|When they wanted to make a film called It's Trad, Dad, and when the BBC wanted to launch its Saturday night radio series, Trad Tavern, they just had to send for Chris Barber. For Chris, at the age of 32, is really the Daddy of the Trad boom. ("And he doesn't look a day older than thirty", his wife and his band say.)
Chris and his boys have just had their fifth trip to America, playing at the International Jazz Festival, a fabulous gala where they appeared in such company as Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington and Count Basie. Jazzwise, you cannot be any "topper" than that. But, then, the American connoisseurs regard our boy Barber as a true Jazzman. On his 1960 trip, he was accorded the supreme compliment of being invited to choose a band from the cream of New York's jazzmen and record an LP with them. Only three other Britons have ever done that.
Chris is a familiar part of our own jazz scene – he's seen on TV, heard on radio and discs, met in clubs and concert halls – and he is so essentially British to look at and listen to that we forget his international stature.
In the past twelve months the band have played in Sweden, Denmark, Germany, Austria, Switzerland and Hungary. In spite of all the new names crashing into the Top Ten with jazz discs, the man who sells most Trad records (singles and LPs) is still Barber. Yet, Chris remains the same quietly dynamic, utterly professional musician he was just eight years ago when he took the plunge and formed the first Chris Barber Jazz Band. Few people talked about Trad then. Chris, with Humphrey Lyttelton and one or two other notable figures, opened the road for all the new names that came along afterwards. Consider: his banjo-player was Lonnie Donegan, who formed the little band-within-a band they called a skiffle group. You know what happened to that. Likewise, Chris Barber's clarinet-player was one Monty Sunshine, whose track on a Barber LP of Sydney Bechet's Petite Fleur hit the Top Ten when issued as a single. Monty, too, went off with his own outfit. Chris carried on, to reap his reward in the Trad boom – something he did not foresee when, fifteen years ago, he was bitten by the jazz bug.
His background is most unjazzlike. Born in Welwyn Garden City, he is the son of an insurance statistician and the headmistress of a well-known school in Golders Green, London, to which he went as a boy. Then, St. Paul's School. The family idea at that time was that Chris, already good at figures, should train to be an actuary, a formidable kind of statistics man in insurance. Music was there, too, and at twelve Chris started on the violin, playing straight music. He was about fifteen when jazz curled itself around his musical ear via a Coleman Hawkins record of Body And Soul, and he started to haunt the London jazz clubs nights.
The jazz trombone had him enthralled. One night in Humph's club he bought an old beat-up instrument from one of the boys. It cost only a quid or so and, Chris said, "was practically tied together with string". So, he went off to teach himself the jazz trombone. The resultant noise was so diabolical, he recalled with a smile, that his father finally said: "If you are determined to play that thing you had better learn it properly. In fact, you'd better give up everything else and learn music." Which Chris did, at London's Guildhall School of Music, nursery of many eminent musicians. It was a characteristic story of straight study by day and playing jazz at nights in clubs and anywhere they would have him, for money or kicks. In 1949, he first led a jazz-band and was getting to know that group of jazzmen around Town who were keeping the old music going under titles like Dixieland, New Orleans and, sometimes, Traditional.
March 1954 is the date in the Barber annals: the Chris Barber Jazz Band was officially formed and went into business. It was before the days when a Top Ten disc made you a star in a week. Chris and his loyal boys made it the hard way, staying with their brand of jazz but not being narrow-minded about it. Towards the end of that first year, a blonde art student and teacher from Ulster named Ottilie Patterson, as deeply bitten by the blues as Chris was with Trad, turned up in the jazz clubs with Beryl Bryden. She had heard some of the Barber group playing at a party and decided they were the men she wanted to sing blues with. And, via Lonnie Donegan, she did for a while. Then, after unemployment in both art and jazz, she had to go home, sleeping on the deck of the Irish mail-steamer. But, a telegram from Chris recalled her. She's been here ever since.
Jazz is their life but they manage to include many diversions. Chris travels with a typed band-tour schedule and a list of all the car racing meetings in this country and tries to juggle it so that he can enter and drive his Lotus. He is car-crazy, has two vintage cars and, when the band is being driven by a coach-driver, has to sit up front so that he can mentally drive the thing, too. Otherwise, he gets neurotic. He is still good at maths: he can almost destroy waiters and hotel receptionists by correctly adding up bills before they have written them down. More recently, he and Ottilie have taken up ten-pin bowling, and the Rank rink at Golders Green near their new house in Hampstead Garden Suburb stays open late some nights for the Barbers and the band boys. Chris did consider having a bowling lane in their garden, but found it too small.
Ottilie said that in the Barber band everything stops for food. Madly energetic, Chris does it all on coffee or fruit juice when he's playing, but, before or after a show, it's a meal and a glass or two of wine, always white. Despite all this, Chris remains slim, except for his powerful musician's diaphragm. Living in a mad whirl, his most frequent remark is "Well, you must excuse me, I have to go and get this band organised." And the band love it. H. Shirley-Long