The term “end of an era” is an over-used cliché, but with the death of Chris Barber on 2 March, it is fully justified.
Trombonist Barber was the last surviving bandleader of the “trad jazz” movement that for a period in the late 1950s and into the 60s was immensely popular and competed with rock’n’roll for the allegiance of Britain’s music-loving youth.
But Barber was more than a “traddie” (as they were known): over the years his highly-polished bands, made up of top-quality musicians, embraced R&B, skiffle, Ellingtonia and more modern styles of jazz.
Perhaps most importantly, Barber always appreciated jazz’s roots in the blues and gospel music. Early in his band’s evolution he brought in the vocalist Ottilie Patterson, a Northern Irishwoman with a soulful, Bessie Smith-inspired voice and a natural feel for the blues. For a while Ottilie and Barber were married but, perhaps more importantly, she further encouraged his commitment to the authentic music of black America and confirmed the band’s blues orientation.
Over the years Barber brought over an amazing roster of Afro-American musicians, many of them well outside the ambit of what would be considered “trad jazz”:
Alex Bradford, Big Bill Broonzy, Wendell Brunious, Gene “Mighty Flea” Connors, Jimmy Cotton, Wild Bill Davis, Champion Jack Dupree, Edmond Hall, Louis Jordan, John Lewis, Bill Morganfield, Ray Nance, Albert Nicholas, Russell Procope, Mac Rebbenack (Dr. John), Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee, Tommy Tucker, Kenneth Washington, Muddy Waters, Sonny Boy Williamson, Jimmy Witherspoon, Trummy Young … and that list is far from complete.
It must be remembered, though, that throughout all this time (from 1949 up to 2019), Barber maintained a high quality band that deserves to be remembered in its own right. Trumpeter Pat Halcox, who was with Barber from 1952 until 2008 (he died in 2013) deserves a special mention, as does a later collaborator, the trombonist and arranger Bob Hunt, whose “Ellington Orchestra” became, in 2001, the basis of “The Big Chris Barber Band” that gave the leader’s career a final, glorious revival.
By all accounts, Barber could be a difficult person to work with and the stories of his tactlessness, insensitivity, and control-freakery are legion. It has been suggested that he may have been autistic, although this was (as far as I know) never diagnosed. He was certainly an unlikely front-person for a band, lacking much in the way of obvious personal charisma and making mumbling announcements that were virtually unintelligible. His commitment to the music he believed in was absolute and his contribution immeasurable.
• Donald Christopher Barber, musician and bandleader, born 17 April 1930, died 2 March 2021