RIP Chris Barber (1930-2021)

The death of Chris Barber earlier today, 2 March 2021, has just been announced. Here is the official statement from the Last Music Company:

Chris Barber, Brecon Jazz in 2014. Photo credit: John Watson /

  Born in 1930, Chris Barber was one of the leading figures in European jazz. Together with Kenny Ball and Acker Bilk, he was one of the “Three B’s” who defined traditional jazz in Britain and spearheaded the “Trad” revival of the late 1950s and early 1960s. His interest in jazz began while he was evacuated from London during World War 2, and he began collecting 78 records of his American heroes, becoming an expert on the early days of recorded jazz. He formed his first band in London after the war, playing a trombone that he bought for £5 from the trombonist in Humphrey Lyttelton’s band. His first records were made at the end of the 1940s, but it was when he and the clarinettist Monty Sunshine formed a co-operative band in 1953 under the leadership of Ken Colyer that his career took off. Colyer’s band was a byword for New Orleans authenticity, helped by the fact that after working his passage to the home of jazz the trumpeter had been deported for outstaying his visa in order to play with the city’s legendary jazz musicians. In 1954 the band split from Colyer, the remaining five members adding trumpeter Pat Halcox to the line-up, who was to stay in Barber’s various bands until 2008, their 54-year partnership being unparalleled in British jazz. When the Northern Irish singer Ottilie Patterson (soon to become Mrs Barber) joined the band, it hit a winning formula, and moved from small jazz clubs to ever-larger concert halls, first in Britain, then in Europe, and from 1959 in the United States. There Barber became known as “the man who brought Trad back to America”. Barber had briefly studied the double bass at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, as well as trombone, and he played the instrument on his 1956 record of “Petite Fleur”, featuring Monty Sunshine’s clarinet, which became a chart hit — reaching no. 3 in the UK and no 5 in the American top 100. It was number 1 in Sweden for several weeks. There was chart success, too, for the band’s original banjoist, Lonnie Donegan. He and Barber had often included a short set of “skiffle” — American country blues and folk songs — in their concert sets, and their version of “Rock Island Line” released in 1955 was the first debut vocal recording to become a certified Gold Disc in the UK. Barber’s abiding interest away from music was motor sport, and after owning a pair of vintage Lagondas, he moved into sports car racing, first driving a Lotus Mark IX and then a prototype Lotus Elite, supplied direct to him by Colin Chapman. He was a regular figure at UK racing circuits over the years and his band often played during post-race celebrations at the British F1 Grand Prix. By the time the Beatles began to transform the landscape of British popular music, Barber had established himself as a hot property with regular radio and television shows, but by the early 1960s he had also become a major figure in the blues revival. Not only had he brought such singers to Britain as Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee and Muddy Waters, but he added John Slaughter, the electric guitarist, to his band, which became the Chris Barber Jazz and Blues Band. This group never stood still musically and while his “Trad” compatriots were still playing the traditional jazz repertoire of the 1920s and 1930s, Barber was exploring material by Charles Mingus, John Handy and Joe Zawinul. This restless taste for experiment continued, and his eight-piece band of the 1980s and 1990s, working for much of the year in Germany and Holland, successfully combined its New Orleans roots with more contemporary material. Barber himself was a frequent guest with musicians such as Van Morrison and Jools Holland, bringing his trombone and enthusiasm into their backing bands in equal measure. Barber’s final venture was to enlarge his group from the start of the new century as the Big Chris Barber Band, specialising particularly in the music of Duke Ellington, which had fascinated him since boyhood and which was brilliantly arranged for his line-up by his fellow trombonist Bob Hunt. In 1991 Barber was awarded the OBE for his services to music. Barber announced his retirement in 2019, having led a band almost continuously for 70 years. He published his autobiography “Jazz Me Blues” in 2014. After suffering from dementia, he died on March 2, 2021. LINK: Interview with Stephen Graham from 2017 Interview with Martin Chilton from 2018

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10 replies »

  1. Very sad to hear of Chris barbers passing.He was always a lovely person and we both got on very well.He liked classic cars,and beautiful art nouveau items,and he was one of the ist people to bring to England the unknown blues musicians of America.My fondest wishes to his wife Farlowe.

    • I met Chris Barber at a concert in St. Paul Minnesota where he and his band performed at the Hamline University field house. I recall they played The Thriller Rag and it knocked me out!! I purchased as many of his LPs which I could find and loved Ottilie Paterson’s vocals too particularly Hot Time In The Old Town Tonight! Did see Pat Halcox in a London Pub a few years later where he performed You Took Advantage of Me with the Butch Thompson Band Really will miss Chris and Pat for sure!! Thanks for all the fantastic memories!!

  2. A great man died after a spendid life of music. He was THE Trad jazzman in person. He was/is my all time favourite.
    Leo van Weele (former president of the Storyville Jazzclub Arnhem The Netherlands.

  3. I was in various audiences in the Early 1950 days. Lovely time. Especially at a big Ken Kolyer concert in London. Happy Days. Bought ‘Petite Fleur ‘ Record and others. Always known to be a very pleasant Band Leader…

  4. Sad to hear about Chris barber we saw him a few times at the stables in Wavendon back in the day when he had a small band but afterwards they all came out to chat to people always chatty which was nice r.i.p.

  5. Very sad to hear that Chris had passed away.
    I am 80 and live in France now but in the 1950s I was,without exaggeration,Trad Jazz mad and then lived near Chester and my friend and I used to hitch hike on Friday after school all the way to London just to go to Ken Colyers all nite! Sessions at Studio 51.
    We slept in Tottenhsm Court tube station and back to Chester on Sunday.
    In my house here I have many Chris Barber LPs andCDs upstairs plus Lonnie Donnegan and Ottilie Paterson,Acker Bilk.Kenny Ball etc etc and I can honestly say that Trad overwhelmed me completely in those days.Have spent half an hour with Ken Colyer at Tarporley Jazz Festival and with Humphrey L in Chester at his hotel,

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