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Clarinettist with Chris Barber and George Webb, and bandleader.
Interview by Mark ‘Snowboy’ Cotgrove.
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How old are you Alex?
I’ll be 84 this year. Born in 1929.
So tell me about how you first got interested in music?
Well I had a slightly older cousin that I used to go and see when he came out of the Navy after the war and I would stay with him and we would go dancing and things like that, at the local Palais’ and things and he had a large collection of Duke Ellington records and I was particularly fond and struck by the small band groups, the Johnny Hodges and Cootie Williams which I liked very much. I liked the big bands but I liked the small groups better. And then quite how I progressed – if that's the word – to New Orleans Jazz I'm not quite sure, after this period of time, but I remember my first Armstrong Hot Seven record very well and then later of course Brunswick issued, or reissued, King Oliver Creole Jazz Band record, my memory of that – it was a 78 of course – was Riverside Blues backed by Mabel’s Dream I think, and that was it you know, that hooked me into a lifelong admiration of that band which I still think after all this time is the greatest band that ever got on a bandstand. That was it. I remember my early days, you know, I was into Bix and all the people, New York Jazz people, Wolverines and people like that, and as I say, Bix, and that was also a great interest.
What about Louis Armstrong?
Oh well yes I mean, as I say, I can't remember when I first discovered Hot Seven but it was certainly about 1948, something like that, maybe 1949. I can pinpoint that in a way because an incident I remember when I first met Ferdie Farrenger who also lived near Barkingside.
Oh yes because you're from Barkingside aren’t you?
Yes and Ferdie lives in Hastings Avenue which is a little way between Gants Hill and Barkingside. Now, how I met Ferdie I really don’t know but there was a little group of us, I think we met probably because we were going to dances at the local schools and things like that and we met and found we had an interest in Jazz and we talked about Jazz and when we came away from the dances we'd congregate before we went off on our various directions to home we would stand on the local corner and talk about Jazz and swap things we knew about Jazz and talk about it and argue about it and that’s how it all worked out you know.
Yeah there was a school round there I seem to have read about called Gearies.
Gearies yes that's right. I went to Gearies before I was evacuated during the war and afterwards we used to run…how we persuaded the school to do it I don’t know, but later on we would meet in the hall there and practice because one or two people we used their houses etc, but some of the parents didn’t like it. There was a little group of friends, some of whom played and some of whom didn’t, some kind of dropped by the wayside and never did more, and others obviously went on and kept the interest and stayed playing and practising. I mean there was, there must have been, at least a dozen people about that time that I met through various ways, I'd friends like Tony Curtis and Hal Daniels, Peter Taylor and all these kind of people and we were just all interested in….I mean thinking about it at the moment, saying about when I first got interested in Jazz, I can remember when I was still at school which would be about ’47, ’48, a friend and I used to – on our bikes – used to cycle all around Stratford and all those kind of places junk-shopping, which was looking in old junk shops for old 78 records that, you know, hoping to turn up a Jazz record because there weren't many Jazz records available then. We had a book called The Junk-Shoppers Discography, it would tell us in there if one of the dance bands like, I don’t know, whatever they were in those days, who the solos were by, or even a break by Bix and we used to junk for Whiteman records and that kind of thing so I suppose yeah that must have been about the time you know when I was listening to my cousin’s records as well.
It’s funny, because talking about Gearies and that whole area, Alan Wickham has a very similar story to yours in a way, and I know Alan – I don’t know if you know Alan at all but Alan was from that area as well, so it seems to have been quite a hot-bed of Jazz information flying around amongst the youngsters.
Yeah well Alan and Rags Russell they were kind of, I remember going to see Alan – I think I told you about the house with Rags – they must have had the Wickham Russell Hot Six in those days, and they were the next step up from us, you know. They’d been interested in Jazz for longer and they were older and they’d been playing for quite a while then and they were quite good musicians anyway.
When did you take up an instrument then Alex?
I must have been 17, yeah, I wanted to play trumpet actually being a great Louis and Bix fan, but my father said “No, it's too loud. You’ll disturb all the neighbours”. He wasn't against it, they weren't old-fashioned like that, he said no it's a bit loud, he'd never heard of mutes! And the fact that I played in our bathroom and tried to develop as loud a tone as I could rather negated his – the clarinet that was – rather negated his objection to having a trumpet. I could have played the trumpet muted and not made anywhere near the amount of noise I used to make, which used to set all the dogs barking in the street! And we had a big bathroom, and it's the old thing of everybody’s a Caruso in their bathtub because of the wonderful acoustics, so you know, I was immediately 'Johnny Dodds' because I had the volume!
So you were 17. Were you self-taught or did you have lessons?
Yes I had four lessons from a chap called Robert who played clarinet and tenor sax. He was very nice, a very good teacher, and when I went for my fifth lesson his wife opened the door and she said “Yes?” and I said “I've come for my lesson” and she said “Oh dear, you obviously don’t know that David has just died”! So yeah, I get ribbed about that occasionally from other people, “Oh yeah you killed him off did you, with your playing?”
And from then like most of us I learned from records. I learned trying to play the phrases that I heard on record, which actually does develop your technique.
Yes it's the best way of learning isn’t it, by learning what’s gone on before, in a way.
Yes but not only that, if you learn by, if you just read music etc. that's fine but on the other hand you learn…if you play on your own without music and you're practising you tend to play what lies under your fingers which is easiest for you, but when you try to learn a phrase that someone who’s a much more advanced player is playing then it stretches your technique. You have to learn how to finger it and that helps a great deal.
Yes of course. Ok, so you started to have lessons. So where do we go from here Alex?
Well I suppose the first thing was I was playing with a couple of friends of mine who later dropped out of playing but we played together, we played out and about, we didn't do any gigs of course but we played. And then I met Ferdie, who was very talented; in fact he was the most talented of all of us.
And what did he play?
Banjo. Do you want me to tell you the story about Ferdie?
Ok, well again as I said, I don’t know how I first met Ferdie but I obviously did and he was obviously interested in Jazz and asked me about it because I knew a bit about Jazz because he didn’t know anything at all. So he seemed really interested, so I asked him if he played anything and he said yes he actually played the banjo, so I said “Oh do you. How did that come about?”, he said “My uncle was a ukulele player and then he was a banjo player and he taught me to play the banjo”, I said “Oh, ok, well would you like to come up to the house and I’ll play you some Jazz records and see what you think?”. So he said he would. So he’d be about 17, only a few months younger than me, so he came up to the house and I sat him in our front room and I said “Ok, well I’ll play you a record I'm interested in....” which was the Hot Seven, one called Willie The Weeper, so I put this on the gramophone but before I started to play it I said “Do you want a drink first?”, so he said “Oh yes’ and you know being the age we were and the time we were living it was an orange juice. So I went down to the kitchen to make an orange juice, put the record on and went down to the kitchen and when I came back there was a 17 year old playing along to the record – perfectly – chords and everything! And I said to him “I thought you'd never heard any Jazz?” and he said “Well I haven’t”, looking puzzled, so I said “How do you know what chord to play next?” and he said “I don’t know, I just know! I just follow it. I seem to know where it’s going next”. I was absolutely knocked out. I was absolutely amazed by that. He carried that into the Barber band, when we were in the first Barber band together. Chris worked out a lot of the chords, but he would always turn to Ferdie when there was a strange chord came up which didn't fall into the normal pattern, which in that case he needed Chris a bit, because Chris could work out chord sequences almost mathematically because one chord must surely be followed by this chord but when a strange chord came up he would ask Ferdie “What’s that Ferd?” and Ferd would play it on the banjo and say well that’s a so-and-so 9th or whatever. That was Ferdie. He had the finest ear of anybody I've ever met in the Jazz world. Sadly he died last year.
There was also a chap in those days called Ben Cohen as well wasn't there?
Ah yes, now Ben came from Chadwell Heath and you're going to ask me how I met Ben, and I don't know. It’s too long ago and we must have met about ’48 or ’49 because he used to come to Gearies School and at Gearies School Chris Barber came down first. I think we must have all met at the 100 Club that's the only explanation I can think of.
And what did Ben play?
Trumpet. Trumpet/Cornet. And of course we were friends from when we were 17 until when he died in 2002. We played together in lots of bands and we were in the first Barber band together, in the semi-pro band, and we played in lots of bands together and then we went our separate ways but we always came back and played at odd times. In ’97 or something Ben formed the Hot Five or Hot Seven and we were together again. I used to see Ben a lot because we were both semi-pros and I used to go and see Ben when Ben had a factory. He ran a screen-printing business, and I used to go and see him when I was supposedly at work. We would talk about old times etc. and of course we played gigs together, but Ben was always saying “We must get another band together, we must start playing together instead of playing all these pick-up groups”, so yeah that's how the Ben Cohen Hot Five came about in ’97, something like that.
I probably leapt forward too fast didn’t I by saying Ben Cohen. Or was it around about that time that you met him?
It was a little bit later but not much only a few months, maybe 6 months or a year. But it's all kind of meshed together in my memory now.
Were there many venues to go and check Jazz out in the Gants Hill/Ilford area in those days, in the late ‘40s?
No, the only Jazz club we used to go to was the Cooks Ferry Inn. Freddy Randall. You know excellent trumpet player, really fine trumpet player. We all used to go to the Cooks Ferry Inn and listen to him, and then of course the 100 Club because Humph, the Humph band, was at the 100 Club and you know we used to go every time they were playing there. It was our club!
Mind you that was in the ‘50s wasn't it, 100 Club?
Yes, but when did Humph first start there? I can't remember when Humph started the band and took Wally Fawkes and a couple of others from George Webb Dixielanders, which was the other band at the time – was THE band before Humph formed his band. But yeah…I don’t know, I suppose yeah it must have been the early ‘50s. Saying that, no, we must have been seeing Humph at the 100 Club in ’49, something like that I should think. Why not look up Humph and see when he started the band because that would give you that would confirm memories wouldn’t it.
Of course, yes.
I'm just having a look here, he's playing in George Webb’s Dixielanders in ’47, he formed his own band in ’48, so it must have been about ’48, middle of ’48 or something that we were listening to him at the 100 Club. There wasn’t a 100 Club then – what was it called?
It had a family name didn't it.
Stan and Bert Wilcox ran it and it was called the London Jazz Club.
On my notes I've got two things here and I don’t know which order they came in: I've got that you met Lonnie Donegan on a bus but also I don’t know whether that was before you met Chris Barber.
That business about Lonnie, that's gone into kind of myth-land, I mean Lonnie was always saying – and he actually said this at the100 Club when they did some kind of celebration, 40 years – Lonnie always says that I met him on a tube train and he says that I was the chap that got him into the music business. I met him on this tube train and said “You play the banjo don't you?” and I didn't have a banjo at the time and so I said to him “Well we want a banjo player in the Barber band” because Ferdie was going to do his National Service, and he says “That’s how I got started’ and that's complete nonsense! I said to Lonnie you must stop saying that because it's not true, I mean what happened was, the Barber band, we were pretty kind of serious about the technical side of the music that we played, we wanted to get things right, we wanted to be musical, we wanted to get the right chords and everything and we wouldn’t have had anybody in the band as a banjo player, especially in lieu of Ferdie who already was already a good player. I mean Lonnie is actually, I heard – talking about Chris Barber’s years as a Jazz band leader – I heard Lonnie saying, repeating the story about me meeting him on the tube train and he actually sold his engagement ring that he was going to give his girlfriend for 7/10d to buy a banjo and he went along to the rehearsal with the Barber band and Chris called for – I don't know – Muskrat Ramble or something and they started it and Lonnie said “And after a few bars Chris stopped me and said ‘You don't know what you're doing do you?’ and I said no” and he said “Chris taught me the chords etc.” and as I say that is complete and utter nonsense, we wouldn’t have had anyone in the band that couldn’t play.
No of course you wouldn’t, no, I mean it was already a heavyweight band.
And I remember very well that he was a fine banjo player which was the reason we had him. And I was the one that maybe said to him “Look why don’t you come along and see if you can join the band”, but as for getting him into the music business well that's a dubious honour! That is exactly how it happened. There's all this myth about 7/10d banjos and all that kind of thing, is all window dressing. People tend to tell these kind of stories and they tend to forget that there are other people about who know the truth! They think they’re the only ones still living.
Let’s put Chris Barber into the picture now.
Well I first met Chris at the 100 Club. He was the ultimate kind of schoolboy, blazer, jacket and thick cotton trousers you know with what were they called, thick material in grey.
Flannel or something?
Flannel, well no thicker than that. I met him at the 100 Club with records under his arm because he was a great record collector and, yeah, we got talking and he was a great fan of the King Oliver band so of course that immediately sparked an interest off for both of us and we decided to form a band and more or less we agreed Chris could be the leader because I wasn't really interested. The whole band was a co-op band and I invited him down to play with us at Gearies school with Ben, so I must have met Ben before then. I could actually ring Ben's wife and probably ask her she might remember. If my first wife were alive now she'd be able to tell you much more because she had a memory like an elephant you know, she'd remember absolutely everything. Anyway I must have met Ben before that because Chris then came down and had a blow with us at Gearies School, that would have been with Ferdie and Ben but because we wanted a King Oliver Band we didn’t know a trumpet player so Chris found a chap called Keith Jary. I don’t know where he found him from. He’s not an Essex boy. So the band was Keith Jary, Ben on trumpet, well cornet really, Chris on trombone, myself on clarinet and Freddy Faviger was banjo and then came drums and piano – how he met them I don’t know because they both came from Southend – one was Brian Laws and Roy Sturgess was on piano. He was older than most of us, he'd kind of already done his National Service and had come out and the connection with him was that he was going out with Brian Laws’ sister in Southend, but we must have met them I should think up at the 100 Club. We never had a regular bass player in the band, we always used a Jamaican, a very old Jamaican – well old to us, he was in his 60’s – called Brylo Ford or we had another chap that used to play with us sometimes. Name escapes me for the moment, it will come to me later. Or various people that we used. So that was the band – before that Chris and I had a band with a friend of mine called Middy Middleton, and that never got off the ground as an actual band that played any gigs or anything, and I think it was the fact that we wanted to…Middy was a very fine trumpet player actually, he was better than us. He was actually silver band trained so he could play very well. Middy never joined…he got jilted by a girl and went off and joined the Navy and that more or less broke the band up and then we decided to have the Oliver band. He was a very good player actually.
Was Gearies just a rehearsal place or did you actually…
Yes, we used to play there in the evenings, rehearse and that, for the life of me I can't remember how he persuaded the school authorities to let us do that but they certainly didn’t charge us, we couldn’t have afforded it. So I think their idea was it was all part of education and they were quite happy to let us use the school. There was always a caretaker there to lock up after us you know.
Interesting. So that was the first line up. What name did you go under at that point?
Chris Barber’s…I’ll have to look up an old programme for that, it was Chris Barber’s New Orleans Jazz Band I think.
Oh I see, so you used Chris as the leader of the band, as it were, at that point?
Oh yeah, it was a co-op band as far as we were all concerned, we all took the same amount of money and made the decisions about what we were going to do and what we were going to play but you know Chris being Chris – although he was slightly different then to how he is now – as I say, as far as Chris was concerned he always says we formed the band together, which we did, but it was a co-op band. We were semi-pros, we were young and naïve, we didn't know anything about the music business, we were just a load of kids who wanted to play Jazz.
My research is obviously wrong because of what you've been telling me, because I did have written down here that in the original band you had a pianist called Roy Sturgess from Southend.
Yes I just mentioned Roy. Roy and Brian Laws.
Oh Brian Laws yes, and Brian was a dental technician.
He was indeed yes. Where did you find that from?
That book I was telling you about.
And where did you find that for the book?
Yes you're mentioned quite a lot in it, 'The Restless Generation' it’s called, by Peter Frame. Because it said in there that Brian Laws wasn't really a drummer, he took a neck off a banjo and played the body or something originally.
Rubbish, we wouldn’t have had him in the band if he wasn't a good drummer.
When we were forming the band before Benny, and before we settled on Benny, we just had an idea of the band we wanted we auditioned Ken Colyer and Sonny Morris. And it was at the Hare’s Foot or the Rabbit’s Foot, somewhere in town. And they played and they were…I mean we weren’t that skilled on our instruments but they were considerably less skilled and I remember very well that Ken, we were playing Sister Kate, I Wish I Could Shimmy, do you know the tune? And I remember that Ken kept coming and starting a new chorus after the break in the middle of the chorus and he and…they thought they had to play in harmony and they had no idea of harmonic, of harmonies at all, all they knew was that someone had told them if someone is playing a ‘C' you must play a third up! So Ken would play a ‘C' and Sonny would play an ‘E' but that worked if the chord was ‘C’ but if the note that Ken was playing was ‘C' and it was in the ‘F' chord and it was the third then Sonny’s third on the ‘C’ chord, if you follow me, was absolutely wrong! And it was dreadful! And I remember saying to Chris, quite unkindly, that well, you know, about Ken “He’ll never be able to play as long as he's got a hole in his bum”! but being kind of well brought up middle class that we were, Chris wrote a very nice letter to Ken saying that he didn’t think that he would suit, which Ken took umbrage about. I don’t really know why, and was always very nasty about that. It wasn't a terrible letter because I helped Chris compose it and it was very nice, you know. We didn't call a spade a spade, we were just very polite and said we didn't think that his styles would suit the kind of band that we had in mind. And of course now knowing Ken's preference to the earlier New Orleans people, that was quite correct really. He wouldn’t have suited. That was before Ken went to New Orleans and had all the publicity about that.
Oh it was before then was it?
I think it must have been yes. Because when he came back he more or less went into the band with Chris because Chris had turned pro by then.
Were you interested in Chicago style as well?
Oh yes, I liked it all, you know, I liked the Goodman big band swing, I think one of the first records I had was Six Flats Unfurnished and Why Don't You Do Right on the other side but you know I was into all that. Chicago Jazz, New York Jazz, all that kind of stuff, Bessie Smith of course, all that early Jazz I loved. I mean they make a big thing – they did then and they do now – about White Jazz and Black Jazz. This didn't enter into the equation at all as far as we were concerned, we just liked it all.
What about – because at that point Be-Bop would have been in as well wouldn’t it, Charlie Parker.
Yeah that came up, but it's funny that never interested us, I think because we were into that early Jazz which was melodic and we just couldn’t see anything in Be-Bop. It was far too technical for us to play from the point of view of finger technique and it was mainly for the fellas who were older than us and were playing in dance bands and could read and all the rest of it, and were professional musicians, and that was their kind of bag and it wasn’t ours. To us, the music was a kind of hobby that we loved doing, you know, we didn’t have any ambitions to be professional musicians because no-one had even considered that we could make a living at it.
So roughly what year would this first band have formed would you say? As the Chris Barber New Orleans Band.
It’s a bit difficult to say with any precision without looking up to see if I can find some old programmes or things like that. I mean what happened originally, if I can go back a bit, is that when Humph took away Wally Fawkes on clarinet and George Webb from the George Webb’s Dixielanders, the original Dixielanders carried on. They’d got Chris in on trombone and Chris joined them and went to rehearsals etc. He didn’t think much of them, he said “I don’t think the clarinet’s much good”, he said “Why don’t you get my friend Alex Revell?”. So I went along and auditioned and they gave me the job, and you know being the lad I was, I didn’t really like to take it because you know I am doing someone else out of a place in the band, and I mentioned it to George Webb and he gave me quite a dressing down. It was quite a lesson in what you do in the music business. He said “Look you don’t think like that’ he said “If you’ve been offered a job you don’t worry about it. You're not sacking the other fellow, they are and you don’t worry about that. You take the job”, so I did. But that didn’t last very long because they were very staid, Alan Grice and Reg who ran the band, trumpet players, especially Owen, were rigid in their approach to Jazz and we were the young turks in the band as it were, because they were a lot older than us. Owen is 90 I think now, and he was born in 1916 or something like that and um Owen was always telling Chris and I off because we were always playing wrong notes. I said “Well how are they wrong Owen?” and he said “Well you keep playing Minor 3rds” and we said “But Owen, they're blue notes” and he said “No, no, they’re wrong”. So it got to the stage where we were really, really peed off with the band and I remember that out at the time was Stan Kenton’s Peanut Vendor and there was a phrase in that, so Chris and I had a little game amongst the pair of us to see who could get that phrase into a number when we were playing the most number of times. And after a while we so annoyed Owen that, well Chris sent his resignation in and it crossed in the post with me getting sacked! So that was where we left that. We left the band and then we formed the initial Barber band. So that was what happened. That was funny.
So carrying on, I guess there weren't many New Orleans bands around at the time were there?
Well no there was…in the London area there was George Webb's Dixielanders and that was it. Of course up in Scotland a little later maybe, I don’t know if it was later, certainly by 1950 of course there was Sandy Brown who was absolutely superb, better than anybody, better than, you know, whether they had a better sound, they had that sound, that 20’s sound without being slavish copyists that Humph didn’t have. Really absolutely superb you know. But in the London area it was Freddy Randall, which was more like Chicago and that kind of Jazz, which we liked of course, and George Webb’s Dixielanders.
And I suppose…oh I think Wickham Russell was finished by then wasn’t it, I think they’d gone into Beryl Bryden's band at that point I think.
Yes I'm just looking at Chris's thing here, about…he bought this trombone from Harry Brown, I remember that, it was in the Humph band at the time, he said “Played gigs with Beryl Bryden's Backroom Boys in 1949”. I don’t remember that, then two weeks with Cy Laurie, occasionally sat in with Doug Wootton’s band. It was all very casual in those days you see. He formed his own band in 1949 and........ “together with clarinettist Alex Revell, played gigs with Reg Reece and his original Dixielanders”, well we did play gigs but we were actually in the band. It says ‘late ’49 to early ‘50’.
Was there much happening in the Essex area at that point, by the time Chris Barber had started with his…?
Well not really, because it kind of evolved, I mean a couple of my friends, one played trombone and one played banjo, they kind of fell by the wayside you know. Their interest wasn't sustained and that and we met Ben and Ferdie and we took it more serious about playing Jazz, then Chris as well, so the whole thing kind of coerced into that kind of – it’s a kind of, it’s difficult you know, you can't cut and dry it, it was a very kind of moveable thing, you know, very kind of fluid. As we got interested and we went to the 100 Club and we went to see the George Webbs Dixielanders we met other people from other people from other areas who were interested, like Brian Laws and Roy Sturgess and people like that, and it gradually evolved. You cant really put your finger on when this happened and when that happened because it is such a gradual kind of flexible thing.
No I meant as far as gigs, I wonder what was happening in the Essex area as far as gigs were concerned, venues at that point.
No, no, I mean well there was the Cooks Ferry Inn and of course we weren’t playing well enough to take any paid jobs, but I can’t remember a Jazz club in the Essex area that was going. Don’t forget in those days there were lots of Rhythm Clubs where we used to meet and play records but I quite frankly don’t remember there being any of those round Gants Hill and in Essex, we just congregated in each other’s houses and played records and then practised and things like that you know? I mean I wouldn’t swear to it because you're asking me to go back 60-odd, 70 years, but…I really don’t remember, I'm pretty sure in saying there were no Jazz clubs in Essex because the only one we went to was the Cooks Ferry Inn.
How quickly did Chris Barber’s band get established?
Fairly quickly. We did our first gig with…Mike Daniels had a little club in Soho and he was off on a gig somewhere else on the night they played there and we did our first gig there and then we later – I wouldn’t say it was the next gig but it wouldn’t have been far off – we played at the 100 Club, made our debut at the 100 Club and we went down extremely well there because you know we were a fairly musical band and it just went on from there. Well you don’t want the history of the band do you but that's more or less how it went.
And how long did you remain with Chris Barber for?
Well until Chris turned pro in – what would it be – late ’53, early 1954 when he formed the band with Ken Colyer. What happened was that it must have been…about early ’53 by this time we were a one cornet band. I can't remember why but we were, we were playing quite a lot. By this time we had Lonnie in the band as well, I cant remember why he dropped out, but what happened was we were playing a gig and Chris came up to Ben and I – I remember it well, although Chris doesn't – Ben and I were with our girlfriends and Chris came up and said “Look, I want to turn pro” so we said, oh you know, “Turn pro? How are you going to make a living turning pro?” because I was workin g with my father and Ben had a very good job at Bush Electronics and he said “I want to turn pro” and he said “and Ken Colyer and Monty Sunshine also want to turn pro”. I've since learned that Chris was being a bit disingenuous with how he put this but he said “Alex wouldn’t fit with Ken so it’s either both of you - because Alex wouldn’t fit with Ken and Ben wouldn’t fit with Monty”, so he said “It really has to be both of you”, so we turned it in because I was getting married in August and I thought I'm never going to make any money playing Jazz, never going to be able to live, and Chris makes a big thing about he wanted to give the music the respect it was due and play it all the time because it didn’t matter if he was this starving artist in a garret type of thing, but what he always forgets to mention was that his mother was giving him an allowance of 8/10d a week at that time and I was earning £10 at work! So he wasn’t going to starve you know. So of course Ben and I turned it down and he turned pro and that was more or less the end of the Barber band; well it was the end of the original semi-pro Barber band.
You must have done National Service around that point as well being…
Yeah I didn’t go in National Service, because I was a draughtsman.
Oh I see, yes. So that’s how the Barber band finished then was it?
Yes that’s how it finished, that’s how the original Barber band finished, by, in effect, Chris turning pro.
So what did you do after that, I mean obviously you remained in Essex all that time did you?
Well yes, I was still living at home then. I was living at home until ’53, yes I joined George Webb after that. He’d already left Humph and I joined George Webb and, I don't know how long I was with George now, I have to look up what people have found out about me! John Shilton, who I trust because he's a good researcher, he said to me “You were with Graham Stewart as well weren’t you” so I said “No, I never played with Graham Stewart, only odd gigs” you know, well he said “Well it says in the Melody Maker you did!”, so what he’s got in the book is that I was with George Webb, then briefly with Graham Stewart 1957, then I formed my own band in 1958. So according to John from ’53 until I formed my own band in ’58 which is five years I was just with George Webb and then briefly with Graham Stewart, so I must just have been gigging around I suppose. Then after I formed my own band, ’58, and then I went, I didn't like band leading, I went with Steve Laine which is one of my most happiest memories of playing Jazz at all was with Steve Laine. I was with him from late ’58, then the band that was the serious band of my own was apparently from ’61 – ’64 and then I went with…I got a bit fed up because I was with an agency which had all the pro bands, it was a pretty good going but I just wasn't getting enough work, so I took some time off then and then I went to Brian Green from, I don’t know, middle 60's that would have been. Brian Greens' New Orleans Stompers. I'd stopped playing for a couple of years if I remember rightly, after leaving Steve and I was playing with Chris, doing odd bands with Chris, in the 60's, and then I had my own band, then Brian Green. I had a bit of a lay off then for a couple of years.
What, you stopped playing literally? Stopped playing altogether?
Yeah more or less, and then that lasted until…let me think, after Brian which packed up in ’68 I think, then I didn’t play for about 12 years. I decided I wasn't seeing my daughter grow up and it was ridiculous. I mean we were doing 29 jobs a month with Brian Green’s band, it was very successful. So I'd stopped for 12 years because I wanted to see my daughter grow up and then I got a call from Ron Mason out of the blue in 1979 I think it was, and “Oh come on mate, you can do it”, so I played with Rod for a couple of years and that sort of set me off again.
And what did Rod play?
And was he New Orleans style?
Oh yeah, and that had lots of old friends in the band, you know, Ray Foxley and people like that who I knew from way back. And so when I started gigging again one of the bands I played with was Colin Kingwell and Colin had a regular job at a football club in Beaconsfield, and he had Ben Cohen on trumpet and Ben and I got together quite a lot then because we not really lost touch, but we didn’t see so much of each other after the Barber band packed up and so I played with Ben a lot then, and then I played also with Ray Foxley and I had a trio, oh down in where is it? West London somewhere. A duo. That was very enjoyable, that was part of our gigging then, then the Barber reunion band came along in 1989 I think it was – 40 years a band leader or something – so Ben and I and Ferdie, he played piano by this time, we gigged with the band for a couple of years, we went all over Britain, Holland and Germany and various things, in the meantime of course I was guesting with kind of bands like the Frog Island Band. I went to New Orleans with them.
Oh did you? You did that?
Yes I went to New Orleans with the Frog Island Band, I’ll tell you when that was, it's got here 1992 but that’s not right because my wife died in 1992 and she was with me when we went to New Orleans with the Frog Island band.
I think the last visit Frog Island made to New Orleans was ’85 or something.
Yeah, I think I went back in…let me think…I think it might have been ’86, let me think. I first went to New Orleans, Chris said “Why don’t you come to New Orleans?”, and I went and had a good time, and then the Frog Island band asked me to go on to Chicago with them and then later to New Orleans and that was in ’87. And then the Ben Cohen Hot Five was formed in ’93 and I think, yeah I think that’s about right. Then we expanded it and made it the Hot Seven. We got Nick Ward on drums, an extremely good drummer and tuba player. That was more or less, then I met a girl in Bude ’95, ‘96, came down here, lived together for a while and got married and that was the end of my Jazz career.
Oh you gave it up when you went down to Cornwall?
Well I didn’t give up, but they’re all Ken Colyer people down here which is not my bag, and there’s not the people to play with, and what happened actually, that isn't quite true what I said about coming down here and that was 'it' because the Cohen band was still going and so by then I was retired – well we were all retired actually – so we were in effect, by default, pro musicians, so we were playing all over the country at festivals and things, in Bude and Whitley Bay and all those festivals and I was gigging as well as guesting with other bands at the festival as well as with the Hot Seven and Hot Five and I was doing a thing with George Huxley, the soprano player, we did a clarinet and soprano thing. The Cohen band was a very, very good band and it was very successful, and you know we did the Royal Festival Hall and places like that but I more or less packed up, not packed up as in “Well I'm not going to play any more” but in effect I didn’t play any more because when Ben died, and then almost directly afterwards within two or three years Nick Cliff the trombonist died, so that broke the band up and in effect living down here left me with no-one to play with, so I decided…I do a few gigs down here every now and again with local bands but very few and far between, they've got their own clarinet players and, you know…why use me when they’ve got their old friends on clarinet or whatever.
There's plenty of reasons to use you Alex!
Well thank you, but what they play, you know, I'm a strange person, if I go to…I mean none of them give the music the respect it deserves. I mean most of them down here are “Oh yeah I like a bit of Jazz”. I play down the pub on Sundays’ you know? And none of them give the music the respect and I'm a strange person, if I play a session and it’s bad, whether it’s me not playing well or the band is playing badly I will - even with good bands you can have off days - but I come home and I am so brought down I think “Oh that’s it, I am not playing any more”. Because it makes me feel so miserable to not play well, and when you’ve played in good bands and played how you want to play, to have to play, I mean I don’t want to sound big-headed but to have to play with people who aren’t really serious about it and who aren’t very good anyway and who are very pedantic about what they’re doing, you know, then it really brings me down and I am so miserable you wouldn’t believe. Until I go along to the next gig and then it’s ok, but I'd sooner not play than play and not play well.
I know exactly what you’re saying.
And as my old friend Gordon Blundy says “We’ve paid our dues we’ve done it all”.
You certainly have! So even though you were based in Essex for all those years – and I guess you were still in Essex before you moved to Cornwall.........
Oh no, no, I lived at home until ’53 when I was married. And then I moved to where my wife was born and brought up in Muswell Hill and I lived in Muswell Hill and Finchley for years. And then I moved to a bungalow at Hatfield, a little bit further north. Hatfield, Hertfordshire. And then because my first wife died, I was gigging around a little then I was still playing with Colin Kingwell, those kind of people and Ray Foxley, then my wife died in ’91, just at the end of the Barber band reunion band, which was thoroughly enjoyable because we could do the King Oliver stuff then, we were technically able to do it which we weren’t in the old band! And in fact we were in the car – this was in Holland – Chris was taken to the airport because they were going on to do a gig that didn’t include the reunion band and Chris took Ferdie, Ben and myself to the airport in Holland and he dropped the bombshell and said “Well thank you for doing the gigs and playing so well” for the tour we'd just done in Germany and Holland and I said “Well that's alright Chris, we’ve really enjoyed it, especially the money!” And he said “I'm thinking of having you in the band” and this is typical Chris you know, not “How would you feel about joining the band?” but “I’m thinking of having you”! You know? “Because of my position you would come regardless” type of attitude! So that was a bit of a bombshell, so we had a talk about that on the plane on the way home. Ben was very keen, I wasn’t so keen, Ferdie was a bit ambivalent. He didn’t really mind, but we didn’t hear from Chris anyway, Ben kept ringing and saying “Have you heard from Chris?” and I said “No”. He said “Why don’t you ring him?” and I said “Why don’t you ring him?” I wasn’t particularly worried you see, so anyway I rang Chris and he said “Oh I'm ever so sorry, I should have rung you before but I went into the logistics of it and, you know, three more mouths to feed in the band and travelling is getting more and more expensive, I just can't do it financially. Very sorry”, so I said “That’s alright Chris don’t worry about it”. Ben was disappointed, but as I pointed out to him I said “Ben we were playing the same six King Oliver numbers every night” because there wasn’t time to rehearse. The actual Barber band had a very set programme, you know, it was the same programme every night. I said to Ben “I know you're disappointed but look...”, and he said “Well aren’t you?” and I said “No because we’d have been bored out of our minds in two months because, look, we play with all different bands, we play in trios and quartets and quintets, we play ever such a different lot of stuff, we’d have been bored out of our minds playing the same stuff night after night”, and he said “You're probably right”. And of course after that Ben formed the Hot Seven, the Hot Five, so that’s just how things work out. Chris seems to think that everyone would jump to be in the Barber band but of course they don’t.
I've heard he’s a very difficult man.
Well he is. I could talk for hours about the dichotomy of Chris Barber and how he could be ingenuous one minute and mean the next. But everybody has always been puzzled about him and why he’s like he is and some of the members of the current band and the bands before said to me “Well you know what was he like in the old days”, but it’s only in the last 5 or 6 years that it’s been discovered because his son had it, it's been discovered that he's got Asperger’s. And that explains the dichotomy in his character, it’s all because of illness. Because it was a complete puzzle, no-one could understand him, you know, some of the things he did, and he was strange. And that has given him that difficult reputation. That’s it you know, his son, his wife and his two children they divorced and she went to America to live and his son had a lot of trouble in school and he was diagnosed with Asperger’s and him and his present wife went out to see them to sort the problem out, and Kay said to me – that’s his present wife – and she said to me “I bought a book on Asperger’s so that I could understand what young Chris’ problem was, and reading it I thought gosh this is Chris”! And he is, or was, taking advice about it and taking medical advice about it.
Maybe Lonnie Donegan has that as well!
No, I don’t think so. There was no problem about Lonnie, Lonnie was always kind of affable and happy-go-lucky, an uncomplicated kind of character. Yes I didn’t have any problems with Lonnie at all. He was fine. I always remember when he used to sing in the final Barber band before it broke up when he used to sing to his then girlfriend, who would be at the club with my girlfriend, “Oh he’s gonna sing now. They’re going to do the Skiffle 20 minutes. Can we go down the pub because it’s so embarrassing?”! I said to Lonnie “Unless you lose that kind of mid-western cowboy twang no-one is going to take your singing seriously”. One hit and you're made. It's like Mont you know, dear old Mont, with Petite Fleur, one hit and that set him up for the rest of his playing career, you know, and he never ever played it again because after the Barber band he never played it again. He’d play Hush-A-Bye but he wouldn’t play Petite Fleur because when he learned it he learned it from the Bechet record and his record player was playing half a tone sharp so he plays it not in G Minor but in G sharp Minor, now that is a ridiculous key. On the record is just Chris on bass if I remember rightly. Now nobody else, no other bands that Mont’s been with could play in that key! So he never played it again.