began to learn more about Lennie Breau.

He had started playing guitar for his father’s (‘Lone Pine’) country band when he was just a young boy. One day, somebody played him a record of Chet Atkins, the famous Nashville guitarist. Lennie listened to Chet’s records and began to duplicate what he was listening to, diligently copying the record note for note. When he proudly played his own renditions, jaws began dropping in astonishment. He was told to his surprise, that what he was playing was pretty much impossible because unbeknownst to Lennie, there were actually two guitar players playing on Chet’s record not one! Somehow, Lennie had figured out how to play both parts at the same time.

This later became a signature element in a lot of Lennie’s unique improvisations and no doubt, the prodigious physical technique required to execute such a feat probably made it easier for Lennie to master future jazz, classical and flamenco techniques.

Inevitably, Lennie got interested in styles of guitar playing other than country – and in particular, jazz. A huge rift developed between Lennie and his father who felt that Lennie was abandoning his country roots. . But it quickly became apparent to everyone that the world of country music was just not going to be large enough to contain Lennie’s talent and voracious curiosity.

He would eventually explore and master jazz, classical, flamenco and the blues. In the process of his many musical explorations and intense practise regimen, he literally re-wrote certain technical aspects of guitar playing forever. What any guitar player thought was impossible before Lennie became possible after Lennie.

It is a popular theory that every artistic genius is inevitably cursed with a character flaw. In Lennie’s case, his flaw, his Achilles heel was drugs. It seemed that Lennie was a slave to anything and everything, whether it was alcohol, marijuana, chemicals, painkillers or heroin. . Like all addictions, Lennie’s seemed a mysterious and cruel absurdity. We, his friends and his fans talked ourselves blue in the face trying to convince Lennie to go straight. He would for a short while and then something would happen and he would be back at it again Then we all would rail against him in frustration and disappointment; it just drove us nuts. It wasn’t just his medical health we worried about. Lennie was hanging out with some bad crowds. He was like a wide-eyed, innocent kid saddled with this enormous talent but with this horrible vulnerability that left him wide open for the cheaters and the thieves of the world taking him for every penny he had.

There seemed to be nothing anyone could do about it.

I hung out with Lennie for about two years. Most of my favourite memories are from his second floor apartment in the Castle Frank area. He would make a pot of the latest herbal tea fad and we would sit and chat and play a little. He was kind to me and tried to show me a few things on the guitar but it was like Einstein trying to explain relativity to a five year old. Within a few minutes I would be totally clueless. Lennie would just laugh sympathetically at my vacant stare and then with that impish grin of his, start all over again.

One afternoon, while Lennie was making tea in the kitchen, I casually picked up my acoustic. Fooling around on it a little, I played a Chuck Berry rock and roll lick. Lennie immediately came out of the kitchen ashen-faced, pale as a sheet.

“Vezi, how in the world did you do that?”

“Huh? Do what?”

“That lick, that rock and roll thing. How did you play that?”

I was completely confused.

“What are you talking about? Lennie, that is one of the simplest rock guitar licks ever. What do you mean how did I play it?”

He looked… no he was crushed.

“No I mean, how do you get it to sound like that? I’ve tried and tried and I can’t get that same feel man. Whenever I play that stuff, it just sounds so lame, square.”

I looked at him. It was as if he was pleading with me as if I had some great answer for him.

And then it dawned on me.

Lennie couldn’t really play the spirit of Chuck Berry properly because ironically, he was too good, too perfect. Here with his carefully manicured nails, immaculate hand positioning and military, disciplined technique, he was trying to emulate Chuck Berry, one of the most wonderfully sloppy and primitive players ever.

And then I remembered things I had seen and things he had said to me. It began to all fall into place a little bit.

You would have thought that someone of Lennie’s stature would be listening to the masters of guitar like Segovia, Djhango Reinhart or Joe Pass. And yet, whenever I showed up unexpectedly to Lennie’s apartment, I would more often find him on the carpet listening full blast to Jimi Hendrix, Keith Richards, Jeff Beck and Motown funk bands.

These were all guitarists with intuitive, visceral techniques that were worlds apart from the pristine calculations of Lennie whose technical approach to the guitar owed more to classical music than anything else.

There should be no misunderstanding. When Lennie played his music he ‘swung’ with the best of them, cried with the best of them and his recordings are undeniably soulful and suffused with deep emotion and empathy. It’s just that Lennie wanted to be Mr. EveryGuitarPlayer. He couldn’t help being fascinated by all the many different musical idioms he heard and he wanted to absorb them all completely.

The ‘cultural’ gap between Lennie’s musical ‘soul’ and all the different souls of these other musical styles must have driven Lennie crazy with longing and envy. I have often wondered if this was the nagging hole in Lennie’s heart that opened him up and made him fall into the abyss of drugs.

Months later, we were having our usual tea when we heard a car honk quite loudly on the street. Lennie immediately recognized the sound of the horn, jumped up out of his seat and ran excitedly to the window.

“It’s Dad!!”

I looked out the window.

There was a pink Cadillac convertible parked outside with “Lone Pine” written across the side. A well-built man slammed the car door and bounded up the stairs.

“Lennie, Lennie, how are you son?”

They gave each other a big warm father-son hug.

Then he saw me. “Hey, man, I’m Lone Pine. Pleased to meet you!”

Lennie was beside himself with joy and it was touching for me to see this side of him. He had often talked about his early days and how his Dad had influenced his early career and now I was seeing this relationship played out right in front of me. The conversations were heart-warming, sentimental and funny and I got to learn quite a bit about Lennie’s past and his family.

Later that afternoon, Lone Pine turned to me, “Hey son, do you want to buy a guitar? I have to get rid of it.”

He handed an acoustic guitar case over to me. I opened it up and inside was a fairly new Martin D-18. I sat on the couch and strummed a chord. The sound melted in my hands like honey. I didn’t ever want to let go.

“If you have three hundred dollars, it’s yours.”

I was broke.

Not only was I broke but I was broke with no hope of rescue. My sister was away in Germany and my parents were in India. None of my university friends had that kind of money and I really did not know what to do. I spent the rest of the day scrambling all over Toronto trying to scrounge up the money but came nowhere near. I called Lennie up in the morning desperately hoping that I could stall for time but his father had sold it that same afternoon.

I felt a pang.

I can still feel that same pang today.

I learned a valuable lesson: Next time, rob a bank.

After a few years, Lennie and I eventually drifted apart. To be honest, we were not really close friends or anything but it still hurt. I had felt so blessed to have had him in my life for as long as I did, it was hard to let go. He was one of those characters that got right inside your heart and your head and you couldn’t get him out. Even when I think about him now, I smile in wonder - wonder at the audacious brilliance of the man and wonder that I had been lucky enough to have known him at all.

Eventually, Lennie’s drug issues began to spin out of control and even though I still made it a point never to miss a concert of his, his performances became ever more erratic and in some cases, unintelligible. Fans and supporters began to tire of the antics and stopped coming.

One day, he just plain up and left.

No one knew quite what had happened to him until a music magazine printed an article saying that Chet Atkins had taken him in into his own house and was trying to dry him out. That too, of course, met with abject failure. There were similar episodes of ups and downs over the next few years but through it all, Lennie Breau’s talent was inevitably, too huge to ignore. Eventually, his reputation spread beyond Canada’s borders and he became more famous and respected in the United States than in Canada.

At the end of his career, he wound up in Los Angeles where once in a while he would give a rare concert. The audience would be packed with the same group of stunned guitar players with the very same wide-eyed stares of awe no doubt, that we all had in Toronto from the very beginning.

This story has a sad ending.

One awful day, Lennie was found drowned in a rooftop pool of a Los Angeles apartment building. There were obvious signs of trauma and the police revealed he had been strangled. At first, the circle of drug dealers that had been servicing him seemed the obvious place for the police to start. But in an ugly and painful twist, police revealed that all the circumstantial evidence pointed towards his wife at the time. It was common knowledge that theirs had been a troubled relationship but the sheer strangeness of this horror seemed unimagineable. In the end, due to the lack of evidence, no charges were ever laid and the L.A.P.D. eventually abandoned the case.

The crime remains unsolved to this day.

Sidelight 1

One day out of curiousity, I asked Lennie how much he practiced as part of his normal routine.

“Oh, about five or six hours a day. Sometimes more if I’m not gigging that night.” I was amazed at this.

“But Lennie, there’s just about no one in the world that can play at your technical level. Why do you bother to practise so much? What more could there be for someone as good as you to learn?”

The minute the words were out of my mouth, I realized how silly they sounded.

Lennie just smiled wearily and said:

“You know Vezi, after all these years and all these hours or practicing, I feel I know less about guitar playing then when I started!”

Years later, I was watching a BBC documentary on the legendary snooker champion Steve Davis, a world cup title-holder over ten times – another icon. The interviewer asked the same exact question and Steve Davis gave him the same answer that Lennie had given me – verbatim.

A little lesson in Life…hhmmmnn…perhaps not so little.

Sidelight 2

A famous Lennie Breau trick was to play two distinct melodies at the same time.

It was usually Cotton Fields Back Home and Freight Train. One of his last Toronto appearances was at a jazz club called Bourbon Street on Queen Street West. The place was packed and there were quite a few jazz luminaries in the audience most notably, The King, Oscar Peterson who was sitting in the very front row a few feet away from Lennie.

The club had a joyful vibe. Lennie was totally straight and in fine form, spinning his magic and drawing huge applause. He was beaming ear to ear and bristling with energy. We in the audience who had stuck with him through thick and thin from day one were ecstatic, on Cloud Nine. Lennie was back – at least for one night.

About halfway through the set, Lennie picked up his acoustic.

“Everyone knows that I do this thing where I play two melodies at the same time.”

A few knowing chuckles, friendly groans and nods from the audience. And then in the same delightful, almost child-like voice,

“Well, tonight, I’m going to try to play three melodies at the same time…aahh…I’ve been working on this for awhile…aahh…think I can do it….here we go….”

We all looked at each other with raised eyebrows. There were a few whoops of encouragement and then gradual silence as Lennie began.

The first melody was obvious: “Cotton Fields Back Home”. After half a minute or so, “Freight Train”. Cheers of encouragement and broken applause from the audience but the anticipation was building.

And then, like a small snake slithering between tall grass - fragments of a third melody.

There were audible gasps of disbelief from the audience. The melody began to take shape and quickly, quite easy to hear – it might have been “Home on the Range” or something like that.

Lennie grunted to himself as his fingers crawled like spiders up and down the guitar neck. Beads of sweat popped out of his forehead and his eyebrows slunk down in concentration. His mouth fell open. He looked like he was sinking into some sort of a trance.

And then, out of nowhere,…..he just stopped dead, hands frozen in mid-motion.

Completely. Nothing.

It was like a huge locomotive had wheezed to a mighty halt; you could almost see the steam coming out of Lennie’s brain through his ears. He remained frozen on his stool - motionless as a statue.

Then, just as if he had just been suddenly awakened from a heavy dream, his head snapped up and he looked around him with dazed eyes.

In that little-boy voice, he whispered mournfully,

“…ah…aahhh…sorry……aahh…..I can’t do it anymore….”

It was not what anyone expected to hear and after a second of confused silence everybody inexplicably burst out laughing. For whatever reason, after all the suspense, it seemed the only logical response. In the front row, Oscar Peterson doubled up and almost fell off his chair, wiping the tears of laughter from his eyes. Eventually, after a minute or so, the entire audience gathered themselves enough to stand up and give a puzzled and sheepish Lennie a standing ovation.

It was a totally endearing moment and a perfect capture of the quintessential Lennie: legendary artistry for all the sober musical historians to write about but for the rest of us who knew him, just a great human being blessed with a transcendent gift – innocent, sweet and humble down to the very core.

It was why we all loved him.

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