“I scream, you scream,
everybody wants ice cream!”
They were the words I got back when the name Chris Barber was mentioned to friends and colleagues. There’s a whole lot more to Barber than that though, and John Harrison’s review of the Big Chris Barber Band at the Bad Godesberg Stadthalle is by far the longest review on this site to date. Even so, it barely scratches at the surface of Barber’s career or his importance to modern music.
A promoter of Early Blues greats like Muddy Waters and Howling Wolf. A founder of London’s Marquee Club – THE place for every aspiring Pop/Rock star of the 60’s and 70’s to play (and where the likes of Jagger and Hendrix cut their teeth after hearing the band’s Barber ‘brought over’ to the UK). Learning ground for legendary musicians like Lonnie Donegan and Ken Colyer.
“He changed my life, and probably yours too” is how Hugh Laurie describes Barber in an interview
Let John Harrison tell the Chris Barber story through his excellent review that follows. Take a break mid-way for an ice cream if you want…
Chris Barber packs nearly 900 people into the local town community hall and then enters onto the stage alone to a rapturous applause. With a twinkle in his eye he says, in German, that he doesn’t do sarcasm, but that when people come up to him in the foyer and tell him they haven’t seen him play live since 1955, that he is sometimes tempted to reply,
“Thanks for coming along to see me, again.” but, being the gentleman that he is, he doesn’t.
With a career spanning nearly seven decades such re-encounters can actually happen and we are quietly reminded what an illustrious and long career Chris Barber has enjoyed, and is indeed still very much enjoying. Now as an octogenarian he is at the top of his game and is very much involved in the day to day management of the band and shows little sign of easing back on the stage musically either.
The other nine members of his band come onto the stage and the “big band” kicks off with a series of Duke Ellington numbers. Chris knows that the first number of the night is important, not only from an audience point of view, but also to put the musicians in the right happy groove and make them feel good for the evening. Such an uplifting song is “Bourbon Street Parade” which invites us all to fly now down to New Orleans, it’s a long way away, but we’re already in “Check-in”. The melody from this number was, incidentally, so copied by the opening number called “Willkommen” in the 1972 film “Cabaret” that when Chris was singing “Let’s fly now” I was already thinking “Wilkommen” sung in the film by Joel Grey as emcee, and I’m sure I’m not the only person thinking so. (With only 12 notes in a scale it is virtually impossible not to plagiarise somebody, somewhere, from some time ago, whenever one tries to play something new – otherwise Cabaret was a great film!)
“Bourbon Street Parade” is certainly a very well chosen warm and welcoming opening number and a bright, breezy fanfare opening for this particular evening as an opener for a very formidable Chris Barber Big Band.
“Rent Party Blues” is based on the old Harlem habit of turning adversity around into opportunity when the rent for the flat was in arrears, by throwing musical rent parties and inviting all their neighbours when they could not scrape together enough money themselves to pay the rent. Thankfully, the money raised was usually sufficient and the following weekend it was someone else’s turn to throw the “rent party”, at their apartment. Sometimes it was the rent for the piano itself that needed to be paid and ironically it was often pianists who were featured at such parties, as in Fats Waller’s famous song “This Joint is Jumpin'”.
“Jungle lights in Harlem” again alludes to that part of Manhattan which is located in civilised New York City but is mainly occupied by African-Americans and at night some of music shows its origins from the very heart of the African continent.
“Jubilee Stomp” starts with three saxophones and thus features newest member of the band Nick White – soloing sovereignly on alto sax and perfectly nailing the characteristic upward bends of this tune on the alto saxophone. Tonight was only his second performance with the band. There was fine work too by Bert Brandsma switching from tenor sax, to clarinet, and back again and again and once more yet again after a “dummy ending” and a re-start.
All in all, bubbling, effervescent big band sounds in the first quarter, which, thanks to the arrangement of Bob Hunt on second trombone, brought a great authenticity and vibrancy to these Duke Ellington tunes.
Now Nick White, Trevor Whiting, Peter Rudeforth and Bob Hunt leave the stage and the Chris Barber Big Band momentarily reverts to it’s original 1950’s line-up as a six piece, a traditionalist revivalist New Orleans Jazz Band in effect.
The next quarter starts with a slow Gospel number, “Precious Lord Take My Hand”, and features a terrific subdued trombone solo with Chris using a hat mute and wonderful interplay from Bert Brandsma on clarinet and Mike Henry on trumpet, each taking solos, but it is not just the solos but more the constant interplay between the three which makes this number so interesting and appealing. This is pure Jazz magic, New Orleans style. It would easily stand alone as an instrumental piece but Chris Barber’s soft vocals towards the end are the icing on this proverbial gospel cream cake. “Take my hand precious lord, lead me on.”
“Going Home” is a tribute to a former band member, a rather autobiographical song penned by Ken Colyer after being deported from the USA. So besotted was Ken with Trad Jazz and with reaching New Orleans to play with his musical heroes there, that Colyer, a man of modest means, but immeasurable musical passion, actually rejoined the merchant navy and enlisted on a ship bound for Mobile, Alabama. From there he jumped ship with no papers and caught the Greyhound bus to New Orleans, where he actually managed to sit in with the all black George Lewis Band and George even engaged Ken to play lead trumpet with the band on an impending tour. However, before that happened Ken was “rumbled” and by now having contravened countless regulations, including the colour bar in force at the time, he was caught, charged and duly deported back to England.
Chris Barber and Monty Sunshine in the meantime had written him a letter inviting him to join their fledgling band and put his own name above it, which he did in 1953 upon his return to England. Another example of Chris Barber not being afraid to stick his neck out and instigate change for the common good. Apparently the US officials were also gracious enough to deport Ken back to Europe – travelling 1st class on an ocean liner, which allowed him plenty of time to write the song which Chris sings in his memory this evening, “Going Home” which was now and forever more where Ken’s spiritual musical heart was, in New Orleans.
In “Wildcat Blues”, a tune written by Thomas Wright Waller, more commonly known as “Fats Waller”, and Clarence Williams in 1923, the clarinet of Bert Brandsma comes to the fore once more. Bert began playing the clarinet at an early age, but the chemistry with his teacher didn’t work out, so he switched to the saxophone and subsequently became the first person in Holland to qualify with both a musical degree in both Classical and also in Jazz saxophone.
Bert plays great sax, but on numbers like this you can tell that his heart really still lies with his first love, the clarinet. Chris used to play double bass on this number and in the old days originally accompanied Monty Sunshine on clarinet and Lonnie Donegan on banjo, but recently his arthritis has been playing him up in the winter months, and his doctor has advised him to give up the double bass, but watch out again in summer!
“Wildcat Blues” starts off with a bass, drum and clarinet trio, Mike Henry later joins on a muted trumpet, and then, last but not least, Chris on the trombone and Joe Farler on banjo. Bert Brandsma has played with Chris Barber’s band sporadically since 2011 before becoming a full member two and a half years ago, literally a dream come true. At 11 years old he had his first LP, it was a Chris Barber one, and the first concert he attended aged 14 in Groningen, was a Chris Barber concert, and he thought he would never become as good as “those guys” -Well now he is one of “those guys”. The following night the Chris Barber Big Band are playing in the city of Leuwarden where Bert went to school, and his former secondary school music teacher will be in attendance. Doubtless thinking, “well, I probably did a good job teaching that lad!”
It’s back to the full band for ” East St Louis to-doloo” written by Duke Ellington. One of his very first compositions from the early 1920s, and again arranged by trombonist Bob Hunt Hunt is a dedicated ‘Ellingtonian’ and actually played with the Duke Ellington follow up band. After the previous quieter numbers we are reminded once more what a powerful line up two trombones, three reeds and two trumpets are when they are all playing together, and especially when all the musicians are of such high calibre as those on stage tonight. “Merry Go Round”, also from Ellington features both an alto sax solo from Trevor Whitney and a baritone sax solo from Nick White and brings the first half to a fitting close.
It’s a generous break. Chris has a very extensive discology = a lot of CDs to sell! It is also not possible to serve several hundred thirsty people with drinks in just ten minutes.
( NB A tip for future audiences of concerts at the Stadthalle :
I did notice a sign at the bar saying that one could pre-order drinks for the break. I have often wondered why this quaint custom, which has long been a widespread tradition in provincial English theatres, has never seemed to have caught on in Germany. If you buy drinks before the performance, simply order and prepay your drinks for the interval and you are given a numbered or named ticket as a receipt and an indication of where they will be located, and when the break commences, you simply bypass the hundreds standing in the queue and locate your name or number and simply enjoy both your drinks and the break to the full. This also makes sense for the bar staff who have otherwise nothing to do for an hour and are then absolutely steam rolled for the first 20 minutes during the break. It helpfully spreads their workload.)
Whatever, those members of the audience whose musical alignments and loyalties are closer to the Blues, rather than Trad Jazz, are in for a real treat in Part two with a series of five Blues pieces. The first a song penned by Duke Ellington in the 1920s called “Black and Tan Fantasy”. Black and Tan is a popular drink even today in the USA poured with dark Guinness beer, made from roasted barley, over layered on a lighter coloured lager type beer. Chris refers to it as a political song, however, written so soon after a regiment known by the same name brutally put down IRA insurgencies in the decade following the Easter uprising in 1916 in Ireland. Certainly a very black period of British Isles’ history.
“Black and Tan Fantasy” the tune is a slow mournful blues with a soulful trombone solo using a rubber plunger mute wah-wah effect across a delightful rhythmic interplay between Joe Farler on the banjo and Gregor Beck making judicious use of the symbols with timpani sticks on the drums. This tune then fuses seamlessly into another Ellington classic “The Mooche” as every one joins in for a still mournful, yet now crescending wall of sound with lilting clarinet whirling over a veritable growling trumpet and trombone section which ends with a stunning trombone solo from Bob Hunt who gives us a good example of the mouth technique producing a “never ending note”. Well applied, and with a sufficient number of horns playing in unison, this technique can be enormously effective. Remember what happened to the walls surrounding the city of Jericho anyone?
Next in the breach is “C Jam Blues”, another Duke Ellington classic, where Banjo player Joe Farler straps on a guitar instead. John Slaughter was guitarist in the band since 1964 but sadly passed away five years ago and since then the guitar has been only a more sporadic instrument in the band. This tune also features Pete Rudeforth on the Flugelhorn and Mike Henry on trumpet.
A favourite, also non-musical phrase of Duke Ellington was “beyond category ” and this could equally apply to Chris Barber. He plays primarily Jazz music and is very respectful of the tradition, but he is probably more aware of its Blues roots than any other Jazz musician on the planet, but he is also not afraid to sometimes take it “somewhere beyond” in a most creative sense. Chris Barber certainly does not like to shoe horn music into any particular genre shoe boxes. He likes all good music and does not hold back from either saying so, or indeed playing it himself. The next two numbers, back to back, are a case in point. The first song might seem somewhat unusual for what began as a traditional New Orleans Jazz Band, until one remembers that Chris Barber is not a typical traditional anything. It was Chris Barber who personally brought Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, the legendary rural blues duo, over from the USA at his own personal expense in 1958, long before every one else later jumped on the bandwagon throughout the 1960s and 1970s. The tune, I don’t want no, “Cornbread, Peas and Black Molasses” was written by them and Chris reminds us that he first played this song along with them together in Berlin in 1958, when they toured Europe for the very first time. The song title may seem slightly bizarre and even romantic to European ears, but Chris reminds us that Sonny and Brownie were actually complaining about the standard unappetising prison fare still being served up in Louisiana State penitentiaries to the work gangs there at that time.
Chris is a very enthusiastic trail blazing kind of guy and if he sees a need to do something that will improve the quality of music available, he simply gets up and does it without further ado and he also personally introduced other, at the time totally unknown, blues artists to European audiences in the late 1950s, who eventually, became legends in their own right, all over the world, artists such as Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf and Big Bill Broonzy, to name but a few. In a similar vein Chris was instrumental in co-founding the extremely influential Marquee Club in Oxford Street in London in 1958, simply because he saw it a s job that needed doing, so without making any great fuss, he just went out and did it. Typical Chris Barber and thank goodness it is too, because if it wasn’t, the music scene as we know it today, would not have the richness and depth that we all now enjoy. The originally, essentially US, genes and genres of black American music, which gave us the Blues and then later Jazz were somehow magically re-wired in London and sent back across the Atlantic to the USA and later to the rest of the world, to become the building blocks from which literally ALL forms of modern music have subsequently profited and emerged, but those roots are still traceable in the music even today. A certain Donald Christopher ‘Chris’ Barber was instrumental in crafting himself many of the facets of this huge gigantic multi-faceted musical diamond which we all know now as modern contemporary “pop”(ular) music.
Few people would have the creativeness or the audacity to even think about following “Cornbread, Peas and Black Molasses” with a Miles Davis number, namely “All Blues” and even fewer bands would be in a position to actually also play both differing styles with such convincing elegance, style and authenticity. “All Blues” from the Miles Davis “Kind of Blue” album is the epitome of Cool Jazz. It starts with the rhythm section of drums and bass and with all three saxophones, two tenors and an alto up front, no trombones, no trumpets, just treacle thick rich saxophone chords on top of the thinner guitar base. Then on comes Mike Henry with a cornet muffled Miles Davis style. Then a funky bass solo from Jackie Flavelle before the saxes return and there is some wonderful call and response between the saxes and the cornet. Bravo Cool Jazz! Bravo open-minded Chris Barber!
How should one follow that? “What you gonna do?” is not only the question, but also the appropriate title of the next number, and also the answer to the question too! The song is one which Chris Barber recorded for an LP issued in 1978, and it was originally recorded by the Harlem Hamfats . It doesn’t matter if you are loosing your girl or your money, the answer to the question is always still the same, “you’ve got to get it all back again”. Chris Barber is not only a passionate musician, but also a tenacious fighter, fighting to “come back again” and doesn’t take things lying down.
Until the mid 1960s his type of Jazz music was still widely accepted by the younger generation, as part of their newly discovered “modern mainstream” but gradually as the new black American music, which ironically he personally had introduced to Europe, became ever more popular with young European musicians, who then developed it even further, the popularity of his own style of music from around 1966 onwards temporarily waned, but Chris indeed fought back, as fight back he indeed must if the band is to survive this barren patch.
During the late 1960s when he was not so popular in the west he pioneered musical concerts in communist East Germany, where he slipped under the radar by not being as “decadent” as the western long-haired R&B bands who were so popular at the time. Chris was not a communist, but his parents were certainly left wing (his mother was the Labour Mayoress of Canterbury) and this certainly influenced how Chris ran the band as a “collective” or co-operative” for almost the first decade of its existence. All members of the band, including himself, were considered equal, and given equal status and importance, and indeed payment. There were rare moments when two notable members of the early band, namely Ken Colyer and later Lonnie Donegan felt that due to their own newly acquired personal popularity, that they deserved more money than the rest, Chris explained to them that was not the way a collective band works or could possibly ever work and he politely, but firmly told them both that if they could not accept this, then they should leave, which they duly did, but typically for Chris, both on good terms and with absolutely no animosity. Apart from these two hiccups the idealist concept that Chris had instigated worked very well indeed, and possibly also perhaps even endeared him to the East German authorities of the time too.
The real world is unfortunately less forgiving than the theoretical world and with the dip in popularity in the 1960s the band made a loss for the first time. The band was effectively bankrupt and Chris asked the other members of what he considered to be a “collective” to each chip in around GBP 100 to cover the deficit. The others were either unable or unwilling to do this and so Chris said he could possibly cover the loss out of his own pocket in order to keep the band afloat, but if he did that, then that would be the end of the “co-operative”, and that if he was expected to cover personally any future losses, he should also accrue any future profits made by the band, in compensation for any future financial risk now lying exclusively with him, and him alone. An immaculately infallible logical deduction, but I can imagine that a little part of Chris shed a small inner tear on that day.
Martin Luther King eventually achieved his own great humanitarian “dream”, Chris Barber had to somehow set aside his smaller ambition of musical humanism, harmony and economic collectivism and effectively yield to the more selfish economic forces of capitalism which, as is their nature, greedily consumed some of his most honourable ideals.
Chris is not only a well principled, very fair and just human being when it comes to money, but he is also generous musically as a band leader too and unlike some band leaders he does his utmost best to give everyone a fair crack of the whip with individual solos. This latter fact is certainly in evidence listening to the band play and it is one of the reasons for the bands enduring success..
Another up tempo Duke Ellington tune follows with “Hot and Bothered” and proves the point about the solos. Joe Farler swaps his guitar for a banjo again. There are three trumpets this time as Bob Hunt exchanges his trombone for a trumpet this time and Chris Barber’s delightful trombone solo follows on to a banjo solo from Joe. There are three saxes at the beginning but by the end two of these have miraculously metamorphosed into clarinets. These guys are nothing if not versatile and all are extremely talented musicians!
Finally, the tune that every one has been waiting for, the very same clarinet hit that Chris ironically prophesised as Lonnie Donegan left the band because he could earn much more money going solo at the height of the skiffle boom. Chris said to him that skiffle may be popular now, but in the future it could be something different like “clarinets” perhaps and low and behold, the Chris Barber Band had a million selling hit single within a year with the Sidney Bechet tune “Petite Fleur” featuring Monty Sunshine on the clarinet. Monty unfortunately passed away in 2010 but tonight we have three clarinettists accompanied by bass, drums with brushes, and guitar. Trevor Whiting takes the lead clarinet part followed by a superb lilting guitar solo from Joe Farler, at the end of which the brushes are swapped for sticks and the whole brass section powerfully blows in together for a mere 15 or 20 seconds, then cutting while Gregor goes back to the brushes before Trevor Whiting fades out with the melody once more on the clarinet right at the end. Gentle, thrifty and superb, and probably if Chris were thinking aloud, just possibly “slightly more endurable than skiffle”.
Yet another difficult one to follow, but the tune that used to be the warming up piece for the original Duke Ellington Band suddenly got promoted when the Duke said one evening, “This is a good tune wasted” and moved it onto his actual set list where “Rockin’ in Rhythm” was played every evening after that. Joe Farler swaps the guitar for the banjo again and the reeds are now playing three saxes enhanced by muted wah-wah trumpets and trombones for a full sound most befitting of the band. Usually, the Ellington arrangement are all by Bob Hunt, but this time by Bert Brandsma created the arrangement and the tune lives up to its name and simply “rocks”.
Another song which had to be played this evening is the New Orleans marching tune “When The Saints Go Marching In” and Chris quietly and somewhat sadly reminds us that the Chris Barber Band, along with members of the Acker Bilk Band, marched with this same song only quite recently at the funeral of the trumpet playing founder of the band, Pat Halcox.
The Blues are never ever very far away from anybody. However, the Blues are seldom as sad as non-aficionados sometimes perceive. Like the Portuguese Fado, or indeed an Irish Wake, the sadness is in the back ground, but there is also the idea that if you hadn’t experienced such great joy in the first place, the sadness or longing would not be so intense and that one can also take inspiration and even perhaps happiness fom the many years of joy which preceded the sudden loss and ultimate recent sadness.
“When the Saints” is really not so much about mourning death but about celebrating the wonderful life which preceded it and there is certainly joy to be taken from Pete Rudeforth’s trumpet solo, Trevor Whiting’s sax solo and Joe Farler’s banjo solo. Then follows a great moving bass and trombone solo from Jackie Flavel and Chris Barber, without any percussion at all, before the drums finally kick in summoning the rest of the band to fire up in the finale moving up three semitones from F to Ab, truly further firing the emotions before another dummy ending and starting up again, allowing Gregor Beck one last drum solo before the whole band all return for the real finale this time.
What a performance, and people are already up out of their seats and standing up to applaud and acknowledge the fact. The applause is, however, tumultuous enough for Chris to realise he won’t be able to vacate the hall without one more!
“Does everybody want to sing?” asks Chris and the answer is indeed affirmative, much to his surprise and relief! “Ice Cream” was originally recorded in 1927 by Fred Waring & his Pennsylvanians. Chris Barber recorded it many years ago as an instrumental in Denmark and the producers asked if anyone one could sing on it. Pat Halcox volunteered, although he didn’t know the original words, and so just simply improvised. This is the version which has now universally stuck and today it completely overshadows the original version, which hardly anyone remembers.
“Ice Cream” all round it is as Chris Barber starts up the vocals with help from Pete Rudeforth and Bert Brandsma.
“I scream, you scream, everybody loves ice cream“ is echoed from the 800+ impromptu choir, in fact the only things missing are the ladies in short skirts in the cinema who used to come around with trays actually selling “Ice cream”!
After the vocals Bert Brandsma jumps in with another stunning clarinet solo followed by the banjo and Chris on the trombone and then the saxes join in and now not only the stage but the whole house is rocking.
A veritably well earned standing ovation at the end for Chris and the band.
For members of this band, such an evening is not unusual, it is what they enjoy doing and when hard pressed can perhaps only separate the individual evenings by certain individual memories, which may stick in their minds.
For most members of the audience however, such an evening is a “memory for a lifetime”, quite literally for some possible “cheapskates” to whom Chris refered right at the beginning of the evening. I’ll wager though very few of them were here tonight, and if there were, they were perhaps genuinely, positively, pleasantly surprised to unexpectedly be able to return half a century later to still enjoy this wonderful music played with such passion by one of its original most enduring perpetrators.
Jack Bruce, the classically trained Scottish cello player who put the most incredible blues rock improvised Bach-inspired bass lines down for Jazz drummer Ginger Baker to go walk- and drum-abouts with, allowed a young, then almost musically illiterate, yet still brilliant, young electric guitarist to freely go to unimaginable, and as yet totally uncharted Blues waters, “beyond category” and somewhere far beyond, once said that,
“Chris Barber is the real Daddy of everything!”
He was referring to the fact that Chris had introduced these unknown American Blues giants to the UK and also founded the Marquee Club and given Alexis Korner a seperate spot there when he finally found enough like-minded musically souled musicians to join his Alexis Korner’s “Blues Incorporated” Blues Band regularly there on a Thurday night. Both Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker played in “Blues Incorporated” as did at various times Charlie Watts, Davy Graham, Long John Baldry, Ronnie Jones, Danny Thompson, Graham Bond, Cyril Davies and Dick Heckstall-Smith.
I certainly fully concur with the fact that Chris made so many things possible, equally so for the development of Blues as for Jazz and indeed popular music in general; Things that even he must have possibly dreamed of as impossible, but which actually came about and followed in his wake.
As far as Jazz and Blues is concerned there is no more appropriate criteria than the fact that Chris Barber has ensured that even if the musical world cannot always have both its proverbial cake and also eat it, and also even its cream on top, it can certainly, thanks to Chris not only enjoy its own British Blues musical “Cream” the blues rock group and also eat and sing his own personal British Jazz musical “Ice Cream”.
This slightly eccentric Englishman Chris Barber, who has always lives his life in the “fast lane” and once he has decided his destination in his own mind he simply puts his foot firmly to the floorboards and drives straight ahead and eases off when he reaches his destination, speeding fines be damned!
Without Chris Barber there would be no “Ice Cream” but also no “Cream” either. Everything has to be seen in perspective but perhaps somewhere, many centuries hence, future music historians may look back at the latter part of the 20th century and the early part of the 21st Century and say that these were altogether somewhat barbaric times historically, but musically, it was an era that is now known as the “Chris Barber Music Times” a trend setting period of musical harmony which endured for many centuries afterwards.
Thank you Chris for such a wonderful evening and a musical contribution way beyond the call of duty, and for allowing me a short insight into your most resplendent musical soul and for selflessly doing for so long, so much for so many with so few!