Photo by Dennis Dekker
Chris Barber: trombonist, bassist, band-leader, pioneer of British jazz and blues -- and one of the great jazz musicians of the twentieth century. Chris has been leading a band for almost sixty years: 2008 marks the fifty-fourth anniversary of the formation of Chris Barber's Jazz Band, which later became the Chris Barber Jazz & Blues Band, and then, in 2001, the Big Chris Barber Band.

Chris, his band, and his music -- not to mention his devotion to jazz and the blues and his pioneering efforts to bring jazz and blues stars to Britain for the first time in the 1950s and 1960s -- have influenced, both directly and indirectly, almost everything that has happened on the music scene in the last half-century, including the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton, and hundreds, possibly thousands of others, both amateur and professional.

Of course, this website as a whole is a celebration of Chris and his band's music, but on this page we concentrate specifically on Chris himself, in the form of articles, interviews, music, and photographs.

Chris was born in Welwyn Garden City in 1930. He developed his interest in jazz during the war years, and began to play in the later part of the 1940s. His story and that of the band has been told and re-told many times, not least often by Chris himself. In fact you can listen to Chris talking about his early days at a concert in Basingstoke in June 2003:

  • Part 1, Introduction (0:32; 451 Kb)
  • Part 2, How the band started: Monty Sunshine, Lonnie Donegan... (2:46; 2.3 Mb)
  • Part 3, Pat Halcox, 1952 (1:29; 1.2 Mb)
  • Part 4, Ken Colyer in New Orleans (1:48; 1.5 Mb)
  • Part 5, Ken Colyer's Jazzmen (0:51; 700 Kb)
  • Part 6, The split with Ken Colyer (1:15; 1 Mb)
  • Part 7, Pat Halcox returns (0:38; 528 Kb)
  • Part 8, Introduction of the new six-piece band (1:47; 1.5 Mb)
There are lots of sound clips throughout the website, but two special selections of "blended" music have been chosen to highlight Chris's music and celebrate the length of his career: Misty Morning, recorded in 1951 & 2003, and The Martinique, from 1954 and 2003.

Chris Barber's "Autobiography", written in about 1960

My first band was modelled on the wonderful King Oliver Band. We had a two-trumpet lead and a certain amount of arrangement in the music. That was in 1949 and 1950. At that time we represented one school of jazz thought and the Crane River Jazz Band represented the other. Their music was based on Bunk Johnson and George Lewis and we were bitter rivals. But that is jumping ahead a bit too far.

The story of my first connection with jazz starts around 1942, when I was going to school at Royston. Before that I'd hated jazz and popular music, so much so that I used to throw things at the radio when 'Run Rabbit Run' was being plugged to death at the beginning of the war. I went to a series of schools at that time, as did most other people who were evacuees in some shape or another, but my main school, before I finished up at St. Paul's, Hammersmith, was the King Alfred School, a co-educational and very progressive school in Golders Green. I think that the school's greatest asset was that it worked on the basic premise that children should be taught to enjoy learning. That may sound obvious, but it certainly doesn't appear to be the guiding principle behind most schools.

Anyway, in addition to my general schooling, I was also learning something about music. My father played violin, and it seemed natural that he should arrange for me to have lessons. I actually kept them up until I was fifteen, and I finally completed my education as a violinist against growing competition from a collection of jazz records. The first jazz record I bought (at least, I reckoned it was jazz in those days) was Eric Winstone's 'Oasis', but I quickly moved on to the Original Dixieland Jazz Band and people like Coleman Hawkins. By the mid-Forties I had discovered that jazz records were a scarce commodity and that some records issued here were unavailable in America, and therefore worth a lot of money. I became a record exchanger -- buying and selling and building up an enormous collection of my own from the proceeds. Something about the mathematical side of matrix numbers fascinated me, as I'd always liked maths at school. There used to be a joke about the mother who proudly asserted that her son was very musical. "Name any record", she would say "and he'll tell you what's on the other side". Well, with me it was "I'll tell you the matrix number". In my defence I must say that I was completely absorbed in the music as well, and those years of collecting gave me an invaluable base when I started to play.

I bought my first trombone from Harry Brown -- Humph's first trombone player. It cost me 8 pounds, was tied together with string and had no case. But it was a start. I think that the reason I suddenly decided to try and play was my first visit to a Hot Club of London concert by the George Webb Band in 1946. As I walked into King George's Hall and heard the band open up with "Fidgety Feet", I realised something that I still believe to this day: third-rate jazz that is live is more important than first-rate recorded jazz. So I started my career as a jazz musician.

My first band was Doug Whitton's, and he gently eased me out after a few weeks because I wasn't good enough. Next I went to Cy Laurie, and he sacked me because I wasn't loud enough. I realised that if I wanted to play in a band I'd have to organise it and retain control of the hirings and firings. Since that day, funnily enough, I've always led the bands I've been in apart from one short stretch with Ken Colyer in 1953. This may prove something. I don't know. As a matter of fact, the first band I organised in 1949 included Ken Colyer, whom I'd met with his brother Bill at Cranford. We had two rehearsals at a pub called the Hare's Foot in Goodge Street and then called it a day.

So Alec Revell and I formed a band with Keith Jary and Ben Cohen on trumpets in the King Oliver idiom, while Ken went off to pioneer the Crane River sound. We opened a club on Sunday afternoons at Studio 51 which is where Ken's club is now. It was called the Lincoln Gardens, and after a while we got Tuesday evenings going as well. One of the interesting things about that band was that we had a small group consisting of drums, bass, guitar and piano with myself and Alex Korner singing. It wasn't called a skiffle group in those days, though. That came two years later.

By 1951, I'd realised that my main interests were in music, and I'd left my job as an actuary with an insurance company (a later development of my liking for maths) and joined the Guildhall School of Music for a three-year course on bass playing -- Philharmonic, not Pops Foster. This was really the start, and by the following year I was getting dissatisfied with the amount of playing I was doing with my band in its semi-pro capacity. At this stage I came across Monty Sunshine, and we talked about the possibility of becoming professional jazz musicians. It was an exciting prospect, and, after tentative starts with quartets and quintets, we finally got together the band which we invited Ken Colyer to lead when he got back from his famous trip to New Orleans. It was a pretty good band in its way. It played a tour in Denmark, and it launched skiffle, and we all had a lot of fun. In the end, however, personalities clashed to an alarming extent, and after one stormy scene at the London Jazz Centre we gave Ken two week's notice just before he got the chance to fire the entire rhythm section. Pat Halcox joined us from the Albermarle Band, and it was the start of the Band as it exists today. That was in May 1954.

If you ask me now what I want to do, I'll answer, go on leading the band, being a musician, and being involved in the entertainment business. Of course, one's ideas change, and I may swing towards different styles of music within the jazz framework. I like to keep moving, and I'm happy with the fact that the band has never stopped developing and creating. I think that we all started by copying various people -- my influences were Dutrey and Higginbotham, and of course Jim Robinson -- but now I think we're developing a distinct sound of our own. Not just a copy, something fresh and alive, as all jazz should be. I enjoy most doing the things like Elite Syncopations. Not at the time, though, because it's much harder work than the free blowing forms of jazz; but when an album like that is finished there's enormous satisfaction.

My big relaxation from the strain of concert touring is motor cars. I started years ago, and I've owned seven cars so far, including two Lagondas, two Lotus racing cars and an Aston Martin. I've tried a certain amount of moderately successful racing with the two Lotus cars, and last year I raced about six times, included a run on the famous Nurburgring in Germany.

Whether I'll go on being a jazz musician until I blow my last gasp, I can't say. Probably not -- but at present I'm very happy with the way things are.

An Interview with Chris Barber in 1991
by Julian Purser

 
The Chris Barber Jazz & Blues Band in 1991  
Chris is a jazz musician, jazz enthusiast and jazz record collector, and leads what is probably the best jazz band of its kind in the world. What follows are his thoughts on various aspects of his love of jazz, playing and listening, and some of his influences.

He collects 78 rpm records, of which he has a large collection (he only rarely buys albums, and then only to cover items not already in his collection). He has bought records in different ways, sometimes purchasing complete collections or more often through auctions either in magazines such as Vintage Jazz Mart, or being sent them by those who know of his interests (mainly Americans). Leading a busy life as a touring musician he rarely has time to search the second-hand record shops. At present Chris is having his house improved and finds very little time to relax and listen to his collection; he thinks his collection is good, but not that good.

Among the artists he collects is Bennie Moten (he is missing only three to make a complete set); he has all the McKinney’s Cotton Pickers, and he is after any Missourians he can find but doubts that he will ever succeed in finding any. He also has many King Olivers on Gennet, Okeh, Paramount, etc. He has virtually all Bessie Smith's 78s, excluding maybe a couple of second takes, but including what Chris thinks are other takes. Probably the largest part of the collection is made up of Fletcher Henderson records up to the year 1930; he has probably about ninety per cent of the jazz titles (he does not collect the dance or accompaniment 78s). As a blues enthusiast he collects records by Leroy Carr, Big Bill Broonzy, Brownie McGhee, Sonny Terry, Lightnin' Hopkins and others; he is also the proud owner of two Robert Johnson 78s (most collectors have none at all!).

Chris has always been interested in jazz, and a natural extension to this enjoyment was a wish to play the music. He listened to live jazz whenever he could, and he still remembers the first time he heard the George Webb Dixielanders; and that was that -- play he would. It was in fact Harry Brown (Humphrey Lyttelton’s trombone player in 1948) who sold Chris his first trombone. Playing and touring with the band is now a way of life, and he has no wish to stop, and to use his own words, "I've been able to get the right sort of band together and been able to keep the business going so that we have a chance to go on playing." He has no plans for retirement.

Some years ago Chris stated that the only piano player he would like to use would be John Lewis as a band member. I asked him about this. "John Lewis was the only one who sat in with us who knew when not to play, which is most of the time. If you listen to the Basie or Ellington Band he never played with the band as a whole, he just occasionally put in bits when the wind instruments were not playing. He didn’t stomp on the rhythm section. Another who played this way was Jelly Roll Morton. The piano is not a rhythm instrument, it is a solo one. There are times when a piano is helpful, however, such as accompanying a singer. It can do things that the present band line-up cannot do. The ultimate thing is probably a piano and one other instrument, such as Eddie Condon and Fats Waller on Minor Drag."

Chris has played with many guest musicians (mainly Americans), including John Lewis, Louis Jordan, Muddy Waters (the latter two being the most influential on the band), Big Bill Broonzy, Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee, and Sister Rosetta Tharpe. Latterly there has been Doctor John (Mac Rebbenack), a singer/pianist whose playing is more in the style of rock, the band getting in the groove together with the piano. There are still other musicians he would like to play with. Two names sprang immediately to mind: Benny Carter and Dizzy Gillespie. Chris's influences are various: Honore Dutrey (because he played with King Oliver's band), Jimmy Archey, and Lawrence Brown; others have been Duke Ellington's music and Muddy Waters.

In recent years Chris has enjoyed playing with classical orchestras, and one of his very recent recordings includes tracks with the Grosse Rundfunk Orchester Berlin.

When I asked Chris what his most memorable moment was, he quickly told me how he and the band flew to Paris to see Louis Armstrong at the Olympia. "We heard Louis behind the curtain warming up. I was knocked out!"

What about a favourite record by the band? "Not really, the record with the Rundfunk Orchester and the Concerto for Jazz Trombone is good." His most treasured moment of playing is not on record, but he does have a tape of himself playing with Muddy Waters at Capital Radio Jazz Festival in July 1979.

Chris talks to fans:
An interview by Julian Purser during a UK tour in February 2004

Photo by Casus Mehllandus, Leipzig, April 2004
Chris: Well, here we are touring England again. We are not in the UK as much as some places, and we are in Yeovil. We have not been here for a while. I remember Yeovil from the Terry Thomas film School For Scoundrels, where he played Stephen Potter, the man who invented one-upmanship. As far as I can remember it was set in Yeovil.

JP: A black-and-white film?

Chris: Black-and-white, yes, an old film. I asked someone in the band if they liked it, and they said they had never even heard of it, which shows that some of us are older than others, really. (Laughs). Anyhow we got through the continent in January without mishap, without particular mishap at least. We are touring Britain again now, doing several concerts with Acker and Kenny, which is quite enjoyable, to see friends again. We didn't see them at all at one time, but now we meet them quite often, and now we are on the part of the tour where we play our own concert, which is very nice also. The problem playing in the Three Bs concerts, and concerts of that ilk, has always been that we have a two-hour programme which we work to all the time with the band, and if we only get fifty minutes to play, what do we leave out? There's bound to be something people want to hear and we like to play, and we always feel vaguely uncomfortable having to leave out so much good stuff that we like to play every night. But we manage alright; we put a programme together that makes sense as far as we can and try to give a reasonable share to all the bands, including ourselves. So far it seems to have worked pretty well, I am happy to say. Quite a surprise, really, because in show business the received wisdom has always been rather that people who have a popular format should stick to it or else they'll be in real trouble. We've been actually doing the opposite for nearly fifty years, I think! (Laughs). If we like it, we do it.

JP: You've pushed the boundaries, you have always sort of evolved.

Chris: Yes, we have always just done things we wanted to do, because long before I played the trombone I had records of music which is more modern than we play now. It isn't modern at all, it is old, Charlie Parker, it is old now. Actually Bebop in the Charlie Parker sense probably sounds more dated than King Oliver's band. In other words you can specify exactly when it was made, and what sort of suits they wore and everything when you hear a few bars of a Bebop record. With Parker's band and some of the Dance Band records, you can see the funny wing collars they wore, and the mafia haircuts, but King Oliver's Band's music doesn't sound dated at all, it isn't dated in any way, the Hot Five and the Hot Seven. I like Bebop; I remember one of my first records was Charlie Parker's Cool Blues -- a lovely record with Errol Garner on piano, a gorgeous record, I have still got, I still have the actual copy now I come to think of it! And so far from going modern the band has managed only to get as far forward as something or other, whatever it is, but then again we just do what we like! If we hear something good we like to play it. We'd rather assume that everybody in the world, if they hear something they like, even by accident, will listen to it again. If they don't like it they don't bother listening to it again. We are exactly the same only we play it, instead of listening to it! (another laugh). What do you think Julian, you think the same way as I do, I think?

JP: Yes, I listen all kinds of music, different styles. I was listening to a newish trio from the States -- Hot Club of Cowtown, they have been on Later With Jools Holland twice recently, they play mainly country.

Chris: I remember holidaying in America years ago, I saw a television programme which was a televised version of a radio programme where they had the country and western band which had Chet Atkins in it playing guitar, and all good players, a fiddle as well, but they also had a cornet, clarinet and drums, a Dixieland band virtually! They played a variety of stuff, Chet Atkins and the fiddle player played a Reinhardt-Grappelli duet type thing, in fact it was Sweet Georgia Brown, and they did a Dixieland number and all kinds of things, not very far removed from what we do, although the basic programme was country and western songs. It's amazing how broad some musics are which you don't realise, when you hear just one facet of it. People think a band like mine plays Whistlin' Rufus all the time. We did play it, and if we could play it better we would probably still play it now. When we started out playing skiffle, it was not real jazz, some people grumbled, then about twenty years later they said it was wonderful when we played that skiffle. "But this Macedonian music you like playing is rubbish": as I said to them twenty years ago, "You said skiffle was rubbish. I wonder what you will dislike in twenty years' time when you tell me how good the Macedonian stuff used to be."

JP: You had to stop playing certain stuff before people realised they actually liked it!

Chris: Yes, that's right, and of course we recorded I'd Love It in our Festival Hall Concert in October 1954 with Bertie King playing alto sax, doing things just like things we do now, which Bob Hunt arranges for us, with the Big Chris Barber Band, the same kind of things, just like the numbers we do now. We always had in mind to do these sorts of things, in those days, with the Ellington tunes, but we didn't have the instrumentation to afford the tone colour varieties that that music really deserves, like Black and Tan Fantasy particularly, which I am so proud of the version we have got now. Bob has arranged it, so we can do just what makes it sound like Black and Tan Fantasy ought to sound, it is a wonderful feeling to be able to do that. We always did those tunes. I recorded Misty Morning with my first band in 1950 (laughs again). The same arrangement, I might add!

JP: You have a big gig coming up in June, the Lonnie Donegan Memorial Concert?

Chris: Well, I haven't got, they have. It's a kind of tribute concert to Lonnie at the Albert Hall. I understand that the world and his wife have offered to be guests on it, and it is going to be quite interesting how they manage that. The last time we did the Albert Hall when Lonnie was on that Skiffle Revival concert, four or five years ago now, it was quite funny, because at the end of it all they had that circular stage in the centre which Cliff Richard had built, because he was there for a whole week doing a show. It was Cliff Richard's stage. Lonnie stood in the middle of that up on top, and all his acolytes, Bruce Welch, Joe Brown, all excellent people, were standing one level down, below his feet all the way round it, and I thought only Lonnie could carry it off. So quite how they will stage it I don't know, but I am sure they will, I am sure they will manage it, and I said I was happy to go along. Van Morrison asked me was I going to be there as he was relying on me to play the bass, when he gets up and does a couple of skiffle numbers. I said yes, okay I will be there, so I have got to borrow Vic Pitt's bass, so I shall have to warn him. I have offered to take along the present Six-Piece Band, which after all is representative of Lonnie's first band when he played with us. Sharon (Donegan) said she didn't know if they had time. So yes, it is a big event.

JP: Thank you very much on behalf of the fans.

Chris Barber Photo Gallery
Credits: As well as photos from the Barber-Purser archives, plus a few from other websites, some of the photographs above were donated by Andreas Wandfluh, Helge Lorenz, Simon Gee, Colin Moore, Kjell Wiklund, Julian Purser, and Ed Jackson.
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