Andy Howells speaks to British Jazz legend, Chris Barber ahead of a performance at Newport’s Riverfront Theatre.
Tonight jazz legend Chris Barber OBE will make his first ever appearance at Newport’s Riverfront Theatre, heading up the world famous Big Chris Barber Band.
A hugely talented trombonist and successful bandleader for over 60 years, Chris continues to perform with the same fire and enthusiasm that inspired traditional jazz audiences in the 1950s. He still loves the New Orleans revival sound and features Bourbon Street Parade as his signature tune. But, with its thrilling 10-piece line-up, the Big Chris Barber Band is also able to breathe fresh life into the jazz of Duke Ellington’s early years, including such classics as Jubilee Stomp and Black and Tan Fantasy.
Early Years of The Chris Barber Band
Chris who began his first band in 1949 has included an illustrious list of names in his line-ups over the years including Alexis Corner, Lonnie Donegan, Monty Sunshine and vocalist Ottilie Patterson.
“It was the first time people were recording things from the 20s,” Chris tells me as we discuss the early days of The Chris Barber Jazz Band.
“The jazz sounds weren’t released that strong in Britain. They had a minority appeal but we were emulating that great music from the 1920s. We enjoyed it so much; it came across to the public. We couldn’t understand why anybody wouldn’t like it. When people came to see it, we didn’t feel amazed because what else were they going to go and see?”
Chris’s band was the first to achieve success in popular music with strong record sales and sell-out concert dates, predating the success of later Trad-Jazz successes Mr Acker Bilk and Kenny Ball.
However, Chris reveals that popularity and fame didn’t necessarily walk hand in hand in post-war Britain. “The sheer fact of been popular in the 1950s didn’t mean anything,” he says.
“We played all the major concert halls around the country. The fact that we were getting those places full never made the national papers, because it wasn’t worth mentioning. It wasn’t interesting. It became interesting when The Beatles started up and were playing the same places”
When Chris Barber Met The Beatles
Chris recalls a time when he met The Beatles before their fame beckoned.
“We used to see them in Liverpool. We’d pop down the jazz club to see our friends after we’d finish our concert at 10 in the evening. Of course, it (The Cavern Club) later became a rock rendezvous. We actually met The Beatles; they did the interval slot while some Trad band got the main spot.
“I remember John (Lennon) coming to one of our band members trying to convince him to become their manager because the one they had was useless. The bloke they asked would have had them bankrupt within five minutes!”
By the late 1950s, Chris had become one of the pioneers of the blues movement on this side of the Atlantic. He was the first British bandleader to bring across from America and tour with such iconic figures as Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf and Dr John. Many UK blues musicians such as Eric Clapton and Van Morrison have since acknowledged Chris’s influence and admire his blues playing.
“We brought these people over, Muddy Waters and so forth,” says Chris, “Bands started up like The Rolling Stones. They tried to copy that music and they did very well with it. A lot of them saw us doing that and later came to me and said “It was you doing that, which gave us a chance. Had you not done that, we wouldn’t have created the music.””
The Story Behind Petite Fleur
As well as touring, Chris Barber’s Band also rode high in the music charts in 1959 with their hit Petite Fleur.
“We’d done a couple of short (10 Inch) LP’s”, recalls Chris. “I’d done a solo bit, as had Pat (Halcox) the trumpeter. Then we were going to record the third one and we said “We’ll have Monty Sunshine on the clarinet!” He said “I have this nice tune from Sidney Bechet” and played it to us.
“What made it special about that number was the key Monty played on the clarinet was difficult to play. Sidney Bechet had played it in an ordinary key but Monty’s record player had played it too fast. So it took it up half a tone, it was played in a difficult key and that was its secret because it made the sound more individual. There was a hard edge to Monty’s playing which made it more powerful.”
Chris has continued to pack in the crowds to concert halls around the world in the decades that have followed and no doubt his appearance at Newport Riverfront tonight will be one for fans of jazz and the blues to savour.
“We’ve been dead lucky playing music all this time,” he says, “playing the best we can and to a strong audience.”
- Archived: March 2021