Photo Credit: Luc Lodder
CHRIS BARBER was just a one-year-old when Duke Ellington recorded Rockin’ in Rhythm in 1931, but the song and the trombonist are still going strong nearly nine decades later. That tune, and other Ellingtonia, will feature when acclaimed bandleader Barber celebrates 70 years as a professional musician in a special concert at London’s Cadogan Hall in September. He spoke to Martin Chilton.
The BIG (10-piece) Chris Barber Band showcases everything from New Orleans blues to big band standards. Chris Barber, who turned 88 in April, told LondonJazz News: “We include the best Ellington pieces such as Rockin’ in Rhythm. We believe in our music and try to arrange and play it the way we think it ought to be performed. Duke wrote so much terrific stuff.”
Barber has made a remarkable contribution to British music. He has performed more than 15,000 concerts in 50 different countries and in the 1950s and 1960s helped give a global platform to many American blues musicians, including Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Big Bill Broonzy.
In turn, these blues greats helped inspire The Rolling Stones, The Beatles, and Eric Clapton. Bass guitarist Bill Wyman said that “without Chris Barber, the Stones and The Beatles would not be where they are now.”
“Muddy Waters was terrific, such an accomplished musician,” says Barber. “In his first concert with us, he just re-tuned his electric guitar while talking to the audience so he could change and play a tune in a major chord. That was just sheer technical ability. The blues stars were great improvisational musicians and I remain very proud of what I did to help music that was so important and valid.”
Barber later enjoyed recording with Irish singer Van Morrison and New Orleans pianist Dr John. Barber adds: “Van knows all about music. He had to do music that required different marketing at times but he really loved playing straightforward blues and jazz and we did some music that kept the atmosphere of the people who recorded it in the first place.”
Barber was born in Welwyn Garden City in 1930. Although his parents had no connections with professional music (his father Donald was an economist who worked with Sir Stafford Cripps and his mother Hettie was a teacher and the first socialist Mayor of Canterbury), he believes his love of playing the trombone simply meant he “had no choice in being a musician”.
His breakthrough came with 1959’s Petite Fleur (with Monty Sunshine on clarinet), which achieved chart success on both sides of the Atlantic. Although the original New Orleans performer of the tune, Sidney Bechet, was never a particular favourite (“he wanted to be the centre of attention”) Barber loved the jazz of musicians such as Kid Ory, Coleman Hawkins and Ben Webster. Barber’s sudden popularity in America gave him the chance to play at concerts alongside Count Basie and the Dave Brubeck Quartet.
One highlight was performing at shows with Louis Armstrong. Barber says: “In 1960, I was on the same bill as Louis Armstrong at the Hollywood Bowl in California. We were the last band on before him, and I remember him being very friendly. He told us we should go on for an extra number – so we did. He was a generous-spirited man. He just played like Louis Armstrong all the time. You didn’t analyse him, you just listened. You loved to hear him play.”
Barber’s favourite songs – such as Bourbon Street Parade and Jubilee Stomp – get a regular airing at gigs and he still likes to perform the occasional vocal number. He says: “I always do What You Gonna Do, which was originally by the Chicago band The Harlem Hamfats. It is the sort of blues I like singing.”
His only bugbear with modern bands is if they copy old music without bringing their own style to bear. “Jazz is fascinating because it gives people the chance to add their own ideas to music. Perhaps some people underestimate the creativity that went into some original jazz masterpieces but working as a band you find out what possible adjustments can be done to make a tune sound right and how to stretch out the bits that are important.”
As he celebrates seven decades of making music, he is still enthused by performing for an audience. As he put it: “It’s a treat to still be playing music at my age and quite an achievement. I don’t want to stop and I guess I still enjoy it. And it seems to go across well.” (pp)
The BIG Chris Barber Band 70th anniversary concert is at Cadogan Hall on Friday 21 September 2018.