“The trad era is now at a close as the last of the great bandleaders departs,” writes trombonist Ian Bateman (*). Ian has many personal memories of Chris Barber, not least through having been a member of the Acker Bilk band which often toured with Barber’s band. Here he remembers a man who went from being “one of my first idols” to a friend and colleague. Ian reflects on what Chris Barber has meant to him in his own career which now spans forty-five years:
Ian Bateman writes: I have vivid recollections of the trad boom of the early 1960s, despite being a mere toddler at the time. My parents were well into jazz and it all just soaked in. Dad’s favourite was Chris Barber and to this day, I can recall every note of his Petite Fleur album.
We used to go and watch Chris, Kenny and Acker regularly whenever they came to town, by which time I was learning the trombone. So, I guess Chris was one of my first idols. Never in a million years did I think I would join or regularly dep for all but one of the top trad bands of that time in my career and then go on to fly the flag for them with my Kenny Ball’s Greatest Hits and It’s Trad Dad concert shows.
The one band I never played for was Chris Barber’s. Being a trombonist, the opportunity to play for Chris never arose, but I was very often around Chris and his band on the many 3B’s concerts that we performed around Europe. For a man privately known for his propensity to talk a lot (they didn’t nickname him ‘The Speaker’ for nothing), I found him personally to be quite the opposite. However, get him on one of his favourite subjects like motor racing, snooker and of course jazz music, off we went.
Musicians tend to have an unwritten rule at hotel breakfasts whereby they sit in silence and just make small talk. Acker would always make a point of asking for any background music to be turned off, which was ironic since it usually tended to be one of his ‘musak’ recordings! I recall one very funny time when we were all sat eating at one communal table, in silence. Kenny’s clarinettist, Andy Cooper, loved a prank. He sat next to Chris and blurted out “did you see any of the snooker on TV last night, Chris”? Almost as one, to the sound of chairs dragging across the floor, the musicians deserted the table. It backfired on Andy because he got the snooker lecture for the next half an hour.
Of course, Chris was a major figure in the history of jazz and the popular music that followed it. When he did speak, you listened because he had such a wealth of information to impart, and you were in no doubt listening to him that he loved music deeply.
Once I turned professional, I didn’t see any of the top trad bands in concert again until I joined their ranks and even then, I tended to be down the pub with my bandmates when we got the three bands together on the road. On one occasion though, I sat in the auditorium and watched Chris’ band do their set. The stage lighting before the band came on enhanced the discernible air of anticipation in the audience. Once they got going, the stagecraft, choreography, sound and lighting were all prominent. The music was of course highly polished and with that care and attention to the presentation, I realised that this band was rather special. Chris cared about every aspect when his band was performing.
I was asked to write this piece according to what Chris meant to me. My personal tribute. His place in jazz history is immense, but for me the mark of the man was his kindness, the fact that he would take the trouble to come and see me!
The first occasion was when I was based in Germany, playing for Rod Mason and his Hot Five around 1993. I had to change stylistically to take on this job where I basically had to be ‘Kid’ Ory. There I was, giving it my all and when I opened my eyes, there was Chris standing in the audience. We got him on stage for a rare sit-in and that was the first time I ever played alongside him. He gave me a lot of encouragement and a pat on the back!
The second time he came to see me was when I put a concert on in my home town of Swindon with the newly formed Bateman Brothers Jazz Band. Chris lived close to Swindon. We put on a concert of the music of Louis Armstrong and his All-Stars. Chris rang me on the morning of the concert and said he would like to come, so I arranged for two complimentary tickets. When we started the concert, he hadn’t arrived. Two numbers in and we spotted him looking through the window to the side of the hall. Rather than come into the auditorium, he had climbed the fire escape stairs and watched from that vantage point. He stayed there until the interval. During the interval, I went out to seek him but he’d left. He called me the following morning to say how much he had enjoyed it!
After a nasty fall a few years ago, Chris never got back to regular touring with his beloved band and once he was admitted into care not long afterwards, his band carried on stoically until the pandemic stopped everything.
I turn to observe my LP collection in the cabinet beside me and look at the space full of Dad’s Chris Barber LPs. There is a wealth of material from his legacy that deserves to be heard and appreciated. I sincerely hope the band can keep Chris’ legacy alive. The trad era is now at a close as the last of the great bandleaders departs. RIP Chris, the music will keep playing.
LINKS: (*) Ian Bateman’s biography
RIP Chris Barber – the official announcement, with several comments
John Fordham’s Guardian obituary