Chris Barber: Jazz musician who paved the way for some of Britain’s greatest artists

Without his pioneering work, the careers of acts such as Lonnie Donegan and the Rolling Stones might never have achieved prominence

Brian Priestley
Thursday 11 March 2021 16:03
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Barber performs with his jazz band circa 1962
Barber performs with his jazz band circa 1962

In many fields of artistic endeavour, the ability to connect with a wide audience doesn’t necessarily guarantee the admiration of fellow practitioners. The career of Chris Barber was remarkable, not only for attaining continued popular success but for having a huge influence on other performers in the 1950s and 1960s. Without his pioneering work, it’s likely that bands who played “trad jazz” would not have enjoyed pop-chart placings and the careers of musicians as different as Lonnie Donegan and the Rolling Stones might never have achieved prominence.

Continually busy as a bandleader himself, Barber also developed business interests as co-director of the National Jazz Federation. These included the Marquee Club in London and founding what became the Reading Festival. While such ventures prospered with acts far removed from the jazz and blues that Barber himself played, they all benefited from the changes in audience tastes he brought about through his bandleading. For, when 1950s American pop music was overtaken by rock’n’roll derived from black rhythm and blues, the nearest thing to counterculture music in England was trad as first popularised by Barber.

He was born in 1930 to left-leaning parents, his father Donald an economist taught by John Maynard Keynes, and his mother Hettie a historian and headmistress who became (in Chris’s phrase) “the only socialist mayor of Canterbury”. During the war, Barber found jazz on short-wave radio and took violin lessons in Cambridge, where the local record shop fuelled the start of his collecting habit. Discovering a London shop with a dedicated jazz section led to his hearing a 1946 live concert by the pioneering “revivalist” band of George Webb. “It had never occurred to me that anybody might be trying to play the music I had discovered on records, here in Britain.”

Soon after, he had bought a trombone and formed his first amateur band until, when fired from his job as a trainee actuary, Barber’s father paid for him to study at the Guildhall School, specialising in the trombone and double bass. Thereafter his band, which played in 1953 under the leadership of Ken Colyer, dispensed with Colyer and the following year turned professional.

Barber ensured a fresh approach to repertoire and to communication with the audience, the first 10in LP opening with a jazz version of the Northumbrian folksong “Bobby Shaftoe”, which became its second single release. But it was the third single from the LP, featuring Lonnie Donegan singing “Rock Island Line” by the American folk-blues singer Leadbelly (Huddie Ledbetter), that cracked the Hit Parade, launching Donegan as a solo entertainer.

In 1955 Barber acquired the services of the UK’s first convincing female blues singer, Ottilie Patterson, who subsequently became his second wife. He also began recording for one of Britain’s first independent producers Denis Preston, who facilitated collaborations with the Caribbean saxophonists Bertie King and Joe Harriott, and ensured Barber’s output was issued on major labels. Greater chart success came in 1959 with “Petite Fleur”, an LP track featuring his clarinettist Monty Sunshine (by coincidence, Barber played no trombone on either this or “Rock Island Line”, but accompanied his soloists on the double bass). A hit in America also, it led to the band spending six weeks there as a star attraction, rather than the habitual token Brits in a top-heavy package tour, and appearing on the all-powerful Ed Sullivan and Dick Clark television shows.

While the band’s instrumental trad triggered an epidemic of similar outfits, not all as proficient as those of Acker Bilk or Kenny Ball, more significant in the long run was the folk-blues element of Donegan’s “skiffle group”, initially an integral part of Barber’s stage show (the terminology being inherited from Colyer). Spurred by its success, Barber invited a series of authentic American blues and gospel artists, beginning with Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Muddy Waters, Louis Jordan and Sonny Boy Williamson to undertake tours of Europe with his band. He also recorded with the original London cast of Langston Hughes’s Black Nativity in the early 1960s. Such activity helped, along with Barber’s former school colleague Alexis Korner, to kickstart the budding “British blues” movement. The Rolling Stones made early appearances at the Marquee Club from 1962.

Barber’s business acumen was always allied to his genuine tastes and, when the trad “boom” turned to bust in 1964, he added blues guitarist John Slaughter to his touring band, making it a musical melting pot. Another far-sighted move saw him imitating popular groups by bringing his own amplification equipment to gigs, even in concert halls. Although working widely throughout Europe, the regular diet of tours to Germany in particular meant that Barber could take time off for several weeks a year, devoting himself to assisting with the reissue of early jazz records. The series begun in the 1990s on the Timeless label, owned by his Dutch agent Wim Wigt, is subtitled the “Chris Barber Collection”.

Another stylistic development saw him expand his group in 2003 to 11 members, who became known as The Big Chris Barber Band. Among other things, this enabled him to pay homage to the work of one of his favourites, the early Duke Ellington band. Although he divorced Ottilie Patterson in 1983, they were both happy for her to make occasional return engagements with the band. More remarkably Pat Halcox, who replaced Ken Colyer in 1954, performed continuously with Barber until his retirement in 2007.

In his eighties, Barber was still doing at least 30 concerts a year, the majority in Germany, and in 2014 he published an autobiography Jazz Me Blues (with Alyn Shipton) that had been in preparation for 30 years. Having conquered a childhood stammer, he was always eager and even garrulous in front of a microphone, especially when enthusing about fellow jazz, blues and gospel artists. As to himself, he commented that “the received wisdom is once you arrive at a successful format, you stick to it, or else! We’ve done the opposite for 60 years – if we like it, we do it.”

Donald Christopher Barber, jazz musician, born 17 April 1930, died 2 March 2021

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