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A Tribute to a Friend
"The Farns"

From the ridiculous to the sublime. This is a tribute to a great musician, a great friend and one of the worlds wildest eccentrics.

"Hoffy, 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!!!!!

The first 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.

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.

He had 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.

"Hoffy, 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.

And on 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 another meaning.

Farns 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.

Farns 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.


Farns 1
 
Farns 2
 

 

 

 

 

 
 
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