The Blockson Collection celebrates jazz musician Robert “Bootsie” Barnes

It has been one month since Juneteeth, a holiday which commemorates the end of slavery in the United States, yet the fight against racial injustice continues in the country.

Every year, the Blockson Collection uses this holiday as a way to celebrate African-American history and culture. This year’s event, entitled “Emancipation and Jazz” celebrated jazz through the life of Robert “Bootsie” Barnes, a saxophonist, composer and arranger well-known in the Philadelphia jazz scene.

Dr. Diane Turner, curator of the Blockson Collection, who is currently writing a book on the history or jazz in Philadelphia and published a book entitled Feeding the Soul: Black Music, Black Thought, is dedicated to telling stories through the African-American perspective. She holds the annual Juneteenth event for a similar reason.

“In popular culture, oftentimes you don’t see celebrations about the importance of African American history and culture, so it’s important from our perspective for us to do that,” Turner said.

When the collection decided to start to hold an annual jazz appreciation concert, the first person Turner thought of was Bootsie, a well-loved mentor to many musicians. The annual concert was cancelled this year due to the pandemic, but the well-loved mentor was the perfect choice for the Juneteenth concert. Turner mentioned that Philadelphia was always a cradle of jazz, so this event could be a wonderful reminder of that so it could hopefully once again take on that role.

Robert “Bootsie” Barnes passed away from COVID-19 on April 22, and the Juneteenth event was converted to honor him. The musician was born and raised in Philadelphia, and he started his career playing in the Philadelphia club scene and quickly became a world-renowned player. He is often considered a pillar of the Philadelphia jazz scene who loved sharing the genre with the younger generation in the area. 

The event featured a recording from his 2014 Juneteenth performance at the collection and special performances from his wife and grandson. 

Sandra Turner-Barnes, Bootsie’s wife, read her latest poem “The Bop in Blue” for the event. Turner-Barnes was married to Bootsie for over 30 years, in which they shared many years of happiness together.

“Bootsie-Barnes was all about love and joy and music and he shared his gift so willingly,” Turner-Barnes said. “He loved Philly most of all. He gave his soul to this town.”

Bootsie loved to teach the younger generation about his musical gifts and passion for jazz. He even passed his soulful skills on to his own grandson, Reginald Lewis.

Growing up, Reginald Barnes did not originally see himself playing saxophone. One day he went to a school play and followed his grandfather into the music pit. The music director shared his shock that Reginald had Bootsie as a grandfather, yet he did not play the sax.

Following that day, Reginald persistently called his grandfather, asking and asking to learn. Week after week, Bootsie told Reginald to call him back. He later learned this was a tactic to show his commitment to playing the saxophone. Finally, in his freshman year of high school, Bootsie showed him the ropes on a Yamaha alto saxophone. Ever since then, Reginald stuck to it and pursued his bachelor’s degree in music. He cites his grandfather as instrumental to starting his music career. 

“When you’re on that stage, and you got that horn in your mouth, your fingers on the keys, your hands on the drumsticks playing the drums, you are free to do what you want to do,” Reginald Barnes said.

Jazz and freedom have a strong connection, and was even called  “a good barometer of freedom” by the jazz icon Duke Ellington.

“Its origins are in the core culture of African-American tradition.” Dr. Turner-Barnes said. “We find that some of the greatest stories of freedom come out of this first enslaved community, and then oppressed.”

This theme of freedom is also crucial to the understanding of Juneteenth.

“Juneteenth is a symbol of freedom promised, but denied, and yet still worth fighting for and reaching for each and every day,” Turner-Barnes said.

The freedom of jazz, the only original American art form, mirrors the Black community’s continued fight for freedom, a fight that was highlighted on Juneteenth but still continues to this day.

To learn more about jazz, Juneteenth and African history as a whole, visit the Blockson Collection at Temple University. The Blockson Collection team aims to create a comfortable and safe environment for those interested in researching at the collection. It has 700,000 items in the collection that cover African-American history and the African diaspora and promotes the often-neglected fact that African-American history is American history.

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