Barry Martyn is a U.K. born and raised jazz drummer, principally interested in the New Orleans jazz revival circuit. Upon first visiting New Orleans in 1961, he studied drums under the tutelage of Cie Frazier, and has performed with other renowned New Orleans jazz legends including Kid Sheik, George Lewis and Percy Humphrey. He has called New Orleans his home since 1984.
“I was born to a lower class family, and grew up about 20 miles outside London where my daddy had a store. The first time I really heard New Orleans music was on the radio when I was maybe 12 years old, sitting with my mother listening to Alistair Cooke’s Letter from America. My father was also a singer and had his own band. They would come over to practice and when they left, the instruments stayed in our house. Sometimes I would take one of the drums and play out back in a field.
Eventually I wanted one for myself and had my eye on a snare drum. But I had to forge my daddy’s signature on the papers to buy it on time. And when he found out, he gave me a good whipping, but I didn’t care; I had the drum and still do to this day.
I eventually formed my own band, Kid Martyn’s Ragtime Band, and we made our first recording in 1959. The other musicians were older but I had a better business sense than them, was more ambitious, and was always the bandleader.
We played at Studio 51 in London, where all these cats would sit in and play, including Charlie Watts. He [Charlie] was originally a jazz drummer and liked New Orleans music too. Years later, he arranged that stunt to greet the New York press, playing music from the back of a truck on the streets of Manhattan just like New Orleans jazz bands did to promote upcoming gigs.
Enjoying some success, we were headliners in some clubs. We once played on the same bill with the Stones, but they were just beginning and had to be introduced on the handbill as ‘Rhythm and Blues with The Rolling Stones’; no one knew what they played. Every Sunday, we performed at The Railway Tavern south of London and once, the Stones were playing nearby. My wife was good friends with Chrissie Shrimpton, Jean’s younger sister, and whose boyfriend was this kid named Mick Jagger. That night, we all took the same train back home and I asked him how the gig went, whether many people showed up. He was so quiet and shy; you could barely get a word out of him!
We often played in Newcastle and Eric Burdon, along with his piano player from The Animals, Alan Price, would come. The last time I saw him was 10 years ago in the Quarter; he came to listen to us play. I even auditioned for a band featuring Ginger Baker.
I came to New Orleans in 1961 with segregation in full force; fraternizing with blacks was forbidden. I listened to old records and became friendly with the colored players in town and ended up performing with Kid Sheik and Noon Johnson at the Black Masonic Hall downtown. If the cops had ever come, we would have caught hell.
Eventually I wanted to make a recording but had to join a musicians union. Naturally, I joined the black one, as I knew only two white musicians in town. That evening, I received two phone calls, one from Ebony Magazine, and the other from the Klan, threatening to come over and raise my voice a couple octaves. I was worried but replied, ‘I don’t want you boys hurting yourselves coming up these really narrow stairs and tripping over your robes, and I’ll be sitting with a sawed off shotgun to pick you off one by one.’ They never showed up. I came here to learn about music from black musicians, not from white players; after all, it was black music. That’s what you had to put up with in those days!
At one point I wanted to tour U.K. with Kid Sheik, but he needed a passport. We finally got the paperwork together and made the trip. The first night, before returning to my place, I asked him if he wanted to go in a bar and get a drink. He looked at me incredulously and asked, ‘Will they let colored people in there?’ I responded, ‘Of course! People will follow you in, and the bartenders will want to keep you around so they can sell more drinks to everyone else!’ He could not begin to grasp that concept; it was heartbreaking.
I’ve toured the world including U.K., Japan and Europe, and once played for Prince Rainier. I’ve even played for President Reagan while performing with The Legends of Jazz at Ford’s Theater in Washington, D.C. Looking around at all those dignitaries, I remember thinking to myself, I’ve come a long way.
These days, I am working on a documentary film called A Thousand Years of Jazz, and I still play around town, for old families Uptown on special occasions, and with Andrew Hall’s Society Brass Band, but most musicians I grew up with here, they’re all dead! I’m a good drummer, not an excellent one, but will probably die on the bandstand with no regrets!”