NEWS UPDATE: Since this piece was written Chris Barber has announced his permanent retirement. This concert will now be a celebration of his music.
Sum up the Chris Barber story in five words and this is how it reads: Chris Barber tours. And endures. Ahead of The BIG Chris Barber Band’s concert at Cadogan Hall on 13 September 2019, Peter Vacher profiles the man and his music:
From the very outset of his bandleading career, veteran trombonist Chris Barber has taken his band out on the road. As he continues to do to this very day. And what a road it has been – forever unwinding and seemingly never-ending. Of course, along the way, there have been stopovers and residencies but essentially the Chris Barber Blues and Jazz Band is a travelling ensemble, well-organised and professionally booked, turning up complete with sound deck and roadie, with stage mikes, CDs to sell, and the band ready to blow. And likely to be asked back again and again.
Having had some experience of seeing Barber and his bandsmen set up and prepare to please the people, in a variety of situations, I can only applaud their professionalism, their musicianship and the sheer joie-de-vivre of their music. And yes, that will be the guaranteed Cadogan Hall experience for those fortunate to be there on Friday, 13 September 2019, as Chris continues to celebrate his 70th year as bandleader and chief cheerleader, instigator and front-man. And doubtless policy-maker too.
His presence has been the constant: others have served the band for many years, most notably, of course, the late trumpeter Pat Halcox who was a member for over 50 years. Compile a roll-call of prominent traditional and mainstream jazz musicians and the chances are that they have all travelled with the band at one time or another. New players may join, older players sometimes return, others may stay for extended periods and then go, but Chris himself is always there, forever enthusiastic and forever true to this music’s first principles. How to describe his music? Call it New Orleans style but with a contemporary feel. And with added blues, you might say.
The influential Wilbur De Paris band of the 1950s and 1960s called their music New New Orleans Jazz and I suspect Chris took that as his mantra too. Keeping that time-honoured style fresh and relevant to today’s audiences. Yes, there will be Bourbon Street Parade and doubtless, Petite Fleur, but other musical surprises will emerge along the way as the original six-piece morphs into the Big Chris Barber Band and roars out on late-20s Ellingtonia, like Jubilee Stomp or adapts a Miles Davis piece. Not eclectic exactly, just open-minded.
There’s just one hiccup to this unique pathway through traditional jazz and it relates to Chris’s recent injury and the inevitable need for him to rest and be absent from the bandstand. At the time of writing, this means that the Chris Barber band show is fronted by the current members of the group as they share the announcing duties and continue to present his music in the best way possible. It’s everyone’s hope that Chris will be safely recovered and be present on September 13 but as they say in the best of sit-coms, watch this space.
Let’s continue to reflect on Chris’s unique role in British jazz and true New Orleans style jazz in particular. Having succumbed to the lure of this music alongside his early compatriots, cornetist Ken Colyer and clarinetist Monty Sunshine, Chris became an avid follower of the music’s great stylists and an authority on its history and development. When the band’s early recordings first appeared, under Colyer’s name, they evinced a degree of freshness coupled with a lively spirit and made a considerable impact. When Colyer decided to move towards a stricter interpretation of New Orleans style jazz, this based on his legendary visit to the Crescent City and his experiences playing alongside the veteran African American musicians then still active in the city, Barber and the remainder of the band diverged and thus the Barber band was formed.
Originally a co-operative ensemble, eventually the bandsmen voted Barber in as leader and thus it has remained to this very day. Given his background and education – Chris had studied to be an actuary and later became a graduate of the Guildhall School of Music – they clearly made the correct choice. The band prospered, toured widely including America, achieved great success on record, and began to tour with star US jazz instrumentalists and bring over the best of the African-American bluesmen, giving the likes of Muddy Waters their first exposure to British audiences. This jazz and blues ecumenism certainly broadened the band’s appeal and influenced many fledgling blues and rock musicians in this country. And it continues to inform the band’s performances. After all these years, concert after concert, night after night, a life time on the road, and at age when many might think of retirement, Chris Barber OBE’s desire to play is undimmed. “There’s nothing else I want to do,” he says. (pp) © Peter Vacher