When George Van Eps (1913 - 1998) died he left a legacy of phonograph recordings that started in 1934 with the Benny Goodman band (maybe earlier with his father) and ended with his last recording for Concord Records in 1996. During those 62 documented years he made hundreds of recordings as sideman, but only a handful under his own name. And those he made relatively late in his career. Yet, despite this meager output as leading artist, George Van Eps has been revered by every guitar player to come after him. What he did to deserve this acclaim was to single handily create a whole new way to play jazz guitar that brought a complexity, depth and beauty to the instrument that it didn't have before.
George Van Eps grew up in a musical family. His father, Fred Van Eps was a master of the 5-string banjo, his mother was a classically trained pianist and his three older brothers were musicians. George started playing the banjo at age eleven and by age twelve he was out playing professionally with his family. After hearing Eddie Lang for the first time on the radio he made the switch to guitar and by 1934 he was playing with the Benny Goodman band. In that same year he recorded with Adrian Rollini, perhaps recording his first solos on that date on Somebody Loves Me. He then spent several years with the Ray Noble band before moving on to a freelance career in Hollywood.
While in Hollywood, George Van Eps recorded with dozens of artists and every now and then he stepped out front with a solo or showed up as the principal backing for singers like Frank Sinatra. But until the 1960's, Van Eps' primary role was keeping time in a rhythm section. One exception during this period was the series of recordings he made in the mid-1940's on the Jump label with the LaVere Chicago Loopers and as a part of a trio with Eddie Miller and Stan Wrightsman. These recordings put the Van Eps guitar front and center, but due to the limited distribution of the Jump label, did not earn Van Eps much recognition outside of music circles.
Then in the late 1950's and early 1960's he made a series of solo recordings for Columbia and Capitol that featured the unique guitar style of George Van Eps. The first of these recordings was Mellow Guitar, followed by My Guitar, Seven String Guitar and Soliloquy. If George Van Eps had not made another recording, this series of recordings would have secured the Van Eps legend. But, then in the 1990's he made a series of brilliant recordings for Concord Records with Howard Alden that made his music accessible to a whole new generation of jazz lovers. And, once again earned the complete admiration of a whole new generation of guitarists.
A survey of George Van Eps' recorded work shows that as early as 1935 he was already playing in his unique style. The depth and complexity were not fully developed yet, but the unmistakable style was there. Then, after Epiphone made him a seven-string guitar in 1938, he began displaying the depth, richness and complexity that are the hallmarks of the Van Eps sound. The first major recordings with this new instrument were the Jump recordings from the mid 1940's. The solos recorded at that time like I Wrote It For Jo and Kay's Fantasy and Tea For Two have Van Eps playing bass, melody and supporting chords all himself all at the same time. No over dubbing, no multi-track. These recordings led Clive Acker, the producer of Jump records at the time, to say " ...even the untutored ear can tell that playing these solos is not difficult, it's impossible!"
The guitar playing on these recordings amazed the producer and set the guitar playing community on its head and established a whole new standard by which jazz guitar and it's player would be measured and would measure themselves.
©Copyright 2005 Classic Jazz Guitar