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George W. Botts Sr., a tenor saxophonist who lived and played jazz in Washington, D.C. for more than six decades, died last Wednesday at 83.
Botts, a third-generation Washingtonian, was born in 1928. From his youth he was an avid jazz fan: He could vividly recount concerts he saw at the Howard Theater, Club Bali, the Casbah, and other U Street NW venues from D.C. jazz’s golden age in the 1930s and ’40s. By his teenage years, Botts was himself gigging at those theaters as well as others all over the city.
Working in both the swing and bebop milieus that were still competing for popular success at the time, Botts gigged as a sideman with greats from both sides when they passed through Washington. His resume included dates with Benny Goodman, Billie Holiday, John Coltrane, Gene Ammons, and Betty Carter, as well as tours with Dinah Washington. His was a big, swaggering sax sound, but peppery and impressively minimal—-he was extremely conscientious about not overplaying, even in solos that sounded, at first blush, carefree and easy-swinging.
Throughout his life, Botts maintained an air of elegance and eloquence, on the bandstand and off. A 1997 Washington Post profile found him playing the L Street Borders Books in full tuxedo (“If you don’t look good the music don’t sound good,” he explained); he never appeared in less than a dress suit. He was also unfailingly gracious and polite onstage, and this was reflected in his offstage demeanor: that of a kind, generous, and thoughtful man.
Sadly, Botts never recorded, even as a sideman. The closest we have to a discography of this little-known but hard-working and wonderful musician is three videos made in recent years at the Kennedy Center’s Millennium Stage. It’s not enough, but at least it’s something, and Botts sounds wonderful throughout.
Botts’ funeral takes place at noon on Wednesday, May 18, at the First Baptist Church of Deanwood.