Book Review: Chris Barber (with Alyn Shipton) - Jazz Me Blues

Chris Barber (with Alyn Shipton) - Jazz Me Blues
(Equinox, 180pp. £19.99. Book Review by Chris Parker)

Trombonist/bandleader Chris Barber is arguably the most influential (non-classical) musical figure the UK has ever produced; as one of his long-time associates, Van Morrison, says in this autobiography’s blurb: ‘all roads lead to Chris ... He is the pivotal player in the game of British blues, jazz and skiffle whose blues offshoots strongly influenced the American scene also.’ Given Barber’s seminal importance, then, Jazz Me Blues could reasonably have been expected to provide readers with a series of unique insights into the post-war British popular music scene, from its 1950s roots in traditional jazz and skiffle, to the blues boom that spawned not only the British invasion of the USA spearheaded by the Beatles and Rolling Stones but also the revival of interest in and respect for blues and jazz in both countries.

For its first few chapters, covering Barber’s initiation into the mysteries of jazz via assiduous combing of obscure shops selling US imported records, and his subsequent career in what later came to be known as ‘trad’ bands, the book does indeed – courtesy of Barber’s apparent total recall and the limpid prose in which he recounts his story – provide just such insights. The early histories of George Webb, Ken Colyer, Humphrey Lyttelton et al. are all skilfully and entertainingly delineated; the kindling of the country’s interest in skiffle into the full blaze of the blues boom via the work of Lonnie Donegan and the tours of such figures as Lonnie Johnson, Big Bill Broonzy, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee and Muddy Waters – all of whom were involved with Barber – is perceptively described; the part played by venues such as the Marquee (co-owned by Barber with Harold Pendleton), the 100 Club and Studio 51 carefully traced.

Once Barber is established as a bandleader, however, with ‘Petite Fleur’ a big hit (1959), the book quickly loses its edge, becoming at times little more than an annotated tour diary lacking the often subtle reflectiveness and wit of its earlier pages. Given the clarity and percipience of Barber’s account of the 1950s, his thoughts on the extraordinary musical developments of the post-Beatles pop/rock world and the post-revival jazz and blues scenes worldwide would have been fascinating to read; instead, we are given brief snapshots of fleeting musical encounters, culminating in a somewhat anodyne conclusion: ‘I’ve not been afraid of change, and of moving forward. The received wisdom is once you arrive at a successful format, you stick to it, or else! We’ve done the opposite for sixty years – if we like it, we do it.’

This is not to undervalue the wealth of insights the book does contain, however: the often cantankerous enthusiasm of the Colyer band, for instance, is beautifully captured; the jazz-world splits, not only between modernists and mouldy figs, but between various factions within the latter group itself, are amusingly detailed; the reasons for the relative American neglect of blues and jazz among the country’s youth are convincingly identified, and so on; if the standards established in the first few chapters had been maintained, this would have been a uniquely valuable document. As it is, Jazz Me Blues – its central message simply stated as ‘I wanted [audiences] to realise that this was special music and there was something in it of value and interest’ – is not quite the definitive work it promises to be at its outset.

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