Danny Barker: 'A Life In Jazz'

Authored by: 
Published on: November 29th, 2016

906x680 Danny Barker leading the Onward Brass Band at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival 1974 [Photo by Michael P. Smith, courtesy The Historic New Orleans Collection]

Danny Barker leading the Onward Brass Band at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival 1974 [Photo by Michael P. Smith, courtesy The Historic New Orleans Collection]
Danny Barker leading the Onward Brass Band at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival 1974 [Photo by Michael P. Smith, courtesy The Historic New Orleans Collection]

The long-awaited Historic New Orleans Collection publication of Danny Barker's 1986 autobiography A Life In Jazz is a real treat for both lovers traditional jazz and students of New Orleans history. This 2016 edition expands upon the earlier printing by including nearly two-hundred credited and indexed photographs and historical documents. These illustrations range from a 1912 placard for a mid-winter ball at Economy Hall featuring The Superior Orchestra (courtesy of the Tulane's Hogan Jazz Archive) to a photo of Danny Barker with the Onward Brass Band at the 1974 New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. This abundance of pertinent images lends rich context to the captivating writing.

For those who may not be very familiar with New Orleans native Danny Barker (1909-1994), he did indeed lead an adventurous and full life in jazz, witnessing the legendary Storyville era as a child, playing in neighborhood spasm bands as a youth, learning his craft on the job from some of the earliest jazz pioneers, and eventually playing with Cab Calloway's band in New York City at the Cotton Club. Danny Barker had a wide-ranging career, playing with the greatest musicians of his day. A banjo/guitar/ukulele player, singer, songwriter, raconteur (in the best sense of the word), and consummate storyteller, later in his life Danny's move back to the Crescent City, and especially his work with youngsters in the Fairview Baptist Church band in the 1970s (Leroy Jones, Greg Stafford, Dr. Michael White, and Herlin Riley, among many other notables), was crucial to the survival of traditions and the resurgence of brass band music during a time when most of its New Orleans practitioners were aging and passing away. His books A Life In Jazz and Buddy Bolden and the Last Days of Storyville are considered treasures of New Orleans music culture lore.

Also new in this 2016 edition is an extensive discography by Alyn Shipton, featuring recording session dates, radio session dates, musician credits, etc. A song catalog of Danny Barker's documented musical works, featuring detailed footnotes, is another new addition, as is the entertaining, insightful, and in-depth introduction by Gwen Thompkins.

These previously unpublished sections are reason enough for many New Orleans music and cultural history fans, as well as owners of the earlier publication of A Life In Jazz, to wish to add the new THNOC edition to their libraries. However, it also includes three passages Danny Barker wrote which were not included before due to space constraints.

One of these is a list of lesser known brass band musicians from Danny Barker's childhood. Another is the lengthening of the Animule Hall chapter to include details regarding bandleader Big Head Bob's tragic death. Also, Barker talks about the 1953 recording of his 78 rpm discs “Chocko Mo Feendo Hey” b/w “Tootie Ma Is a Big Fine Thing”  and “Indian Red” b/w “Corrine Died on the Battlefield” (much later released on CD by G.H.B. Records).

A large portion of the book recounts Danny's time as a young musician in New Orleans. In one story of meeting and rehearsing with a new band, he recalls how they sized him up.

"So I took my banjo out. Ernest Kelly looked at me, I looked at him, and he said, 'How's your mother?' That was playing the dozens. In New Orleans that was a thing they had. He didn't know my mother – why ask about her? … Having been raised in the seventh ward, where all the do-wrong cats hung out, I'd heard people play the dozens all day: 'Your mother don't wear no drawers,' 'Your mother fell in love with a police dog,' and all that kind of real uncouth talk. So when Ernest Kelly tried to play the dozens on me I looked around – everyone was looking back at me – and I said, 'How's yours? Give her my love.' He shut up his mouth because I'd put him back in the dozens, and from then on he always looked at me with a straight face. He never forgot that."

Danny Barker's narrative style makes this an engrossing read, imparting a sense of time and place as well as noteworthy names and event details. Possessing an inquisitive nature along with acute powers of observation, throughout his life whenever he found himself in interesting situations he asked people questions and remembered conversations. Using his gifts as an entertainer, he would at a later time present his stories to listeners, polished his tales and tailoring them to his audience with each retelling.

And, as Gwen Thompkins writes, "Barker collected more than anecdotes. Written testimonials augmented his oral histories. As far back as the 1940s, under the auspices of what he called the Jazzland Research Guild, he asked first generation jazzmen to complete questionnaires and mail them back to him in New York. Those who responded had to describe - among other things – their training, musical heroes, specialties, solos, humorous travel stories, broadcast experience, and the line-up for a fantasy all-star jazz band."

This nicely bound, red linen covered volume, with an imprint of Danny Barker's hat on the cover, and black & white herringbone end-papers, is a stylishly fitting tribute to the man and his legacy. I am one who will look forward to rereading and referring to it in many years to come. The new, expanded edition of A Life In Jazz will be available December 1, 2016. The updated book features many historic photos that were not included in the out-of-print earlier edition as well as a new introduction by Gwen Thompkins.

Thursday, December 1, 2016 6-8:30p: book launch party at The Historic New Orleans Collection, 533 Royal Street (open to the public)

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