A Tribute to Jazz Musician and Bandleader, Chris Barber

For Throwback Thursday, Andy Howells recalls Jazz legend, Chris Barber who died on March 2.

“We played all the major concert halls around the country,” Jazz band leader Chris Barber told me in 2015.

It’s interesting that during my lifelong interest in popular music, whenever I have discussed the post-war era in Great Britain, there’s always been a strange kind of off-standish attitude towards jazz or Trad-Jazz from pop music fans. The new medium of rock n roll was seemingly fresh and exciting and for many there appears to be “nothing before Elvis.” However, Jazz music complete with its blues influences was more than just a genre that the older folks listened to!

Chris explained to me in 2015, “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?”

Despite some rock historians viewpoints, rock n roll in the UK did go hand in hand with the new craze of skiffle music, itself a fusion of gospel and working songs played on guitars, washboards, and tea chests and already popular in America for years previously.

Performed as interval music in jazz concerts such as Chris Barber’s, the Skiffle genre gained a life of its own when one of Chris’ own band members, Lonnie Donegan propelled Rock Island Line into the UK charts in 1956 and subsequently launched his own music career with Donegan himself ultimately inspiring youngsters to set up their own groups.

Chris Barber pictured in 2015

Chris Barber: Pop Music’s Unsung Hero

Chris Barber’s band never seemingly troubled the singles charts as frequently as Donegan, but on the live circuit they regularly toured and performed to full venues. Barber paid several visits to Cardiff’s Sophia Gardens in the late 1950s, although even the National newspaper of Wales only gave passing references to a driving offence and his marriage to band vocalist Ottilie Patterson during 1959 rather than news of his visits.

Chris said in 2015,“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”

Already established as a leading light of the music business by radio and television appearances including Six-Five Special, The Chris Barber Jazz Band frequently performed abroad and brought back many  jazz legends to the UK to tour with them. To a point, these actions made Chris Barber an unsung hero for the future of popular music.

“We brought these people over, Muddy Waters and so forth. 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.”

Andy Howells pictured with Chris Barber at Newport’s Riverfront Theatre in 2015

Chris Barber Chart Success With Petite Fleur

In 1959, The Chris Barber Jazz Band topped the UK charts with Petite Fleur, a track recorded for a Pye Records EP a few years previously featuring a clarinet solo by Monty Sunshine. The track itself was as unique in its approach as it was memorable.

“What made it special about that number was the key Monty played on the clarinet was difficult to play,” explained Chris, “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.”

Six decades on from the number one, Chris’s Big Band were still performing Petite Fleur at live shows of which he would announce it as “A medley of our hit!” Chris kept performing right up until his retirement in 2019.

  • Donald Christopher Barber OBE, musician and bandleader, 17 April 1930 – 2 March 2021
  • Main Photo: Luc Lodder

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