Born: January 13, 1909 | Died: March 13, 1994 Primary Instrument: Banjo
A jazz banjoist and guitarist with a career that stretched over parts of eight decades, Danny Barker lived the history of jazz in the twentieth century. Then, late in life, he became one of its most qualified chroniclers, drawing upon his recollections of the early days of jazz in New Orleans.
Danny Barker spent his first six years living with his father’s family in a two-story apartment building on Chartre Street across from the French Quarter Ice. His grandfather on his mother’s side was Isidore Barbarin, a founding member of the original Onward Brass Band. And Danny’s uncle, Paul Barbarin, played in bands led by top jazz artists including King Oliver, Henry ‘Red’ Allen, and Sidney Bechet.
Barker would follow in his Uncle Paul’s footsteps, leading to his first gig playing banjo subbing for an intoxicated Babe Son in Kid Rena's band. After this surprising debut, Barker began taking banjo lessons from George Augustin of the Imperial band, and came under the direct influence of Lorenzo Stall, Buddy Bolden's banjoist. It was not long before he dubbed Banjo King of New Orleans.
In 1930 Barker married the singer Louise Dupont, and the pair followed the migration undertaken by other jazz musicians and moved to New York. They often performed together, as Blue Lu Barker with Danny Barker's Fly Cats. Barker switched from banjo to the more modern guitar.
Barker's excellence as a musician came in the late 1930s, when he played with bands led by Lucky Millinder, Benny Carter, and, for an eight-year stint extending through World War II, Cab Calloway. Barker played sharp melodic solos on the guitar that diverged from the chordal playing that had previously been the norm. He appeared on over 1,000 recordings, and, by some estimates, played with a greater number of jazz bands and artists than any other musician.
Barker left Calloway's band in 1946. He played in the 1940s with bebop pioneers Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker, and even essayed the new and guitar-heavy rhythm-and-blues style in the postwar years. In 1947 he took a job as guitarist for the Jazz on the River weekend cruises up and down the Hudson River where he played with fellow New Orleanians Albert Nicholas, Pops Foster, Baby Dodds, pianist James P. Johnson and cornetist Wild Bill Davison. Barker then worked as a freelance rhythm man around New York playing and recording with Sidney Bechet and Mezz Mezzrow, Bunk Johnson, Edmond Hall and Henry Red Allen.
By the 1950s, however, audiences were beginning to manifest a new interest in the roots of jazz, so Barker took up yet another new instrument, the six-string banjo, and began to perform in so-called Dixieland New Orleans jazz revival bands.
In 1965 Barker was appointed Assistant to the Curator of the New Orleans Jazz Museum, he lectured on jazz at several universities, helped launch the first New Orleans Jazz Festival, and formed the Fairview Baptist Church Brass Band.
On the national stage, Barker worked to perpetuate jazz traditions, both as a musician--his final album, “Save the Bones,” was released in 1988, and as an author. Barker co-authored a 1973 collection of jazz reminiscences entitled Bourbon Street Black, released his own autobiography, A Life in Jazz, in 1986, and then published a biography of cornetist Buddy Bolden, the legendary but unrecorded New Orleans musician who, in the opinion of many historians, did more than anyone else to create jazz as a distinct music. In that volume Barker drew on stories he had heard from his own family, tightly woven as it was, into the musical life of New Orleans.
Barker was honored at the end of his life with a Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Endowment for the Humanities in 1991, and was inducted into the American Jazz Hall of Fame in 1993. He died of cancer on March 13, 1994, not long after appearing as the king in a New Orleans Mardi Gras parade.