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The Memories Of Danny Barker This Week On Riverwalk Jazz

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Jim Cullum Jr.
This week's Riverwalk Jazz features interviews with New Orleans jazz pioneer Danny Barker. The Smithsonian Institution opened the vaults of the Archives Center at the National Museum of American History so that we could present Danny Barker’s authentic New Orleans vernacular as he recollects life in the Crescent City in the early 1900s.

The program is distributed in the US by Public Radio International, on Sirius/XM satellite radio and can be streamed on-demand from the Riverwalk Jazz website. You can also drop in on a continuous stream of shows at the Stanford Archive of Recorded Sound.

In New Orleans history, 1909 was a year the city expanded as the Gentilly neighborhood began to be developed. The Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club was founded. And, it was the year that guitarist, singer, composer and champion storyteller Danny Barker was born.

Danny Barker spent his first six years living with his father’s family in a two-story apartment building on Chartres Street across from the French Quarter Ice House. From the front window, Danny could watch street vendors hawk their wares, hear dockworkers singing the blues in the early morning hours, and listen to the chants of blind beggars in the alleyways.

Barker was 83 years old when he recorded the interviews heard on this week’s Riverwalk Jazz broadcast. In this excerpt, Danny Barker gives us his idea of what authentic New Orleans jazz is all about:

“Authentic New Orleans jazz is poor people in a nightclub, in a cabaret, a man with some money in his pocket and a beautiful woman, and he wants to get up on the floor. He wants to dance with her, and he don’t want to be on the dance floor getting out of breath when he’s dancing to it. He wants to talk to her while he’s dancing. So there’s no need of all this fast, out-of-tempo music. You don’t want to see nobody with no striped coats on and a straw hat on their head. You want some cat sitting in a corner with a derby stooped over his head. You barely can see his eyes, blowing that horn the way he feels!”

Danny Barker’s 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. Danny Barker would follow in his Uncle Paul’s footsteps, making a name for himself in New York, playing with some of the best musicians and most popular bands of the Swing Era. Among many others, Barker recorded with Jelly Roll Morton, Benny Carter, Cab Calloway, James P. Johnson, Sidney Bechet and Milt Hinton.

Danny Barker was one of the first to recognize the importance of documenting the history of New Orleans Jazz and keeping the music alive by getting young people excited about it. 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.

Through the years, Danny Barker kept on playing the music he loved, and he kept on telling his stories.

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