Accolades for an English musician don't come more exotic than a description of Chris Barber as the Bix Beiderbecke of British- style jazz – this, from the pen of musicologist David Boulton back in 1958. Not that this kind of plaudit about Barber is confined to the past, nor to the jazz world. Blues-Rock Explosion published in 2001 states that, Chris Barber, Alexis Korner, Lonnie Donegan and Cyril Davies ...were the real founding fathers of what became the British 1960s blues-rock explosion. Both of these quotes expose an obscured truth about Barber and his Jazz and Blues Band: namely, that without the man who celebrates nearly seven decades as a pro band leader, not only would British trad jazz have taken many more years to evolve – but also the British blues and rock scene would not have exploded in the way that it did. London’s Marquee Club is linked to the rise of bands such as the Who, Rolling Stones and others.
In actuality, it started out in 1958 as a jazz club in which Barber, as a founding director, pooled his music business experience alongside the Marquee's owner (and seasoned jazz promoter) Harold Pendleton. As well as establishing the Marquee, the pair initiated the National Jazz & Blues Festival in 1961, which eventually grew into the Reading Rock Festival. Jazz caught on very fast in Britain during the late 1940s and early 1950s; its live presentation was energetic and entertaining compared to 1940s dance bands, whose players were catatonic by comparison, mostly seated and hidden behind music stands. One of many trad bands that emerged alongside Barber's then amateur outfits (called the New Orleans Jazz Band or Chris Barber's 'Washboard Wonders' when he was playing string bass) was the Crane River Jazz Band, featuring clarinetist Monty Sunshine and trumpeter Ken Colyer. Along with banjo player Lonnie Donegan (plus Jim Bray on bass and tuba, and Ron Bowden on drums), these were the musicians who eventually teamed up with Chris Barber in 1953. Chris now remembers taking the big step to go pro, At the time Monty was leading the last remnants of the Crane River Jazz Band. His band, like my band, was playing once a week and the trouble with that is you never learn from the mistakes you make onstage because a week later you've forgotten you made them. So, we thought, this is stupid – the only way to progress was to pool our resources and play the music professionally.