The best biographical or autobiographical writings make a person the reader has never encountered come to life on the page.  JOTTINGS OF A JAZZMAN: SELECTED WRITINGS OF LEN BARNARD, edited by his niece Loretta Barnard, has just that magic. 

When I was a few pages into it, I felt as if I had met and heard Len, which says much — not only about the power of Len’s personality and insights but also about Loretta’s loving presentation. 

Len Barnard was a major figure in Australian jazz, and the players and singers from Oz are, at their best, possessed of a fierce focus, a strength of purpose, an intensity.  Len was an excellent drummer and washboardist and first-rate pianist and composer. 

But he also thought about his music, the world around him, and the way people behaved — a philosopher without the heavy weight of an official philosophy.  His writings show him as curious, opinionated, amused, sharp-eyed, both unsparing and generous.  Here are a few samples:

Len was a reader.  Here he quotes from an obscure cookery book in a letter:

An excerpt from THE ACCOMPLISHT COOK (1712) with the correct verbs for dismembering of various meats and game: lift that swan, rear that goose, unbrace that mallard, allay that pheasant, unlace that coney, unjoynt that bittern, unlatch that curlew, break that egript, thigh that woodcock.  Try a few of those to the bridge of ‘Old Man Ribber.’

From his journal, 1969:

Played Clarence Williams at breakfast.  I’ve always felt that too little has been said of the charm of his music, of its atmosphere, its complete absence of vulgarity, stridency, over-accentuation, and all the other faults of lesser jazz – its easy humour and almost kindly glow, its integrity as art.  Every Clarence Williams record is a benediction.

After offering a tape of a superb live performance to a record producer:

My fears of philistinism were confirmed.  He liked it, but didn’t think that full spontanaiety plus on-stage noises were suitable for his needs.  Offered to buy “Mood Indigo” for $25.  I declined.  Told him he had the studio sickness which is induced by surgically produced recordings and the unimaginative parading of an oft-repeated routine before the microphone before perfection is attained.  A bloodless, sterile perfection . . .This attitude of businessmen is what they call ‘progress,’ bit it is merely satndardization as opposed to less pretentious individualism of the true musician.  It’s a minor form of industrialisation, which nowadays means bad food, pointless bustle and jittery nerves, whereas the other road means good digestion and serenity.

On playing the drums:

Drums have seemed to be bonny imposters at times, as regards the perfection of extension of arm and rhythmic slap on a chair arm.  An in-ness, a tactile link with music that has been hard to replace.  Came close (digression) when in 1982, played a large lobster pot with open palms and a pair of wooden salad servers.  These got shorter as they shattered brittley and there is that wonderful elan andimmediacy that is expedited by this and you extemporise and bring out dishes of ham that even you didn’t know were in your larger of tricks.  The other feeling is the knife in hand, but the heel of hand marking the rhythm on the tablecloth.

The voice is at times cranky, observant, poetic,ruminative — a combination of Larkin, Balliett, S. J. Perelman.  The book is wonderfully amplified by photographs and remebrances of Len by his family and admirers.  When I finished the book, I felt as if I’d been privileged to overhear a fascinating and complex man.  And although I never got any closer to Len than through the medium of a dozen CDs, this book made me miss him terribly. 

As I write this, I have not yet acquired the needed mercantile information — how to buy the book, its price, the best way to acquire it.  I hope to find these things out soon. 

But I would urge anyone who is interested in what an articulate artist sees and hears to read this book. 

Len Barnard was a jazzman but his perceptions were deeper than 4 / 4, larger than his drum kit.  And Loretta Barnard has given us a fine gift of her late uncle and his world.

A postscript: I was so enthralled by the book and by Len that I omitted something delightful and informative — the lengthy section at the end with quick, witty, crisply written biographical portraits of all the people who were part of the book — written by the jazz scholar Bill Haesler, who knows his Oz thoroughly.  Published by itself, this section would be an invaluable overview of Australian jazz and more.

5 responses to “JOTTINGS OF A JAZZMAN

  1. Len was a dear friend and mentor to me and many other Australian musicians. He was full of humour, musical skill and insight, and he excelled in that arcane art of actually entertaining an audience.

    His wit was well-known. Playing at a jazz festival full of tributes to this or that historical musician, he greeted my mate Ian Smith with the query ‘and who are YOU, this weekend?’

    We miss him dearly, but this book brings back many wonderful memories!

  2. Wonderful that you call our attention to Len’s writings, Michael. Thankyou very much! I’ll look forward to reading the book come Winter.

    While I have a minute I would like to comment on YOUR recent comment concerning the playing of the snare drum (Marion Felder) vs. the “monotonous ride cymbal” (not sure who is referenced here, if anyone)- “As I sees it, Olive”- When a band needs a certain staccato, clipped “something” to hold it together the snare drum is of the utmost importance (tight). Dave Tough does that on the out-chorus of “Prince of Wales” and simultaneously pounds the shite out of his bass drum with a steady 4- Danny Alvin (on your recent Art Hodes post) plays some funky snare as he did on “Sugar Foot Stomp” (12″ Blue Note from god knows when). George W. plays nothing but the snare drum behind Louie on “Heebie Jeebies.” I like to think these drummers intuitively did what they did- it wasn’t a written part.

    Fluidity- It’s been said that all Lester ever wanted from a drummer was… “ding, d’ ding” and I think he was referencing the glorious cymbal, don’t you? Of course, the openness of the ride cymbal might allow certain bands to become unglued, that is, not stay together, so I hear you when you praise the mighty snare drum- it can anchor everyone (Arnie K. and Marion do this handsomely, as does Ian Smith)- Three early drummers that taught me the beauty and importance of the glorious cymbal were Dave Tough, Sid Catlett, and Cliff Leeman… of course, both Dave and Sid used Chinese cymbals on which to ride and I can never imagine them doing anything but THAT when they made their spontaneous choices. And when they did the band, or the instrumentalist, just floated on top of it… think of “Jack Hits The Road” or “Muskrat” played at “Symphony Hall.” To close; please let me me quote Joe Thomas- “If I May”– Here’s a quote from King David (not Tough)- “Praise him with the cymbals of melodious sound. Praise him with the clashing cymbals.” Ps. 150: 5

    Amen for the RIDE CYMBAL! — yt, Popeye

  3. Dear MB,

    I’m not anti-cymbal; love cymbal accents and time-keeping as much as anyone . . . but what I was referring to was the tendency of some contemporary drummers, not all of them young, who should remain nameless to use the ride cymbal to offer a monotonous loud beat behind a soloist while the rest of the set gathers dust. Those cymbals are indeed essential — but sometimes the snare gets forgotten! Cheers, MS

  4. Loretta Barnard

    Dear Michael,

    Many thanks for alerting me to your comprehensive blog and for your kind words about ‘Jottings of a Jazzman’. Putting the book together was a huge task, taking me over four years, so it’s very gratifying to know that it has struck some chords (if you’ll pardon the pun) with readers. The book is a limited edition (only 500 were printed), and if your readers are interested in buying a copy, there are a number of ways to do this. The Victorian Jazz Archive and the Victorian Jazz have some copies, and people can also buy directly from me for $22 plus $6 postage. If they email me at, I’ll provide further contact details. Len was not only an interesting man, he was interested IN things and people and life in general. I’m glad my small effort has helped to keep his memory alive. Best, Loretta

  5. Loretta Barnard

    Oops Michael, I should have said that the $6 postage is for postage within Australia. The prices quoted are also in Australian dollars. Best, LB

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