THERE is a useful breed of jazz musician whose love of the music is so strong that it turns them into not only players of the music but into historians too. The pianist Nat Pierce was one such and the tenorist Ben Webster another. Danny Barker's span of more than 60 years as a professional guitar player based in New Orleans, and his voluble and expressive way with anecdote, made him into the best of the many historians to detail the jazz lives of that remarkable city.
Nobody else worked closely with both the legendary Jelly Roll Morton (who claimed to have invented jazz) and with Dizzy Gillespie, who had a leading hand in evolving Bebop, the modern jazz of the Forties.
Barker's New Orleans pedigree was impeccable.
I was born in the French Quarter smack dab in the middle of it. My father's people were Baptists, hard-shell Baptists, my mother's were Catholic, so I was between the two religions. We celebrated the Catholic holidays and I was steeped in the activities of the Baptist church, the screamin' and the shoutin' and the runnin' and the jumpin' and 'Praise to the Lawd]' On the other side my mother's brothers Paul Barbarin, Louis Barbarin, Lucien Barbarin, Willie Barbarin, they was steeped in music, that was all they talked around the house was music, you know, jazz. My grandfather, Isidore Barbarin, was a member of the famous Onward Brass Band, from the period 1890 to 1930 considered the greatest brass band in New Orleans.
The Barbarins taught Barker to play clarinet, ukelele and banjo. He spent his childhood in Storyville, the legendary 'sporting' district of the city where those with a vested interest in having it thus will tell you that jazz was born. (More enlightened contemporary thought holds that jazz wasn't 'born' in any one place but matured simultaneously across the whole of the southern states.) Barker's friend Alyn Shipton, an English publisher who edited the guitarist's first volume of autobiography, A Life in Jazz (1986), was working with him on the second, to cover his Storyville years, at the time of Barker's death.
Barker remained sprightly and mentally aware in his old age and was still playing professionally in New Orleans up to Christmas last year when a second serious illness (he had already defeated lung cancer) forced his retirement.
In the early Twenties Barker began to tour with legendary musicians like Little Brother Montgomery and Lee Collins before marrying the singer Louise DuPont, who from then onwards used the name of Blue Lu Barker. The couple left for New York in 1930, where Barker soon switched from banjo to the more expressive and flexible guitar. In his early New York days he gravitated to working with fellow New Orleans expatriates like Sidney Bechet, Henry 'Red' Allen and Albert Nicholas.
From 1937 onwards he worked mainly in front-ranking big bands led by Lucky Millinder, Benny Carter and then, from 1939 to 1946, by Cab Calloway. It was in Calloway's band that he worked with Gillespie.
In 1947 he was part of the burgeoning revival of New Orleans jazz, taking up the six-string banjo for the purpose, and played a leading role in the famous series of broadcasts called This is Jazz, most of which survive on record. He recorded with another legend, the trumpeter Bunk Johnson, and worked in Los Angeles and New Orleans during the years before his return to new York in the early Fifties when he worked in clubs with his own small group and with those led by the trombonists Conrad Janis and Wilbur de Paris.
On his return to New Orleans in 1965 Barker was appointed Assistant Curator of the New Orleans Jazz Museum and continued to lead his own bands in the city. He worked also with traditional New Orleans marching bands, including, from 1965 to 1972, the Onward Brass Band.
Barker worked best as an accompanist as his many records with Blue Lu Barker show. Although his heavily chorded guitar solos, influenced no doubt by his banjo technique, enlivened many a jam session, he occasionally revealed himself as a single-string player of some delicacy. His original compositions with their pointed lyrics were recorded by a range of musicians including Big Joe Turner and Nat 'King' Cole.