Tenor saxophonists have a reputation somewhat akin to Siamese fighting fish: Put two of them in a room together, and a battle is inevitable.
That was the thinking behind the traditional “cutting contest,” which was sold not as an opportunity to hear great music but to see jazz’s version of a gladiatorial competition.
Bootsie Barnes and Larry McKenna scoff at such notions. “That competitive stuff is mostly for the audience,” McKenna says. “I’m not going in saying, ‘I’m going to cut Bootsie.’ We just like to play together.”
The two men, both of whom long ago achieved the status of living legends on the Philadelphia jazz scene, have enjoyed a friendship and collaboration stretching back more than three decades. On Saturday, they’ll share the stage at Chris’ Jazz Café, as they have so many times over the years, to celebrate another landmark: turning 80 years old. McKenna has a head start, having blown out his candles back in July; Barnes will catch up in November.
Together in the small basement library of Barnes’ apartment building off City Avenue, the two spontaneously shared memories from their decades-long tenure on the city’s ever-evolving jazz scene.
Relatively obscure bandleaders such as Al Raymond, Johnny Lynch, and the delightfully named Foster Child and the Runaway Band were recalled as fondly as legends such as John Coltrane, Lee Morgan, and Jimmy Smith.
What stood out most of all, though, was the fondness that McKenna and Barnes have for one another, both as players and as people. “Me and Larry, we like the same type of tunes,” Barnes says. “Some guys have that competitive thing, but I never went there. I’ve played with guys who are real edgy — you’re playing your can off and the audience is clapping, but the other tenor player just looks at you sideways. If I hear a guy play and I like it, I’ll be smiling. If somebody’s playing something good, give ’em some skin.
“When we finally got to meet and play, we hit it off real good,”
McKenna says: “People seemed to think that we made a really good team. Even though we had different styles of playing, they matched each other. We were able to make it work.”
Those differing styles are as evident in the two octogenarians’ personalities as in the sounds each gets from his horn. The sometimes-salty Barnes blows with a boisterous bop muscularity, honed alongside such organ greats as Smith, Brother Jack McDuff, and Charles Earland. The soft-spoken McKenna has a gentler, more lyrical approach that shines through his soulful way with a ballad.
Back in their early days, Barnes recalls, “every little corner bar had a jazz band. A place becomes a jazz club when jazz musicians play in it. They never put that in the papers, but it was every weekend, all over the city.”
Meanwhile, McKenna was working mostly in big bands, locally with Raymond and briefly touring with the revered bandleader Woody Herman.
Surprisingly, given that both were so active on the local scene, McKenna and Barnes were decades into their careers before they finally crossed paths in the 1980s. “We were on different circuits,” Barnes says.
In part, that can be chalked up to racial divisions — Barnes is black and McKenna white, and at the time they were making their respective names, the scene was still highly segregated, with different clubs in different neighborhoods and two separate musicians’ unions. “It wasn’t anything he or I would have chosen,” McKenna says, “but there was a separation because of economics. Most of the jobs I got called to play were with white bands, and Bootsie’s were probably mostly black bands. Otherwise, I would have met him years before. I feel like I missed out on a lot of stuff.”
The jazz scene has changed over the years, for better and for worse, but Barnes and McKenna have remained active. The typical health complaints crop up, and neither man is above letting younger cats tote their sax in and out of a club for them, but while they may sit down on stage more often than they used to, both insist that their musical instincts are as sharp as ever.
“You do change when you get a little older,” Barnes says. “I don’t like them late-night gigs no more — I’d rather be home watching TV. But when they call a tune, you’ve got to remember all those chord changes like you did when you were young.”
“When I’ve got a gig and start thinking about what we’re going to play, I’m 30 years old again,” McKenna says. “Then, when I get up in the morning, it’s a different story.”
Bootsie Barnes & Larry McKenna
8 & 10 p.m. Saturday, $20, Chris’ Jazz Café, 1421 Sansom St.
Information: 215-568-3131, www.chrisjazzcafe.com