Jazz Me Blues: The Autobiography of Chris Barber

by Chris Barber with Alyn Shipton
(Equinox, hb, Sheffield, £19.99)

Book review by Peter Vacher

Any man contemplating an autobiography has the right to omit or include whatsoever he chooses.  He can be expansive or guarded. Chris Barber has opted for something nearer the middle ground and chosen to compress his 60 or more years of active jazz performance into just 147 pages. There are no Melly-like revelations of high jinks on the road, very few anecdotes as such, no descriptions of bizarre behaviour, rather a sober account of a life devoted to the “serious” pursuit of jazz creation. And yes, that word “serious” occurs often.

jazzmebluesBarber, whose 84th birthday will have passed by the time you read this, was the son of high-achieving, Left-leaning parents and his education culminated with a period at St Paul’s before he studied at the Guildhall School of Music. His mother, a teacher, became Mayor of Canterbury in the 1970s, while his father was an amateur violinist and Cambridge economics graduate who enjoyed a distinguished career and earned the CBE. Intended to be an actuary, Barber became instead today’s single-minded bandleader and his book is principally an account of that journey.

Its opening passages evoke the care-free innocence of discovery, as the young Barber tracked down key recordings and other like-minded (if less well-prepared musically) enthusiasts with whom he might play traditional jazz, this gradually morphing into a full-time activity. There’s a valuable account of the now-legendary break-up with cornetist Ken Colyer (brother Bill Colyer emerging as the snake in the grass) and a good picture of the lively club scene in the 1950s.

Barber’s desire to replicate (and celebrate) the music of his African-American heroes is palpably sincere and his continuing reverence for their accomplishments shines though, especially so as he describes the band’s tours in the US and their association with the likes of bluesman Muddy Waters and John Lewis. Incidentally, Barber reveals that it was the apparently buttoned-up Lewis, the architect of the Modern Jazz Quartet’s distinctive sound, who first urged Barber to bring Waters over to the UK.  Barber’s delight in visiting Waters on his home ground in Chicago and reporting on the reaction of the locals to his then wife Ottilie Patterson’s remarkable blues singing is a particular highlight.

Barber has pretty well out-lived most of his contemporaries, that special generation who fell so totally for traditional jazz, yet continues to perform with an impressive degree of enthusiasm and professionalism. If his autobiography often reads like a business-man’s annual report as he outlines projects (he co-owned London’s Marquee club with partner Harold Pendleton, etc), agreements and recording deals, special links with rock and blues musicians and the comings and goings of marriages (the present Mrs Barber, the fourth, is given just two lines and a photo) and sidemen of which there have been many, then so be it. There’s even a whole chapter on his interest in motor sport and the many vehicles he has owned.

Take if for what it is, for Barber’s story is a worthy one. There’s a handy guide to Barber on CD and a good selection of illustrations.

© Peter Vacher



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