The Late Great Lenny Breau
The rise and fall of a kid from Auburn who could have been one of the greatest jazz guitarists of all time.
- By: Al Diamon
It’s not easy being a Lenny Breau fan. It means idolizing a guy, who — while arguably one of the greatest jazz guitarists who ever lived and certainly the best born in Maine — was also a doper, drunk, deadbeat, philanderer, and liar, who mostly failed to live up to his potential.
It’s not just his personal shortcomings that make it tough. There have been plenty of great artists who’ve been possessed by their demons, but they still produced a masterpiece or two to remind us why their talent transcended their sin. From Edgar Allen Poe to Jackson Pollock to Judy Garland to Charlie Parker, their personal lives proved to be mere footnotes to their art.
Not so with Breau. None of his albums, most of them long out of print, is an unqualified success. The majority contain sporadic examples of his brilliance, interspersed with half-formed ideas and space fillers. Unlike the musical mess left behind by trumpeter Chet Baker, another huge talent destroyed by his indulgences, no one has culled the hours of dreck Breau committed to tape to assemble an anthology of his best work. Until some far-sighted music company commissions such a collection, it’s easy to dismiss Breau’s genius as a myth perpetuated by drug-addled acquaintances.
Breau was born in Auburn on August 5, 1941, the eldest son of Harold and Betty Breau, better known at that time as the country singers Hal Lone Pine and Betty Cody. At an early age, he showed a remarkable ear for music and was soon performing with his parents as Lone Pine Jr.
In spite of being unable to read music, the teenage Breau astonished friends and relatives with his ability to learn tunes, often from a single listening. By the time the family relocated to Winnipeg, Canada, in 1957, Breau had heard a few jazz records and fallen under the spell of the music. Fortunately for him, Winnipeg had a sizable jazz scene, and he was able to sit in with many capable players. He was soon acknowledged as the best guitarist in town.
“Lenny said more with silences than most musicians could say with a bazillion notes,” Breau’s biographer Ron Forbes-Roberts, author of One Long Tune, quotes Winnipeg jazz singer Mary Nelson as saying, “because every note he played was perfect.”
By 1962, Breau was flirting with the big time. He turned down an offer to play in Tony Bennett’s band, because, as Forbes-Roberts writes, “Lenny’s love of artistic adventure would always overshadow his interest in financial gain and career advancement.”
Maybe. But Breau also seemed afraid to make the jump. He turned down offers from Chet Atkins, the famed country guitarist, to record for RCA. He made only a half-hearted attempt to break into the Toronto jazz scene. And he began experimenting with drugs. For a guy with a wife and child to support, these moves could be interpreted less as a fight for artistic independence and more as a flight from responsibility.
Breau’s supporters didn’t see it that way. “We knew that the world had hard edges,” said Nelson, “and Lenny couldn’t handle hard edges. He couldn’t handle them personally: as a musician, as a father, as a husband, as a friend. It wasn’t that he didn’t want to; he just couldn’t.”
Breau eventually accepted Atkins’ offer to record in Nashville. While his first album for RCA is generally regarded as a failure, his second, The Velvet Touch of Lenny Breau Live!, earned high praise in some quarters. Forbes-Roberts writes that it “changed forever guitarists’ notion of what was possible on their instruments.” But Barney Kessel, one of Breau’s early influences on guitar, told Down Beat magazine it sounded like “more extrapolation than innovation.”
In any case, the albums didn’t sell. Forbes-Roberts lays some of the blame for Breau’s commercial failure on the changing musical tastes of late-1960s jazz fans. “Lenny’s delicate, complex music had little appeal for most rock fans,” he writes, “and its traditional emphasis on melody, harmony, and a tendency towards romanticism and introspection were anathema to young jazz/rock fans cranked up on [Miles Davis’] Bitches Brew.”
In the decade that followed, Breau’s marriage ended, and he scuffled around, at one point playing in Anne Murray’s back-up band. Eventually, he returned to Auburn, where he spent his time drinking with his alcoholic father, although he played occasional gigs at the Cellar Door and No Tomatoes. During this period, Stephen Anderson, a fellow guitarist — and fellow heroin addict — said Breau told him, “he’d almost given up playing after his first two records. But when I asked him why, he didn’t seem to remember much of what had happened.”
During a relatively sober spell in 1979, he cut the album The Legendary Lenny Breau . . . Now for an obscure label that sold it only through magazine ads. Generally regarded as his finest recording, it’s long out of print.
At about the same time, he played several gigs in central and southern Maine with clarinetist Brad Terry, who recorded many of the shows and informal jam sessions at his house. Terry eventually culled two posthumous albums, released as The Complete Living Room Tapes, from those hours of tape. Even with so much material to choose from, the discs are uneven, mixing moments of brilliance with bouts of alcohol-induced mediocrity.
In 1980, Breau married Joanne Deborah Glasscock, also known as Jewel Olivette Taylor, a woman he’d met while doing session work in Nashville. Forbes-Roberts describes this coupling as “a toxic relationship so characterized by hostility and violence that Lenny would spend much of the remainder of his life desperately trying to flee it.”
After a disastrous Canadian tour during which Breau was often too incapacitated by drugs and booze to play, the couple bounced around, living in Portland (where he played Caffé Domus and the Hour Glass) and Auburn. During a Toronto guitar workshop, he rambled on about being “possessed by the music,” but Forbes-Roberts writes that he sounded like “a frightened, anxious man frantically trying to reassure himself that his devotion to his art . . . has had meaning and worth.”
Breau’s wife finally dragged him off to Los Angeles, where the couple fought frequently, while he worked sporadically and drank heavily. On August 12, 1984, his body was discovered at the bottom of his apartment building’s rooftop pool. At first, it was thought he’d drowned, but an autopsy revealed he’d been strangled. His wife was — and is — the prime suspect, although she’s never been charged. Officially, his murder remains unsolved.
Breau’s legacy is equally murky. Forbes-Roberts quotes bassist Dave Young, a frequent Breau sideman, as saying, “[H]e wasted those years between 1968 and 1983. In a sense his music did develop, but it was more in spite of things.” And Forbes-Roberts admits that “unlike Django Reinhardt, Charlie Christian, and Wes Montgomery, Lenny didn’t leave behind a significantly large school of jazz guitarists who have adapted and personalized his idiosyncratic style.”
From this rough outline of his story, it might be easy to conclude that Breau’s passions and addictions had overshadowed his artistic contributions, but Forbes-Roberts actually makes a strong argument to the contrary. Until somebody assembles the definitive collection of Breau’s music, One Long Tune will have to serve as the guardian of his legacy.
One Long Tune: The Life and Music of Lenny Breau by Ron Forbes-Roberts (University of North Texas Press; $29.95). A few of Breau’s albums, including The Complete Living Room Tapes, are still available from music retailers. Breau’s The Hallmark Sessions and Swingin’ on a Seven-String are available from iTunes.
- By: Al Diamon