Born: January 13, 1909, New Orleans, LA
Died: March 13, 1994, New Orleans, LA
Only one guitarist in history managed to strum along with such disparate luminaries as Jelly Roll Morton, Cab Calloway, Charlie Parker, Louis Armstrong, Dr. John and Wynton Marsalis: Danny Barker. A notorious storyteller, Barker was always the first to downplay his own abilities: I never claimed to be a superstar.
More than likely, Danny Barker would have humbugged the notion that he was a Master of Louisiana Music. While he spent a lifetime as a banjoist, guitarist, vocalist and composer, Barker often minimized his abilities as a musician.
I never claimed to be a superstar, Barker said in a 1990 interview. I just play. Let them other people be geniuses if they wanna be geniuses. Stand around and woodshed eight hours a dayno way. I played enough to play with a certain element of musicians and I was satisfied.
That certain element of musicians, however, included some of the best and most influential artists of a remarkable span of jazzs history. As a kid, Barker jumped on the back of a truck with Kid Renas band for his professional debut, subbing for a banjoist who over-indulged during Mardi Gras. For almost ten years, he strummed fat chords with Cab Calloways band in New York and even recorded with modern jazz legend Charlie Parker. He was befriended by and played with jazz innovator Jelly Roll Morton, recorded with Louis Armstrong and decades later went into the studio with both Dr. John and Wynton Marsalis. Numerous organizations have recognized his stature and contributions in jazz including the National Endowment for the Arts, which named him a Jazz Master, and in 1993 he was inducted into the Jazz Hall of Fame.
Beyond Barkers contributions as a musician, he also left us with valuable insight into the world of jazz in which he lived with his magical and always witty books, the autobiographical A Life in Jazz, and Buddy Bolden and the Last Days of Storyville as well as other writings. The affable Barker was a peoples person, drawing folks, and particularly youths, to the music with his, talent, humor, charm and sense of commitment. Barker was instrumental in the rejuvenation of brass band music in New Orleans, forming and recruiting youngsters for the Fairview Baptist Church Brass Band.
Baker was a self-proclaimed raconteur and notorious storyteller, a straight shooter who would offer his observant social commentary with lifted eyebrows and a knowing smile. I remember asking him once if the French Quarterwhere he lived with his paternal grandparents until the second gradewas a dangerous place for a young black boy. Oh, I just carried a watermelon, replied Barker drolly, so everybody thought I was tame.
NEW ORLEANS AND THE BARBARINS
As a youngster in New Orleans, Barker spent a lot of time amongst his musical kin, the Barbarin family. I was with them all the time so I was another Barbarin, said Barker. His grandparents, alto saxophonist Isidore, who played with the Onward Brass Band, and Josephine Barbarin encouraged their children to play music because, as Barker explained, it made you something special. His uncle, the late great drummer Paul Barbarin, was not only a role model for the young Barker but sent the aspiring musician his first banjo. Later it was Paul who encouraged Barker to come to New York and introduced him to those on the scene.
I was raised up in the Barbarin family, explained Barker, who moved from the French Quarter, a place he remembers as smelling like spaghetti and meatballs, to lower Esplanade Avenue after his mother re-married. Along with his uncles Willie, Lucien, Louis and Paul, he began to see the real New Orleans. Music surrounded him, emanating from all the nearby benevolent society halls and family homes as well as pulsating down the streets as brass bands blew for the almost daily jazz funerals.
Barker first took up ukulele playing with kids in spasm bands, including the Boozan Kings. His little band would get a crowd going on tunes like Eh las-ba, a song Barker continued to perform and record throughout his career. Wed make people shake and wake and wobble, declared Barker. Barker soon went from being a ham fat musician (a term for amateur players in reference to young trombonists greasing their slides with lard) to a professional. He received a few lessons on banjo from Ashton Murray but mostly he absorbed the music he heard around him. I was destined to be a musician, Barker rightfully proclaimed.
This was a good time town, said Baker, who worked around the city with numerous artists including Buddy Petit and Lee Collins. In 1925 he made his first tour, heading to Mississippi with blues piano man Lil Brother Montgomery. In 1930 Barker got a call from his Uncle Paul, encouraging him to join him in New York. Barbarin sent his nephew a train ticket to the Big Apple, a city where, despite the Depression, still offered work to eager musicians. Before he left, he married his sweetheart of several years, Louisa Dupont, who became Blue Lu when she pursued her own musical career.
Barkers first eight years in the Big Apple were tough working as a freelance musician and picking up odd jobs. He did perform with many notables, such as bandleader Lucky Millinder (who didnt play a single instrument) and trumpeter Henry Red Allen. Barker was in New York just two weeks when his banjo, a $500 instrument, was stolen from a club. The leader of the band suggested that Barker buy a guitar as banjos were becoming less popular.
Since Barker had never played a guitar, he borrowed one to try it out on the gig. Im sitting on the bandstand and Im lookin at this instrument, Barker recalled, and the band is laughing. Cause Im making believe Im playin but aint nothin happening.
What Im talkin about is that Im a Depression person and Im there to make a dollar right now, said Barker, who soon got the hang of the new instrument. So I took a few lessons but thats it. Ive been so busy I havent had time to sit in a woodshed with nobody. Its a tragic thing.
Barkers big break came in 1939 when he joined the Cab Calloway Orchestra. It offered him the stability of steady work and afforded him the opportunity to play with greats like trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie and furthered his recording work. Barkers extensive discography through the 35 years he spent in New York speaks of his stylistic range and productivity. It was also during this period that Blue Lus singing career took off with Danny leading the band behind her for a series of Decca recordings. The two penned her biggest hit, Dont You Feel My Leg, which remains in the repertoire of many New Orleans vocalists. He described his experience in New York as being like getting 10 college degrees.
NEW ORLEANS THE SECOND TIME AROUND
Despite his successful career in New York, Barker may have given the world of jazz his greatest gift after he returned to New Orleans in 1965. Blue Lu came back first to care for her ailing mother and found the city much improved from the days of Jim Crow laws. The scene in New York was changing, the big bands a thing of the past, so Danny decided to move back to their hometown. He took a position as assistant to the curator of the New Orleans Jazz Museum and gigged around the city.
New Orleans had changed too, and Barker noticed that the ranks of the once-so prominent brass bands had dwindled to just a few. There was a big market for brass bands, said Barker, who became concerned for the traditions future. I could see it. But there were no kids playing because they thought it was old mens music.
The Barkers bought a house on Sere Street and joined the nearby Fairview Baptist Church, which Barker described as having a finger-popping congregation. One day in the early 1970s, the minister asked if he was interested in organizing a band. It was idea Barker already had in mind. His first inductee was a young neighborhood trumpeter hed often heard practicing in a garage. He introduced himself to then-13-year-old Leroy Jones, who now enjoys a successful career as a bandleader and member of Harry Connick Jr.s ensemble. The Fairview Baptist Church Band blossomed from ten members getting by on tunes like When the Saints Go Marching In to 30 musicians who split up into three separate bands in order to satisfy all the gigs they were offered. Filled with now well-known musicians like drummer (then-trumpeter) Herlin Riley, trombonist Lucien Barbarin, trumpeter Gregg Stafford and Anthony Tuba Fats Lacen, the Fairview eventually spun off groups like the Hurricane and Dirty Dozen brass bands. This one little kids band began a revolution in brass band music that revitalized a tradition that continues to be realized today.
It started a reaction, says Jones, who credits his involvement with Barker and the band for introducing him to New Orleans jazz. Until the Fairview no kids were interested in keeping the traditional alive. It molded who I am as a musician.
Even after the Fairview disbanded, Barker kept an ear out for young musicians. He might head over to the musically rich Trem neighborhood to check out up-and-comers and offer his sage advice and insight on music and life. Well-loved and respected by all, Barker drew younger people to the classic jazz tradition and theyd show up to join older folks as he lead his group, Danny Barker and the Jazzhounds, at performances at clubs and festivals.
Danny Barker may not have considered himself to be the fastest or flashiest guitarist and banjoist. Only a true jazz master, nevertheless, can embrace the music with such joy and dedication to produce a rich and prestigious career and assure the continuance of a tradition.
As usual, Barker humbly and humorously nailed down what he believed to be the core of his success. They dont want no geniuses, Barker announced, they want me.
Save the Bones (Orleans Records)
Jazz La Creole, The Baby Dodds Trio (GHB)
A Life in JazzDanny Barker edited by Alyn Shipton