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Remembering Danny Barker


Danny Barker (1909-1994) was born into that generation of musicians whose lives reflected the arc of jazz from men blowing horns atop mule-drawn wagons to the world stage. From New Orleans to New York and back again, he managed to be both a witness and participant in the evolution of the music.

As a banjo player and rhythm guitarist, his discography reads like no other. Barker played with Jelly Roll Morton and the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, with Dr. John and Dexter Gordon, with Billie Holiday and Cab Calloway. In all, he’s believed to have appeared on more than a thousand recordings. The plaque at his birthplace on Chartres Street in the French Quarter says so. And the discography at the back of his memoir, “A Life of Jazz,” presents the spectacular journey of a musician who never considered himself a virtuoso.

In 1965, when Barker and his wife — singer Blue Lu Barker — were done with New York, they came home to minor celebrity and plenty of good will. Many artists might have been satisfied with that. But during the late years of his life, Barker found the time and energy to save the New Orleans music tradition. He turned a crew of young musicians — boys, really — into the Fairview Baptist Church Christian Band, which extended local interest in traditional New Orleans and brass band music well into the 21st century.

Barker didn’t live long enough to see how far his vision would go. But his memoir makes a case for New Orleanians to tend to their birthright — and to keep the music going. Trumpeter Leroy Jones says Barker urged him and all New Orleans musicians to learn a hundred songs originating from local tradition because knowing those songs will guarantee work. “And he wasn’t lying,” said Jones, who led the Fairview at the age of 12. “Because I’ve been working ever since.”

On the 30th anniversary of “A Life in Jazz,” the Historic New Orleans Collection re-issued the memoir with new material from Barker’s editor, Alyn Shipton, and a slew of new photographs. I wrote the introduction and could have kept the story going well into the next century. It’s just that rich. Barker, who lived in the shadow of the old St. Bernard Housing Project, couldn’t promise his young Fairview musicians wealth. But trumpeter Gregg Stafford — another Fairview alum — remembers Barker saying, “‘Playing this music is like taking a ride on a royal camel. That is a great ride — to be riding on a royal camel with the kings and queens. That’s what it’s like when you learn this music.’”

If you’d like to learn more about “A Life in Jazz,” check out this article I penned for the New Yorker, “Giving a Great Jazz Storyteller His Due.”

So Giddyup!

— Gwen Thompkins

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Gwen Thompkins is a New Orleans native, NPR veteran and host of WWNO's Music Inside Out, where she brings to bear the knowledge and experience she amassed as senior editor of Weekend Edition, an East Africa correspondent, the holder of Nieman and Watson Fellowships, and as a longtime student of music from around the world.