Celebrating Danny Barker's Essential Legacy in New Orleans

Photo copyright Eric Waters
Photo copyright Eric Waters

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.
Back in August, away from the high-profile “Kartrina” hoopla, I moderated a panel discussion in New Orleans—”Ten Years After: The State of New Orleans Culture.” There, Barker’s name was invoked again and again, as a man who saved not just a style of music but a constellation of community values connected to an indigenous culture.
A few years ago, filmmaker Darren Hoffman made a wonderful documentary about Barker’s legacy, “Tradition is a Temple.”
Yet the best tribute to Barker’s living legacy is The Danny Barker Banjo and Guitar Festival. It begins January 14 (a day past what would have been Barker’s 107th birthday) and runs through January 17 in New Orleans, with an additional concert on January 21 by singer Maria Muldaur, who once scored a hit with Barker’s “Don’t You Feel My Leg.” Continue reading “Celebrating Danny Barker's Essential Legacy in New Orleans”