This is a mesage that Jeff Van Horn, of Austin, Texas, sent to his friends in the Austin Traditional Jazz Society, after returning from a trip to Germany in November 2004 where he heard -- and met -- the Big Chris Barber Band. Thanks to Jeff for the photographs and permission to reproduce his message.
Hello friends,

I just returned from a trip to Germany that included an unbelievable night of jazz for me.

My son, who lives in Heidelberg, Germany, got married on Saturday, November 6, in Heidelberg. I had started planning my trip a couple of months before. My original plan was to explore Great Britain after the wedding. Included in that plan was to find some hot jazz while there, since traditional jazz seems to be more popular now in England and in other parts of Europe than it is in the U.S.

So, the first website I visited was that of Chris Barber. I had hoped to possibly find him in London or some other accessible venue while in the U.K. Well, what I discovered was that Chris Barber was going to be on tour with his Big Chris Barber Band in that same part of Germany that I would be in, and at the same time I would be there. That changed my plans. I was going to stay in Germany and see that band at some place.

I finally decided that the best time and place to hear the Chris Barber band would be on Monday night, Nov. 8, in Ulm, Germany. So, in an effort to either purchase or reserve a ticket, I went back to the Internet to determine exactly who was sponsoring the concert. I was unsuccessful in discerning this information, so I contacted by email Wigt Productions, who was the producer of the concerts. One of the individuals in that organization indicated that she would try to have me a ticket reserved at the box office for Nov. 8. I never received any confirmation that this had in fact occurred.

So, on November 8, I took about a two-hour train ride from Heidelberg to Ulm. The concert was scheduled to begin at 8:00 p.m., but I was anxious that the concert might be sold out and that I might not have any ticket waiting for me at the box office. With my total lack of understanding of the German language, I thought the front door of the theater said that the box office opened at 5:00 p.m.

So, at 5:00 o'clock straight-up, I was tugging on the front door of the theater without any success. At the same time I was doing this, another man walked up to the front door and also attempted to get in. He said something to me in German, to which I responded "English." Then, he said that he actually spoke English also and that he was one of the members of the band that was to play that night. I asked him what his instrument was and he said "Clarinet." I was not going to let this opportunity quickly fade, so I replied (honestly) that the clarinet was my favorite instrument. I think we probably also talked about the fact that I was from Austin and why I was at the theater door at that time of day.

John Defferary, photo by JVH

It turned out that this man was John Defferary, who plays clarinet, bass clarinet, and tenor sax in the Big Chris Barber Band. Either he took a liking to me, or he believed that I appeared to be sort of an orphan who needed adopting, because he asked me to come back with him and hang out in the backstage, dressing-room area of the theater.

So, I spent the next two hours sitting in one of the band's dressing rooms, visiting with John, with Chris Barber, and with almost every band member. John had been the first musician to arrive that evening, so when any band member would show up, he would introduce me to him as his friend who came all the way from Austin, Texas, to hear the band. (As part of John's warmup, I listened to him play a note-for-note rendition of Artie Shaw's "Stardust.") One of the musicians later asked me how long John and I had been friends, and I had to answer him "About an hour."

When I was introduced to another reed man, Tony Carter, Tony brought out a small flask from which he took a sip. Then he handed it to me, saying "Try some of Scotland's finest." I had to be sociable. He also invited me to come up to the band's hotel after the concert to continue our visit.

About an hour and a half before the concert was to start, the band went onto the stage to warm up and to do a sound check. John told me to come with them. So, there I find myself standing backstage with the Big Chris Barber Band listening to, among other things, Chris warming up the vocal chords singing "Take Me Back to New Orleans." I was in a state of total ecstasy.

Jeff Van Horn & Chris Barber

At some point during the warmup, Chris walked over to me and we had about a ten-minute discussion about topics as diverse as (1) the long-time relationship between Austin Traditional Jazz Society and the Alamo City Jazz Band, which band is featured in the current issue of the Mississippi Rag; (2) how ironic it was that Tommy Dorsey initially played such a rough trumpet, but then developed into the smoothest of trombonists; and (3) the fact that Chris had performed on two different occasions in Texas - one at the State Fair of Texas in Dallas in the 50's, and the other some time after that at the University of Texas in Austin. I told him about my also seeing Louis Armstrong in Gregory Gymnasium at the University of Texas during the 60's. Chris Barber is so personable and engaging. Like I said, we casually visited for about ten minutes, and then he indicated, as though he had been sidetracked, that he had better get back to warming up since the other musicians were waiting. Chris is now 74 years old, but he can still play a mean trombone. Yet, the thing that impressed me more than anything about Chris Barber is his continuing passion for what he does. That passion is a deep crimson and it was more apparent to me from the warmup than it was from the performance itself. That is because the performance always has some showmanship associated with it, but the warmup was absolutely genuine.

About the performance itself. The Big Chris Barber Band consists of 11 players - three reeds, two trumpets, two trombones, two guitar/banjos, a string bass, and a drummer. Of course, that being the lineup, the band did not solely play traditional jazz. But, traditional jazz they did play. The opening number was "Bourbon Street Parade." Later during the first set, the band did the entire number of "Take Me Back to New Orleans" that I had heard them warm up to. They closed the first set with "Big Noise from Winnetka," in which the drummer and bassist flat-out wowed the crowd with their musicianship and showmanship.

The second set began with a few songs performed by a six-man traditional lineup, instead of the entire 11-piece band. The last number of the evening was "The Saints," after which the crowd settled into a rhythmic clapping of the hands until the band came back for an encore.

But, the most lasting impression that I carried away from this concert was the enthusiasm of this German crowd for this music. It was infectious and John told me afterwards that it drove the band to play better. For the encore, the band played its customized version of "Ice Cream." To the melody of the song, the band would sing "I scream. You scream." Then the band would encourage the crowd to respond with "Everybody wants ice cream." You should have heard these Germans ringing out in English, "Everybody wants ice cream." It was exhilarating. If only American crowds had this same degree of enthusiasm.

The band had to leave at 9:00 the next morning for a performance that evening in the Netherlands. So, I chose not to accept Tony Carter's invitation to come over to their hotel. Instead, after the concert I went backstage and thanked everyone I saw for their hospitality and for their outstanding concert.

I could have cancelled my airline ticket back to Austin. After that night in Ulm, Germany, I didn't need any airplane to get back home.

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