Chris Barber Day

April 17, 1930 – March 02, 2021

A tribute to the influential British trombonist and bandleader

Trombonist and bandleader Chris Barber passed away on March 2, 2021 at the age of 90.

He was born in Welwyn Garden City, Hertfordshire, England on April 17, 1930, playing violin briefly at the age of seven but switching to trombone after he discovered traditional jazz.

Barber went to the Guildhall School Of Music for three years in the mid-to-late 1940s and was drawn towards the New Orleans and 1920s jazz groups that he heard in England.

He made his recording debut in 1949 as a leader but worked a day job until 1951, gradually forming his own group which included clarinetist Monty Sunshine and banjoist Lonnie Donegan.

When trumpeter Ken Colyer became available in 1953, he became the band’s leader for a year before musical differences with Barber (Colyer wanted to specialize in ensemble-oriented New Orleans jazz a la George Lewis and Bunk Johnson) led to them parting.

By mid-1954, Barber was the band’s permanent leader with trumpeter Pat Halcox his outstanding trumpeter.

During 1954-65, the Chris Barber Jazz Band was the premier trad group in England, playing New Orleans jazz, vintage tunes and (with Donegan taking vocals and Barber switching to bass) popularizing skiffle music.

The band was considered a sensation before, during and after Britain’s trad jazz era, particularly after the outstanding Ottilie Patterson became their vocalist (and eventually Barber’s second of four wives); Donegan’s feature on “Rock Island Line” and the group’s recording of “Petit Fleur” both were major hits that made the pop charts.

Through the years, Barber often had his group stretch beyond jazz, setting up tours in which they played with such American blues artists as Big Bill Broonzy, Muddy Waters, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, adding blues guitarist John Slaughter into his group in 1965, and sometimes collaborating with pop artists while not losing his group’s musical personality.

In 1999 Barber reformed his group, forming the 11-piece Big Chris Barber Band which was more swing-oriented but also contained a fair amount of New Orleans jazz; trumpeter Pat Halcox was a member of Barber’s bands during 1954-2008, setting a record by being with the group for 54 years.

Due to his declining health, Barber retired in August 2019, 70 years after his first recording.

From the early 1960s, here is Chris Barber’s band accompanying Ottilie Patterson on “Six Five Special” and playing “High Society” for dancers

-Scott Yanow