Photo by Leigh Webber

Grade: A

New Orleans jazz is often seen as party music — a style that calls for raucous brass instruments, a stomping drumbeat, and spirited dancing. But sometimes, to truly appreciate an art form, you need to sit down and really drink in its history. Dr. Michael White and his band provided that beverage at last night’s performance, an entertaining and enlightening look into the music and legacy of New Orleans Jazz legend Danny Barker. 

For context, Barker was an American musician and author who worked alongside some of the most prominent jazz artists in the 1930s. Barker lent his banjo and guitar skills to musicians such as Jelly Roll Morton, Sidney Bechet, Benny Carter, and Cab Calloway. During the 1960s, his work with the Fairview Baptist Church Band produced rows of new talent, including modern greats such as Wynton and Branford Marsalis. 

Danny Barker played on legendary jazz compositions | Courtesy Jules Cahn Collection at The Historic New Orleans Collection, 2000.78.1.2113

White and his band took the stage before an older crowd of mostly couples eager to hear live music. The band featured a host of talented musicians, such as bassist Kerry Lewis, trombonist Jeffery Miller, pianist David Torkanowsky, trumpeter Greg Stafford, banjoist and guitarist Don Vappie, drummer Shannon Powell and vocalist Catherine Russell. Despite pesky bug bites and the threat of a thunderstorm looming, White and his band played with an admirable, laid back confidence while walking the audience through Barker’s extensive catalogue. 

The songs featured throughout the setlist ranged from New Orleans jazz standards to songs from the musicians Barker worked with during his career. Before each song, White gave a brief lecture on the history surrounding it and Barker’s involvement in the music. The whole performance felt more like an interactive lecture (in the best way possible) rather than a hyperactive jazz concert. Through his expertise and disarming sense of humor, White set up each song beautifully, as they offered a sense of anticipation for the audience to hear the next number. 

Some definite highlights of the night came from vocalist Russell. Sporting a lavish black dress, Russell added a new layer of energy and excitement when  White introduced her onstage. During the song, “Here’s a Little Girl from Jacksonville,” Russell showcased her dancing skills with moves such as “the applejack,” “the camel walk” and “the ring dang doo.” A few brave audience members in the front rows tried their best to mimic her, but there was no catching up to Catherine. She was one of the more entertaining performers on stage, and that is saying a lot. 

Another high point of the show was the band’s rendition of George Gershwin’s timeless “Summertime.” Performed in the style of Sidney Bechet’s 1939 rendition, the band never wasted a single note. White even unleashed a climactic, breathtaking clarinet cadenza that sent the crowd into a frenzied standing ovation. 

The historic College of Charleston’s Cistern was an ideal venue for the event. Surrounded by a group of towering, gargantuan oak trees and an impressive clock tower, the Cistern gives off an open, serene vibe that I think complimented the performance. The trees are the most impactful part of the venue, as they collectively form a natural ceiling over the audience. 

The show concluded with a second line march that got the mostly elderly crowd up and dancing. Overall, White and his group’s performance did justice to Barker’s legacy and provided a detailed look into the importance of the New Orleans Jazz tradition. I would definitely recommend this show to anyone interested or willing to learn about New Orleans Jazz and Danny Barker’s impact on music.

Patrick Henkels is a graduate student in the Goldring Arts Journalism and Communications Program at Syracuse University.

Stay cool. Support City Paper.

City Paper has been bringing the best news, food, arts, music and event coverage to the Holy City since 1997. Support our continued efforts to highlight the best of Charleston with a one-time donation or become a member of the City Paper Club.