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Chris Barber obituary

John Fordham
·6 min read
<span>Photograph: Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Getty Images

The bandleader and trombonist Chris Barber, who has died aged 90, was one of the most accessible and charismatic figures to emerge from the New Orleans-inspired jazz revivalist movement that played such a significant part in shaping British popular music between the late 1940s and mid-60s.

As a bandleader he began by taking the cornettist Ken Colyer’s rugged, fundamentalist proto-jazz revivalism of the early 50s and refashioning it into a more elegant, more ebullient and more accessible form for a younger audience. He was also one of the first British bandleaders to feature the infectiously rudimentary tea-chest bass-and-washboard music of skiffle within his own far from rudimentary outfits, putting a match to a craze that helped launch the careers of many UK bands, including the Beatles. Lonnie Donegan performed the skiffle anthem Rock Island Line with Barber, and in 1956 it went on to be a million-selling hit.

As their style expanded around a hot core of early jazz and blues, Barber’s bands began splicing traditional jazz with Duke Ellington’s music, and with rock’n’roll and R&B. Some purist jazz devotees considered these to be sacrilegious compromises, but while Barber was always open to changes in taste, this was not to the extent that his own work lost focus. He was an articulate campaigner for jazz on and off the bandstand, a jazz archivist who brought what he cherished to new life, and he was a collaborator with many stars, from the bop-based saxophonist Joe Harriott to blues celebrities such as Muddy Waters and Sonny Terry, and, later, the likes of Van Morrison, Mark Knopfler and Dr John. Mildly eccentric buffoonery and immense musical polish coexisted in Barber’s bands, and their chemistry lent them durable, generation-bridging charm.

Barber was born in Welwyn Garden City, in Hertfordshire, to Hettie (nee Dunne), a schoolteacher, and Donald, an economist and statistician. He studied the violin as a child, and was educated at St Paul’s school in London. In the late 40s Britain’s largely amateur traditional-jazz boom was getting under way, and at 18 Barber bought a battered trombone from Harry Brown, a sideman with Humphrey Lyttelton. After briefly working with the singer Beryl Bryden and the clarinettist Cy Laurie, he was leading his own band by 1949.

In the early 50s he studied the trombone and double bass at the Guildhall School of Music in London, simultaneously running a New Orleans-styled group with Donegan, the clarinettist Monty Sunshine, bassist Jim Bray, drummer Ron Bowden and, later, the cornettist Pat Halcox.

Technically advanced (many of the revivalists were haphazardly self-taught) and increasingly popular, the Barber Jazzmen were looking to expand their horizons when Halcox announced that he did not want to turn professional. He was replaced by Colyer, who returned to Britain from an extended trip to the US in 1953 to lead the band. However, Colyer’s single-minded philosophy that New Orleans music should be preserved in its earliest and purest form caused friction, and when he left to form his own band, Barber took over the Jazzmen again.

He and Halcox, who had by then returned to the band, concentrated on building a technically polished, bluesily exciting and extrovert band that nonetheless preserved much of the street-marching bravura of the earliest jazz. Ottilie Patterson, a fine blues singer from Northern Ireland, arrived as the vocalist in 1954 and four years later she and Barber were married. Two years after that, Barber’s band filled the Royal Festival Hall in London and sold out a subsequent UK tour.

Although rock’n’roll largely displaced the popular appeal of traditional jazz in the early 60s, both idioms’ common interest in the blues benefited the flexible Barber, who had made a name for himself among blues and rock players, from Alexis Korner and John Mayall to Eric Clapton and the Rolling Stones, and had invited Waters, Big Bill Broonzy and Brownie McGhee to the UK to guest with his band.

The link worked both ways, and Barber began to tour the US from the late 50s onwards. His was the first British group to play on the prime-time Ed Sullivan Show, and Barber was widely acclaimed in the US not just for his musicianship, enthusiasm and entertainment value, but for his obvious respect for the achievements of African-American music’s founding figures.

In 1959 he and Sunshine had chart success on both sides of the Atlantic with their version of Sidney Bechet’s yearning ballad Petite Fleur, selling more than 1m copies in the UK. Barber toured and recorded with many well-known Americans, including the New Orleans clarinettist Edmond Hall and the jump-music founder Louis Jordan. Around this time he took to calling his ensemble Chris Barber’s Jazz and Blues Band – the electric guitarist John Slaughter had become a regular member – as confirmation of the breadth of his repertoire, which he extended to embrace later 20th-century jazz, including music by such modernists as Charles Mingus and Joe Zawinul.

The band were popular in Germany and in parts of communist eastern Europe, and in 1968 they released their classic album Live in East Berlin. In 1976 they toured widely with the clarinettist Russell Procope, and in 1981 with Dr John. Later in the 80s Barber broadened his horizons into classical music, performing a jazz-trombone concerto with an orchestra and working with the London Gabrieli Brass Ensemble. Off the bandstand, he was also a motoring enthusiast, owning a pair of vintage Lagondas and racing in various sports cars, including a prototype Lotus Elite supplied by his friend and Lotus founder, Colin Chapman. By the 90s Barber had been around long enough to begin assembling reunion bands with former associates, and in 1994 he went on a celebratory 40th anniversary European tour. He was made OBE in 1991.

In 1998 the band began collaborating on Ellington’s music with members of the Ellingtonians group and in 2001 personnel from both bands merged to become the Big Chris Barber Band, featuring in 2009 at the Indigo festival, London, alongside the bands of his fellow veterans Kenny Ball and Acker Bilk. In 2011 Proper Records released Memories of My Trip, a survey of Barber’s achievements across half a century, with guests including Morrison, Dr John, Knopfler and Clapton. Although his faithful collaborator Halcox retired in 2008 (he died in 2013), Barber forged tirelessly on into his 80s. He published his autobiography, Jazz Me Blues, co-written with Alyn Shipton, in 2014, and had been leading his band for 70 years by the time he announced his retirement in 2019.

Despite so much success over the years he never lost the air of an enthusiastic 1950s Englishman pursuing a hobby that he and his mates might just as happily have explored in a garden shed. He also never relinquished the conviction that jazz was his era’s freshest and most resourceful music, and that the more the world knew of it, the better.

Barber’s first three marriages, to Naida Lane, a dancer and singer, to Ottilie, and then to Renata Hilbich, all ended in divorce. He is survived by his fourth wife, Kate (nee Gray), and by two children, Christopher Jr and Caroline, from his marriage to Renata.

• Donald Christopher Barber, musician and bandleader, born 17 April 1930; died 2 March 2021