For more than eight years, tenor saxophonist Barnes's organ trio has been a weekly feature at Ortlieb's, a no-frills joint that serves up food, drinks and great music in its long, narrow space on the fringe of Philadelphia's Northern Liberties neighborhood.
Once the lunchroom of the defunct brewery that carried its name, it is now a prime proving ground for developing young players on the Philly jazz scene -- and a place where Barnes often hangs his hat as a listener when he's not playing.
He shares pleasantries with the regulars for only a few minutes before taking the stage with keyboard player Lucas Brown and drummer Dan Monaghan. The hard-bop tenor's take-no-prisoners style quickly hushes the room.
He opens the first set with Hank Mobley's composition "Soul Station," keeps the intensity flowing with "The Song is You" and turns the ballad "A Child is Born" into a masterful blend of subtlety and heat.
He's generous with the solo time given his young bandmates, but the set is short; but so is the break. That "taste" of music was a mere warmup for Barnes. The second set opens with "I'm Old Fashioned." Barnes digs in deeply. His tenor burns like a blast furnace. The crowd soon turns vocal, urging him to take it higher and deeper. He doesn't disappoint them.
During one break, Barnes calls Ortlieb's "the best kept secret in Philadelphia."
"You can hang with no necktie, and it is all honest music," he says. "And it's a place the young cats can grow."
Among the jazz world's excellent tenor players, Bootsie Barnes, 64, is also one of the best kept secrets.
He has traveled far and wide as a member of some of the excellent organ combos that have emerged from the Philly jazz scene. But he has not done so frequently.
He's a homebody, and he likes it that way. And he points out that every American city has great talents who can hold their own on any bandstand, but prefer the comforts of home to a life on the road or the goal of making it big in New York.
"At one time, it was because I had to stay home. Then I got married and wanted to be home. New York is not for everybody and everybody cannot go to New York. Everybody is not going to make it," Barnes said. "I know guys who went there 30 or 40 years ago and stayed there -- and still don't have a record out. I just don't see the purpose.
"I can easily work five nights a week here. If you go to New York, go with a gig. I am not moving anywhere without a gig. I know what it is to not be able to pay rent. When there's a gig, I go to New York. Or when Bill Cosby calls me for one of his jazz projects, I fly to the festivals."
Barnes grew up with Cosby in North Philadelphia's Richard Allen Projects and was a classmate. His late brother "Junior Barnes" found fame in funnyman Cosby's "snowball" comedy routine.
They crossed paths again in 1980 at Carnegie Hall in New York. Five years later, Cosby was calling Barnes to perform in jazz settings with him, and was also featured in a musical segment on TV's "Cosby" show. Cosby also drafted him last year for his "Cos' of Good Music" all-star bands that performed at the Playboy and JVC Newport Jazz Festivals.
"Bootsie is a hometown hero. He's got what you can only get with 40 years of experience. There is no substitute for that. Not only working with him, but the stories of who he grew up with musically -- Philly Joe Jones, Lee Morgan, Jimmy Heath, Art Blakey," says Monaghan, 26, a Temple University graduate and music educator who has been working with Barnes for more than two years.
Barnes has several records out as a leader, including his 1988 debut "Been Here All Along," "You Leave Me Breathless" and "Hello." He's featured on a new Ortlieb's all-star session led by trumpeter John Swana called "Philly Gumbo" and on recordings by organ players Don Patterson and Papa John and Joey DeFrancesco.
Barnes gets as much satisfaction from mentoring and encouraging younger musicians as he does performing. On nights he's not scheduled to perform, chances are he can be found at one of the local clubs to check things out. Tuesdays at Ortlieb's provides weekly jam session opportunities for emerging talents.
Pianist Uri Caine, drummer Sylvia Cuenca, keyboard player Kyle Koehler, trumpeter Duane Eubanks and brothers Robert and Byron Landham are among the beneficiaries.
"I try to let the young cats know that you can learn more by observation than participation. You can see just what is going on. I learn a lot from the young guys and the older guys. I don't care who it is that's playing. You learn a lot about stage manners, decorum and you get musical ideas."
Nothing bugs him more than seeing a sideman, or a young player offered a chance to sit in, overstepping their welcome.
"You don't play longer than the cat that the people are paying to see," Barnes said. "I learned that with Sonny Stitt. If he played 10 choruses, I would play eight. I wouldn't play 15 or 20. If you ask to sit in, don't wear out your welcome. Don't let them chase you off the stage. Let them ask you back for more. You don't come up there to spend the night. All this comes with experience. Less is more."
While it is best known as the undisputed home of the great organ trios, Barnes says he believes Philadelphia's strongest contribution to jazz is the individuality of the musicians it has produced.
"Everybody has a different style. Just like the Philly prizefighters with that left hook, nobody just copies and plays alike. They have their own sound. I don't sound like anybody but me."