Danny Barker, Ed. Alyn Shipton – A Life in Jazz
(The Historic New Orleans Collection, 254pp. Book review by Alison Bentley)
We’re used to jazz musicians being portrayed as tortured individuals, sacrificing themselves to push jazz forward. But guitarist/ banjo player/ songwriter Danny Barker’s autobiography tells of growing up with jazz in New Orleans, where the music was part of the community. It’s a view from the ground. Barker interviewed musicians, collected photos and memorabilia, and drew on his own remarkable experiences, and it’s a highly entertaining as well as an enthralling read.
Born in 1909 in the French Quarter of New Orleans, Barker has an eye for detail that brings his memories to life: in the Animule Hall, bands played the ‘deep inner feeling’ of the blues, which led to slow dancing but also fights- settled by kicks from a man who ‘wore extra-special long-toed shoes, the tips of which were as sharp as an ice pick…’
Brass bands, marching clubs and parades were everywhere. Barker’s grandfather was in the Onward Brass Band- and a funeral director. We hear about competition for funeral gigs among the many bands. (‘Dying is good business.’) Local boy made good, Sidney Bechet, was an inspiration to Barker in his decision to become a professional musician. Barker began playing banjo ukulele in a spasm band, a street band where the kids’ instruments were as improvised as their music. In the late 1920s, established bands rarely took on new personnel, so the only way to get on was to leave town.
Outside his close-knit community in New Orleans, racism abounded. Barker’s first tour was to Mississippi, and his mother was terrified of how he would be treated. The bandleader had to get her permission to take him. Barker is a consummate storyteller, and always leaves you wanting to know what happens next. For example, he writes about playing for the elderly white owner of the ‘Mississippi Bloodhound Kennel’ where dogs were trained to attack escaped (black) convicts, a tale both chilling and darkly comic.
In 1930, Barker and his wife moved to New York, where he played with an extraordinary number of musicians and big bands, with beautifully-shaped anecdotes to match: Jelly Roll Morton, (who called Barker ‘Home Town’) Jimmy Lunceford, Fletcher Henderson, Duke Ellington- the big names are all here. From 1930-37 Barker played with Cab Calloway’s band, and then constantly toured, gigged and recorded. (‘…you just get a tough skin. Have guitar, banjo…will travel.’) Many of the stories have a comic veneer that partly masks the racism. We hear about Dizzy Gillespie getting caught short in Cab Calloway’s band bus- because black people were not allowed to use whites’ toilets, which made touring difficult.
Barker has many stories relating to individual musicians. Louis Armstrong’s influence is shown when Barker finds ‘half a dozen noted trumpet players…bare-chested…by a wide-open window…’ as the snow fell. They were trying to catch colds so they could sing like Armstrong himself.
Alongside the discipline of the big bands, younger musicians, such as the beboppers, seemed to return to the spirit of New Orleans’ music: ‘You don’t tell me what you want and I don’t tell you. We all play variations on the theme.’ Charlie Parker loved Barker’s ‘big fat chords’ and booked him to record.
Barker was a serious jazz historian. ‘I read much of this crap [about jazz] and then was told I should write some truth.’ After a short stay in California, the Barker and his wife Lu (a fine blues singer) went back to New Orleans. Though the city had changed, Barker still gigged, and worked at the New Orleans Jazz Museum. He died in 1994.
This is an important book written in Barker’s own words, first published in 1986 (when he was 75) and seamlessly edited by Alyn Shipton. As there were several drafts of the original manuscript, Shipton read the final version aloud to Barker to check he approved. This sumptuously-produced reissue comes with wonderful photos, previously-unused material, and a comprehensive song list and discography from Shipton.