One of the greatest jazz guitarists ever born; barely able to write a cheque, let alone manage his life; strangled and dumped by an unknown killer into a Los Angeles rooftop swimming pool in 1984: How could any playwright resist the story of Lenny Breau?
Ottawa writer/actor Pierre Brault couldn’t.
In 2008, Brault premiered his compelling, one-man show 5 O’Clock Bells at the Great Canadian Theatre Company. He’d named the show for the first Breau album he’d ever bought. He toured the play briefly after debuting it. Now, he is reviving it in a stripped-down version at The Gladstone starting Feb. 10.
The musician’s fascinating and tragic story, including years of substance abuse, has “everything you kind of need for good theatre,” says Brault. “You need a good story and you need an air of mystery because if you know what’s going to happen next, it’s not as enticing.”
Brault’s introduction to the jazz great — who was born in Maine, lived in Winnipeg as a teen and young man, and died at the age of 43 — came when he bought that album at a used record store in Ottawa.
“I never knew a guitar could make these sounds. It was astonishing to me that one person was playing. I was literally almost crying at the simplicity and beauty of his playing.”
He began exploring Breau’s life and was shocked to learn of the musician’s violent death. The musician’s second wife, Jewel, who had been abusive to her husband during their marriage, was suspected of the murder but never charged.
As Brault discovered, however, there was more to the musician than his mysterious death.
He was, says Brault, a kind of savant, an “innocent” who drifted through life, counting on others to take care of him. “He had a special gift, but he lived in a bubble. Who knows what he would have been diagnosed with today? All he knew was how to escape into his guitar.”
Breau came to music through his parents, the touring country artists Hal “Lone Pine” Breau and Betty Cody. He performed in their band from a young age and was so good that he replaced the lead guitarist at age 15.
But his father, a drinker, had little use for his son’s growing interest in jazz, slapping him across the face when the 17-year-old dared to improvise on stage. Breau bailed on his parents’ band at that point and went on to play in Toronto, New York and elsewhere, performing an extraordinary mix of classical, blues, flamenco and other material, with jazz as his main love.
Brault figures the musician got into drugs in part to escape the isolation he felt from his father, a man he idolized. “He was always looking for love, for someone to take care of him.”
Lenny Breau, by doing little more than exercising his natural musical genius, drew a flock of lifelong admirers. They ranged from his Winnipeg pal Randy Bachman of The Guess Who (Bachman still praises him frequently on his CBC Radio show, Vinyl Tap) to Nashville guitar great Chet Atkins, also a friend and avid supporter. Brault reports that Andy Summers, guitarist for the now-disbanded Police, once paid Breau $40 for a private lesson.
He also had his own CBC television show based out of Winnipeg, and his discography runs to 20-plus albums.
Remarkably, he’s buried in an unmarked grave in Los Angeles. “It’s very sad,” says Brault. “I wouldn’t be able to find the grave if I looked.”
The musician never actually appears in Pierre Brault’s play, which is about the person, not the music. Instead, the playwright/actor chose who he felt were the most important people in Breau’s life, including his parents and Chet Atkins, and tells the story through them. Each character is treated like a string on the musician’s custom-made seven-string guitar, with Jewel as the tightly wound seventh string, which is a high A note.
It’s a structure that builds on the play’s exploration of harmonics and harmony. It also gives rein to Brault’s fondness for multi-character solo shows and, he says, actually casts the audience as the musician.
It’s been close to a decade since Brault last performed 5 O’Clock Bells. His relationship with the play has evolved, influenced in part by his own alcohol addiction during that time (he’s been sober for three years) but also by the perspective on parenthood he now has as the father of a growing boy (his son, Louis, was an infant when he debuted the show).
Why bring the show back now?
There’s a generation of theatre goers who have not seen it, says Brault, and “it’s important to recognize not just Lenny as a Canadian but also his contribution to the world of jazz. And the story of his life is really intriguing.
“Lenny is worth knowing about simply because of the beauty of his music. Most people don’t know Lenny Breau. When you hear him, that’s when you go, ‘Oh my God, what did I miss here?’”
5 O’Clock Bells is at The Gladstone Feb. 10-22 (preview, Feb. 10). Information and tickets: thegladstone.ca, 613- 233-4523.