Above is a picture of trumpeter Greg Stafford, taken in New Orleans by the wonderful photographer Eric Waters. Stafford was at the French Quarter’s Palm Court Café, playing a few tunes after a truly enlightening panel discussion in the second annual Danny Barker Banjo and Guitar Festival in January.
As I wrote in an earlier post:
Outside New Orleans, the name Danny Barker isn’t all that well known.
Yet talk to a New Orleans musician of any age, who plays in nearly any style, and Mr. Barker—as these players call him—inevitably comes up, in reverent and warm tones, much the way modern-jazz musicians talk about drummer Art Blakey.
Barker’s Fairview Baptist Church Marching Band, which he founded in 1970, late in life, helped launch many careers. No Barker, no Dirty Dozen Brass Band, no Rebirth Brass Band. No Barker, and it’s hard to know what trumpeters including Wynton Marsalis, Nicholas Payton, Leroy Jones and Kermit Ruffins would sound like, just how drummers like Herlin Riley and Shannon Powell might swing.
Yet Barker’s legacy is bigger than that, and just as much about the names we don’t know. His Fairview Baptist band was a training ground for young musicians. For anyone even remotely connected to the city’s indigenous culture, Barker—who played banjo and guitar, sang and wrote songs, and led bands—is the key figure of a brass-band revival at a moment when many felt that tradition slipping away.
At the Palm Court, here are some things Greg Stafford said:
“I always felt like he was my own special genie.”
“He disciplined us as to what the music should sound like. He knew what he wanted. And he taught us to know what we wanted too, to not be unclear or uncertain.”
Had Eric Waters zoomed out while taking that photo, we’d also see trumpeter Leroy Jones, who played correctly in complementary fashion with Stafford on “Shake It and Break It,” among other songs.
Ten minutes earlier, Jones had recalled practicing his trumpet in the garage of his home. He’d practice in the evening after completing his homework, leaving the garage door open. He’d work first from method books, he said, and then for a few hours by playing along his parents’ LPs, trying to emulate Louis Armstong or Al Hirt or Freddie Hubbard. Danny Barker, who live just down the street, would often walk by, “looking dapper and with the hippest walk around,” Jones said. Barker has been asked to organize the Fairview Baptist Church Christian Marching Band. Barker recruited Jones
“I would have been a musician in any case,” Jones said, “but I wouldn’t have developed a love of tradition had it not been for Danny Barker. I wouldn’t have known why I was a musician and what my role is.”
The second annual Barker festival featured a wide range of rousing musical moments, including the Hot 8 Brass Band leading a second line past Barker’s former French Quarter home on morning, and then ripping into both classics and original tunes the next evening at Bullet’s Sports Bar.
According to Chris Haydel, who organized the Barker festival and its nonprofit foundation, the project is still very much “a labor of love, in need of nurturing.” Though the festival featured many performances by local and visiting stars, it was also marked by daily clinics for young musicians; these were hosted by a number of New Orleans schools — Landry High, the Craig School, NOCCA, and at the University of New Orleans.
Here’s what Haydel told me:
The foundation’s mission is to provide instruments and musical education. That mission is shifting more toward the latter. The festival hasn’t provided much in the way of hard currency for these efforts, but it has provided a soft currency of awareness and support from educators and musicians. On a limited basis then, we should be able to expand the educational component to more worthy schools.
We feel that, while Danny was a “feel-good” fellow, his real legacy remains the personal interest he took in so many young musicians; not only in their musical training, but in training them as professionals, and in readiness for life itself.