Chris Barber Talks To 50connectPosted on: 13 June 2008 by Gareth Hargreaves
The leader of the Big Chris Barber Band explains why jazz still excites him after nearly 60 years on the road.
'Musical legend' is an accolade too easily given to artists these days, but jazz trombonist Chris Barber is one of the few to whom it truly applies. Currently enjoying his 59th year as a band leader, he has performed more than 10,000 shows and made thousands of recordings.
He has influenced many of the UK's most successful musicians, including Mark Knopfler, The Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton and Van Morrison, and indeed, gave many of them their first gigs as a co-founder of London's famous Marquee Club in 1958. The story goes that the first time an English audience ever saw an electric guitar on stage was when Muddy Waters guested with Chris at the Marquee!
Three years later, Barber was one of the prime movers behind the establishment of the National Jazz & Blues Festival, better known today as the Reading Rock Festival.
The 78 year old's fascination with jazz began when he was at boarding school, during the Second World War.
"I tuned into the radio to listen to news bulletins, and because the BBC could not broadcast plays and so on in case they were interrupted by a newsflash, in between they broadcasted music, including the occasional jazz record that somebody probably put on by mistake."
Chris liked what he heard, so asked his father to send him some records. His father read a music magazine which had a small jazz section, and started to send records to Chris.
Records were precious in those days, recalls Chris, and not many people had a gramophone.
"During the war people buying records had to give in an old one to be recycled by melting it down to make a new record, as there wasn't enough raw material to produce new records."
Rejecting an embryonic career as an actuary, Chris formed his first Barber New Orleans Band in 1949 at the age of 19.
In 1954 Chris Barber's Jazz Band was established, and has been one of Europe's most successful traditional jazz bands ever since. Over the years, it has expanded first into the Chris Barber Jazz and Blues Band and then, at the end of 2001, into The Big Chris Barber Band, with a complement of 11 musicians - three reeds, two trumpets, two trombones and the four-man rhythm section of bass, drums, banjo/guitar and electric guitar.
Still touring relentlessly with as much enthusiasm and enjoyment as ever, a guest appearance on BBC2's Later. with Jools Holland last February proved that Barber's music is as relevant today as it ever was. Although the band plays the same tunes from day to day, Chris explains that there's no such thing as a finished track in jazz.
"When we play a piece of music, although the tune's the same, what we do is look for little new ways to accentuate it better or make it sound more interesting, such as adding counter melodies to the original melodies. When we get a tune where we think, I can't imagine more on that now, we don't do it anymore. I've known tunes we had to play every day for six years until we finally thought, we can't play anything more in that one."
Those listening to jazz only on record will get a false idea of the genre, believes Chris.
"Because it's different every time we play, then by definition if you buy a record of it, every time you play that record it's exactly the same. If you go and hear that band playing it won't be a bit like the record. It might be fairly like it but normally there's quite a big difference. Jazz is live music."
This summer, the Big Chris Barber Band is performing several shows around the UK. Chris explains that the band play something like 20 tunes every night.
"There's one which we consider to be a sort of theme tune of the band, Bourbon Street Parade, which refers to Bourbon Street in the French Quarter of New Orleans where jazz music more or less began. It's a rather nice tune and lyric which is quite evocative, a précis of the story of jazz, so that's our opening piece. It's a good number to play in with."
The set ranges from these roots in New Orleans style, through early Duke Ellington - Black & Tan Fantasy and Jubilee Stomp - to Bob Crossby - Big Noise from Winnetka and South Rampant St Parade - and Sidney Bechet.
"Petite Fleur has almost always been in our programme. We recorded it in the 1950s and it was our only sort of straightforward, plain instrumental hit. The band had a hit before that with Rock Island Line, with our banjo player singing on it, Lonny Donegan. The instrumental piece Petite Fleur we actually recorded in 1956 and it came out on a single in 1959 after being on an LP for about three years. People suddenly heard it for the first time and it went into the UK charts at number 2. So we always play that one, we don't play it the same as we played then as it's developed through the years into a slightly more varied version, but it's clear enough what it is that the audience always clap when we start playing it."
The blues of Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee - Cornbreak and Peas and Black Molasses - soul - Joe Zawinul's Mercy Mercy Mercy and the soulful blues of Miles Davis - All Blues - are also on the bill.
"We play everything between as we like, a varied lot of stuff. I try and present the pieces we play in an order which will make each one be best received by an audience, alternating between tempos and styles."
The band finish each concert on When The Saints Come Marching In.
"It's the most famous of all jazz tunes and our sort of jazz, everyone knows it, so it's a good thing to round the evening off with. It also gives a lot of opportunity for members of the band to play solo parts in it."
Whether you're a jazz and blues aficionado or just a casual listener, a Big Chris Barber Band concert promises music to entertain you, so don't miss out on the chance to catch a living legend in action.
Saturday 28th June Yarmouth, Isle of Wight Warner Norton Grange Coastal Resort. Tel: 01305 750797
Sunday 29th June Edenbridge Hever Castle - Lakeside Theatre. Tel: 01732 866114
Friday 4th July Alnwick Alnwick Playhouse. Tel: 01665 510785
Saturday 5th July Wakefield The Queen Elizabeth Hall. Tel: 01924 372475 Rotary Wakefield
Sunday 6th July Sonning, near Reading The Mill at Sonning. Tel: 0118 9698000
Wednesday 16th July Gillingham, Dorset Gillingham Festival. Tel: 01747 853514
Wednesday 23th July Macclesfield Gawsworth Hall - open air. Tel: 01260 223456
Friday 25th July Edinburgh Queen's Hall
The official website of Chris Barber and the Big Chris Barber Band: www.chrisbarber.net
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