George Van Eps: Once in Awhile

'40s Jazz Guitar Pioneer in Full Regalia
George Van Eps
Once in Awhile

Gertrude Carruthers turned off the faucet and hung the last dish on the rack. She reached over the counter to slide the window down into place as the last wafts of dinner to escape had escaped. The bark of the neighbor’s dog was muted and now the trebled tones of the radio became clearer, “… of an experimental plane he was testing. The accident was due to motor failure shortly after take-off. He failed to make a crash landing on a golf course. America’s aviation trailblazers willingly pay the price in man’s conquest of the air.” Gertrude joined her husband in the sitting room. “And remember folks: Use Gem Blades.”

She picked up her knitting and the radio continued, though it was inevitably drowned out by thoughts of her son. If she could ask one question to the big guy, it would be: “Where is my, Jimmy?” She knew well the place his name was etched into stone, but is that really supposed to bring solace?

“And here with us in the studio is the man of the hour,” the radio broke in. “A first-rate banjoist who recently took up this newfangled e-lectric guitar. Over the past decade you’ve played with acts such as the great Adrian Rollini, Benny Goodman and his big-band orchestra, the venerable Ray Noble, even Ol’ Mickey Blue Eyes recently, isn’t that right? And, though you have a history of playing on many tunes folks out there listening have heard, our audience may be unfamiliar with your unique jazz stylings. So what will you play for us first?” Gertrude’s husband, Alfred sat up a bit in his chair to fight the urge to doze. The radio began to play.

The sweet, mellow, foot-tapping music rolled over the entire room. The china cabinet; the central rug; pictures on the wall of relatives, a young man in uniform; the rocking chair; the entryway: All were washed over and transformed by music. In its splendor, Gertrude saw a third of a smile on half of Alfred’s mouth. The band played on. The next one was an old Fats Waller tune from the 20s with a melody so pure and true, Alfred and even hummed along.

“My, my, wasn’t that a treat, folks? More from these hot players in just a moment. Now I want to tell you about…” the radio droned on about some new product that is supposed to cure night blindness and a host of other ailments. The music had stirred something in the old pair. Their youth had long since fleeted, and their only son’s memory was interned upstate. It was rather a new phenomenon that the old couple could turn the radio on to hear something previously unknown to them. The old Victrola was wonderful, but these albums had been practically worn out. Besides, the music contained in their grooves was very prim, without the passion, heat, and rhythm of today’s music. Sure, The Blue Danube Waltz was nice, but what about the greater philosophical context of today—of this day and age. Germany and indeed Japan had surrendered, and there just was little point to listen to the same shy, pleasant tunes.

“So Mr. Van Eps, tell me about the fine group of instrumentalists you have with you today.”

“Well here we’ve got Mr. Stan Wrightsman on the piano.” A quick arpeggio and high-noted flourish flickered in the background. “And to the left of him there is our melodist, Mr. Eddie Miller on the tenor saxophone.”

“From the control booth, I was noticing your guitar there, and perhaps I’ve never seen anything like it. Could you elaborate on its design?”

“Yes. Well, it is like a regular guitar except for this added string I’ve got which makes seven total, right? There is one extra string below the lowest E-string, which is tuned to an A.”

“And—” the low, sharp thud of the seventh string interrupted the announcer, “and how about the electronic component of that guitar?”

“Right. Now for some time, I’ve been… experimenting with electronics. I think the subtle nuances of the acoustic guitar don’t translate well to the electric, so I started trying out some new ways to mount these pick-ups… let’s call them guitar microphones… so as to improve the quality of the electrical signal. I have also modified the bridge to include a brass top to increase the precision of the string fittings, and have also amended the top to include a string damper here, made of aluminum.”

“Well, isn’t that something? We are just thrilled to have you gentlemen in the studio with us here in sunny Los Angeles. And I’m sure we have time for one more tune. What’ll it be, George?”

“This one here is called “Peg O’ My Heart”, and it goes a little something like this.” There was a moment of pause, shuffling of feet, small adjustment noises, and then a “one, two, three, four” as the trio glided into a fantasy of swiftly changing chords, melodic fragments alternating with rhythmic piano flourishes, and the easiest tune you’ve ever heard. The band cadenced to a close after only a minute. A grand pause ensued. The guitar picked up quick into an arc of chromatic and modal runs and the piano joined in mimicry, lastly the saxophone reiterated the melody now in a much faster pace, leaving behind many chords and harmonies in the wake of the tune which, like the soon approaching year of 1950, planned to wait for no one.

RATING 7 / 10