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: firstname.lastname@example.org.
May your happiness increase!