Chris Barber Announces Retirement
14 August 2019
Trombonist Calls Time
Chris Barber has just announced his retirement as a bandleader. This comes after some 70 years of doing so. Seventy years – that means Barber lead his big band longer than Ellington or Basie did theirs. Which isn’t to say Barber is more talented than the aforementioned US band leaders – he’s not and would never claim to be so – but, in terms of British jazz, his achievements are many and remarkable.
Barber grew up in Worcestershire, his interest in jazz, blues and gospel taking hold in his early teens and by the time WW2 finished the teenager had gathered a remarkable record collection and was already writing to record shops in Harlem in his efforts to buy 78s unavailable in the UK. A natural musician and astute organiser – Barber had considered becoming a mathematician – he formed his first band among other young, wannabe jazz musicians he met in Dobell’s record shop on Charing Cross Road.
It was Ken Colyer’s arrest and imprisonment in New Orleans (for sitting in with local black musicians in the then segregated city) that helped launch Barber: he met Colyer when he descended from the ship that carried him back to Southampton and declared his band were happy to back him as Ken Colyer’s Jazzmen. The band were immediately heroes of the British scene – Colyer’s exploits in New Orleans had been chronicled in Melody Maker – but, after a year, the band sacked Colyer (too much of a traditionalist/autocrat), continuing as The Chris Barber Jazz Band. Very quickly the Barber band developed a large following – packing out halls across the UK and much of the Continent – and their 1955 album New Orleans Joys is a marvel. Included on the album to fill it out were a couple of blues tunes that Barber played double-bass on while band banjoist Lonnie Donegan sang. They called these “skiffle” as Barber owned barrelhouse pianist Dan Burley’s 78 'Hometown Skiffle'. When Decca released 'Rock Island Line' as a single in 1956 it became a huge hit and inspired the skiffle craze. Donegan went on to pursue a lucrative solo career. Barber’s Jazz Band would score a No. 3 hit in 1959 with a recording of Sidney Bechet’s 'Petite Fleur'. Ironically, Barber’s not playing on this recording, it being clarinettist Monty Sunshine’s moment. Bechet, ill and exiled in France, was extremely grateful for the royalties windfall.
Barber’s been damned by some as part of trad jazz’s shift into light entertainment. This is unjust. Barber avoided kitsch, always putting the emphasis on playing jazz – he expanded his band from six to eight to 11 members, had Joe Harriott join them on stage (you can hear them play together on Barber’s Live At The London Palladium LP) and discovered Ottilie Patterson, a petite singer from Ulster, who became one of the foremost jazz and blues vocalists (and Mrs Barber for 20 years). Barber also co-founded The Marquee as a jazz venue and helped launch The National Jazz Festival (these days the Reading Festival). Barber’s passion for American jazz and blues not only saw him import thousands of 78s and 45s – Dobell’s, Ray’s Jazz and, later, Rock On would sell many of these (including mint Charlie Parker Savoy 78s) – but circumventing the Musicians Union to tour Big Bill Broonzy, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, The Modern Jazz Quartet, Sonny Boy Williamson and Muddy Waters across the 1950s and 1960s.
Barber’s activities slowed as he has got older but he continued to tour regularly with his big band. I went to see them perform at Cadogan Hall two years ago and it was an evening of beautiful music with Barber, now quite frail, leading his band through everything from Duke Ellington and Miles Davis compositions to a Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee blues. Of course, Barber had toured the duo and told a story of how they explained the song’s meaning to him.
Enjoy your retirement, Chris!