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“What Bob wanted was to pull the best out of each person,” she says. “He had a knack for assessing someone and helping them find their voice. I know that sounds like a cliché, but it’s true.”
Hanson says that Cairns’ true gift to her as a teacher didn’t really come to light for her until years later, when she became a jobbing musician in the U.K.
“Knowing how to improvise, playing by ear, not needing sheet music; all of those things made me appealing to songwriters over there. That’s all because of Bobby.”
“He was a great improviser,” Perry affirms. “He could play in all kinds of different genres. He could play a Dixieland banjo part no problem. He could take a rock solo, even if it wasn’t his thing. Of course he was also just a fantastic jazz guitarist.”
There’s little doubt that jazz was Cairns’ musical passion. His son Jay Jay recalls him practicing every spare moment, training like an Olympic athlete. There was no such thing as a day off from practicing the modules that he lived by. His knowledge was unsurpassed, with fellow musicians remarking on his ability to play almost any number in any key you’d care to call for. If you want proof of the dry wit, rigorous intelligence, and immaculate taste that friends and colleagues recall in him, you can hear it in his sole solo effort, Indelible.
Cairns may be gone, but he’s left an incredible legacy in the hundreds of students he mentored over the years as well as the music that he’s made. Still, this is an especially hard loss in a hard year.
“He was just a really good friend of mine,” Tom Doran says with a broken sigh. “I still can’t believe that he’s gone. I can’t wrap my head around it, and I don’t know if I ever will.”