Why the genius of jazz guitarist Lenny Breau needs to be remembered

If you’re a guitar enthusiast and you don’t know about Lenny Breau, you should learn about him. Why? Because he’s one of the greats, and his story is one that everyone should know.

Breau was born in Auburn, Maine, in 1941, and spent the first years of his life there before his family moved to Moncton, N.B. They then returned to Maine for a while before moving to Winnipeg in 1957. His parents, Harold Breau and Betty Cody, were professional country and western musicians, and by the time he was a teen, Lenny was playing with the family band.

But when Lenny Breau started to incorporate jazz elements into his playing, he was harshly rebuked by his traditionalist father. That’s when he struck out on his own, studied with jazz pianist Bob Erlendson, was taken under the wing of Chet Atkins, and recorded a couple dozen albums while hopping around Canada and the U.S. While never achieving widespread fame, he’s regarded by many as one of the greatest guitars who ever lived.

Breau died in 1984; the coroner reported that he had been strangled, and the cold case is being investigated to this day.

Emily Hughes is an award-winning documentary producer. Her 1999 film The Genius of Lenny Breau won a Gemini Award, and she has recently released a followup called The Genius of Lenny Breau Remembered. She is also the daughter of the legendary late guitarist.

Hughes joined Brad Barker at JAZZ.FM91 to talk about her father’s legacy, and why so many guitarists sing the praises of Lenny Breau.

I want to talk about your grandparents, because that’s where things start for Lenny. They were performers in Maine, and they were kind of prominent. Can you give us a sense of what you know about what their life was like?

They were quite successful. They were RCA recording artists, country performers. My grandma in her prime, she had a Patsy Cline range. She was known for her yodeling. They did quite well. Back then they did a lot of live radio gigs and they toured and played concert halls — relatively humble gigs.

Was Lenny already playing as part of the group as a child?

I don’t remember exactly what age they brought him on board. I’ve heard stories where he was 3 or 4 and doing cute things from the bandstand. Officially playing with them? I’d say maybe 14. By that age he had mastered the Chet Atkins style and was able to go on the road with them.

I’m sure he must have been a savant. He must have been growing very quickly on the instrument. I wonder what that dynamic was like within the family.

That’s a really good question. They introduced Lenny to Merle Travis and all these legendary pickers who were just like, what is going on? He plays our stuff but than we do, and he’s 12. My grandma was really proud of him. There was a little bit of weirdness. My grandpa was a real country showman, and as long as (Lenny) was a draw, he was happy with him. As soon as (Lenny) started to get bored playing a little solo like Chet would, and he started learning some jazz, it didn’t sit well. It was foreign to him. So that part of (Lenny’s) growth wasn’t really nurtured. It was sort of frowned upon.

We claim Lenny as our own here in Canada, but there was Maine first, then New Brunswick, then back to Maine, and then to Winnipeg, which is where things really started to happen for him. I guess the travel was due to the show-business life that his parents had?

That’s right. My grandparents actually got a long-term live radio gig in Winnipeg, and so they relocated. And that was (Lenny’s) first time studying with Bob Erlendson, who was one of the only musicians in Winnipeg that had had a lot of experience touring with jazzers, and was able to teach him about theory. And Bob said he was astounded that everything (Lenny) had learned up to that point was self-taught, because he seemed like he was classically trained and had studied flamenco and all these other genres. So Bob was really amazed, and then instrumental in taking Lenny to the next level.

Part of Lenny’s uniqueness was that he did play in a finger-picking style. That was one part of the equation that made him unique, and the way he rewrote the rule book harmonically was the other one. If someone came up to you and said, “What made your dad such a great guitar player,” how would you answer that question?

The older I get, I’m still hearing new things. As my ears mature, I can hear the same tune that I’ve heard a dozen times or three dozen times and hear something new every time, which is really astounding. I think the combination of country roots, and jazz clubs, and studying flamenco exclusively for a few years — not because he wants to play flamenco but because he wanted to draw from it — that combination is so rare. He had an appreciation for melody that maybe some of the more technical jazzers may not have, coming from the country world. And just that practising that was insane, beyond dedicated, tunnel vision to an unhealthy point where everything else suffers from neglect but your music flourishes. Most guys can’t justify that imbalance. They still have a life and they have to pay their bills or have a family. There are so many things that go into it. Complete humility, no boundaries, and just constantly fixated on music. So many funny stories. Chet once said that buzzing noise that your car door makes when it’s ajar, Lenny would stand outside and say, “What note is that, man?” Some of it was, you know, the stoner mentality, but he really was always aware of sound.

An artist.

A true artist. Some people go in and out of that zone, but he was always in that zone.

You mentioned Chet Atkins a couple times, and as I know Lenny and his story, that’s a name that comes up a lot. He really was a father figure in some ways, and helped him at different points in his life. 

He inspired him. Lenny heard Chet and was on a mission to master that style, which he did when he was fairly young. Chet was like a surrogate father, and went out on a limb for Lenny a lot of times. You mentioned the second film, The Genius of Lenny Breau Remembered, there’s a funny story and I hadn’t heard it. Nashville guitar player Richard Smith told me there were a couple guitar players in Chet’s office, cleaning it out as he was starting to get sicker, and they found a letter from Lenny that said, “Dear Chet, can I borrow $10,000? I promise to pay you back this time.” And they asked him, “Did you lend it to him?” And he said yeah. “Did he give it back?” No.

And I bet Chet knew he wasn’t getting it back.

That’s the way all those Nashville cats were. As conservative and different from Lenny as they were, they all just nurtured him and loved him and helped him — maybe enabled him. But they were driving him everywhere and getting him apartments and bringing him instruments, because they were rewarded with this otherworldly talent.

I read that Lenny always presented as somewhat innocent, not very demonstrative and kind of childlike in some ways. Am I right on that?

You are right. And it was sincere. It wasn’t, “I’m a diva, do everything for me.” He really was inept, not because he couldn’t have figured that stuff out, but he just had no interest in it. So he never had a driver’s license, a lot of times he didn’t have a bank account, and he had the kind of personality where you just wanted to help him.

And that goes back to what you were talking about before — singly focused on music, and everything else goes by the wayside. So what was the impetus for you to make a followup to that first film?

Well, I did the first film in ’99, and afterward I still kept getting goodie packages in the mail with footage and recordings. And then I heard of all these other guitar players who I didn’t even know. For the first film when I went to Nashville it was just Chet. After Chet, I learned about guys like Tommy Emmanuel and the hardcore session players like Brent Mason, and all of these other guys. There was some progress in the murder case, so I wanted to explore that more. So the second piece is more of a companion piece.

There are five chapters. The first one is called Innovation and Influence, and it’s musicologists, music profs and Lenny’s peers all talking about what made him unique — many of them saying he was the greatest, and why. There’s one on drugs, one on the murder that’s really stimulated things — I’m in touch with the cold-case file detectives, and I’m really happy about that. There’s one that’s just funny stories, and one on humility. It’s amazing because I go all over North America talking to guys who don’t even know each other, and they all say, “I never heard your dad say one negative thing about another player, or anybody.”

And I get the sense that he wasn’t one to say, “I’m really great, check me out.”

He hated being called the greatest, because he said it was a pressure. He said, “I hate when people do that.” He wasn’t cocky. He didn’t have that competitive spirit.


You can see both the original The Genius of Lenny Breau and the followup The Genius of Lenny Breau Remembered by visiting lennybreau.com.