Ever heard of renowned banjo and guitar player Danny Barker? If not, some of New Orleans’s finest musicians will set out to change that on May 29.
Spoleto Festival USA’s “A New Orleans Jazz Celebration” will pay tribute to the life and music of the man largely referred to as “Mr. Barker,” who played with Jelly Roll Morton, Cab Calloway, Charlie Parker and others in New York City before returning to his hometown of New Orleans in 1965. He then recruited young musicians (among them, brothers Wynton and Branford Marsalis) and formed the city’s renowned Fairview Baptist Church Brass Band, some of whose members will perform in the tribute.
“The band was one of the first young brass bands to perform in New Orleans back in the ‘70s,” said one such member, drummer and vocalist Shannon Powell. “There was all these great brass bands: the Olympia Brass Band, Tuxedo Brass Band. They were the grown men. And Mr. Barker had this Fairview band, and he was very proud because he had taught them a lot about the songs, and how to play, how to dress and how to be professional.”
The tribute, which will be performed Friday night at the College of Charleston’s Cistern Yard, will feature music that the band played as well as songs that Barker performed and recorded with his wife, jazz and blues singer Blu Lu Barker. Also included in the eight-member ensemble is the Grammy Award-winning singer Catherine Russell and clarinetist Dr. Michael White,
White, who is the evening’s musical director, describes these songs as a sort of primer for the sound of New Orleans jazz. “There is a certain general New Orleans approach to rhythm that’s very important and kind of sets the tone for how the music is going to sound,” White said.
Powell said he met Barker when he was about 12 years old and playing Sunday gigs at a local club. The two began playing as a duo before Powell joined the Fairview Baptist Church Brass Band a few years later.
“Back then, I had started playing the drum set, so I wasn’t too keen on playing one drum,” Powell said. “In a brass band, you got a snare drum and a bass drum player. As I became older, I started playing the whole set of drums and focusing more on that.”
White, in turn, was part of what he calls the “second generation” of Fairview. The clarinetist first saw Barker perform when he was a senior at Xavier University of Louisiana in the mid-1970s. He then audited an African-American music class that Barker was teaching, and the two eventually began playing together.
“He had been on a recording video called ‘The Sound of Jazz,’ which was a CBS television show that showed jazz musicians playing,” White said. “It had all these legendary people. And he had done a blues solo with two clarinet players, and I used to like that since the blues was fairly easy. I had worked on that, and I wanted to play that with him, so we actually played it in the class.”
Like Powell, Don Vappie met Barker after being spotted during a gig. Vappie can also play the bass and guitar, and he remembers a time in the 1990s when Barker urged him to try playing the banjo during one of their concert breaks.
“At that time I was playing a little bit of banjo, but he just kept pushing me,” said Vappie, who will play banjo in the Spoleto tribute. “I look back at that moment as him inviting me to take the banjo and evolve. You know, bring it somewhere.”
Vappie said he was initially drawn to the instrument by its historical roots to the Caribbean and Africa. “I started working at a music store, and I saw banjos hanging on the wall,” he said. “It reminded me of some of the muted guitar lines that were played in other music, like in Earth, Wind and Fire.
“My generation hated the banjo because it was like a symbol of Jim Crow for us,” Vappie continued. “But in doing some research and finding that the banjo actually evolved from the African instruments that came here with [enslaved people], I asked myself, ‘How can one group of people get another group of people to hate something that belongs to them?’ That was my thought process, so I started playing the banjo.”
With the tribute, which was also presented in 2019 at Jazz at Lincoln Center, the musicians hope to introduce a wider audience, especially younger generations, to traditional New Orleans jazz.
“I would like young people to realize that jazz is a very important music that is fun,” White said. “It’s enjoyable. It’s an expression of individuality, personality. It’s an expression of your deepest emotions and passions and feelings, and letting them out and being who you are – but using that to come together with others to create a higher power. The New Orleans style is danceable music, and it’s fun. So when the people are dancing, we hope that they feel like that.”
Cydney Lee is a graduate student in the Goldring Arts Journalism and Communications Program at Syracuse University.
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