In My Father’s Words
03/07/1938 – 18/10/2018
Chris Barber and Me!
I wanted to call this piece “Me and Chris Barber” but decided instead that might sound a tad egotistical. Anyway, who the hell is Chris Barber?
Growing up in Britain after the Second World War was, viewed from this distance, a frequently grim and sometimes dispiriting experience, perhaps only from this distance. The War had been grim, even for children, like myself, who knew no better than their lives lived between 1939 and 1945. Even then, the knowledge that the War could kill you did not really sink in until the danger had passed.
Food rationing had lasted for some items until 1952 from memory. That memory was heightened by another memory, being physically ill after ‘sweets’ came off the ration and the kids stuffed themselves.
The 1950’s saw an opening up of life in Britain and my own life. I discovered girls, and as with many young men, my life was changed forever. I enjoyed music and pop music in particular caught hold of me. The era saw a revival in the popularity of traditional jazz. Unlike pre war days a lot of home grown talent emerged.
One was a young man called Chris Barber who formed a group around a trumpeter called Ken Colyer. Ken had lived dangerously before signing up with Chris. As a merchant seaman he had jumped ship in the USA and lived illegally in New Orleans for several months playing jazz with the local black groups. He was subsequently deported.
Some 30 line ups later I went to the Epsom Playhouse where I paid my money to see the 31st line up. At the Playhouse at 8pm, an old, stooped and balding man staggered, shuffled is a better description, on to the stage. His tuxedo hung limply on his shoulders and his trousers appeared unpressed. I was shocked at his appearance but even more shocked at his speech which was confused and difficult to hear and understand.
Chris introduced the nine other members of the group, all men. They covered the drums, bass, banjo, the clarinet, trumpet and trombone. It was a typical jazz line up with some extra help on the brass and woodwinds.
My mind went back to my first concert at the Royal festival Hall in 1957. I was accompanied by Anne, a girl from my home town and we were entranced by the clean tones of Chris’s band. He had Pat Halcox on trumpet and Monty Sunshine on clarinet. Monty was later to have a huge hit with Petite Fleur. Lonnie Donegan had recently left the band beginning the washing machine circle of musicians leaving and joining, or rejoining the group.
Additionally, the Band’s vocalist was one Ottilie Patterson, a lady from Northern Ireland and held by many to be the best jazz vocalist in the British Isles. She and Chris were married at one stage but it didn’t last.
As I grew up, and grew older, not always the same thing, my loyalties strayed to the likes of Sinatra and Neil Diamond and later still Eva Cassidy and Katherine Jenkins. However I never quite forgot my roots in the exciting days of the early fifties. While living in Woking I caught up with Chris and his fellow ‘Musos’ like Kenny Ball, Humph and Acker Bilk. To me these folks were real musicians and not just kids who could afford a guitar.
The last time I saw Chris and the boys before the gig a couple of weeks ago was at the Epsom Playhouse. The long time trumpet player, Pat Halcox, was still playing. Sadly this was not the case this time as Pat passed away recently. The doubts that assailed me at Chris Barber’s appearance dissipated within a few seconds; his playing was sweet and pure and hugely evocative of another era and another me.
In two hours at the Playhouse I was taken back to the Royal Festival Hall in 1957 when a nineteen year old policeman from Belfast went to the theatre with a girl on his arm, The world was a beckoning vista to be seized and explored. The world did not always play ball, but I didn’t know that at the time. At the Playhouse in February 2017 I was able, for a short time, able to see again through a 19 year old’s eyes.
Written by BM