Without Danny Barker, today’s New Orleans soundtrack would sound dramatically different.
In 1970, Barker, a seasoned jazz musician who had played in New York with jazz greats like Cab Calloway, Billie Holiday, Louis Armstrong, Benny Carter and Jelly Roll Morton, came home to start a youth band that is credited with almost single-handedly reviving traditional New Orleans jazz.
For his group, the Fairview Baptist Church Christian Band, Barker recruited New Orleans teenagers who — like teens across America — had turned their attention to rock ’n’ roll and R&B. Over the next few decades, he convinced dozens of young people that brass band music was both cool and worth preserving.
Now, 44 years later, Barker is considered a savior of one of the city’s most prized traditions, and the Fairview band is seen as an essential part of the city’s jazz history, having created a strong core of young players to carry on the tradition.
Fairview’s original members went on to form the Hurricane and Dirty Dozen brass bands, which inspired the Rebirth, New Birth, Lil Rascals, Soul Rebels, Hot 8 and more.
Other original members, now in their 50s and early 60s, lead their own jazz ensembles. Altogether, the group’s alumni command key stages at every New Orleans music festival.
Later this week, Barker’s students and admirers will host a forum and two concerts to raise money for the first Danny Barker Festival, which will kick off in January, on what would have been his 105th birthday.
The event will give Barker’s students a chance to emphasize that traditional jazz would have withered without their mentor and that the city’s vaunted second-line parades would have few bands blowing along with them.
“Brass bands were run by a bunch of old men, and they were dying and no one was trying to keep that tradition going,” said Fairview member Harry Sterling, the longtime guitarist for Big Al Carson, another Fairview alumnus. “So if Danny Barker hadn’t kept the tradition alive, there would be no Hot 8. No Algiers Brass Band or Soul Rebels. No Pinettes.”
Barker filled out his band’s ranks with church members, cousins, musicians’ kin and children from his 7th Ward neighborhood, including trumpeter Leroy Jones, then 12, who began hosting weekly rehearsals at his family’s garage on St. Denis Street, a few blocks from Barker’s house.
At its peak, the band had 30 members who would sometimes split up into three different bands to play three different gigs, Jones said.
“We can measure Danny Barker’s gift by the musicians that came out of that band,” said Fred Johnson, who was spurred by Barker’s traditional funeral procession to help form the Black Men of Labor, a social aid and pleasure club that makes a point of hiring traditional brass bands for its annual parades.
Even young musicians who weren’t formally Barker’s students were influenced by him. Trumpeter Kermit Ruffins recalled Barker driving his big Pontiac “real slow” through the streets of Treme and stopping to talk about music with him.
Rebirth snare drummer Derrick Tabb formed his Roots of Music marching band program partly because he saw the effect of Barker’s Fairview band. He has fond memories of Barker pulling over, especially if he saw young musicians at work. “He was always willing to teach, show or just have a laugh with you,” Tabb recalled.
Rescued from the water
After floodwaters deluged Barker’s Sere Street home in 2005, friends retrieved dozens of sodden boxes and gave them to the curators of the Hogan Jazz Archive at Tulane University, who were able to salvage much of it: signature hats and shoes, letters, receipts, news clippings and countless longhand and typewritten manuscripts, edited and re-edited.
The collection’s contents reflect the Barker that his colleagues and students describe: a natural musician and writer. He published his own memoir, “A Life in Jazz,” and a book about African-American musicians called “Bourbon Street Black.”
His handwritten notes are everywhere: The back of a church bulletin or a scrap from an envelope might include a set list for an upcoming Fairview event and random to-do reminders — to get a strap for Puppy (one of the group’s drummers), return a contract for Saturday, buy cat food and check on the lawn mower.
Barker kept a pen handy and scraps of paper in his pockets and on the dashboard of his green 1972 Pontiac so that he could always scratch out a quick thought, said Jerry Barbarin Anderson, now 50, who was 6 years old when the band began and often tagged along with Barker after the Fairview rehearsals he attended with his grandfather, Charles Barbarin Sr., and teenage uncles, Lucien Barbarin and Charles Barbarin Jr.
Barker had grown up in the one of the city’s best-known musical families, the Barbarins, and he spent all his life watching musicians in clubs and the brass bands who ruled the streets, with names like Superior, Imperial and Olympia.
He described the bands to Peggy Scott LaBorde in a WYES-TV interview that’s also part of the Hogan archive: “All these bands were jazz bands: six, seven men without a piano, see, and you could move all over with it, and they had this raunchy, laid-back rhythm that they played. Not in no hurry, they weren’t infuriated to go nowhere. This was get-down music, see.”
Several decades later, that scene was in the hands of elderly men. Or so Barker observed in 1965, after moving back home with his wife, vocalist Blue Lu Barker, whose mother was ailing. They’d been gone for decades. In 1930, the couple had moved from New Orleans to New York, where Barker played banjo and guitar on stages all across the city.
Barker continued performing until his death; he had a standing gig at the Palm Court Jazz Café in the French Quarter. He also became an assistant curator of the New Orleans Jazz Museum, whose instruments and recordings are now part of the jazz collection at the Old U.S. Mint. After work, as he stepped outside the museum, he worried that the music he performed soon would live on only in historical exhibits.
In a handwritten essay in the Hogan Archive titled “The Fairview New Orleans Jazz Institute,” Barker described the band’s beginnings. “I had been wondering about the plight of New Orleans jazz, considered old and out of date — passé,” he wrote.
Part of the problem, he continued, was that the city’s brass-band musicians “rarely encouraged youngsters to join their ranks playing the street music, one of the most captivating, exciting scenes” for the “eyes, ears, feet — the heart.”
He formed the Fairview band with the Rev. Andrew Darby to “revive the interest” in jazz for musically inclined young people, he wrote.
Barker hadn’t set out to create a legacy for himself, said trumpeter Gregg Stafford, who was 17 when he joined Fairview. “But he knew he had to do something to keep the music going. He told me, ‘If you don’t teach the next generation and make them aware of their history and the history of their culture, it will be lost and someone else will be claiming it.’ ”
The first non-cousin recruited to the band was Leroy Jones, a diligent student who practiced every day in his garage in the 7th Ward. One afternoon, said Jones, now 56, a big Pontiac parked at the end of his driveway and out walked “the hippest old man” he’d ever seen. Barker introduced himself and asked if Jones wanted to be part of a band. Soon, Jones’ garage was part of jazz lore.
“It was exciting,” Jones recalled. “When we didn’t have rehearsal, I’d do my homework and practice for four or five hours. We’d get together and jam, and Blue Lu would fix us little snacks.”
The whole concept seemed so fresh and new, Jones said, noting that while Doc Paulin had some of his young sons playing in his band, a band made up entirely of teenagers was unheard of.
Barker decided that the idea of reading music might seem too intimidating to some children. So there was no sheet music at Fairview practices, said trombonist Lucien Barbarin, 58, who started out on snare drum with the Fairview. Barker kept it simple: He would teach them melodies by playing songs on the banjo or guitar or spinning records of Tuxedo or Olympia brass bands.
“Then we would follow by ear,” Barbarin said. Most would play the melody, and those who could improvise would provide harmonies and riffs beyond that.
First, they learned church hymns: “Down by the Riverside,” “A Closer Walk With Thee,” “What a Friend We Have in Jesus.” Then they learned more secular classics, including Paul Barbarin’s “Second-Line” and “Bourbon Street Parade,” written by Barker’s uncle.
Barker also taught stage presence.
Sterling remembers his lessons: “Be the best musician you can possibly be. Always be on time. Learn to be a sideman before you become a leader. Dress well. Always look good. Be kind to people all the time. Kill them with kindness, and they’ll respect you.”
In his way, Barker groomed the teenagers as they moved toward manhood. He also counseled them and kept them from delinquency.
He recruited Eddie Boh Paris to play sousaphone after Paris walked in front of him at a corner store and a shoplifted Hubig pie fell out of his waistband. Paris was unwilling at first, but Barker kept him in the band by threatening to tell his mother about what he’d witnessed.
The drummer Anderson, once a young hothead, remembers Barker working to cool him off: “If I got angry, he’d say, ‘Go practice.’ ”
For him, the lessons went far beyond the history and the art form. “I found what jazz can offer for musicians and people who love music: peace of mind,” he said. If not for Barker, he believes he would likely be in prison or in the grave. “Danny saved me,” he said.
Once the Fairview band hit the streets, it grew exponentially, Stafford said. Barker would tell inquiring parents when the band rehearsed and they’d drop off their children at Jones’ garage in ever larger numbers.
As they gigged, Barker also taught his charges how to read an audience. At an early event, Lucien Barbarin recalled asking Barker why people in the crowd didn’t seem to be enjoying themselves. Barker assured him that the crowd just needed to loosen up. “Wait until they get a couple of drinks in them,” he said. “They’ll listen, and they’ll think you’re great.”
The Fairview band was a hit locally, and it played prestigious gigs at places like the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. Within a few years, however, Barker began to hear complaints from fellow musicians that his popular children’s band was taking their jobs.
While Barker continued to work with younger children for years to come, he decided to cut the older kids loose rather than fight the musicians’ union. In 1974, Barker helped Jones establish the Hurricane Brass Band, dubbed as such because they “came up the street and blew like a storm,” Jones said.
Soon, Stafford would begin playing in Barker’s band, Danny Barker & the Jazz Hounds, which he did for about 15 years before Barker, in failing health, asked Stafford to carry on the name through his own band, Gregg Stafford & the Jazz Hounds.
But for most of the original band members, the break had come earlier, in 1974, when Stafford remembers Barker handing Jones a stack of business cards that said “Hurricane Brass Band” on them and saying, “You’re on your own now.”
They may have been on their own, they say, but they were following a track set for them by Barker, who kept New Orleans jazz young and swinging.