A legend of trad jazz, there is no one quite like CHRIS BARBER. Harnessing the glories of jazz and the blues, leading his own bands for decades, keeping on keeping on. In this feature he talks King Oliver, skiffle, and bebop in anticipation of the Big Chris Barber Band concert at Cadogan Hall on 18 September. Interview by Stephen Graham:
Speaking on the phone from his home near Hungerford, “technically Wiltshire” Chris Barber says when I stumble over jotting down the correct shire, where he has been living for the past decade Chris Barber is a good talker and friendly. I felt as if I had known him for years but we had never met and the only time I’ve been lucky enough to see him live was on a fun occasion in the Hippodrome in his old stomping ground of Golders Green in 2000 when he turned 70 and that as it turned out was the part of north London not far from where he grew up in although he was born in Welwyn Garden City, Hertfordshire, in 1930.
An immense amount of music has been made since he started out in the business at the beginning of the 1950s. Does it get easier or more difficult being a bandleader, I wonder? “It was never that easy,” Barber says fairly matter of factly, his preferred way of speaking, the emphasis lightly delivered without any severity, a slight stammer punctuating his thoughts. “Practicalities are sometimes an issue, people retiring, inconveniences,” he adds. These however haven’t stopped him touring widely, expanding his band.
“I always had a broad view of what we’d play,” he continues a little gnomically. And yet understandably. That broadness goes back to what you might consider the Jurassic period of rock and roll. Part of the skiffle movement, he played bass on the defining song of the style ‘Rock Island Line’ which became a monster hit for his bandmate Lonnie Donegan, but is mainly known as a trombonist, frontman, and enthusiastic vocalist.
His career in music had started earlier at the dawn of the 1950s inconsequentially enough and just out of his teens. “I was an amateur mathematician. I was listening to the American Forces Network radio, AFM, and local request programmes and played in pubs.” Living in north London, around Hampstead and Edgware, he was fond of cricket and would go down to Lord’s not too far away in St John’s Wood to watch the game. His middle class parents were socialists. Trad jazz much later in the 1950s became the soundtrack of the Ban the Bomb generation and the Aldermaston marches. His first wife Naida Lane was a dancer, the daughter of a Ghanaian. “Naida went to ballet school, and she was a lovely dancer,” Chris says. While there she encountered racism and she stopped training and instead began to work in music hall and later for the singer Shirley Bassey. Chris remembers how they met: ‘I remember seeing Naida at Collins’ Music Hall in north London in the Hot from Harlem black variety show. I met her, got together, we married at a registry office on the Harrow Road and lived in a flat down near Notting Hill Gate.” They parted eventually and divorced later. “She wanted a stage life of her own. We kept in touch.”
Things took off for Barber with skiffle but Dixieland jazz was more his thing. Skiffle was a bass heavy rudimentary style imported from black American traditions possessing plenty of crowd appeal and often seen now as a precursor to rock’n’roll but dismissed sniffily by some like blues guru Alexis Korner yet embraced wholeheartedly by the public who made a star of Lonnie Donegan. Chris was familiar with skiffle. He had found an old 1928 record and the party term he says was “occasionally used in the late-1930s by black musicians.” Lonnie, he says was a “dedicated cheeky chappie,” more a music hall performer adding approvingly: “He was a good banjo player.” Van Morrison many years later with Barber and Donegan recalled the skiffle sound decades on not many years before Donegan died with the release in 2000 of a live album that they had made a few years before based on a concert at the Whitla Hall in Belfast, a city Barber knows well and the city where he met his second wife singer Ottilie Patterson who he married at the end of the 1950s.
Barber has had an incredible career in music which he has written about in his 2013 autobiography Jazz Me Blues. He has met and performed with many of the greats spanning not just jazz and the blues, playing for instance with Muddy Waters in America and admiring the way that he could retune his guitar perfectly in front an audience, but gospel and rock. He speaks fondly of his encounters with Louis Armstrong. “A nice man. He just loved the music.”
A founding director of the famed London venue the Marquee in 1958 we talk a little about Harold Pendleton the businessman who ran the club. Chris mentions Pendleton’s north of England background a bit and says, somehow it seems important to him beyond trivia, that Pendleton was an amateur drummer. Chris clearly relished those days, the place wasn’t a pub so as a club had a different vibe and he says onstage at the Marquee, which was on Oxford Street first and then later Wardour Street in its earliest history (and Charing Cross Road even later), it “wasn’t rotten” to be on stage in terms of the sound, unlike a lot of places.
Barber toured a lot back then, some things don’t change. On his gig sheet at the moment dates coming up criss-crossing England include during May and June alone, Lichfield, Bishop’s Cleeve, Haywards Heath, Stoke-on-Trent, Hunstanton, Aylesbury and Doncaster before the band head to Scotland later in the summer and then down to London in September. In Sixties Liverpool Barber was playing places like the huge 2,300-seater Empire theatre when The Beatles started out. Jazz was completely the thing then but not for long with the benefit of hindsight.
“The locals weren’t taking the Beatles seriously at first, but after our show we went to the Cavern and had a drink with [clarinettist] Terry Lightfoot and standing by the bar was John, Paul, Ringo and George, Lennon trying to convince [Barber band clarinettist] Ian Wheeler to be their manager!”
Chris is matter of fact when I ask him if ‘Rock Island Line,’ a hit single in both the UK and US in 1955, changed his life in any way? ‘No,’ he says quickly enough, then moderating a little: ‘Sort of. It was Lonnie’s record but people knew I played the slap bass on the record. Van Morrison was an enthusiast of the song, Van liking the blues side. He was sincere about it.’ Jokingly, he says, almost as an aside and with an understated gravitas that the music industry is not big on sincerity. Barber has been a regular guest performer with Van Morrison over many years and they remain good friends.
As for singer Ottilie Patterson, like Morrison, also from Northern Ireland but further from the city streets that Morrison was familiar with hailing instead from small town County Down, Chris during the conversation frequently mentioned playing in Ireland both north and south, and in his band currently and for some time is Northern Irish bassist Jackie Flavelle who used to have a long-running radio show certainly close enough for jazz on the Newtonwards-based commercial station Downtown. Chris says Patterson, who died in 2011, “was a lover, a purveyor, of the blues.” They met not far from Ards in Belfast itself. Barber’s family line, he tells me later in the conversation, goes back to County Monaghan, and he tells me his great grandfather was a Presbyterian church minister in Tydavnet who left for England before the famine.
Known mainly as a trombone player I ask him if Kid Ory was a big influence. Listening to Ory I can hear shades of the New Orleans early jazz legend a little in the way Barber phrases and wails. But he says no, instead he says it was Honoré Dutrey from King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band who he liked best explaining that he liked him for his “raunchy style” expanding: “Dutrey played melodic phrases between melodic phrases. It was an acquired taste.”
Inevitably when talking to someone who has been there, got the T shirt, although I’m not sure if he really ever was a T-shirt type, talk turns to some of the legends he has played with over a long career. Top of the list for me to ask about is Sister Rosetta Tharpe, an enduring influence even on some of today’s finest gospel-inspired jazz singers including Lizz Wright, he recalls as a “marvellous person to work with, not intellectual, she was very religious, serious, we toured all over, the Manchester Free Trade Hall,” he remembers, “Bradford, Glasgow.”
One name closer to home we don’t have time to talk about, maybe just as well given it might take up all available practical space, was the legendarily irascible figure of Ken Colyer who loomed large in Barber lore in 1953-54 and since, but he is hardly Banquo’s ghost at this particular feast. Chris, hardly the haunted type, says however while his fans have long memories they are happy enough to hear newer material. It’s not all ‘Ice Cream’ by any means. He does not miss the dancing that used to go on when his band played ballrooms, the foxtrotting dancers circulating in the room could cause havoc with the jivers he says. Times change. Some things don’t. Wrapping up the conversation I was reluctant to ask the most difficult question on my scribbled down napkin list so spluttered out to ask whether he ever liked bebop, famously a bugbear with many tradsters, and again his answer surprised me. “I didn’t play it but did like it,” and he then talks enthusiastically about his friend pianist John Lewis of the Modern Jazz Quartet who he toured with and mentions admiringly. So much for pigeonholing. (pp)
The Big Chris Barber band play Cadogan Hall, London on 18 September. Tickets and further information:
I shall take Coltrane off immediately, don my school blazer and return to Walthamstow Town Hall in 1955, foot pumping enthusiastically.