Sacred Songs: Danny Barker

“When Danny first approached me, I saw him as someone who was quite cool,” remembers trumpeter Leroy Jones with a smile as he recalls one of his great influences, guitarist, singer, bandleader, writer, teacher, and New Orleans griot Danny Barker. “He was always Mr. Barker to all of us. He was so cool. He had a swing, a sway.” Jones has been thinking about and talking about Danny Barker a lot this year as it is the centennial of Barker’s birth, and he’s been playing several tributes to him including the one in the Economy Hall tent at Jazz Fest. Jones was the charter member of the Fairview Baptist Church Band in 1971, the band that Barker formed at the request of Fairview Baptist Church pastor, Reverend Andrew Darby. The Fairview Baptist Church Band may be the most influential New Orleans band of the last 40 years as much of what is brass band music today comes from the players and concept of that band.

Barker’s forming of the Fairview Band was merely the latest in a string of his accomplishments when he put it together in 1971. Born and raised on Chartres Street in the Vieux Carre, his grandfather was Isidore Barbarin of the Onward Brass Band and his uncles were Louis and Paul Barbarin, famed New Orleans musicians. Barker started playing music at a young age, playing in street bands and spasm bands, where kids would make music using everything from spoons and washboards to bugles and washtubs. He became a professional musician as an adolescent and played around New Orleans and the Gulf Coast. In 1930, he married Louisa Dupont and moved to Harlem in New York, where he joined New Orleans musicians Henry “Red” Allen and his uncle Paul. Barker auditioned and soon was playing with such famous names as Jelly Roll Morton and Cab Calloway. Dr. Michael White, a member of the Fairview Band and excellent clarinetist, says, “Danny had a reputation in New York for having a steady rhythm guitar with, as he called them, ‘big, fat chords.’”

Over the next 35 years, he played with everyone from Charlie Parker to Billie Holiday to Coleman Hawkins. When one starts looking at personnel on assorted recording sessions, Barker’s name comes up everywhere. He’s on the great New Orleans revival sides of Paul Barbarin on Atlantic Records. In 1957, CBS showed a television show with the greatest names of jazz playing in the studio including Ben Webster, Lester Young, and Coleman Hawkins all playing as Billie Holiday sings “Fine and Mellow.” If you look closely in the background, Danny Barker is strumming his guitar. He also penned several songs that were recorded by other artists including “Save the Bones for Henry Jones,” which Nat King Cole sung, and “Don’t You Feel My Leg,” a hit for his wife Blue Lu in 1946.

Many of the stories of Barker’s early days growing up in New Orleans and his time as a session musician in New York are told in his out-of-print autobiography, A Life in Jazz. Barker was an accomplished author, and his writings have the sly humor and down-home New Orleans turns of phrase. Barker also co-wrote Bourbon Street Black, a sociological study of New Orleans jazz musicians in 1973 that gives a different portrait of jazz musicians than the deviant, unreliable addict. Barker was one of the first musicians concerned about the histories and sociology of jazz. He had been handing out questionnaires to fellow musicians that sought to get the musicians’ voices and histories. Before he died in 1994, Barker also published Buddy Bolden and the Last Days of Storyville, a part fiction/part true series of stories about the characters he had known in Storyville and jazz clubs.

The Barkers moved back to New Orleans in 1965. They lived on Sere Street in Gentilly, and Barker played gigs and worked in the New Orleans Jazz Museum. In 1971, he started what has proven to be his most lasting contribution to New Orleans, the Fairview Baptist Church Band. The Reverend at the church, Andrew Darby, asked Barker, a member of the church, to form a youth group band. There weren’t enough kids playing music who were in the church, so Barker went further afield to find kids in the neighborhood. Trumpeter Leroy Jones lived around the corner from Barker. “I used to practice for hours in my parents’ garage,” he says, “and I used to see him around the neighborhood. He was very suave and debonair, riding around in a two tone Oldsmobile. One day he got out and introduced himself.” Barker explained the concept of the band, and Leroy, with the permission of his parents, became the first member of the band. Barker soon recruited other musicians such as trumpeter Gregg Stafford, trombonist Lucien Barbarin and his brother, bass drummer Charles Barbarin, drummer Herlin Riley who played trumpet at the time, and several others. Later musicians such as clarinetist Michael White, tuba player Anthony “Tuba Fats” Lacen, and clarinetist Joseph Torregano joined. The band rehearsed Jones’ parents’ garage, and Barker, beside teaching them the music, would bring in guest musicians and associates from New York such as Jonah Jones and Earl Turbinton to teach the kids and give advice.

Within a year, the band was good enough to play the assorted functions of the New Orleans social and religious life. Herlin Riley remembers they played “church parades and parades for the social aide and pleasure clubs like the Bucket Men and other groups. We didn’t make any money, but we didn’t do it for the money. The lessons we learned just being associated with the band, that’s much more valuable than the money.”

Eventually there were enough people rehearsing that they had enough members to do two gigs in a day, and that’s when Barker had to let them go. Jones explains, “A couple people got jealous because not only were we energetic but we sounded good. They were accusing Mr. Barker of exploiting the kids and using them to make money for himself. It was never true. Danny got hassled and he said, ‘I’m going to have to let you go.’ I was 18 and continued leading the band as the Hurricane Brass Band. Danny named it because, he said, ‘When you come up the street, you blow like a storm.’”

Others joined the Hurricane Brass Band such as trumpeter Gregory Davis and the brothers Kirk and Charles Joseph. The band, while also playing the traditional songs, also, in the words of Jones, “started to take the music in a different direction. We were playing the music that was more popular to our peers.” After several years, some members of that band split off and became the Tornado Brass Band and the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, which then influenced the next generation of brass bands such as the Rebirth and the Lil’ Rascals which then influenced the younger bands of today from the Hot 8 to the Baby Boyz to the Stooges.

Dr. Michael White says, “He was the main ingredient in the brass band revolution, so to speak, that happened in the ’70s and ’80s because [the Fairview Band] became the Hurricane Brass Band which was a revolutionary brass band that changed a lot of the rules, repertoire, sound, look, and attitude, and that opened the door for groups like the Dirty Dozen and then the Rebirth. And the whole organization of kids playing in brass bands—that started with him.”

According to Jones, that was not Barker’s purpose. “He was doing something of loyalty and duty as a member of the Fairview Baptist Church,” Jones says. “He didn’t consciously intend on setting the fire that he did.” Barker’s intention was to start the band and instruct the children in music. The lessons he taught the band still stick with the musicians today. Herlin Riley can still recite them. “He stressed to us,” says Riley, “that musically speaking, you’re in show business. When you go to the gigs, your shoes are shined, you greet people with a smile, and you look happy to be there.” Gregg Stafford also remembers, “He didn’t tolerate any misunderstandings on the bandstand. If somebody was having a feud on the bandstand, he wouldn’t like that. He’d let you know straight up, ‘Hey, don’t come on my bandstand with that. We come to play music. I don’t want no hanky-panky.’”

There will be no hanky-panky onstage when the former members of the Fairview Band gather in a tribute to Barker. “I’ve rounded up as many of the guys as I can,” Jones says. “It’s 90 percent of the people who were in the Fairview Band. It will be 12 pieces and I’ll probably give a brief summation on how the band formed and then we’ll play some songs. We’ll play some of the hymns and marches we played as the Fairview.” In that, the band will be exhibiting the music and lessons they learned from Danny Barker. It was the most important aspect of his time with Barker that Herlin Riley took away from him. “The people who played in the Fairview have become some of the recognized artists of today in New Orleans music, and all of us, even having gone different directions in a lot of ways, we’ve all taken his teachings with us,” Riley says. “He really stressed to us the importance of jazz and blues in New Orleans culture, and he instilled that in us as young musicians.”