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Chris Barber, British trad jazz bandleader, dies aged 90

Ben Beaumont-Thomas
·2-min read
<span>Photograph: Heritage Images/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Heritage Images/Getty Images

Chris Barber, the British trombonist, double bassist and trad jazz bandleader who influenced the path of mid-century pop, has died aged 90. He had dementia. His death was confirmed by his UK press representative.

Born in Hertfordshire and taught music at London’s Guildhall School, Barber was a champion of trad jazz, the raucous New Orleans style that had waned by the early 1950s as bebop became more fashionable. He helped to reignite the style’s popularity, and became known as one of the Three B’s, alongside Kenny Ball and Acker Bilk, who also separately revived trad jazz.

His first band was led by trumpeter Ken Colyer, and was renamed the Chris Barber Band after Colyer left in 1954 (later also credited as Chris Barber’s Jazz Band and other variations). Following a partnership with replacement trumpeter Pat Halcox until 2008, the group would be an abiding force in British jazz, later expanding into the Big Chris Barber Band.

The group’s biggest hit was in 1959 with Petite Fleur, originally written by Sidney Bechet. It reached No 3 in the UK charts and spent 24 weeks on the chart in total. In 1956, the influential short film Momma Don’t Allow, directed by Karel Reisz and Tony Richardson, documented one of the group’s gigs as the pair captured London’s trad jazz scene.

Another of his collaborators was Lonnie Donegan, who Barber first played with in the Colyer band. Barber played double bass on Donegan’s hit 1956 single Rock Island Line, which reached No 8 in 1956. Slowly ratcheting up in tempo and intensity, the song kicked off the craze for skiffle music, credited with pointing the way towards the revolutionary guitar-pop of the 1960s.

Barber would intersect with many stars from those mid-century pop and blues scenes. Paul McCartney gave him an instrumental composition called Cat Call, recorded in 1967, and appeared on it; it was later compiled on the album The Songs Lennon and McCartney Gave Away. Barber profoundly admired blues musicians, and invited Muddy Waters, Sister Rosetta Tharpe and other American artists to tour the UK.

He also nurtured Alexis Korner, who played in Barber’s orchestra before his group Blues Incorporated became a breeding ground for stars including the Rolling Stones and Cream.

Barber later expanded his orchestra’s repertoire beyond trad jazz, taking on adventurous pieces by artists including Charles Mingus and Joe Zawinul, and guested with stars including Van Morrison and Jools Holland.

He enjoyed a sideline in motor racing, driving a Lotus Elite. In 1991, he was awarded an OBE for services to music, and published a memoir, Jazz Me Blues, in 2014. He retired in 2019, although the Big Chris Barber Band continued to perform under his name.