Dee Barton

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The Independent Online

Dee Barton, composer, orchestrator, trombonist and drummer: born Houston, Texas 18 September 1937; twice married (one son, one daughter); died Brandon, Mississippi 3 December 2001.

Dee Barton was one of the most versatile and dedicated of jazz musicians. In his time he composed and arranged music for jazz and symphony orchestras, led a big band, played trombone, piano, drums and bass and taught several generations of young musicians. Clint Eastwood commissioned him to write the scores for four of his films, and Barton wrote the music for television series such as Batman, The Rockford Files, Ironside and many more.

"My dad brought home an old E flat mellophone and at the age of three I figured out the fingerings on it," said Barton. From then on his life was devoted to music. As soon as his arms were long enough to manipulate the slide, Barton took up the trombone.

Schools in Mississippi were thorough in musical education and most of them had one or more big bands. Barton's family had moved from Texas to Mississippi in 1941, and his father became the band director at Starkville High School. Barton, who practised in the band room for 10 hours a day, progressed so well in music that when his father was ill, he was able to take over his work and teach all of his classes for two years to keep the job open.

Early in his youth Barton had an ambition to join the progressive band led by the pianist Stan Kenton. He first met Kenton backstage at a concert in 1953 when Barton was 15. "Stan was very strange in one sense," said Barton. "He never forgot the name of anybody I ever saw him meet. I didn't see him until two years later when I'd grown some. So I was surprised when he called me by name."

Determined then to get away from Mississippi, Barton went on the road in 1956 with the big band led by Ralph Marterie. There was not much depth to the music. "He was not a kind man, and it was a most unpleasant experience that almost turned me against the road altogether." He left the band when it reached New York three weeks later, and for a few delirious nights replaced an absent trombonist in the Maynard Ferguson Dream Band. But it was back to drudgery in the Charlie Spivak band soon afterwards. "I hadn't seen so much crap in all my life and I didn't like any of it."

In 1957 Barton already had a high reputation amongst musicians. He wanted to study composition at North Texas State University but had no money for fees. Dr Eugene Hall, head of the department of music there, was so impressed that he arranged a full scholarship and told Barton, "I'll pay for everything." Kenton came to teach at a music clinic at the university in August 1959. He was already familiar with Barton's writing abilities and knew two scores, "Waltz of the Prophets" and "Turtle Talk", both of which Barton later recorded with him.

Barton thus was already a mature and exciting composer when, in 1961, at the age of 23, he joined Kenton's band. His mastery of timing and the interweaving of musical lines in his compositions made him ideal for Kenton. By the end of the year the two charts were recorded as part of Kenton's remarkable Grammy award-winning album Adventures in Jazz.

Barton had acted as a substitute for Kenton's erratic drummer on occasion and in June 1962 he gave up the trombone job and became the band's regular drummer. It was an inspired move, although his trombone solos, with their unique combination of dexterity and feeling, were missed. However, the role of the drum was much more important and Barton was able to influence the whole band. At the time it was without stars, and much of its character came from his drumming and writing.

The band made a tour of Europe in 1963, when each concert, in a memorable and unusual gesture, opened with a slow ballad version of "I'm Glad There is You", instead of the more normal flag waver used to begin a performance. "One of the highlights was visiting the town of Barton where my ancestors are from," said Barton. He continued, enigmatically, "It was Welsh country between England and Scotland. We stopped for about 20 minutes and everybody was running around with blue eyes and blond hair. I felt like I was home."

He left the band to pursue a wider career, although he returned for short tours and in 1968 he worked with the band on the Capitol album Stan Kenton Conducts the Jazz Compositions of Dee Barton. Barton moved to Los Angeles and eventually wrote the scores for more than 50 Hollywood films.

In his spare time he ran a big band that played regularly at Donte's, a Hollywood night-club. It was here that Clint Eastwood heard him first, and commissioned him to write the scores for his films Play Misty For Me (1971), High Plains Drifter (1972), Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (1974) and Every Which Way But Loose (1978). Barton also had a hand in the writing for another five Eastwood films, including Dirty Harry (1971) and Magnum Force (1973).

Over these years he worked as a music consultant for Frank Sinatra, the Rolling Stones, Peggy Lee, Tony Bennett, John Lennon and others. He helped Jim Webb with the composition of "MacArthur Park". Barton later wrote an arrangement of the tune for Kenton and it became one of the most memorable recordings of Kenton's last decades.

In 1973 Barton moved to Memphis to become musical director of the Media and Jingle Company. He worked with the company in commercial music until 1988 when he left to teach seminars at universities across America. He continued to teach and work with young people and in 1996 an album, The Dallas Jazz Orchestra Plays Dee Barton, was nominated for a Grammy. He continued working in films, but by now mostly in Europe. He was particularly pleased to work in this capacity with the London Symphony Orchestra.

Moving to Brandon, Mississippi, in 1998 he became composer in residence at Jackson State University. "I teach orchestration, composition and advanced theory. Working with kids is what I really enjoy. They're hungry for somebody that has done it, rather than somebody that has gone to school all their life."

Steve Voce

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