Barker, Danny 1909–1994
Danny Barker 1909–1994
A jazz banjoist and guitarist with a career that stretched over parts of eight decades, Danny Barker lived the history of jazz in the twentieth century. Then, late in life, he became one of its most qualified chroniclers, drawing upon his recollections of the early days of jazz in New Orleans. As a soloist in Cab Calloway’s orchestra in the 1930s he made important contributions to jazz guitar technique, but he was most often remembered for having played during all the permutations of jazz.
Born in New Orleans on January 13, 1909, Barker was not the first New Orleans musician in his family. His uncle, Paul Barbarin, was a popular drummer in the city, and several other members of his mother’s Catholic family were musically active. His father’s family, on the other hand, was immersed, Barker told the London Daily Telegraph, “in the activities of the Baptist church, the screamin’ and the shoutin’ and the runnin’ and the jumpin’ and the ‘Praise to the Lawd!’” Thus Barker grew up amidst the mixture of musical influences.
As a child Barker played for tips on the street in the Storyville entertainment district that figured heavily in early jazz. “I never was an amateur,” Barker was quoted as saying in Billboard. “I wanted that almighty dime.” The young man gravitated toward the funeral music that was such an important part of African-American culture in New Orleans, and by the age of 12 he had put together what was known as a “spasm band,” a group that included simple and homemade instruments such as the kazoos and ukuleles.
Barker learned to play drums from his uncle Paul Barbarin and studied clarinet with future Duke Ellington Orchestra virtuoso Barney Bigard. But at age 16 he took up the banjo, whose sound was integral to the early New Orleans jazz sound. Barker played tenor banjo in various bands, including one called the Boozan Kings, around New Orleans in the city’s heyday as the capital of the new music called jazz in the 1920s, and toured the South as well. In 1930 Barker married the singer Louise Dupont, and the pair followed the migration undertaken by other jazz musicians and moved to New York. They often performed together, as Blue Lu Barker with Danny Barker’s Fly Cats. Barker switched from banjo to the more modern guitar.
In New York, Barker rubbed elbows with some of the legends of jazz. Ferdinand “Jelly Roll” Morton called him “Hometown,” and Barker played with stride pianist James P. Johnson and clarinetist Sidney Bechet. The greatest New Orleans migrant of all was trumpeter and singer Louis Armstrong, and Barker performed with him as well. Barker got an inkling of Armstrong’s musical importance one day in a Harlem tavern, he recalled in his autobiography A Life in Jazz, when he saw “a half-dozen noted trumpet players, stripped to the waist, bare-chested, sitting in a circle by a wide-open window. The cold air was swishing snowflakes on them.” The musicians were trying to catch cold so that they could duplicate Armstrong’s distinctive vocal rasp.
At a Glance…
Born Daniel Moses Barker on January 13, 1909, in New Orleans, LA; died March 13, 1994, in New Orleans; married Louise Dupont (later known as Blue Lu Barker), 1930; children: Sylvia.
Career: Played banjo with various bands including the Boozan Kings, New Orleans, 1920s; toured in various southern cities; moved to New York, 1930; switched to guitar; performed with wife Louise as Blue Lu Barker with Danny Barker’s Fly Cats; performed as guitar sideman with many leading bands; performed with Lucky Millinder’s big band, 1937–38; member of Cab Calloway Orchestra, 1939–46; made over 1,000 recordings; heard on This Is Jazz radio broadcasts, late 1940s; performed in New Orleans jazz revival bands, 1950s; returned to New Orleans, 1965; New Orleans Jazz Museum, assistant curator, 1965–75; founded Fairview Baptist Church Christian Band, 1974; inspired brass band revival; active as musician into 1990s; author, A Life in Jazz; Bourbon Street Black; Buddy Bolden and the Last Days of Storyville.
Awards: Lifetime Achievement Award, National Endowment for the Arts, 1991; inducted into American Jazz Hall of Fame, 1993.
Barker’s personal high-water mark as a musician came in the late 1930s, when he played with bands led by Lucky Millinder, Benny Carter, and, for an eight-year stint extending through World War II, Cab Calloway. Barker played sharp melodic solos on the guitar that diverged from the chordal playing that had previously been the norm. He appeared on over 1,000 recordings, and, by some estimates, played with a greater number of jazz bands and artists than any other musician. Barker’s efforts as a songwriter suffered a setback when Decca Records refused to release a sexy song he had written called “Don’t You Feel My Leg,” but Barker did contribute a few standards to the jazz repertory.
Always quick to keep up with the times and adopt new styles, Barker left Calloway’s band in 1946. He played in the 1940s with bebop pioneers Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker, and even essayed the new and guitar-heavy rhythm-and-blues style in the postwar years. By the 1950s, however, audiences were beginning to manifest a new interest in the roots of jazz—an interest Barker himself had helped to stimulate in 1947 with appearances on a series of radio broadcasts entitled This Is Jazz. Barker took up yet another new instrument, the six-string banjo, and began to perform in so-called “Dixieland” New Orleans jazz revival bands.
That impulse took Barker back to New Orleans in 1965. Barker took a job as a curator at the New Orleans jazz museum and continued to perform; his plaid jacket and derby hat were familiar sights at jazz events around the city. He worked to carry on the traditions not only of early jazz, but also of the brass bands that inspired them, forming the Fairview Baptist Church Christian Band in 1974. Young New Orleans brass players who had contact with Barker went on to form the nucleus of a brass band revival that flourished in the 1990s and beyond. “I told him that he was responsible for giving the music 50 more years through that church band,” trumpeter Greg Stafford told Billboard, “because we’ve all grown up and we’re bringing another generation behind us.”
On the national stage, Barker worked to perpetuate jazz traditions, both as a musician—his final album, Save the Bones, was released in 1988—and as an author. Barker co-authored a 1973 collection of jazz reminiscences entitled Bourbon Street Black, released his own autobiography, A Life in Jazz, in 1986, and then published a biography of cornetist Buddy Bolden, the legendary but unrecorded New Orleans musician who, in the opinion of many historians, did more than anyone else to create jazz as a distinct music. In that volume Barker drew on stories he had heard from his own family, tightly woven as it was, into the musical life of New Orleans.
Barker was honored at the end of his life with a Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Endowment for the Humanities in 1991, and with other awards. He died of cancer on March 13, 1994, not long after appearing as the king in a New Orleans Mardi Gras parade. “Jazz will live on,” Barker wrote in A Life in Jazz, “because it digs down inside the body, the brain, the heart, the nerves and muscles.” He himself had aided profoundly in the creation and inscription of the jazz tradition.
Journey into Jazz, GHB, 1967.
Save the Bones, Orleans, 1988.
(with Alyn Shipton, ed.) A Life in Jazz, Oxford, 1987.
(with Jack Buerkle) Bourbon Street Black, 1973.
Buddy Bolden and the Last Days of Storyville, Cassell.
Feather, Leonard, and Ira Gitler, The Biographical Encyclopedia of Jazz, Oxford, 1999.
Billboard, March 26, 1994, p. 16.
Daily Telegraph (London, England), March 17, 1994, p. 23.
Down Beat, June 1994, p. 15.
Guitar Player, July 1994, p. 18.
Los Angeles Times, March 15, 1994, p. A26.
Newsday, March 16, 1994, p. 14.
Times-Picayune (New Orleans, LA), March 14, 1994, p. Al.
All Music Guide, http://allmusic.com
—James M. Manheim
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