JJ 02/60: In My Opinion – Chris Barber

Sixty years ago, with the UK on the cusp of a musical revolution, the man sometimes cited as the godfather of British rock gave Jazz Journal his views on a series of records. First published in JJ February 1960

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This is one of a series of taped interviews with musicians, who are asked to give a snap opinion on a set of records played to them. Although no previous information is given as to what they are going to hear, they are, during the actual playing, handed the appropriate record sleeve. Thus in no way is their judgment influenced by being unaware of what they are hearing. As far as possible the records played to them are currently available items procurable from any record shop. Chris Barber, leader of Britain’s most popular traditional jazz band, is too well known to need any introduction. In addition to being a good trombonist and bass player, Chris is more than something of a conversationalist. He has very decided views on jazz and is not afraid to express them. – Sinclair Traill

“Weary Blues”. Paul Barbarin & His Jazz Band (Tempo EXA 98)
I like that sort of music very much, though there are few groups who can make it sound quite as good as maybe you thought it was going to be before you heard it. The feeling was perfect and the ideas and style of the musicians very good. I have never really liked the playing of Alvin Alcorn very much – he is a good trumpet player, but has an annoying habit of playing constantly-repeated, long unbroken phrases with a dotted crochet and quaver pattern. His playing is also all on the same level and lacks dynamics. Willie Humphreys and Jim Robinson both play well, Robinson being more firm and sure than on many George Lewis records – maybe because here he has a background of more musicianly people, so he had to be a bit brighter. Incidentally, they play the wrong chords there for Weary Blues – at least they are not the same as played by Louis Armstrong and Johnny Dodds on the original Hot Seven record. Here they play a different sequence in the middle, but since they all play the same chords at the same time I don’t see anything particularly wrong in what they do. Personally I prefer to hear the Armstrong version, for I think the chords are nicer and suit the melody better, but all the New Orleans musicians of this school use this variation. Barbarin’s drumming is very, very good! I heard him in the flesh in New Orleans and was terribly impressed by his band.

I somehow get an impression that often this kind of jazz is better heard slightly in the distance. When you get too near it is sometimes not really inspired enough musically or melodically to be as good as you hoped for; but I do like it.

“Bones For The King”. Dicky Wells. (Felsted FAJ 7007)
Well, they call that mainstream music, a term I find rather annoying – just call it jazz! The funny thing is that if you took some of the solos out of that and put ensemble choruses before and after them, you could call it traditional jazz. This labelling everything is very unnecessary, although I suppose inventing the term mainstream may have helped certain musicians who might have been forgotten otherwise.

Dicky Wells has always been a great favourite of mine. In fact I quite often quote little bits and pieces of his, particularly when I play Sweet Sue as a trombone solo – paying him a compliment, you might say. Dicky said the last word on Sweet Sue when he recorded it with Django Reinhardt and company in Paris in the late ’thirties – a wonderful record of which I am very fond. The other trombonists on this record, with the exception of the very personal Vic Dickenson, seem to me to play like lesser Dicky Wells-es. Dicky is such a broad player with an individual style which he uses to the full – humour, sadness, he brings out all the emotions. The others here merely play the more ordinary parts of Dickie’s playing, but contribute nothing original.

Skip Hall, the organist, started playing a basic rock ’n’ roll beat: a sure sign of the pressure on American musicians to play popular or die! The blues players from Chicago who invented that rhythm never play that steady beat – they play phrases in triplet time

One thing interested me there. During the second trombone choruses by Benny Morton, Skip Hall, the organist, started playing a basic rock ’n’ roll beat: a sure sign of the pressure on American musicians to play popular or die! The blues players from Chicago who invented that rhythm never play that steady beat – they play phrases in triplet time.

Although I enjoy that kind of jazz I don’t think it gets you anywhere. I miss the exhilaration of an ensemble at the end. I like an improvised ensemble; which is why we use one, I suppose. Finally, I don’t think Major Holley was quite up with Skip Hall and Jo Jones. During the organ solo he was playing ahead of the beat … down below it’s hard to get a good bass tone without pulling rather hard, and one is inclined to play ahead of the beat when doing so. The great bass players manage to avoid this fault.

“Sad Blues”. Snub Mosley. (Cascade of Quartets). (Columbia 33SX 1191)
After the last record, that was more like it, in the sense that the previous record was a blues but wasn’t a blues, and this was also a blues and really was blues! The rhythm section, again with an organ, played the blues, with the organist using this modern idiom of triplets – I call it 12/12 time myself, which is strictly illogical, except that there are twelve to a bar and they play them all the time. Snub Mosley of course isn’t the world’s greatest instrumentalist, but he plays with plenty of feeling. In fact in places he sounds not unlike Dickie Wells. His playing suffers to some extent from the fact that he is trying to build up excitement in a studio, a terribly difficult thing to do. At the end there in his endeavour to build the tension he tries to do too much. But one always does that in a studio. You try and warm up an audience which isn’t there, and so you just keep trying harder and harder. At a concert it is quite different, which is why we like recording at concerts. You play to people and if you’re playing well you get them warmed up and feel they’re on your side and that you can relax amongst friends. It may seem strange, but I can always relax more in front of an audience.

A group of English musicians will seldom trouble to listen to each other and so you get quite a different atmos­phere. American musicians are so much more open-minded about jazz

Of course one great advantage is that if you get together a group of American musicians, as Stanley Dance has here, playing a sort of jam session, they will all listen intently to each other. A group of English musicians will seldom trouble to listen to each other and so you get quite a different atmos­phere. American musicians are so much more open-minded about jazz. Snub Mosley’s music is an example – for it’s time­less and has been going on for at least twenty years now, if not longer.

“Tres Moutarde”. Wilbur de Paris. (Felsted EDL 87010)
Wilbur’s is a band we all admire very much. In America it’s very difficult to keep playing good, authentic jazz and play it intelligently and do something with it, without playing every number as a rabble-rouser. In most of the clubs you visit over there the bands are grinding out the same old formula – two ensembles, solos all round, two ensembles to finish. Some of the bands are horrible, uninteresting and too loud! And so Wilbur’s band stands out. Sometimes what they play isn’t very good jazz. It is too clever and the material isn’t really suitable. They use this funny sort of circus rhythm on the fast numbers – two beats of on-beat but no off-beat rhythm. Funnily enough, Wilbur himself has often really led circus bands. But his brother Sidney, now, he has always played in jazz bands, and he is to my mind the greatest trumpeter I’ve ever heard. We heard him at Ryan’s many times, and no instrumentalist has impressed me quite so much. He uses mutes marvellously, he can switch from cornet to trumpet to tuba and back, just like that, and play them all equally well. He always plays quite naturally in the jazz idiom, and what he does never sounds contrived. Really, if King Oliver was a better man with a mute, then God alone knows how good he was, because Sidney de Paris is nothing short of marvellous!

This particular number is one of their much too fast ones, though they play it well enough. I enjoy this band for the men I like in it, and you must realise that they play in a style that is very near to what we are trying to do. They don’t play this way just because it’s the style they’ve known from childhood – Wilbur really organises this band. He tells them how he wants it played and that is the way it gets played. Most of the musicians aren’t really natural Dixieland players at all. Wilbert Kirk, Sonny White and even Omer Simeon had been playing in big swing bands before they joined Wilbur. They are not really New Orleans jazzmen, yet what they’re trying to do is so near what we are also trying to do that we as a band tend to associate ourselves with their material, in order to see if it suits us when we play it. So I can’t view the band entirely dispassionately.

Personally, I can’t fault Wilbur’s trombone playing, except to say that it’s not the way I want to play.

Some very good trombone playing by Keith Christie, some of it in good taste, some of it even having something to do with the number, and some of it merely for effect

“Basin Street Blues”. Ted Heath & His Music. (Decca LK 4324)
Big band blues – no, it wasn’t blues, but it was a big band alright. Some very good trombone playing by Keith Christie, some of it in good taste, some of it even having something to do with the number, and some of it merely for effect. That coda business for instance, what in heaven’s name has that got to do with Basin Street Blues? If one ignores the title of the thing and merely treats it as a slow piece of music, then it’s very well played. The trombone is good, very good – I certainly couldn’t play it – it’s rhythmic, in tune and well arranged, but I get the feeling, what does it all mean? Where does it get you? I mean the best bits there are the bits that have been said before by Louis Armstrong and others. But I’m not very fond of big bands anyway, and particularly not when they are doing that kind of thing. I wouldn’t attempt to play Rhapsody In Blue with my band.

But parts of the record I enjoyed, and I didn’t expect to; and parts were, as I expected, horrible. Horrible as a blues record that is.

“Bye And Bye”. Johnny St. Cyr’s Hot Five. (Tempo EXA 99)
The sleeve notes make no mention of the two most important musicians on the record, Thomas Jefferson and Paul Barbarin, nor do they mention Jeanette Kimball, who plays piano here and sounds very good. I don’t like Joe Avery’s trombone play­ing very much. I find him smeary but unrhythmic, and he doesn’t lift the ensembles at all. I don’t really belong to the sliding-for-the-sake-of-sliding school; the glissando style of playing, when done badly, can mess the whole thing up. Willie Humphrey’s clarinet sounds a trifle bitty, and the record as a whole isn’t nearly as good as the Barbarin (Weary Blues) you played me earlier. Of course it was made a couple of years earlier, and many of these old musicians have only quite recently had a chance to play regularly and, with playing, have improved greatly.

Jefferson the trumpeter was, I noticed, in a recent record review dismissed as a mere Armstrong copyist. Yet I have heard Jefferson in person and he is a first-class trumpet player. It is always so much more satisfactory hearing people in the flesh than on record. A critic who at any time has a chance of hearing a musician in person, must always take the opportunity. I heard Jefferson in an unsympathetic band led by Santo Pecora, but he showed as a really fine player and a wonderful singer with a beautiful voice. Of course he was young when this was made and he has certainly improved a lot since then, but to me he is the standout on this record. Compare his playing with that of Alvin Alcorn on the Barbarin and you’ll see what I mean. Alcorn is out of the style, Jefferson is in it. Nevertheless there is not nearly as much unity of purpose here as there was on the Barbarin record.

“Going Down Slow”. Champion Jack Dupree. (London LTZ-K 15171)
We have had the privilege and pleasure of playing with Jack on tour and he is a most interesting man. Of all the bluesmen who have visited us (Broonzy, Muddy, Brother Sellers, Brownie and Terry etc.) Jack is the first one who is an all-round entertainer – he has a stage act which he uses. The others were just performers, but Jack sings, dances, jokes and does every­thing. When Jack sings a good straight blues like this, he’s the best thing I’ve heard since Big Bill – the best singer, I mean. His piano playing is really rather approximate, but it all goes with the entertainment and the style of the thing; there’s nothing wrong with it in that sense. He goes rather far out and then suddenly he is back on the beat … and those fanciful things he gets away with!

As a matter of fact that number was written by a friend of mine, St. Louis Jimmy – a very fine blues singer in his own right. There is a great propensity amongst blues singers for claiming everything they sing as their own compositions. Jack claims Goin’ Down Slow as his own, but I know damn well that St. Louis Jimmy wrote the number – and in fact Jack even admits it! Ottilie produced a new song the other day that Jimmy had written and given to her. It’s called Ninety-Nine Out Of A Hundred They Have Some Love Disease – which doesn’t mean quite what you think. When Champion Jack heard it he at once said, “Ah, that’s by St. Louis Jimmy, he is always talking about disease and death.” Well, Jimmy is a bit morbid, but he’s a very, very nice fellow and writes some good songs. He’s employed by Chess Records as a song writer, and has a lovely deep bass voice. He does this number even better than Champion Jack.

There is something I have noticed about these blues artists – they are always so very easy to get along with. Jack is no exception, and I admire him greatly both as an artist and as a person.

“Candy Lips”. Clarence Williams’ Washboard Band. (Parlophone GEP 8733)
That record speaks for itself – it is so very good! Relaxed, unpretentious, well played, nicely thought out. There are touches of arrangement, just enough to make it interesting without overdoing it.

I had the chance of getting some recordings made with some of these men in New York, and it is interesting to note how instinctive and natural was the playing of jazz to them. Eddie Allen said he used to room with Clarence Williams at the time this was made and Clarence would say one morning, “Come on Eddie we’re going to record.” “What are we going to do?” asked Eddie. “Oh, I don’t know,” answered Clarence, “we’ll write something on the way to the studio.” By the next day even the names of the tunes they recorded would have been forgotten. Ed Allen doesn’t know a single one of the tunes he recorded in those days! On the session I supervised, we had the amusing spectacle of Cecil Scott teaching Eddie Allen Royal Garden Blues.

Clarence Williams has been blind for the past two years – it’s a great shame, but he hopes to get his sight back. He’s a nice man, retiring and pleasant, and he and Eva Taylor have a nice home on Long Island. His son is in the police depart­ment, in the place which issues cabaret cards. He told me that there were many artists who had trouble in getting cabaret cards because they had, as youngsters, been in gaol for pinching sweets or something like that. But they never appeal, though there’s a perfect normal form for them to use. None of them bother, for having been refused once they think things are loaded against them, and that they just can’t get that card. Of course, they could if they pleaded their cases, but there’s a terrible sort of apathy – a sort of death-wish, as if they subconsciously wanted to be refused a card. It’s a strange thing.

Ed Allen still plays fine trumpet. He’s been working for the past fifteen years in a taxi-dance hall on 14th Street in Harlem. Six hours a night, ten minutes off each hour. Each dance lasts 45 seconds and costs the customers a quarter. No women allowed in the hall, except the hostesses.

Ed is another great person. I’m sorry to keep reiterating how nice these people are, but it happened to us all over the States. I remember getting into a cab at Monterey to go out to the Fair Ground where the festival was held. Just as we moved off, one of the musicians from Woody Herman’s big band climbed in and said, “Aren’t you Chris Barber? I’m Ray Linn, play trumpet. My kids play your record of Petite Fleur all the time. I think it’s fine.” You wouldn’t get that from many top session men in this country – they wouldn’t bother. They think we are a Dixieland band and that’s that – amateurs! They don’t realise that we’re as keen on our music as they are on theirs – possibly more so in fact, because in most cases they don’t give a damn about what they play. The music doesn’t mean a thing to them, which is a great pity. If it did mean more, some of them might play better.