“The house was like a cardboard box full of paper,” Alyn Shipton says of his initial impression on stepping into the Sere Street home of Danny and Blue Lu Barker. Shipton, an author, bassist and broadcaster, was soon to become the editor of musician and writer Danny Barker’s remarkable autobiography, A Life in Jazz. It was published by Macmillan Press in 1986 and has just been beautifully republished with glossy pages and additional photographs and passages by The Historic New Orleans Collection.
“You walked in and there were stacks of boxes and old menus with things written on them and yellow legal pads and typed pages with stories half-finished,” Shipton continues. “And, of course, that was a real jumble. I think one of the reasons that it had been difficult for Danny to get it off the ground [be published] was because people looked at that and thought, ‘Where do we begin?’”
Beyond Barker’s talents as a guitarist, banjoist, singer and composer, he remained legendary as a master storyteller, whether hanging in a bar or on a corner surrounded by a rapt audience, as well as in the written word. That immediately became apparent to Shipton, who was encouraged to meet Barker by drummer Trevor Richards, who informed him about Barker’s difficulty in getting his book published.
“I think Danny was very canny,” Shipton offers, “because the first things he gave me to read were complete stories.” At the time, Shipton had just started running the music division of London’s Macmillan Press, a position that enabled him to go forward with the project. “The first thing I thought was this man is a talented, gifted writer.”
Shipton eagerly jumped into “the jumble” and began sorting things out. “I pretty quickly decided that what he showed me to start with was partially biographical and partly much wider,” he explains. “So there was one pile that was about Danny and the other pile was other stuff.”
The “Danny pile” included what would become the basis of A Life in Jazz, in which Barker writes with a unique perspective about how he saw the world—the French Quarter as a young boy, his two families (the Barkers and the Barbarins), his wife, New York and his years with bandleader Cab Calloway and his return to New Orleans—as well as his place in the equation.
These tales are told as only Danny Barker could narrate them, using his great wit and elegant simplicity peppered with often subtle yet poignant and humorous commentary on race relations. A telling quote from Barker, not included in the book, is when he was asked whether it was dangerous for a young black boy to be running around the French Quarter. He answered in typical Barker form, saying, ‘Oh no, I just carried a watermelon and everybody thought I was tame.’ Those types of sly remarks, acute observances and cultivated wisdom fill A Life in Jazz.
In the introduction of the new edition of the book, Bruce Raeburn of the Hogan Jazz Archive hits Danny’s style of telling a story and thus the book’s content on the head.
Speaking of clarinetist Sidney Bechet and then Barker, Raeburn notes, “Not everything is factual, but it is all meaningful. There is always a truth.”
Shipton remembers Danny readily admitting that he made some exaggerations here and there. “I added a little monkey-shine,” Barker said with what can be imagined to be a wily grin.
One of the beauties of A Life in Jazz is that Barker’s written words mimic his rhythmic way of speaking and playing jazz. One can almost hear the pause as he waits patiently for the surprise effect of the next line or note.
“The spoken and written word is usually considered as two different things,” Shipton offers. “It really isn’t in Danny’s case.” As the editor, Shipton made sure that the rhythm of Barker’s manuscript kept its beat.
“I read or he read every word of the book out loud to one another,” Shipton explains. “He’d slip into less formal English when he had a point to make, but he was very touchy about wanting the rest of the book to be as well-written, grammatical and formal as possible.”
One doesn’t need to have a particular interest in music to truly enjoy A Life in Jazz, as it contains so many historical, cultural and linguistic treasures. For instance, Barker’s childhood spasm band, which included pianist/vocalist Pleasant “Cousin Joe” Joseph, was called the Boozan Kings. We learn from Barker that in Creole, boozan means party—thus an apt name for his group of youngsters who supplied good-time entertainment to keep the tips rollin’ in.
The book is a tale of New Orleans families and neighborhoods, like the then Italian-filled French Quarter that Barker once described as smelling like spaghetti and meatballs. It’s also a love story between him and his wife and musical partner, vocalist Blue Lu Barker, who he married in 1930 when she was just 16 years old.
“In A Life in Jazz, Danny is describing a real, living breathing world,” Shipton rightfully proclaims. “I can’t think of anyone else who has brought New Orleans to life with such panache.”