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New Orleans jazz and gospel music in the spotlight

28th November 2016   ·   0 Comments

By Geraldine Wykcoff
Contributing Writer

A Life in Jazz
By Danny Barker

(The Historic New Orleans Collection)

Notably, it’s been 30 years since Danny Barker’s remarkable biography, A Life in Jazz, was first published by London’s Macmillan Press and then released in the United States by Oxford Press. The guitarist, banjoist, vocalist, composer, writer, griot and raconteur, who passed away on March 13, 1994 at the age of 85, was then still walking among us telling his stories, lighting up bandstands and encouraging young musicians wherever he roamed.

The wonderful thing about A Life in Jazz being available to the world again by way of The Historic New Orleans Connection, is that readers have the opportunity to hear the echo of Barker’s voice through his own words. He wrote, usually in script on pads filled through the decades, much like how he spoke. Barker, an observer of human nature, told his tales succinctly, intelligently with flashes of political statements wrapped in humor, wit and honesty.

From the pages of A Life in Jazz by Danny Barker, edited by Alyn Shipton is the above photo of Danny Barker, in 1928, in Pensacola, Florida.

From the pages of A Life in Jazz by Danny Barker, edited by Alyn Shipton is the above photo of Danny Barker, in 1928, in Pensacola, Florida.

British writer, broadcaster and jazz historian Alyn Shipton was by Barker’s side as editor of the first edition of A Life in Jazz and returned to update and add to the new release. Any changes to Barker’s narrative, he explains, were made with the author’s approval. That Shipton stepped lightly and lovingly in his work is apparent as Danny always sounds like Danny – feisty, humble, knowledgeable, rhythmic and funny. His music boasted these same qualities.

It’s interesting to note that the book is titled A Life… rather than My Life… that seems to reflect its all encompassing view. It’s not just about the music but the characters and scenes that created the climate of the times. The chapters in all of the editions remain the same and include those on musicians from Barker’s family, his friend, pianist Jelly Roll Morton, trumpeter Louis Armstrong and bandleader/singer Cab Calloway with whom he played with for some seven years.

A hundred photographs now enhance the book. They often depict a sophisticated, fedora-wearing man as seen on the beautiful cover shot by the great bassist/photographer Milt Hinton. Barker could also ham it for a camera as in the 1928 photo from the Hogan Jazz Archive where he strikes a pose wearing over-sized, round-rimmed glasses. Barker could just lift his eyebrows and make one laugh.

One doesn’t need to have a particular interest in music to truly enjoy A Life in Jazz. It’s a story, told by a master storyteller, of a young black boy growing up in the French Quarter, then filled with Italian immigrants, which he once remembered smelling like “meatballs and spaghetti.” It’s a tale of families and a love story between he and his wife, vocalist Blue Lu Barker whom he married in 1930 when she was just 16 years old.

The narrative tells of discrimination against African Americans and how they overcame the many obstacles it imposed on their lives and careers. The quick-witted Barker often employed humor to get around tight spots. Once he was asked whether it was dangerous for young black boy to be walking around the French Quarter. His answer was: “No, I just carried a watermelon and everybody thought I was tame.” That quote is typical Barker: Tell it politically straight and throw in a telling curve.

That foxy attitude, a description Barker said he liked, fills A Life in Jazz. It travels with him through the decades and his moves from New Orleans to swinging bandstands in New York and back home again. On his return he charmed and shared his knowledge with a next generation of musicians when he established the Fairview Baptist Church Brass Band the influences of which continue to be heard on the streets of New Orleans and around the world today.

A celebration of the release of Danny Barker’s A Life in Jazz will be held at The Historic New Orleans Collection, 533 Royal Street from 6 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. on Thursday, December 1, 2016. The event, which features the Shannon Powell Band, is free and open to the public. For more details, go to

Christmas New Orleans Style — Follow Your Joy



Among the many holiday activities presented by the French Quarter Festivals, Inc., two music series have become a tradition for both locals and regular visitors. The first are the concerts held at the historic St. Louis Cathedral. Coming up this week on Thursday, December 1, is Joe Lastie’s Family Gospel led by drummer Joe Lastie Jr., who is perhaps best recognized as a member of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band. He’s called in some of his kin from his very talented family including his cousin, organist Christopher Vaughn, aunt, vocalist Deborah Hampton and cousin, vocalist Jeff Lastie Morgan plus pianist Rickie Monie and saxophonist Eliot “Stackman” Callier for an evening of “old-time religion” and Christmas favorites. Next up on Sunday, December 4, is vocalist Charmaine Neville, from another great musical family. As is her style, she’ll fill with church with New Orleans jazz and rhythm and blues. On Monday, December 5, Rachel Van Voorhess, the principal harpist with the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra, will offer the quietude of classical music. All performances, which are held on various days through December 18, are free and begin at 6 p.m.

Three Saturday evening concerts are scheduled at another one of New Orleans historical places of worship, the Treme’s St. Augustine Catholic Church. Trumpeter and vocalist James Andrews, from yet another of this city’s mighty musical families and a denizen of the 6th Ward, opens the series on December 3. The shows continue from 4 p.m. to 5 p.m. with the Shades of Praise lifting its unified voices on December 10 and the Original Tuxedo Jazz Band, led by drummer Gerald French, wrapping up the free series on Saturday, December 17.

This article originally published in the November 28, 2016 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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