As a Guitarist Lenny Breau is the best-known graduate of the Winnipeg jazz scene. “Lenny came up with a way of addressing the instrument technically that actually no one had done before,” states four-time Grammy winning jazz-fusion guitarist Pat Metheny, “and actually nobody has done since.”
Born in Auburn, Maine in 1941 of French-Canadian lineage, he joined his parents’ traveling country music jamboree, The CKY Caravan, at the tender age of 13. Backing Hal Lone Pine and Betty Cody, Lenny, known as Lone Pine Junior, dazzled audiences with his self-taught mastery of the Chet Atkins/Merle Travis finger picking style of guitar playing.
“All he wanted to do was play guitar,” noted his mother Betty Cody, who recalls her son carrying his guitar to elementary school to practice during recess. The family moved their base of operations to Winnipeg in 1957.
After moving with his parents from St. Vital to West Kildonan, Lenny met budding guitarist Randy Bachman. Randy would cut classes at West Kildonan Collegiate to sit and watch Lenny practising guitar at his parents’ home. “Everything I needed to know about guitar came in those 18 months or so I spent hanging out with Lenny,” acknowledges The Guess Who and BTO founder.
By the early 1960s, Lenny was moving in different musical directions. “After our country shows,” remembers friend Ray St. Germain, who joined Lenny and his parents’ country band, “Lenny and I would go to the jazz clubs in town like the Stage Door on Fort Street and Jazz A Go Go on Edmonton Street in the City Centre Hotel. Lenny was starting to play more jazz then.” He was like a sponge, absorbing everything he heard.
“Working the jazz clubs for me was like going to school,” Lenny once remarked. Lenny adapted Chet Atkins fingerpicking coupled with flamenco guitar to create a distinctive style that allowed him to play bass, rhythm and lead/melody all together. He quickly became the local CBWT television’s go-to guitarist for music productions. Lenny was unfettered by structure and repetition. According to one show producer, when a musician asked why Lenny never showed up for rehearsals, he remarked, “It doesn’t matter because he never plays what we write down for him anyway.”
In the clubs of Toronto’s Yorkville district working with singer Don Francks, Lenny was allowed to explore music beyond boundaries. He also began dabbling in drugs, ultimately leading to a heroin habit. “It broke my heart seeing Lenny strung out on heroin,” sighs fellow musician and friend Ron Halldorson.
Under his mentor Chet Atkins’ tutelage, Lenny recorded two albums for RCA Records, The Velvet Touch of Lenny Breau – Live! and Guitar Sounds from Lenny Breau, the former recorded in Los Angeles at Shelley’s Manne-Hole Club and the latter at RCA Studios in Nashville. Both revolutionized jazz guitar playing by breaking all the rules. Renowned session musician Carole Kaye, in the audience for the live album, later remarked, “If you had dropped a bomb on the place that night, you’d have wiped out all the guitar players in the world. They were all down there, from Howard Roberts to George Van Eps to Joe Pass. Lenny conquered Hollywood because we all loved him as a player and we loved him as a person.”
Lenny’s attempts to merge jazz pianist Bill Evans’ chord structure into a guitar context expanded the range of the instrument into bold new territory. But every time his career seemed to gain momentum he would fall back into drugs. His fans, most of them guitarists, remained loyal as Lenny spiralled down from the drugs. On the morning of August 12, 1984, his body was found at the bottom of the swimming pool on the roof of his Los Angeles apartment block. He had just turned 43. Still unsolved, there remains the suspicion that it may have been drug related.
Randy Bachman remains a devotee and has released several albums of Lenny’s recordings. “Lenny gave us more than just notes,” muses Randy. “He imparted a style that is recognizable no matter in what genre.” As Chet Atkins noted, “Lenny’s legend will continue to inspire future generations.”
From the forthcoming book Heart of Gold: A History of Winnipeg Music by John Einarson.