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.”

I’ll be there, in the midst of my stint as writer-in-residence with The New Quorum.

The Danny Barker Banjo and Guitar Festival, now in its second year, is a labor of love for Detroit Brooks, who I’ve grown to know through his distinguished work as guitarist with alto saxophonist Donald Harrison and as banjoist with Michael White’s Original Liberty Jazz Band.

The festival gathers banjoists (among them, Brooks, Don Vappie and Carl LeBlanc) and a wealth of the city’s finest musicians, as well as others who can frame Barker’s life and work, such as writer Kalamu ya Salaam, and community activists Fred Johnson and Jerome Smith. The festival’s span of styles and venues attest to the breadth and depth of Barker’s reach. A list of events is below, or look here:

The Danny Barker Banjo and Guitar Festival 2016 gets underway on Thursday, January 14 with an All-Star musical tribute to Danny Barker at Snug Harbor jazz club– featuring Shannon Powell, Kerry Lewis, Don Vappie, Lucien Barbarin, Roderick Paulin and Gregg Stafford in celebration of the 107th anniversary of Danny Barker’s birth on January 13, 1909. There will shows at 8pm and 10pm.  Other events on the 2016 festival schedule include:

Friday afternoon, January 15  – Clinics at:  the University of New Orleans – hosted by Steve Masakowski, featuring Carl LeBlanc and Seva Venet – 12:30 pm – 1:45 pm – and at NOCCA – hosted by Michael Pellera, featuring Don Vappie and David Bandrowski – 2:30 pm – 3:45 pm.

Friday night, January 15  – Danny Barker: Musician, Mentor, Community Leader – Panel discussion at the French Quarter’s Palm Court Jazz Café – 1204 Decatur Street – 8pm – 10pm  – with musicians and community leaders who were directly and profoundly influenced by Danny Barker – including trumpeters Leroy Jones and Gregg Stafford, trombonist Lucien Barbarin, writer Kalamu ya Salaam, and community activists Fred Johnson and Jerome Smith.  WWNO’s Fred Kasten moderates.

Friday night, January 15 – Late-Night Guitar Jam – Blue Nile – 12 midnight – 2am – Mega guitar jam featuring Vasti Jackson, Bill Solley, Steve Masakowski, Mem Shannon and Chris Thomas King.

Saturday afternoon, January 16 — Parade of Young People featuring the Danny Barker Resurgent Band 1pm-3pm (check here for route).

Saturday evening, January 16 – Let’s Talk About Danny and Blu Lu (Memories & Stories) – Old U.S. Mint – 5pm – 7pm – A mix of stories about Danny Barker’s influence on them from a half dozen folks who are not fulltime professional musicians – including OffBeat publisher Jan Ramsey, sculptor Clifton Webb, dancer Greer Mendy and record producer Scott Billington – with music inspired by Danny Barker played by an all-star band of his direct musical heirs. WWNO’s Fred Kasten hosts.

Saturday night, January 16 – 8pm – midnight – Celebrating Danny Barker at the Carver –Treme’s historic and beautifully restored Carver Theater is the site for a cavalcade of great New Orleans artists in tribute to Danny Barker – performers to include George French, Topsy Chapman and Solid Harmony, Charmaine Neville, John Boutte and Todd Duke, Steve Masakowski, Kenny Neal, John Rankin’s guitar trio Guitarmony – and a banjo quintet featuring David Bandrowski, Detroit Brooks, Carl LeBlanc, Don Vappie and Seva Venet.

Sunday afternoon, January 17 – 2pm – 7pm – Festival Finale – Bullet’s Sports Bar – 2441 A. P. Tureaud Ave.  –  The 2016 festival wraps up with a jam-packed Sunday afternoon and evening of music from bands led by top New Orleans artists, including Gregg Stafford, Lucien Barbarin, Steve Pistorious, Leroy Jones and Kermit Ruffins.

Thursday night, January 21, 2016 – 8pm – The Palm Court Jazz Café – 1204 Decatur Street – Maria Muldaur  In Concert – Internationally acclaimed singer and recording artist Maria Muldaur, who scored a hit with Danny Barker’s “Don’t You Feel My Leg” – performs for the benefit of the Danny Barker Banjo and Guitar Festival.

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