George Van Eps: A Life in Harmony
By JIM WASHBURN, Special to The LA Times
On the rare occasions in recent decades when guitarist George Van Eps--who died Sunday at 85--would go on tour, fans in the jazz stronghold of New York would line up outside a club in the snow for a chance to see him play. It was far easier to see Van Eps play in his home turf of Orange County, yet he wasn't always accorded the same respect here.
On one evening in the 1980s that has entered local legend, Van Eps and his frequent partner, guitarist Tony Rizzi, who died in 1992, were playing in the bar of a Huntington Beach Italian restaurant. In the middle of one of Van Eps' typically exquisite solos, several people came in and started a noisy game of pool, oblivious to Van Eps until some time after he stopped playing, folded his hands atop his Gretsch seven-string and began staring amusedly at them. Finally noticing that the music had stopped, one of the pool players gave Van Eps a nod, saying, "Go ahead and play. You're not bothering us."
Even for those of us who reveled in Van Eps' playing, there was a tendency to take his local performances for granted, to assume there would always be a next time to catch up on his genius. It was already miraculous that anybody played as well as he did; doubly miraculous that, at 85, he only seemed to get better. So why not expect as well that he would simply be there forever?
Van Eps was a quiet, unassuming man, and unless you were leaning close to hear him, you'd never know he possessed the most mischievous and devastating wit in the room. So it was with the longtime Huntington Beach resident's guitar playing: People put more effort into sleeping than he seemingly put into his solos, his countenance unfurrowed, his left hand scarcely appearing to move. Yet the harmonic complexity and melodic invention of his solos--spontaneous compositions is a more apt description--would both thrill and scare the bejesus out of every musician in the club, who were left wondering, "How does he do that?"
What the self-described "stubborn Dutchman" did was pigheadedly ignore the limitations most guitarists take for granted. Instead, he dubbed his instrument the "lap piano" and would play bass line, rhythm and melody simultaneously. Where other players were content to strum chords, his chordal improvisations were masterpieces of harmonic movement and counterpoint. Describing his approach, Van Eps told The Times in 1991, " I wanted things to happen, voices to move, not just, 'Oh, that's a chord,' dunh-dunh, dunh-dunh. I wanted something to go de da da duh inside the chord, or for the bass to move a little bit. "I don't care about playing 9 million notes a second," he said. "I'm more interested in having every voice in a chord be a melody that both stands by itself and works with the others."
When six strings weren't enough for Van Eps, he had a seven-string guitar custom-built for him in the late 1930s. His apparent effortlessness was the result of rigorous study--shared in several daunting instruction books he wrote--and led to a technique in which, like a chess master, he'd be thinking several moves in advance.
The total concentration he brought to his music began in his childhood. He was born in 1913 to musician parents, and, at 9, he was struck with rheumatic fever and had to lie in bed--"flat as a knife," he recalled--for a year. One night the rest of the family went out, but one of them had forgotten a banjo at the foot of Van Eps' bed. "I wiggled my way around until I could reach the banjo, pull it up and across my chest" Van Eps said. "When they got home that night, I played 'Somebody Stole My Girl' and 'Alabamy Bound' for them."
Music became the thing that transported him beyond the proscribed world of his sickbed. He overheard a doctor tell his mother that Van Eps' heart was so weakened by his disease that he wouldn't live to 20. So, once back on his feet, he didn't waste time. By 11 he was playing in clubs and had his musicians union card. He made his first recordings in 1927, when he was still just 14.
Not long after that, he heard seminal jazz guitarist Eddie Lang on a crystal radio set. "I heard the sound of the guitar and that was it. Oh, it sang, the sustenance was there!" he still enthused more than half a century later. Once Van Eps and the guitar teamed up, his career took him through the big bands of Ray Noble, Benny Goodman and the Dorsey Brothers, into the house orchestras of the Burns & Allen and Jack Benny radio shows, among many others, and through thousands of recording sessions, working with everyone from Sinatra to Frankie Laine to Stan Freberg.
His albums under his own name have become collectors' items,while a revived interest in Van Eps' playing at the start of this decade prompted the Concord jazz label to get him into the recording studio as often as possible. "Maybe they think I'm going to die soon," he quipped at the time.
In recent years, Van Eps recorded with relative youngster Howard Alden, while locally he was championed by bassist Luther Hughes. Performing with Hughes at such venues as Restaurant Kikuya in Huntington Beach and Steamers Cafe in Fullerton, Van Eps finally found attentive O.C. audiences. What they found in return was musical vision and staggeringly articulate technique that was undimmed by time.
By Van Eps' measure--recalling what the doctor had told his mother--he figured he had cheated death for more than six decades. Still, it's hard for the rest of us to not feel cheated, given the singular nature of George Van Eps' music, and the better graces of humanity--the warmth, wit and ever-questing intelligence--that he expressed through it.
There was no one else like him. Not even close.