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Chris Barber 1930–2021

The trombonist, bassist, and bandleader was a key figure in the evolution of both British jazz and rock

Chris Barber 1972
Chris Barber (with John Slaughter at left), Hamburg, Germany, 1972 (photo: Heinrich Klaffs)

Chris Barber, a trombonist, bassist, and bandleader who was crucial in Britain’s trad-jazz revival of the 1950s—and who helped pave the way for rock’s “British Invasion” in the ’60s—died in his sleep on March 2. He was six weeks shy of his 91st birthday.

His death was announced on Twitter by his recording label, The Last Music Company, and first reported in the U.K. newspaper The Guardian. Cause and location of death were not disclosed; however, Barber had been struggling with dementia for at least two years.

Barber was one of what the British music press called “The Three B’s,” along with clarinetist Acker Bilk and trumpeter Kenny Ball. Although the three generally worked separately, they were collectively responsible for revitalizing the sagging fortunes of traditional New Orleans jazz following the Second World War. Barber’s playing, in particular, was remarked on for its authentic New Orleans flavor, making his music a transatlantic success. His 1959 recording of Sidney Bechet’s “Petite Fleur” was a Top 5 hit in both the U.K. and the United States; he toured with his band in the U.S. that year to sellout crowds, earning the sobriquet of “the man who brought Trad back to America.”

If his influence on British jazz was formidable, his influence on British rock & roll was, however inadvertent, formative. Barber was an early employer of banjo player and vocalist Lonnie Donegan in the 1950s; he allowed Donegan and several other band members to perform American folk and blues songs as his intermission act, playing in a style known as “skiffle” and launching a national craze that inspired thousands of teenagers (including John Lennon and Paul McCartney) to begin playing music.

Barber was also a mentor to guitarist Alexis Korner—later to found the seminal group Blues Incorporated—and fulfilled the young musician’s entreaty to sponsor British tours for American blues and R&B artists, thus helping to ignite the British “blues boom” and the other major wing of U.K. rock. “[W]ithout Chris Barber,” said former Rolling Stones member Bill Wyman, “the Stones and the Beatles would not be where they are now.”

As these moves suggest, Barber’s trad bona fides did not preclude a willingness to experiment. In addition to Donegan and Korner, he controversially hired blues guitarist John Slaughter in the 1960s, and later worked with former Fairport Convention guitarist Roger Hill as well. In the 21st century he expanded his seven-piece band—already unconventional due to its use of two clarinets and Slaughter’s electric guitar—to 11 pieces with a third clarinet, a second trombone, and two trumpets. The “Big Chris Barber Jazz Band” notably incorporated into its book tunes by the likes of Joe Zawinul, albeit played in prewar styles.

“Jazz is fascinating because it gives people the chance to add their own ideas to music,” Barber told London Jazz News in 2018 about his idiosyncratic choices. “Perhaps some people underestimate the creativity that went into some original jazz masterpieces but working as a band you find out what possible adjustments can be done to make a tune sound right and how to stretch out the bits that are important.”

Donald Christopher Barber was born on April 17, 1930 in Welwyn Garden City, a small town in the county of Hertfordshire, England. He grew up in London, attending a school at which his mother was headmistress, where he began his musical explorations at the age of seven with violin lessons. Once World War II brought frequent air raids to the capital, however, Barber was evacuated to a boarding school in the west of England, where he first heard Coleman Hawkins’ “Body and Soul” and quickly became a jazz fanatic and record collector.

After the war, he returned to London and began spending his free time in the city’s jazz clubs. It was at one of these, the Humph Club, that he one night bought a battered trombone from one of the musicians in residence and began teaching himself to play. When he left school in 1948, he enrolled in London’s prestigious Guildhall School of Music, where he studied trombone for three years. In 1949 he formed his first band, the New Orleans Jazz Band, featuring himself and fellow Guildhall students (including Korner).

A later band, founded in 1952, gained success after Barber hired star trumpeter Ken Colyer and dubbed the group Ken Colyer’s Jazzmen. Despite its name, Barber remained the leader, and when Colyer left in 1954 it became the Chris Barber Jazz Band. To fill the empty chair, Barber enlisted Northern Irish singer Ottilie Patterson, whom he would marry in 1959.

The band’s first album under Barber’s name, New Orleans Joys, featured Donegan performing Leadbelly’s “Rock Island Line” in the skiffle style; the track (on which Barber played bass) became a massive hit, kickstarting a solo career for Donegan and also catapulting Barber’s band to a lucrative touring career in the U.K. They became a favorite concert draw, recording several live LPs in the ’50s before their recording of “Petite Fleur” became a No. 3 U.K. hit in its own right. In the United States it rose to No. 5, prompting the first of many successful American tours.

Though Acker Bilk would eventually out-chart Barber with his 1961 “Stranger on the Shore,” Barber remained the most reliable seller among the Three B’s and trad in general. When the revival spawned a film, 1962’s It’s Trad, Dad!, his band was given a prominent role. They were also a top ticket draw throughout continental Europe, especially popular in Scandinavia. Though Barber’s experiment with Slaughter coincided with the rise of British rock in 1964, he never really abandoned the trad jazz that had made his name, preferring to remain faithful to the New Orleans tradition. Even so, he made gestures toward current trends: In 1967, his band recorded “Cat Call,” a Paul McCartney composition.

Barber continued to lead his band through the decades, balancing his eccentric ideas with trad conventions, and bringing several longtime collaborators along for the ride. Among others, trumpeter Pat Halcox, a founding member of the Chris Barber Jazz Band, remained with him until 2008, Slaughter until 2010.

In 1991 Barber was awarded the Order of the British Empire; in 2014 his autobiography, Jazz Me Blues, was published. He finally retired in 2019 at the age of 88—70 years after he founded his first band—with the onset of his dementia.

Barber’s marriage to Ottilie Patterson was the second of four; she predeceased him in 2011. He is survived by his fourth wife, the former Kate Gray, and two children from a previous marriage, Christopher Barber Jr. and Caroline Barber.

Michael J. West

Michael J. West is a jazz journalist in Washington, D.C. In addition to his work on the national and international jazz scenes, he has been covering D.C.’s local jazz community since 2009. He is also a freelance writer, editor, and proofreader, and as such spends most days either hunkered down at a screen or inside his very big headphones. He lives in Washington with his wife and two children.