Tag Archives: Big Bill Broonzy

QUIETLY ACCOMPLISHED: CHRIS BARBER’S “JAZZ ME BLUES”

The biographies of jazz musicians often follow a predictable path, from Mother at the organ or Dad’s 78s, precocious talent, hours of rigorous training, encounters with older professionals, early gigs, and then success.  If the musician is stable and fortunate, the narrative quiets down to a series of gigs and concerts; if the subject is tragic, the pages darken: alcohol, drugs, abusive relationships, auto accident, major illness, premature death.

The jazz eminences who have written autobiographies (excepting Billie Holiday and Anita O’Day, although I am sure some readers will add to that list) have been the more fortunate ones, and their books depict elders looking back on friendships and triumphs.  Often the narrator is justly proud, and his / her singular personality is a strong consistent presence.

Trombonist and bandleader Chris Barber, born in 1930, continues to have a wonderful career — one that began with “traditional jazz” and stretched the definition to include different music incorporated into his own.  He’s played and recorded for more than sixty years with British jazz legends Ben Cohen, Ottilie Patterson, Ken Colyer, Acker Bilk, Pat Halcox, Lonnie Donegan, Monty Sunshine, Bruce Turner, Ian Wheeler, Beryl Bryden; with American stars Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Louis Jordan, Ed Hall, Ray Nance, Albert Nicholas, Joe Darensbourg, Sonny Terry, Brownie McGhee, Cecil Scott, Don Frye, Floyd Casey, Ed Allen, Sidney deParis, Hank Duncan, Wild Bill Davis, Russell Procope, Dr. John, Big Bill Broonzy, John Lewis and George Lewis, Clarence Williams, Aretha Franklin, Count Basie, Sam Theard, Jack Teagarden, Ornette Coleman, Scott LaFaro, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band . . .so the reader who opens a Barber autobiography hopes for good stories.

But this long list of names isn’t all there is to JAZZ ME BLUES (written with the very capable help of Alyn Shipton . . . Barber says in his acknowledgments that they first talked about this book in 1982) — published this year by Equinox in their Popular Music History series.

Barber follows the usual chronological path from his early encounter with jazz to becoming an international eminence. However, it took me about thirty-five pages (the book is 172 long) to settle in to JAZZ ME BLUES because of his distinctive personality.

He isn’t forceful or self-absorbed, telling us of the wonderful thing he did next. Barber comes across as a quietly modest man who has no need for us to admire him. Chronicling his life, he is so placidly matter-of-fact that it might take readers by surprise. But once we do, the absence of self-congratulation is refreshing, as if we were introduced to a very talented person who had been brought up to think self-praise was vulgar.

An interval for music.  First, STEAMBOAT BILL and HIGH SOCIETY from the Fifties:

GOIN’ HOME BLUES from 2013:

Aside from its subject’s remarkably modest approach to his own life, JAZZ ME BLUES has two great pleasures.  One is Barber’s unwillingness to stay neatly in the style that had brought him success. Beginning in the Sixties, his band takes on different shadings while not abandoning the music he loves: he brings in electric guitarist John Slaughter, altoist Joe Harriott, organist Brian Auger; he works and records with blues and gospel legends; he plays extended compositions. Again, since Barber speaks about these events with polite restraint, one must estimate the emotional effect of being booed by British traditionalist fans who wanted “their” music to stay the same. Barber is not making changes to woo a larger audience or to stay in the public eye, but because he is genuinely interested in adding other flavorings to a familiar dish. He is a determined seeker, and he grows more intriguing in his quests.

The other pleasure I alluded to at the start, delightful first-hand anecdotes. Readers deprived of their own contact with their heroes always want to know what the great men and women were like, and JAZZ ME BLUES — although never mean-spirited in its quick sketches — is a banquet here. Not only do we hear about Sonny Boy Williamson and Zutty Singleton (the latter saying he is most happy in a band without a piano because pianists all “lose time”) but about Van Morrison, George Harrison (who likes the 1930 BARNACLE BILL THE SAILOR) and colleagues Lennon and McCartney; we read of Howlin’ Wolf saying grace quietly and sweetly before a meal. Trumpeter Ed Allen tells Barber that he always used to learn the songs for Clarence Williams record dates in the taxi on the way to the studio.

And Barber has been in the right place at the right time. When he comes to America, he sits in at Condon’s. After an uneventful beginning, “. . . suddenly the rhythm section started to swing. I looked round and Eddie had picked up his guitar and joined in. From then on, with him there, every tempo was just right, and everything swung. His presence was subtle, but it made the world of difference. I knew what a fine player he could be, as, when the band had appeared at the Royal Festival Hall in 1957. I’d gone along to their late night concert. The thing that sticks in my memory from that night was Eddie taking a half-chorus solo on a tune in the ballad medley. It was just perfect, and with the tuning of his four-string tenor guitar it had a very distinctive sound. It reminded me of Carmen Mastren, who was a true virtuoso.”

JAZZ ME BLUES is an engaging portrait of a continuing life in jazz (with rare photographs, a selective discography, and an index). It is available in North America exclusively through ISD ($34.95 hardcover): ISD, 70 Enterprise Drive, Suite 2, Bristol, CT 00610: orders@isdistribution.com.

May your happiness increase!

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CELEBRATING THE WORLDS DOUG DOBELL CREATED

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I didn’t get to the UK until 2005, so I missed a great era in Anglo-American relations . . . not Roosevelt and Churchill, but the opportunity to go record-shopping at Dobells, 77 Charing Cross Road.  I knew about it, however, through the “77” record label — with issues featuring Dick Wellstood, Don Ewell, Pete Brown, Bernard Addison, Sonny Greer, and more.

A new gallery exhibition, lovingly assembled, celebrates that great place and time — and the music that Dobells nurtured.  The exhibition runs from April 10 – May 18, 2013 at CHELSEA space.

CHELSEA space presents a rare opportunity to view previously unseen material from the Museum of London and British Record Shop Archive collections, concerning one of the world’s greatest record shops.

Dobells (1946-1992) was a significant meeting place for fans of jazz, folk and blues. This exhibition explores Dobells position as a retail environment, information network, cultural landmark and social hub through archive artefacts, ephemera, photographs (many by the celebrated jazz-blues photographer Val Wilmer), and graphics.

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Doug Dobell began selling collectable and imported jazz records in 1946 at his family’s rare books shop at 77 Charing Cross Road. In 1957 he started up the 77 record label and was instrumental in developing, recording and marketing jazz, blues, folk and world music in the UK. At a later point 75 Charing Cross Road next door to the original store, was used to house Dobells Folk Record shop section.

Prominent US musicians could be found dropping into Dobells including Muddy Waters, BB King, Roy Eldridge, Ben Webster, Red Allen and members of the Ellington band. A young Bob Dylan recorded in the small basement studio there in 1963 and Janis Joplin would visit with a bottle of Southern Comfort as a gift for the staff of the store.

RECORDS

Dobells stocked American blues 78s, 45s and LPs and many British music fans got their first ever taste of Mamie Smith, Leadbelly and Big Bill Broonzy there. The imported US records purchased at the record shop inspired such pioneers of British jazz and blues as Alexis Korner, Cyril Davies and Chris Barber (amongst many others). All the bands of the British Blues explosion: The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, Cream and Fleetwood Mac shopped there. Martin Carthy, Dave Swarbrick, Mac McGann, Bert Jansch, The Vipers Skiffle Group, Lonnie Donegan and other folk musicians raided the shop’s racks of Woody Guthrie and Cisco Houston records. David Bowie was also a regular customer during the early 1960s.

Dobells provided a network for British Jazz musicians including Tubby Hayes, Ronnie Scott, Johnny Dankworth, Vic Lewis, Harry Beckett, Ian Carr, Mike Westbrook and many others who would meet there to check out the new imports in the listening booths and chat about the latest sounds. Such was the standing of Dobells, that it found its way into literature with New immigrants to London from former colonies and war torn nations would also visit as Dobells as it was the only shop in London to stock African, Irish, Yiddish and music from other parts of the world.

This exhibition recalls an era when a specialist record shop helped shape the nation’s underground cultural scene.  The exhibition takes place to coincide with Record Store Day UK, which occurs on Saturday 20th April 2013.  Exhibition curated by Donald Smith with Leon Parker.  For more information, email info@chelseaspace.org or telephone 020 7514 6983.  Admission is free and the exhibition is open Tue – Fri: 11:00 – 5:00, Sat: 10:00 – 4:00.  CHELSEA space is located at 16, John Islip Street, London SW1P 4JU – behind the Tate Gallery.

Those of us who spent happy hours (and dollars or pounds or the prevailing currency) in specialist record shops — where one could converse or debate with an educated, impassioned salesperson about the course of Bud Powell’s career — will find this exhibition powerfully evocative.  The generation that has no idea of what came before invisible digital sound should be gently escorted there . . . for a greater historical awareness.

Here’s a postscript and a photograph from my UK friend Robin Aitken, someone who knows:

This exhibition is only a precursor for a more long term project which is in the preparation stage at present. This will be a book on Dobell’s Jazz Record Shop edited by myself and Brian Peerless who worked part time in Dobell’s from 1962 until its final closure in 1992. It is intended that the book will be in the same format as Nat Hentoff’s wonderful “Hear Me Talkin’ To Ya” with sections on the history of the shop, the staff, the customers, the stories , the music and of course the musicians. We are assiduously collecting material and welcome any contributions from anyone who has visited the shop over the years. In 1972 a contingent of staff and customers, myself included, made to trip to New York for the First Newport Jazz Festival there. There were ten of us on that trip – sadly only four of us survive. The Dobell’s exhibition has prompted me to finally put down my memories and those of my surviving companions of a wonderful 2 weeks in the Big Apple. I took several photographs which I hope to include in the article and I have attached one of my favourites. This was taken outside Jim & Andy’s at West 55th Street in late June 1972 just before Jim closed for the month of July. It shows from left to right the drummer Richie Goldberg, John Kendall, Manager of Dobell’s Second-hand Shop, Ray Bolden, Manager of the Blues and Folk Shop, Scoville Brown who played with Louis in 1932 and nearly everyone else thereafter – some great records with Buck Clayton on HRS in 1946, and Doug Dobell himself, the owner of Dobell’s Jazz, Blues and Folk Record shops.

(Notice the record bag Richie Goldberg is holding — the thing in itself!)

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May your happiness increase.