“I suppose the truth is we’re both getting on a bit,” said Chris Barber as we sped in his left-hand-drive Mercedes to the Sussex market town of Horsham, where his 11-piece band was in concert that evening in the Capitol theatre.
Barber’s reluctant musing on age was a reference both to himself and to his trumpet player Pat Halcox, whose 75th birthday was imminent, followed (as always) by Chris’s own 75th birthday four weeks later.
Barber and Halcox have been touring the world together for over 50 years with a band that plays 200 concerts a year and is celebrated in the mainstream of European music. “It doesn’t really matter what age you are. As an artist and musician, as long as you are able to create sounds that express what you want to say, you just keep going,” said Chris, as we navigated a labyrinth of one-way streets heading towards the centre of Horsham.
We were late for the 6pm sound check at the theatre. “I hate being late for sound checks. If you’re late, the rest of the band think that they can be late too.”
I felt slightly guilty about this. Photographer Rebecca Reid and I had delayed the great man for over an hour on Waterloo Bridge, a few yards from the Royal Festival Hall, the scene of one of his early triumphs in a famous concert recorded live in 1954.
Barber, whose father, an eminent statistician, got a double first at Cambridge and was a friend of Maynard Keynes, sees a link between the population of a given country and the number of concerts his band plays there. “You see, there are 80 million people in Germany, and we play 80 concerts there every year; 50 million in Britain, where we play 50 concerts, 15 million in Holland, where we play 15, five million in Denmark, where we play five, and so on.” Chris Barber speaks in staccato fashion, quickly changing subject as his mind races ahead, rather like Garret FitzGerald but at about twice the speed.
“You know,” he veered off statistics and down a sidestreet, “Bernie Ecclestone is one of my oldest and closest friends, yet a lot of people don’t have much good to say of him.” Then he exclaimed: “They’ve changed this place completely since I was last here,” as we arrived at the front of the once art deco Capitol theatre, which was now surrounded by a space-age glass box.
That night, to a full house of 600, the big Chris Barber band, as he calls it (“It’s not the Chris Barber big band, that would imply 15 or 16 musicians”) played a superb set of Ellington arrangements, the blues, and some old favourites like Petite Fleur, to an audience that listened to every note.
It is testimony to Barber’s zest for living that he was well into his 70s when he enlarged the band less than four years ago, having hired Bob Hunt as trombonist and arranger, and moved much of his music on with “head” arrangements to the sophisticated sounds of early Duke Ellington, some of whose repertoire he had always played.
He is a man driven by music. His passion for what Shakespeare called the “concord of sweet sounds”, at 75, is utterly undiminished. One might imagine him climbing over 10 naked women to get his loving hands on the beautifully engraved trombone that he plays, sometimes with lyrical elegance, sometimes with the fierce longing and passion of the blues.
Barber is truly possessed of the “sublime madness” of the real artist. Even when his marvellous band is at its most extrovert, there is a sense of pain in his own playing, an awareness of the ephemerality of all things that connects deeply with the spirit of the audience.
He and his band play the blues and spirituals with that authentic religious fervour that is called “soul”, a quality to be found rarely and only in the greatest performers, whether black or white.
When he sings Ken Colyer’s haunting hymn to New Orleans, Goin’ Home, (“If home is where the heart is, then my home’s in New Orleans, take me to that land of dreams, because if I don’t leave now, I won’t be goin’ nowhere”) it becomes plain why so many great jazz and blues artists over the years — Muddy Waters, Brownie McGhee, Sonny Terry, Dr John, Van Morrison, John Lewis among them — have revered Chris’s music, and have recorded and toured with him.
After Goin’ Home, Chris and Pat Halcox joined forces for a growling vocal duet on the McGhee-Terry standard Cornbread, Peas and Black Molasses and managed by a strange sorcery to conjure up the aching poverty of the Mississippi Delta in the Thirties in a way that defied critical analysis.
But this is definitely not music for critics: “They used to spend a lot of their time telling us that white people couldn’t sing or play black people’s music, but what we play is white people’s music in a style that was originally created by black people, what some call the ‘jungle nights in Hampstead’ sound,” Chris explains, again, one feels, with the logic of a slightly off-centre statistician.
Somehow, like a ghostly song from the past, there runs through all his music a lament for Ottilie Patterson, the great blues singer from Newtownards, Co Down, who was Chris’s wife in the Seventies (they are now divorced) but whose career in professional music was too short and, towards the end, too sad, for Barber to want to talk about it much.
Ottilie’s singing of jazz classics like Careless Love, Nobody Knows You When You’re Down And Out, Trouble in Mind, and Make Me a Pallet on the Floor has rarely if ever been surpassed by a white singer, and people still ask for her at every concert, as if she could be conjured back from retirement by the wave of a Barber’s wand.
If he were a classical musician, he would be hailed as one of the great modernists of western art, his constant search for “the new” being, in its way, as single-mindedly heroic as the artistic vocation of the French composer and conductor Pierre Boulez.
But Barber is a mere jazzman, and his music, no matter how beautiful, no matter how brilliantly performed, will never be considered High Art.
We know that he will continue to do 200 concerts a year, to delight audiences all over Europe, to ceaselessly improve his music, and we know, too, that he will never be acclaimed by the critics. People love his music too much for that to happen.
The alternative to the nonstop touring and playing, one feels, is for him to lay down his head, as Ottilie used to sing, “on some lonesome railroad line, and let the 2.19 train pacify my mind.”
Chris Barber has no intention of laying down his head, or his trombone, on any railroad line just yet.
BERINGEN – Keinen leichten Stand hatte Alexander Eichmann als Organisator der traditionellen Beringer Jazztage. Er sah sich an vergangenen Wochenende der Konkurrenz von drei weiteren Jazzanlässen in der Region ausgesetzt. Der renommierte Name der englischen Big Chris Barber Band war jedoch Anziehungspunkt genug, um einige Hundert erwartungsvolle und begeisterungsfähige Jazzliebhaber in die Zimmerberghalle nach Beringen zu locken. In Fachkreisen gilt die Barber Band zweifelsohne als die bedeutsamste europäische Formation des Oldtime-Jazz schlechthin.
Das 1954 von Chris Barber gegründete Ensemble schreibt seither eine beispiellose Erfolgsgeschichte. Davon konnten sich der Besucher der Beringer Jazztage während über zweier Stunden überzeugen. Schon die imposante Bläserlinie mit Chris Barber und Bob Hunt (Posaune), Pat Halcox und Mike Henry (Trompeten) sowie Richard Exall, Tony Carter und John Defferay (Saxofone, Klarinetten) war eine Wucht. Für einen famos swingenden Rhythmus sorgten Andrew Kuc (Banjo), Vic Pitt (Kontrabass), John Slaughter (Gitarre) und Colin Miller (Schlagzeug). Der erste Konzertteil stand unter dem speziellen Motto «Echoes of Duke Ellington» und beinhaltete mit «Black and Teen Fantasy» eine der wohl berühmtesten Balladen des legendären Bandleaders und Erflogskomponisten.
Und weil Jazz nicht nur ein emotionales, sondern auch ein visuelles Erlebnis ist, war es höchst interessant zu beobachten, wie einzelne Blattbläser sozusagen fliegend zwischen verschiedenen Saxofonen und der Klarinette wechselten. Unüberhörbar war auch der typische Wa-Wa-Klang, wenn bei den Trompetern oder Posaunisten ein Dämpfereinsatz zur stilreinen Wiedergabe von alten Bigband-Arrangements der frühen Dreissigerjahre zur Anwendung gelangte. Obwohl Chris Barbers deutsche Ansagen schwer verständlich waren, war er um den Publikumskontakt mit Aussagen zu den einzelnen Stücken bemüht.
Und weil selbst das schönste Konzert trotz wahrer Beifallsstürme einmal zu Ende geht, kam die exzellente Big Chris Barber Band, um die unerlässliche Zugabe ihres Welthits «Ice Cream» als würdigen Schlusspunkt herum. Als eigentliches Kontrastprogramm bis zur Geisterstunde war die dynamische Rhythm-and-Blues-Band «Back Beat Brothers» aus Zürich verpflichtet worden. Das versierte Quartett mit Hans Peter Ruosch (Piano, Hammondorgel, Vokal), Wolfgang Debrunner (El.- Bass), Wege Wüthrich (Tenorsax) und Thomas Fahrer (Drums) brillierte mit einem Sound, der stark mit Boogie- Woogie-, Blues- und Rock-’n’-Roll- Titeln von Pete Johnson, Big Joe Turner und Chuck Berry angereichert war.
Einige besonders unter die Haut gehende Themen waren gepaart mit heissen Saxofon-Chorussen von Wege Wüthrich. Für eine vitale Tanzshow sorgte Partnerin Vanessa Ruosch, die ihr argentinisches Temperament tatsächlich nicht zu verbergen braucht! Die traditionelle sonntägliche Matinee im voll besetzten stimmungsvollen Foyer der Zimmerberghalle gestaltete sich für die aufstrebende Regioband «The Hot Potatoes» zu einem wahren Triumphzug. Während über zweier Stunden schenkte sich das spielfreudige Sextett mit Hannes Debrunner (Trompete), Didi Jasper (Posaune und Lead-Vocal), Aschi Silvestri (Basstuba), Roger Flieg (Banjo, Vocal), Georg Stirnimann (Klarinette) und Caudo Casa (Perkussion) nicht die geringste Pause. Fetzige Dixie-Nummern und gefühlvoller Blues folgten sich sozusagen Schlag auf Schlag.