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 Fuller Up, The Dead Musician Directory
George Van Eps
George Van Eps
Pneumonia      Nov.  29, 1998
Age 85
OBITUARY 
BIOGRAPHY  
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OBITUARY 
        
          Appreciation 
                      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 a 
                            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.  

                            Copyright 1998 Los Angeles Times. All Rights Reserved 


Pioneering Jazz Guitarist Dies 
                 Obituary: George Van Eps, 85, added a seventh string and amazed peers with his technique.  
                   By BILL KOHLHAASE, Special to The LA Times 

                                 Jazz guitarist George Van Eps, who played with Benny 
                                 Goodman, George Gershwin and Fats Waller and who was 
                            revered by his peers for his mastery of the seven-string guitar he 
                            pioneered, died Sunday night in Newport Beach of complications 
                            from pneumonia. He was 85.  

                            Van Eps had been admitted to Hoag Memorial Hospital 
                            Presbyterian in late October for pneumonia, at which time it was 
                            discovered that he'd recently suffered a minor stroke. He went 
                            home after a couple of weeks, then returned Nov. 14, again for 
                            pneumonia.  

                            Before the recent hospital stays, however, he had been in generally 
                            good health, playing monthly concerts near his home in Huntington 
                            Beach at Restaurant Kikuya, among other Southern California 
                            nightspots. He had been scheduled to play there next Sunday.  
                            In the mid-1930s, Van Eps became one of the first guitarists to add 
                            a seventh string to his instrument, because standard six-string 
                            models were too limiting. With the seven-string, he could play lead 
                            lines, bass notes and harmonic rhythm support on his own.  
                            Upon learning earlier that Van Eps wouldn't be well enough to 
                            make his scheduled performance Sunday, bassist Luther Hughes, 
                            who played with Van Eps often in recent years, said he had to find 
                            a replacement--and hired two guitarists.  

                            Van Eps' nearly effortless style and eclectic sense of harmony went 
                            unduplicated for more than half a century. In recent years, other 
                            musicians have taken up the seven-string guitar, among them 
                            Orange County guitarist Ron Eschete and hot young grunge-jazz 
                            player Charlie Hunter.  

                            Highly regarded studio guitarist Mundell Lowe told other musicians 
                            that he had played with everyone in his career and now, after 
                            jamming with Van Eps earlier this year, "with God."  

                            Van Eps, however, maintained an unassuming modesty about his 
                            talent, which earned him as much respect among his peers as his 
                            astonishing technique.  

                            Van Eps made infrequent appearances in recent years, but in the 
                            last year, he began playing more. His performances were 
                            characterized not only by his rich, fluid style but with his anecdotes 
                            about his experiences with Waller, Gershwin, Goodman and others. 

                            Van Eps, who had lived with his daughter in Huntington Beach 
                            since 1977, was born Aug. 7, 1913, in Plainfield, N.J. His mother 
                            was a pianist; his father, Fred Van Eps Sr., was a well-regarded 
                            banjo player, and his three older brothers were all musicians.  
                            George Gershwin would visit the family home to play with Fred Van 
                            Eps and the younger Van Eps often recounted how the composer 
                            would bring a bag of penny candy with him.  

                            During a childhood bout with rheumatic fever, Van Eps was 
                            ordered to bed and to stay flat on his back. One day he grabbed his 
                            father's banjo, which had been left by his bedside and, still flat on 
                            his back, learned to pick out "Somebody Stole My Girl" and 
                            "Alabamy Bound." By 11 he was a member of the musicians union 
                            and was playing in clubs. He recorded his first album in 1927, 
                            playing banjos with brothers Fred and Bob.  

                            His banjo-playing days ended when, at 13, he first heard jazz guitar 
                            pioneer Eddie Lang play over a crystal radio set. Van Eps would 
                            go on to play beside Lang in the Smith Ballew band, which he 
                            joined in 1929, and from there went on to work with Goodman, 
                            Freddy Martin and Ray Noble.  

                            After moving to Los Angeles in 1936, Van Eps began searching for 
                            a way to broaden his sound, enlisting guitar maker Epi Stathopoulo 
                            of the Epiphone guitar company to add a seventh string.  
                            It was this innovation, and what Van Eps would do with it, that 
                            earned him the admiration of generations of professional guitarists.  
                            "He was the sharpest and most brilliant musician I've ever met," said 
                            bassist Hughes. "But he was also a kind and gentle man with a great 
                            sense of humor."  

                            He is survived by the daughter, Kay Van Eps. He will be cremated 
                            following private memorial services. His family requests that in lieu 
                            of flowers, donations be made either to the American Red Cross or 
                            the American Cancer Society.  

                            Copyright 1998 Los Angeles Times. All Rights Reserved 


      George Van Eps, 85, Musician Who Popularized 7-String Guitar
     
          By PETER WATROUS   The New York Times

            George Van Eps, a guitarist who played with some of the biggest names in jazz and pioneered
          the seven-string guitar, died on Nov. 29 at Hoag Memorial Hospital Presbyterian in Newport
          Beach, Calif. He was 85 and lived in Huntington Beach , Calif. 

          His family said the cause was pneumonia. 

          The seven-string guitar, which Van Eps helped popularize, allowed him to use his harmonic
          imagination. The seventh string, added in the bass, gave him the ability to play more orchestrally,
          adding bass lines below the chord, and making the guitar a more convincing solo instrument. Van Eps
          referred to the guitar as his lap piano. 

          Though his career started early in jazz history, his quiet sophistication never received the attention
          received by the guitarists Django Reinhardt, Charlie Christian and their followers. But he did have
          several important students, including the guitarists Ron Eschete, from Louisiana, and Howard Alden
          and Bucky Pizzarelli, from New York. 

          Van Eps came from a musical family, with his mother, father and brothers all playing; George
          Gershwin was a regular guest in the house. He began professionally at the age of 11 in New Jersey
          and he performed for six months with an early idol, the guitarist Eddie Lang, in the Smith Ballew
          band. 

          During the 1930s, Van Eps worked with Freddy Martin, Benny Goodman and Ray Noble. 

          In 1938 Van Eps, who had recently moved to California, went to the Epiphone guitar company to
          broaden the palette of his instrument, adding the seventh string. 

          He then spent much of the next several decades working in recording studios, in part for the 1950s
          film and television series "Pete Kelly's Blues." 

          He recorded occasionally for Capitol records during the 1960s; in the 1970s an illness, and an
          accident that injured his hand, took him off the music scene for a while. 

          But in the 1990s he surfaced with a series of fine records for Concord Jazz, recording with Alden,
          and an album with the guitarist Johnny Smith. 

          He is survived by a daughter, Kay Van Eps of Huntington Beach. 

     

      Dejanews posting:   George Van Eps 
       

      Now, there was a true guitar wizard.  More notes, more chords than most 
      guitarists will ever learn, let alone know how to use.  If ever there was a 
      musician deserving of the name "legendary", it was he.  He was in the first 
      US band (put together by Glen Miller, and to me his best band) of Ray Noble, 
      he was the guitarist in the first Benny Goodman band, later had something to 
      do with sending Freddie Greene on his way, and spent many years in the 
      Hollywood studios.  His unique tuning, combined later with his design seven 
      string guitar was almost instantly recognizable.  He had a lovely, soft 
      sound that was so rich that it was fattening, and I don't know where to stop 
      in my praises for him. 

      Years ago, the "Jump" label issued a bunch of his stuff with Eddie Miller on 
      tenor sax, along with bass and drums.  They also issued a companion album of 
      alternates, and partial takes.  All hell could break loose on the partials, 
      but it was never George's fault when they went wrong. 

      Like a lot of musicians, he was also a tinkerer, loved model building and 
      opened up a hobby shop in the LA area, which started taking more and more of 
      his time to the point where he realized he hadn't picked up his guitar in 
      years, so dumped the store and got active again.~Fred Dabney 
        
       

 

OBITUARY
BIOGRAPHY
LINKS TOP
 
 
 
 
 

 
BIOGRAPHY
          
 George Van Eps
                 Active Decades: '50s, '60s and '70s
 
 

                      Alternate Name - George Abel Van Eps   
                      Born 8/7/1913 in Plainfield, NJ  
                      Genre - Jazz  
                      Style - Swing  

                        George Van Eps is a quiet legend among jazz guitarists, one who as far 
                 back as the 1930s pioneered a harmonically sophisticated chordal/lead style that 
                 was eclipsed in influence by the single-string idioms of Charlie Christian and 
                 Django Reinhardt. Yet Van Eps, like his brassy colleague Les Paul, also stands 
                 apart from them as an iconoclastic inventor, designing a seven-string guitar in the 
                 late 1930s that adds an extra bass string. Thus, Van Eps was able to play bass 
                 lines simultaneously with chords and lead solos, a jazz equivalent of fingerpicking 
                 country guitarists like Merle Travis and Chet Atkins. Van Eps puckishly referred to 
                 his style of playing as "lap piano," and his seven-string guitar has been adopted by 
                 a select few figures like Howard Alden and Bucky and John Pizzarelli.  

                 Van Eps came from a talented musical family; his father Fred was a famous 
                 master of the ragtime banjo and a sound engineer, his mother played the piano, 
                 and he had three brothers, Bobby, Freddy and John, who were also professional 
                 musicians. Self-taught on the banjo, Van Eps began playing professionally at 11, 
                 and after falling under the influence of Eddie Lang two years later, he learned the 
                 guitar well enough to play alongside Lang for six months as a teenager. From 
                 there, Van Eps worked with Freddy Martin (1931-33), Benny Goodman (1934-35) 
                 and Ray Noble (1935-36) before moving to Hollywood to become a freelance 
                 musician, author of a how-to guitar book, and instrument designer. After returning 
                 to Noble in 1940-41, Van Eps worked in his father's recording lab for two years 
                 before returning to the freelance arena, where, among other things, he worked for 
                 Paul Weston and took part in the 1950s film and TV series Pete Kelly's Blues.  

                 Van Eps only made a handful of recordings as a leader or unaccompanied soloist, 
                 including Mellow Guitar (Columbia, 1956) and My Guitar, George Van Eps' 
                 Seven-String Guitar and Soliloquy for Capitol in the late 1960s. A bout of serious 
                 illness in the early 1970s, plus a 1977 hand injury that resulted in three broken 
                 fingers, reduced his activities. However, Van Eps returned to the studio in 1991 for 
                 the first of three exquisite duo albums for Concord Jazz with his former student 
                 Howard Alden, mixing venerable standards with a few Van Eps originals, and he 
                 shared a solo guitar album with Johnny Smith in 1994. Even in his 80s, he 
                 remained an eloquent exponent of easygoing modern swing.  

 -- Richard S. Ginell, All-Music Guide
   
Jazz Improv GVE Bio
      George Van Eps is legendary among guitarists and is revered as a pioneer 
      of the seven-string guitar. In the late '30s, he invented the seven-string guitar -  
      which extends the lower range, allowing the guitarist to add his own bass lines.  

      Born August 7, 1913 into a musical family, he evidenced no interest in playing an  
      instrument until the age of nine. Bedridden with rheumatic fever, he taught himself  
      to play the banjo. By the time he was eleven, he was a member of the Musicians 
      Union and performing in clubs. He recorded for the first time in 1927, with two of  
      his brothers, in a group they called Junior Brunswick Recording Artists.  

      Hearing jazz guitarist Eddie Lang on the radio not long after that, he decided to  
      take up the guitar. Van Eps had a unique approach to the guitar from the beginning, 
      and a sound that was all his own. He was strongly influenced by pianists - first by his 
      mother and brother, who were quite good. His mother had been accompanist for  
      his father, a world-famous concert banjoist, but she had given up touring to raise 
      their four sons. By the time George was born, his father's pianist was George Gershwin! 
      Van Eps told Jim Washburn of the Los Angeles Times that he chiefly remembers the  
      great American composer for bringing a big bag of penny candies when he came to 
      rehearse.  

      Art Tatum, "Fats" Wailer, Andre Previn, Oscar Peterson, Bill Evans, Roger Kellaway and 
      classical pianists, including Rachmaninoff and Paderewski, provided pianistic inspiration  
      over the years, and Van Eps began to call his guitar his "lap piano." 

      During the 1930s, George Van Eps was a sought-after guitarist on the New York  
      music scene, playing with Freddy Martin, Benny Goodman and Ray Noble. In 1936,  
      George and his wife went to Los Angeles for their honeymoon - and never returned 
      to New York.  

      In Hollywood, George Van Eps became an important guitarist. George played with Ray 
      Noble again and with the Dorsey Brothers. He was on dozens of soundtracks including  
      many Fred Astaire classics, and Gershwin's last film score, "Damsels in Distress." He also 
      was in the orchestras for many radio shows, including Burns and Allen, Fibber McGee and  
      Molly, Jack Benny, and Martin and Lewis. Van Eps recorded on a number of records with 
      artists such as Nelson Riddle, Merle Travis, Stan Freberg, and Frank Sinatra. During this  
      period George Van Eps recorded nine albums as leader, however they all are out of print.  

      In 1991, George Van Eps was signed to the Concord Jazz label, and as co-leader with 
      young guitarist Howard Alden, he made his first recording in two decades under his own 
      name, 13 Strings (CCD4464).

 
 

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