Updated March 3, 2021, 3:23 pm
- Jazz icon Chris Barber dies at the age of 90.
- The trombonist shaped the traditional New Orleans sound in Europe.
- The big band leader lived for music for seven decades.
Chris Barber played more often in Germany than in his native Great Britain before the big band leader retired after seven decades in the music business. Even in old age he still gave 100 concerts a year and entertained his audience with hits like “Ice Cream”, “Petite Fleur” or “Wild Cat Blues”. He remained loyal to early New Orleans jazz throughout his life.
On Tuesday, Barber died at the age of 90, as did his label Last Music. Co. announced the following day, citing the widow. He had previously suffered from dementia.
By chance, Barber came across a trumpet
Barber was born on April 17, 1930 to an educated family on the northern outskirts of London, with an economist as father and a socialist mayor as mother. Young Chris learned to play the violin at a private school. It was only by chance that he eventually became a wind player: a trombonist offered him an instrument, and Barber had just enough money in his pocket.
Barber confessed to the German press agency in a 2015 interview: “After I found out that I could play, I never wanted to do anything else again.” At 19 he founded his first jazz band. He studied trombone and double bass at the famous “Guildhall School of Music and Drama” in London. “Improvisation is part of the music, but you still have to play the right notes,” explained the classically trained musician to the magazine “Countrylife”.
“Some London nightclubs played something like jazz,” said Barber, recalling the period between the two world wars. “American jazz musicians worked in orchestras in places like the Savoy.” Blues music, however, did not find greater recognition. That changed in the 1950s.
Barber’s band gained international fame
Back then, Barbers Band was as famous in Great Britain as the Beatles were in the sixties. His version of Sidney Bechet’s “Petite Fleur” became a notable hit, selling over a million copies in the UK alone. His debut album “New Orleans Joys” (1954) had already included the skiffle track “Rock Island Line”, which was supposed to give singer Lonnie Donegan a solo career and make Barber’s band known in the USA.
From there, Barber brought many African American blues legends to the UK. In addition to Muddy Waters, Louis Jordan, Sonny Boy Williamson and the gospel singer Sister Rosetta Tharpe also performed with Barbers Band. Not only did he organize their tours, but often financed them as well.
Back then, electric guitars were frowned upon as “rock ‘n’ roll” in jazz clubs – but through Muddy Waters, Barber helped the electric guitar to find its way into the British rhythm and blues scene. That soon put traditional jazz behind. The trombonist and his band lost their popularity, but became even better known in other European countries – especially in Germany, where they played most of the concerts.
Legendary club designed the London music scene
The band leader even learned German. “I didn’t really try hard with German until we were on tour there,” Barber confessed to the music blog “3songsbonn”. He was helped by the BBC’s German service, a relic from the post-war years. “It’s the only place (in Great Britain) where you really hear ‘Standard German’.”
During his long career, Barber has paved the way for many musicians as a patron. In 1958 he and a business partner opened the legendary London Marquee Club, where many future rock stars performed, including the Yardbirds and Rolling Stones.
A 2011 anniversary record, aptly named “Memories Of My Trip”, featured greats like Eric Clapton, Van Morrison and Mark Knopfler. It was only after a bad fall that the jazz veteran finally retired into private life in 2019. (dpa / sus)