Guitarist Detroit Brooks first met Danny Barker, the legendary New Orleans jazz banjoist, guitarist, singer and raconteur, at 7th Ward house parties hosted by trumpeter Ernie Cagnolatti. The elderly Barker, who died in 1994, lived nearby on St. Denis Street.
“Danny was something else,” Brooks recalled. “At the parties, he would stand up and just tell stories, or dirty jokes, and have people laughing. We’d be outside playing music and more people would be inside listening to Danny. He was always the star of the show.”
Barker’s enduring contribution to New Orleans music goes well beyond his own recordings. If the New Orleans brass band community has a godfather, it’s Barker.
In the mid-1960s, after three-plus decades of Jazz Age adventures in New York with the likes of Cab Calloway and Jelly Roll Morton, Barker returned to his native New Orleans with his wife, singer Blue Lu Barker. Concerned that traditional brass bands were in danger of dying out, in 1970 he founded a youth band under the auspices of the Fairview Baptist Church.
Barker recruited and trained young players who grew up to populate the city’s clubs, festivals, and jazz and brass bands. Fairview alumni include clarinetist Dr. Michael White, trumpeters Wynton Marsalis, Leroy Jones and Gregg Stafford, trombonist Lucien Barbarin, drummers Herlin Riley and Shannon Powell, and much of the Dirty Dozen Brass Band. The Dirty Dozen, especially, would form a bridge between the traditional brass bands of old and more contemporary ensembles such as the Rebirth, the Hot 8, the Pinettes and the TBC.
To honor Barker and carry on his mission, Brooks launched the Danny Barker Banjo and Guitar Festival in 2015. The second edition kicks off Thursday with Gregg Stafford & the Jazz Hounds hosting a Barker birthday celebration at Snug Harbor. The festival continues through Sunday with performances and seminars around town.
“Danny could have come back home and just been a musician,” said Brooks, the festival’s executive director. “But his focus was the children. He wanted to teach them how to represent the music, how to be an asset to society.”
Around 2002, Brooks and other musicians started paying tribute to Barker at Sweet Lorraine’s and elsewhere.
“We’d talk about Danny, his contributions, his personal life, his humor,” Brooks said. “That escalated to what we have now.”
Founding a festival wasn’t necessarily Brooks’ intention. He finally stepped up when no one else did. “With me being a string instrument player, I finally said, ‘I’m gonna go for it.’ ”
He never formally played with Barker, but family members did. Brooks’ sister Juanita, a vocalist; his brother, Mark, a bassist; and his brother-in-law, Awood Johnson, a trombonist, all spent time in Barker’s band, the Jazz Hounds.
Cagnolatti was Brooks’ wife’s uncle. He spent years in the Preservation Hall Jazz Band and often hosted parties — the parties at which Barker regaled guests with stories and jokes, whenever he returned from a tour.
Those parties were how Brooks got to know Barker. But given the demands of his family and a day job with Amtrak, he wasn’t able to take full advantage of Barker’s mentoring.
“With somebody like him, you have to spend time with him,” Brooks said. “I just didn’t have that time. When I met Danny, I was a grown man, working with a family. But he told me things I should work on and books I should read.”
Brooks also benefited from Barker’s knowledge indirectly, as he’s shared stages for years with White and Stafford, for whom Barker was almost a surrogate father.
Much to his chagrin, Brooks will miss the first day or two of this year’s Danny Barker festival. He’ll be in Chile, performing at a festival with saxophonist Donald Harrison’s quintet. He plans to be back in time to take part in the Barker tribute concert at the revitalized Carver Theater on Saturday night.
Barker’s dedication and foresight, he says, continue to pay dividends today.
“He saw the value of teaching children the culture,” Brooks said. “That’s what attracted me to Danny. He should be honored.”
Follow Keith Spera on Twitter, @KeithSpera.