Dreams in the Key of Jazz

After a lifetime playing music, Bobby Barnes finds a home on the Strip

Michael Frey, owner of Rhumbar at The Mirage, decided that he wanted to add a jazz night to his Strip bar’s weekly schedule, but the question of who would be the resident jazz master lingered. Then one night, Frey walked into the Seven Seas and chanced upon the musician he had been seeking. At the historic venue Frey heard a 78-year-old saxophonist play. Hearing his music, Frey knew that he’d found the man to helm Rhumbar’s jazz night. “They were such great musicians, it was like walking into a time warp into Vegas in 1958,” Frey says.

Bobby Barnes’ authenticity sprouts from 50 years of playing jazz in one of America’s great music cities—Detroit. “[Frey] decided to pick someone who was old enough to have played it,” Barnes says. “Because you have a lot of young cats that profess to be playing jazz, but they don’t necessarily do the authentic thing that I do from way back in the time that I started,” Barnes says.

Barnes grew up in Motor City and started playing music at 14 after his sister bought him a clarinet for his birthday. The aspiring musician cultivated his talent while stationed in Berlin during a stint in the U.S. Army Band in World War II.

Back in post-war Detroit, Barnes leapt headfirst into the burgeoning music scene, collaborating with names such as Don Burrows, Curtis Fuller and Paul Chambers before they became well known. “I had no idea that these people were going to be famous musicians,” Barnes says.

Barnes had taught music lessons and played in Detroit for 58 years before he and his wife moved to Las Vegas in 2004 to be closer to family after she was diagnosed with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Barnes, who at first wasn’t keen on moving to Las Vegas, began teaching music lessons at Sam Ash music store and playing at the Seven Seas. That’s when his meeting with Frey brought him a standing gig at Rhumbar’s Jazz Under the Starz.

Playing live jazz is Barnes’ passion, and Frey’s offer to play weekly on the Strip helped fulfill one of Barnes’ goals. “My intentions were to be able to play somewhere on the Strip,” he says. “If you keep pursuing some venture, eventually that’s what happens.”

Barnes comes alive when it’s time to crank out jazz classics such as “My Funny Valentine.” The seasoned professional easily wins over the crowd frequently changing the pace and using breaks to mingle and joke with an unmistakable performer’s charm.

Although he spent the majority of his life in Detroit, Barnes is content with his life and work in the desert, and wouldn’t consider going back to the Motor City. “It just so happened that I left at the time that was right for me and coming here was an ideal thing,” he says. Even with all the change his passion for music hasn’t waned and Barnes plans on playing as long as possible.

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