Obituary: George Van Eps

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The Independent Culture
"OF ALL the instrument's great exponents, none has taken chordal- based playing to a higher plane - conceptually or technically - than George Van Eps, whose work as far back as the Forties set standards so high they have yet to be equalled."

The guitarist Jim Ferguson was being less than generous when he wrote those words, because Van Eps, who began teaching guitar in 1928 when he was 15, was already setting those unapproachable standards by the beginning of the Thirties.

Van Eps was a disciple of Eddie Lang, the man who dominated the field of jazz guitar until his death at the age of 29 in 1933. The early Thirties was the preserve of Lang's disciples Dick McDonough, Carl Kress and Van Eps. Then, later in the Thirties, came the hurricane called Django Reinhardt. But that's another story.

While Kress and McDonough stuck to Lang's traditions, Van Eps was an innovator. In his head he heard the guitar playing extra lines that were not possible as the instrument stood. So he redesigned the instrument with the fingerboard widened to include a seventh string.

Usually referred to as a "chordal" player, Van Eps disliked the term since it consigned him to what he called the "chomp-chomp-chomp" school of guitarists. The extra seventh string would not only allow him to play bass-accompanying lines on the instrument, but it opened up the confines that the six-stringed instrument imposed, making it far easier to create a wide range of chords.

"I wanted to spread the range, to have more air between the bass, tenor and treble lines. That way I could have moving voices without them all banging into each other which is no good at all," Van Eps said. His new instrument allowed him to play the bass role behind both his conventional chord work and his lead solos. It enabled him to think "pianistically", as he described it, and indeed he sometimes referred to his instrument as a "lap piano".

"They weren't just block chords," said Howard Alden, his disciple and 45 years his junior. "Every single sound in each chord was doing something, making sense." The two men recorded together five times from 1991 onwards and in that short period Van Eps achieved more exposure on record with Alden than he had during the whole of a recording career that had begun more than 60 years before. No wonder he was described as "a quiet legend amongst jazz guitarists". Alden, incidentally, had by his mid-thirties made more recordings than Van Eps did in his entire career.

If ever there was a musical family, then surely it was George Van Eps's. Fred, his father, was a sound engineer who was a famous master of the ragtime banjo. He had begun his recording career on cylinders in 1897 and was one of the best-selling artists of those early days. The climax of his career was recording an LP 60 years later.

He was a friend of George Gershwin's and the composer was a regular visitor to the Van Eps home. As well as being an expert in sound recording, Fred had great skills in conventional engineering and built what was thought to be the smallest operating miniature steam railway engine.

Van Eps's mother was a pianist and he had three brothers who were also career musicians - Bobby, a pianist with Red Nichols, Freddy, who played trumpet and wrote for Jack Teagarden's orchestra, and Johnny who played tenor saxophone for Tommy Dorsey. George taught himself to play the banjo and by the time he was 11 was working professionally. He also studied to become a watchmaker and learnt about engineering from his father. However a tour with Harry Reser's Junior Artists and a job with the Dutch Master Minstrels convinced him that his future lay in music. He first broadcast as a soloist when he was 14. His first experience with guitar was when Eddie Lang lent him one.

When he was 16 he bought his own guitar. "I wanted to throw the banjo away, but I still had to carry it around," he said.

"I'd go on a job and the leader would look at the guitar and say, `What d'you think you're gonna do with that?' and I'd say, `I'm gonna play it.' Then he'd say, `We wouldn't be able to hear it.' So I'd tell him, `You don't hear guitar, you feel it.' And he'd come back with, `We don't want to feel it, we wanna hear it.' So I had a double case made and I carried them both around. Finally they got so they liked the guitar, and I was told I could leave the banjo home."

He joined the popular crooner Smith Ballew in 1929, staying for two years and working for the first six months alongside Eddie Lang as Ballew's accompanists. After that Van Eps joined Freddie Martin, who had the most popular sweet dance band after Guy Lombardo's, from 1931 to 1933. He began to solo on jazz records in 1934, by which time he had joined Benny Goodman's band, and he can be heard playing confidently with Jack Teagarden and Goodman on Adrian Rollini's "Somebody Loves Me" of that year. A few months later he soloed between Bunny Berigan and Teddy Wilson on Red Norvo's recording of "Bug House".

Goodman was about to move on to greater things, but Van Eps left him to join Ray Noble's band for a year before moving to Hollywood in 1936. His work as a studio musician there gave him security but kept him out of the public eye. It was at this time that he wrote a guitarist's manual and designed the seven-stringed instrument.

After a further period with Noble in 1941, Van Eps abandoned music professionally (although he continued to practise on his instrument for nine hours a day, as he always did when not working) and joined his father in his sound laboratory for two years.

When the war ended Van Eps returned to Hollywood as a freelance in the film and recording studios, and it was here that he spent most of the rest of his career. He recorded an outstanding trio session with the pianist Jess Stacy in 1951 and also soloed on some of Paul Weston's LPs.

In 1955 he had a role in the film Pete Kelly's Blues backing Peggy Lee as a member of the fine band led by the trumpeter Dick Cathcart. He continued the role in the television series that followed in 1959. He made jazz albums on his own (Mellow Guitar for Columbia in 1956) and with other studio musicians, notably in Matty Matlock's Rampart Street Paraders.

Further albums under his own name followed for Capitol in the Sixties, but serious ill-health curtailed his appearances at the beginning of the Seventies, although he appeared at jazz festivals until he broke three fingers in 1977. He toured Europe with the clarinettist Peanuts Hucko in 1986 and in 1991 made the first of the exquisite albums for Concord Jazz with Howard Alden.

In 1993 George Van Eps came to England, proving with a season at the Pizza Express in London that he was still an eloquent and facile player in his eighties. In 1994 he made his final recording, another series of duets, this time with a fellow guitarist, Johnny Smith. He continued to be in demand and worked regularly in Orange County and Hollywood jazz clubs until he was forced to cancel his bookings when he developed pneumonia in October.

Steve Voce

George Abel Van Eps, guitarist: born Plainfield, New Jersey 7 August 1913; married (one daughter); died Newport Beach, California 29 November 1998.