Tribute to a Friend
the ridiculous to the sublime. This is a tribute to a great musician,
a great friend and one of the worlds wildest eccentrics.
you gotta move to New York, just for a while. You might not want
to stay forever, but you GOT to move to New York", Farns
would tell me, speaking in the melodious whisper that was his
distinctive voice. I considered this a complement, as Farns thought
all musicians worth their salt should be in New York. Farns' given
name was James Victor Farnsworth, but to us in the Ray Charles
band he was "Farns", or even more commonly "The
Farns". He was way too hep to be called James, and Jim was
way too common for an individualist of his sort. So he became
"The Farns", although Carl Hunter, our veteran road
manager, found out his middle name by accident and used to come
into the bus shouting "What's uuuuuuup, Viiiiiiiiic!!!!!
time we saw him, he had been recommended to Ray by Jim Rotondi
to fill the bari sax chair, and anyone that Jim saw fit to recommend
was already in. Farns had a casual rough-around-the-edges air
to him, the kind of nonchalant attitude you see with musicians
that are confident enough of their own abilities to not need to
prove anything. Always slightly rumpled, he had a charm all of
his own. He sat down at the right end of the saxophone section
and proceeded to blow us away with his huge sound and wonderful
improvisation skills. In my 7 year association with him, I never
heard him sway from excellence. Well, actually there was that
one time on his birthday in Las Vegas, when he went to the mic
for a cadenza and proceeded to honk and snort and make the most
strange sounds come out of that big horn, culminating by him taking
the sax from his mouth and exclaiming "aw, SHIT!". But
even that had a charm that was Farns.
was generally uneffected by anything going on around him, was
really a rock of sanity in a situation that often went crazy.
Opinionated, yes. If he didn't like a musicians playing, you knew
it. But I never heard him utter a harsh word about anyone.
this tiny old blue vinyl suitcase that he had obviously picked
up at a thrift store. We all had these huge suitcases, stuffed
full of things we couldn't live without on the road, but all Farns
needed was his horn and his little blue suitcase, which never
even looked full. How he stuffed his monumental collection of
jazz cassettes in there, I will never know. Speaking of the suitcase,
that brings to mind a story of his grace under pressure. We were
in LA, getting ready to travel to Japan the next day. There were
26 of us traveling, and this particular hotel had one washer and
one dryer for guests use. Obviously these machines were quite
in demand, and Farns patiently waited until everyone had done
their laundry. He put his clothes in the washer at 3:30 am, and
proceeded to go back to his room and fall asleep. We had to leave
at 5:30, and at 5:20 Farns woke up and remembered his clothes
were in the washer. He went to the washer, finding that it had
stopped mid-cycle, and all of his clothes were in standing water.
There was nothing for him to do but wring them out the best he
could and put them in his suitcase. When he brought the suitcase
to be checked for the flight, it was literally dripping, trailing
water across the international terminal of LAX. But miraculously
enough, Farns was still smiling, laughing at his own misfortune.
what's this tune?" Farns would ask, humming a few notes of
the melody. I had managed to know the name of an obscure song
that he couldn't remember once, and from then on I was his source
of information about any melody that came into his head.
the bandstand, Farns was ultimately supportive. It was him who
I would see as I walked back to the trumpet section after soloing,
grinning and giving the OK sign. That OK sign could get him in
trouble. He did it all the time, but had to check himself in countries
like Italy and Brasil, where that particular gesture had quite
also, in his quiet way, saved a small boy from drowning. We were
in Greece, and Farns was out by the pool. The boy was struggling
but nobody was paying attention but Farns. Unbeknownst to us,
he had been a lifeguard in his youth, and was keenly aware of
the fact that the child was going down. He rescued him from the
water, and he was not breathing and turning blue. Farns revived
him, saving his life. Not many even knew what happens. Farns was
not one to make big deals over such things. But he was satisfied
with himself, and smiling when he told me what had happened, and
related stories of his counting heads in the ocean to keep track
of all the swimmers.
was 33 when he passed away in March, 1997. Our bandleader said
he could never be replaced. It's true. He was one of a kind, musically
and personally. He was both a traditionalist and a wild eccentric,
depending on the issue involved. I only know that every time I
walk back to the trumpet section, I will miss walking past him
in the sax section.