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Chris Barber - Celebrating 70 years 31 May 2019

Chris Barber - Celebrating 70 years image

Chris Barber OBE is one of the last British jazz legends around and an icon of traditional jazz in the UK. This year he celebrates his 70th anniversary as leader of the band and his 65th year with them on a full-time professional basis. Inspired by the ‘King Oliver Creole Jazz Band’, Chris formed his first band in 1949 at the age of 19 and has since gone on to become one of Europe’s most successful and influential band leaders. 

The Big Chris Barber Band features everything from New Orleans to blues to late 20s Ellington and Sidney Bechet, played with extraordinary panache and skill. Including songs like Bourbon Street Parade, Jubilee Stomp, Petite Fleur, Ice Cream, When the Saints, and many more.

His band stands out as one of the finest, if not the finest, of its kind anywhere in the world. You can count on an exciting evening of high quality jazz and blues which will appeal in equal measure to the aficionado and the newcomer.

Chris Barber is celebrating 70 years as bandleader in 2018 and one of the most touching things about his autobiography, skilfully put together by jazz broadcaster and writer Alyn Shipton, is the infectious love of music that the trombonist, who was 89 on April 17, still displays.

He says “the story of my first connection with jazz starts around 1942, I bought my first trombone from Harry Brown - Humph's first trombone player. It cost me 8 pounds, was tied together with string and had no case. But it was a start. I think that the reason I suddenly decided to try and play was my first visit to a Hot Club of London concert by the George Webb Band in 1946. As I walked into King George's Hall and heard the band open up with "Fidgety Feet", I realised something that I still believe to this day: third-rate jazz that is live is more important than first-rate recorded jazz. So I started my career as a jazz musician”.

By the mid-Forties I had discovered that jazz records were a scarce commodity and that some records issued here were unavailable in America, and therefore worth a lot of money. I became a record exchanger -- buying and selling and building up an enormous collection of my own

After a few auditions I realised that if I wanted to play in a band I'd have to organise it and retain control of the hirings and firings. Since that day, funnily enough, I've always led the bands I've been in apart from one short stretch.

By 1951, I'd realised that my main interests were in music, and I'd left my job as an actuary with an insurance company (a later development of my liking for maths) and joined the Guildhall School of Music for a three-year course on bass playing -- Philharmonic, not Pops Foster. This was really the start, and by the following year I was getting dissatisfied with the amount of playing I was doing with my band in its semi-pro capacity. At this stage I came across Monty Sunshine, and we talked about the possibility of becoming professional jazz musicians. It was an exciting prospect, and, after tentative starts with quartets and quintets, we finally got together the band which we invited Ken Colyer to lead when he got back from his famous trip to New Orleans. It was a pretty good band in its way. It played a tour in Denmark, and it launched skiffle, In the end, however, personalities clashed to an alarming extent, and after one stormy scene at the London Jazz Centre we gave Ken two week's notice just before he got the chance to fire the entire rhythm section. Pat Halcox joined us from the Albermarle Band, and it was the start of the Band as it exists today. That was in May 1954.

Barber recalls his enthusiasm about playing with Sister Rosetta Tharpe ("mind-bogglingly wonderful") and the thrill of seeing jazz greats such as Ben Webster, Coleman Hawkins, Earl Hines and Jack Teagarden play live.

Barber had tremendous success in the Fifties (and a massive hit with Petite Fleur) and admits he "got a reputation for being very uncooperative". A flavour of his plainspoken character comes across in several asides – Ken Colyer was "a most inarticulate man", John Lennon was "rude to everybody" and American TV host Ed Sullivan was a "nasty piece of work".

Barber always straddled the worlds of jazz and blues and there are some good tales of his blues heroes, including Howlin' Wolf, the only musician Barber could recall saying grace before a meal. He has played with many guests, including John Lewis, Louis Jordan, Muddy Waters, Big Bill Broonzy, Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee, and Sister Rosetta Tharpe. Plus Doctor John (Mac Rebbenack), a singer/pianist whose playing is more in the style of rock, the band getting in the groove together with the piano. 

British musicians come into the story, too. He says that Eric Clapton is "the only musician apart from BB King who can play an opening phrase on the guitar that catches you immediately". Chris has been the main inspiration for many well-known British pop and rock stars including John Mayall, Eric Clapton, Mark Knopfler and many more… as Bill Wyman explains “without Chris the Stones and the Beatles wouldn’t be where they are now.” Barber himself, pays tribute to the love of blues shown by Van Morrison.

Barber toured regularly with Morrison in the Nineties and presents a snapshot of a man who, at heart, is a dedicated musician. "Van is an old friend, his love of music is totally genuine, and he has a great understanding and knowledge of it as well. Van likes to talk about older blues and jazz and as nobody in his band was particularly interested in that, he and I would sit and chat for a long time after gigs. He enjoyed that very much and I did too."

Barber’s personal life has been as dynamic as his musical one, including his "diabolical stammer", his marriages to Naida Lane and singer Ottilie Patterson and his friendships with actor Richard Burton and motor racing stars Jim Clark and Graham Hill. 

 “My big relaxation from the strain of concert touring is motor cars. I started years ago, and I've owned seven cars so far, including two Lagondas, two Lotus racing cars and an Aston Martin. I've tried a certain amount of moderately successful racing with the two Lotus cars, and last year I raced about six times, included a run on the famous Nurburgring in Germany”

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