From the Durham University website:
Wednesday 28 June 2006 at 2.00 pm
Chris Barber - DMus
Enduring influence on British Jazz & other contemporary music.
Chris Barber tried to study maths while distracted by an insistent preoccupation with Jazz, and hit an immovable obstacle in the form of some Louis Armstrong records. Eventually he accepted his father's offer of support while changing to study music. Chris's father had played the violin (well enough to be leader of the student orchestra at Christ's Hospital) and became an economist, but Chris reversed the trend and bought a trombone. He enrolled at the Guildhall School of Music with his trombone and accepted their offer of a double bass on which to learn. After leading an amateur band from 1949, he finally formed his professional band in 1953. It became the somewhat unexpected founder of the mid-50s popular success of traditional jazz, spawning numerous offspring in the process (Acker Bilk, Kenny Ball and others). By the late 50s, among Barber's most important activities was the introduction of American Blues and Gospel artistes to the UK, creating a little later the "British Blues Boom" of the early 60s and indeed is still rolling! Chris happily entered his sixth decade as a Bandleader with no discernible flagging of interest, enthusiasm, skill, nor, indeed, audience appreciation and took the opportunity to allow the band to grow to 11 members with great success. In 1991 he was awarded the OBE for his services to Music. As a trombone player Chris's work is enhanced by his rich sound and flowing solo style. It is, however, as a Bandleader and trend-creator that he has made his greatest contribution to the jazz scene both internationally and in the UK.
Chris Barber OBE
Doctor of Music honoris causa
Congregation held in Durham Cathedral, 28 June 2806
Presentation Speech by Professor David Fuller, Public Orator
'The unconscious is in a new state, and has a new need, and has produced a new art to satisfy that need'. So wrote the poet Philip Larkin in 1940. The new art was jazz - not then, of course, entirely new, but spreading into the world in a new way, and beginning to reach a new and wider public. It was about to reach a boy living near Cambridge, who would cycle to his violin lessons in order to save his bus fare, in order to spend his bus fare on recordings of jazz. This beginning of a collection which now runs to some 20,000 items led to careful listening, creative imitation, and loving recreation. The violin was exchanged for a trombone; but the musical training provided by the violin lessons - and the investment capital - laid the basis from which Chris Barber became one of the best-known jazz performers, arrangers and band leaders of the past fifty years.
Playing in amateur jazz bands before he was twenty, Chris Barber formed his first professional group while he was studying trombone and double bass at the Guildhall School of Music. It was not then easy to hear the music that Chris Barber and his fellow musicians took as their models. Records were few; travel was difficult; Musicians' Union agreements in the UK meant that American musicians could not perform here; segregation in the southern states of the US meant that black and white musicians could not perform together there. Chris Barber’s first address to these problems was to join forces with the trumpeter Ken Colyer, newly deported from the United States, a victim of the difficulties of playing there. Though this did not work out, by 1954 Chris Barber had successfully settled on the band that laid the basis for all his later work, its characteristic sound - reed, brass, and rhythm section, but no piano - and some of its long-serving members, including the trumpeter, Pat Halcox, who has been with the band ever since. The band played what is properly called ‘revived archaic jazz', that is, the jazz emanating from New Orleans in the early years of the century, jazz still closely connected with its origins in the black communities of the US southern states.
This is music to which many cultures have contributed, partly African in origin, but articulated in America where French and Spanish influences were still powerful. It is the music of freed slaves, of oppressed people whose songs expressed religious fervour for a life of justice and freedom antithetical to the oppression and poverty in which they lived: melancholy music, music aware of pain and ephemerality - a world as one Chris Barber arrangement has it, of “Cornbread, peas and black molasses”. But it is also, as another of its most famous lyrics describes it, 'music from the land of dreams’ - celebratory, reaching out beyond its historical origins to articulate myths about freedom and happiness which, like all myths that are really believed in, has come to have a reality of its own. In origin an aspect of black American culture, jazz is now a cultura1 form in which there are no racial divisions.
Chris Barber began performing this music in a world as remote from its Mississippi Delta origins as it is from the present day - a post-war Britain of rationing and austerity, in which jazz was an assertion from the margins about the relief of recovering pleasure and resisting regulations. He soon made jazz popular - through concerts and recordings; with the cross-over into popular music of ‘skiffle’, a revived term which, with his banjo-player, Lonnie Donegan, he all but reinvented; through the American jazz musicians he brought to Britain, introducing jazz to a new generation of up-and-coming performers; and by helping to re-establish the National Jazz Federation to support performers, to bring forward new ideas, and to organise performances in clubs and at festivals. From 1959 he toured in America, performing at the Hollywood Bowl, first alongside Count Basie and Louis Armstrong, later alongside Dave Brubeck and one of the most important of his own models, Duke Ellington. In less than a decade Chris Barber had established his band in the forefront of international performance, and become a model for other bands in Europe. By helping establish performance networks that created new audiences and inspired new performers he had taken his music beyond. the usual jazz appreciation circles without comprornising the integrity of the performance styles on which it was based.
The great British blues singer Ottilie Patterson had joined the Chris Barber Band very soon after its formation, and from the beginning the band played blues, not making a point of distinguishing it from other jazz. The establishing of the Chris Barber Jazz and Blues Band in the 1960s meant a change, not of repertoire and performance style, but of the range of instrumental colours played; a development with combinations of timbre that was taken still further with the creation in 2001 of the Big Chris Barber Band. Alongside these formalised changes, experiment has been a consistent keynote. Complementary to the cross-over into popular music with skiffle in the 1950s, in the 1980s Chris Barber composed, with Richard. Hill, a concerto for jazz trombone, accompanied by a full orchestra but using jazz idioms. In similar vein, he has appeared as a guest soloist with the London Gabrieli Brass Ensemble.
For all these services to music, in 1991 he was awarded the OBE. It is a recognition of the integrity of his particular services to jazz in its historic origins that he is also an honorary citizen of New Orleans.
Jazz takes some of its meaning from giving musical expression to the experiences that can be traced in its history - emerging from poverty and oppression, asserting a desire for freedom and happiness. Jazz also takes meanings from its forms - the mixture of ensemble interplay and solo improvisation; the anchoring pulse, insistent and subtly varied; and the familiar melodies, ever present, but dismantled and remade. The forms of jazz, like its history, imply modes of life: the ideal co-operative, and the free individual; constant reference to tradition, and constant evolution and variation. It is the art of the arranger to create individual opportunities, it is the art of the bandleader to foster the group ethos, by which these values can be articulated. For more than fifty years, and all over the world, so Chris Barber has done.
Mr Chancellor, I present Donald Christopher Barber, OBE, to receive the degree of Doctor of Music honoris causa.