Two months before he died in 1994, the 85-year-old Danny Barker rode through the French Quarter as King of Krewe Du Vieux. It was a regal moment in the truest sense; he had kept the diagnosis of inoperable cancer a secret to all but his wife, daughter and a few close friends. Barker the balladeer, guitarist, composer, author and storyteller reveled in words, and he held hard to a cardinal law of show business: “You gotta keep up your front.”
No matter the personal issues that trail an entertainer into a club or concert hall, you had to maintain the persona, the image, the front. He was a man of silken charm and a dead-pan sense of humor, who upon calling his trusted trumpeter, Gregg Stafford, always greeted him with the cosmic question: “How’s jazzzz?”
He was a hustling banjo player, all of 21, when the Great Depression hit. In 1930, Barker, 21, went to New York at the invitation of his uncle, the drummer Paul Barbarin; he moved into the Harlem apartment the Barbarins shared with trumpeter and vocalist Henry Red Allen, and their wives. Barker arranged a train ticket for his bride, Louisa, 17, back in New Orleans.
Barker recorded with Red Allen and went on to a long ride as rhythm guitarist in Cab Calloway’s big band.
When they moved back to New Orleans in 1965, Barker had a long list of recordings and compositions, several of them for “Blue Lu” Barker, the stage name Louisa had taken as a vocalist. They became venerable figures in New Orleans, keeping the tradition alive at the Palm Court, Jazz Fest and various venues.
The high point of his career came in 1986, when Oxford University Press published his memoir, A Life in Jazz, a work at which he had labored for many years, writing the drafts by hand, keeping at it despite a long line of publishers’ rejections. Alyn Shipton, a British jazz historian and editor, helped him organize and edit the material for the original UK edition.
He wrote of his early childhood in the Sicilian back streets of the French Quarter; his formative years in the Seventh Ward, learning the world through the many layered Barbarin family of musicians; the courtship with Lu and adventures from his years in New York with the Calloway Big Band, priceless cameos of Blue Lu, Jelly Roll Morton, Bunk Johnson and others.
Of New Orleans in the early 1980s, he writes of “old benevolent halls converted into new Baptist churches and some spiritual holy roller and Sanctified churches. Quiet on the outside but deeply spiritual, metaphysical spirit calling and evoking of spirits on the inside. … There are multitudes of trained musicians: drummers, organists, pianists, tambourine slappers.
The competition is fiercely intense. All the young church folks are aware of the holy war.”
The range of Barker’s life and spoken rhythms of his prose, like a guy across the kitchen table laying it out for you, made A Life in Jazz a classic in the literature of the music and a grand autobiography as well.
The Historic New Orleans Collection has just released a new edition – a beautiful, art-book sized tome featuring sumptuous photographs of Barker’s odyssey along the century of jazz.
Gwen Thompkins, host of the New Orleans NPR program “Music Inside Out,” contributes a wise introduction. And Alyn Shipton, editor of the original edition, provided outtakes from that manuscript that have been put back into A Life in Jazz, providing a regenerative work for a new audience of readers, which Danny Barker, an eternal persona, well deserves.
The Danny Barker Banjo and Guitar Festival will be held at Howlin’ Wolf (907 S. Peters St.) on Sunday afternoon, Jan. 15. The events include a 3 p.m. panel discussion of his life and the new book, and an evening concert headlined by Maria Muldaur and Kenny Neal, with appearances by John Boutte, Topsy Chapman and Solid Harmony, Steve Masakowski and Charmaine Neville. Everyone will keep up their front.