“The warmth, the feeling, the swing, the beat, the everything, were there.”
– Louis Armstrong
With KING OLIVER’S DIXIE SYNCOPATORS / KING OLIVER’S ORCHESTRA, 1926-9
With LUIS RUSSELL AND HIS ORCHESTRA, 1928-9
With JELLY ROLL MORTON’S RED HOT PEPPERS, 1929
With LOUIS ARMSTRONG & HIS SAVOY BALLROOM FIVE / HIS ORCHESTRA, 1929
When it comes to the geographic roots of early jazz percussionists, the city of New Orleans, with its parade bands and street-drumming traditions, casts a very long shadow as the proving-ground of many of the greats including Baby Dodds, Zutty Singleton and Tony Sbarbaro. In the annals of the city’s musical history there are a number of surnames which crop up again and again; longstanding dynasties in which successive generations of musicians have carried on a family vocation. The French-Creole Barbarin family is one of the greatest of these. Their tradition began with brass player Isidore Barbarin (b.1871) who married the sister of another Creole musician, Louis Arthidore (clarinet) and had four musical sons: Paul, Louis, Lucien and William, several of whom married into other New Orleans musical dynasties and passed music on to their children. Of the second generation of Barbarins, both Paul and Louis became professional jazz drummers.
Paul was originally christened Adolphe after a friend of his father’s, but early in life rejected it as “antique, ancient”, choosing to go by his middle name instead. He began playing music whilst still a young child, on improvised percussion instruments made from household objects, playing in street-corner ‘spasm’ bands with his friends. As a teenager, circa 1915, he managed to buy a real drum kit and was promptly hired for his first professional gig the same night. In 1917 the young Barbarin joined the Great Migration north to Chicago, ostensibly to work in the Armour and Company meat stockyards, but most likely with an eye on joining the ever-growing number of expatriate New Orleans musicians building a buzzing jazz scene there. He soon found himself invited to play in a band led by bass player Bill Johnson, which included the trombonist Eddie Vincent and the great cornettist Freddie Keppard. These musicians were some of the remnants of the famous Creole Band, which was likely the first real New Orleans jazz band to travel widely, having worked the vaudeville circuit in the mid-10s and recently disbanded. Barbarin joined Johnson at the Royal Gardens in November 1918, and was photographed (although not, alas, recorded) playing with the band in mid-1919, by which time Joe (later to become ‘King’) Oliver had replaced Keppard.
Barbarin throughout his long life never seems to have been able to forsake his hometown for long, and when the residency at the Royal Gardens came to an end he returned to New Orleans. He spent much of the next decade bouncing back and forth between home and Chicago, playing frequently with fine jazz musicians including a regular association with Panamanian pianist Luis Russell, who was steadily beginning to gain a reputation for himself, as well as the great reed players Jimmie Noone and Sidney Bechet. Frustratingly, none of these activities were recorded in detail, so tracing Barbarin’s musical development and exact career path during much of the early-mid ‘twenties is no easy task. A key turning-point occurred, however, in 1925 when he and Russell were invited back to Chicago together to join a new band, which Joe ‘King’ Oliver was putting together following the breakup of his Creole Jazz Band. With ‘Oliver’s Dixie Syncopators’, Barbarin at last made his recording debut in 1926, and from then until the end of the decade he recorded prolifically with various bands, producing a huge body of recorded work by the standards of the time. Recording with Oliver led to Barbarin gaining national recognition as a jazz artist, and, from our point of view as listeners ninety-odd years on, allows him to at last emerge from the shadows and become a fully-defined musical figure.
Barbarin’s début recording with Oliver in 1926 produced double takes of two numbers: the slow blues ‘Snag-It’ and the blistering stomp ‘Too Bad’. On the latter we can not only hear Barbarin cutting through with hot cymbal interjections at a few opportune moments, but also his bass drum, steady and heartbeat-like behind the band. The Dixie Syncopators held a residency at the Plantation Café in Chicago, where their function was to provide compelling dance music for patrons. King Oliver had chosen Barbarin primarily for his ‘good old New Orleans up-and-down’ feel – the perfect motor to drive the Syncopators’ strong two-beat dance rhythm:
“The two beats is good for dancing. A good beat. If you’ve got a bass man working with you and can play that two beats, you can really push a band and especially the dancing people.” – Paul Barbarin
Barbarin went on to make at least thirty sides with Oliver’s Dixie Syncopators throughout 1926 and early 1927. These are often described euphemistically in discographies as ‘uneven’, which is probably a fair assessment. It’s true that there is a large amount of variability in quality across sessions, and even within takes. Sometimes the drums are well-recorded, sometimes not. Suffice to say though, the good ones – ‘Deep Henderson’, ‘Wa Wa Wa’, ‘Sugar Foot Stomp’, ‘Too Tight’ – are extremely good, and well worth a listen. In March 1927, the Plantation Café suddenly closed and King Oliver found himself without a steady job and facing the very real possibility that his second great band might go the way of his first. His solution was to take them out on the road. The band toured for several months and eventually wound up travelling all the way East to New York, where they managed to secure a residency in Harlem’s famous Savoy Ballroom. In November, the Syncopators also resumed recording, with a slightly altered lineup including the impressive New York-based trombonist J.C Higginbotham, who would become a frequent associate of Barbarin’s.
It’s sometimes said that every lifetime contains at least one ‘crowded hour’; 1929 was Paul Barbarin’s crowded year. Now permanently-resident in New York and whilst still performing regularly with the former Syncopators (renamed ‘King Oliver’s Orchestra’), Barbarin embarked on a frenzied twelve months of what was, for the time, constant recording:
1929: PAUL BARBARIN’S BUSY YEAR
Jan 15 – LUIS RUSSELL & HIS BURNING EIGHT – produced 3 sides
Jan 16 – KING OLIVER & HIS ORCHESTRA -3 sides
Feb 1 – KING OLIVER & HIS ORCHESTRA – 5 sides
Feb 25 – KING OLIVER & HIS ORCHESTRA – 5 sides
Mar 5 – LOUIS ARMSTRONG & HIS SAVOY BALLROOM FIVE – 2 sides
Apr 18 – ‘SIX SCRAMBLED EGGS’ – 2 sides, unreleased
Jul 16 – HENRY [RED] ALLEN Jr. & HIS ORCHESTRA – 4 sides
Jul 17 – HENRY [RED] ALLEN Jr. & HIS ORCHESTRA – 5 sides
Sep 6 – LUIS RUSSELL & HIS ORCHESTRA – 3 sides
Sep 6 – LOU AND HIS GINGER SNAPS [LUIS RUSSELL] – 2 sides
Oct 3 – WILTON CRAWLEY & HIS ORCHESTRA – 2 sides
Sep 24 – HENRY [RED] ALLEN & HIS NEW YORK ORCHESTRA
feat. VICTORIA SPIVEY & THE FOUR WANDERERS – 8 sides
Nov 13 – JELLY ROLL MORTON’S RED HOT PEPPERS – 7 sides
Dec 2 – WILTON CRAWLEY & HIS ORCHESTRA – 4 sides
Dec 10 – LOUIS ARMSTRONG & HIS ORCHESTRA – 4 sides
Dec 13 – LOUIS ARMSTRONG & HIS ORCHESTRA feat. HOAGY CARMICHAEL– 4 sides
Dec 17 – LUIS RUSSELL & HIS ORCHESTRA – 3 sides
Total = 16 sessions, 66 sides. Phew!
During this incredibly prolific period Barbarin truly made his mark, recording as sideman with three of the greatest jazz geniuses of the early period (Oliver, Louis Armstrong, and Jelly Roll Morton) and two other extremely fine musicians belonging perhaps only a rung or two below them (Luis Russell and Henry ‘Red’ Allen). Whilst the above list would ostensibly appear to enumerate performances by many different ensembles, these sessions are slightly misleading, for although the artist names may change, what this list actually represents is more or less the evolutions of one band under different nominal leaders. Many of the same musicians King Oliver had originally brought to New York with his Dixie Syncopators outfit appeared together on the majority of these records, as the band was run and then dissolved by Oliver, the remnants re-organised and revitalised by Russell, and finally hired en masse as a backing band for the superstar personality that Armstrong was rapidly becoming.
On the early 1929 sessions under Oliver, the band was still playing the heavy two-beat rhythm mentioned previously, with a brass instrument (tuba or sousaphone) playing two-in-the-bar bass, a sound which by this period was becoming decidedly anachronistic. A late move towards a more even four-beat rhythm is evident on some of the last sides made with Oliver, although the bass part is still played by a tuba. On some of these sides Barbarin’s drums are prominent, his propulsive timekeeping and exquisite touch on the drums a constant factor.
On ‘Call Of The Freaks’ (a tune he co-composed with Luis Russell) Barbarin is allowed to showcase a technique that was to become his trademark: press-rolls honed in the New Orleans parade bands and sounding as smooth as tearing paper. Whilst Baby Dodds usually takes the credit for popularising this texture, his playing is in fact much more diverse and heterogeneous than Barbarin’s: during the ‘twenties Dodds used press rolls on only a small number of recordings. Barbarin by contrast made a constant feature of his rolls throughout 1929 and beyond.
February 12th marked another important point for Barbarin: the day that great New Orleans double-bassist George ‘Pops’ Foster arrived in New York. Not only did this signal the end for the two-beat brass bass sound but also provided Paul with a perfect rhythmic foil. From their first record together the two seem an ideally matched rhythm team; the smooth press-rolls of Barbarin’s snare beautifully complemented sonically by the percussive slap of Foster’s bass strings and laying down a broad, measured and very swinging 4-feel perhaps deriving something from their shared New Orleans heritage.
Under Luis Russell’s leadership Barbarin and Foster developed a particular brand of rhythm playing which sublimated individual flourishes in favour of trying to serve the music, playing great time simply and strongly. In this respect Barbarin could be seen as an early forerunner of the modern ‘pocket’ style groove drummer, specialising in laying down straightforward but absolutely compelling rhythm. Foster later recalled:
“We were really romping then, really bouncing. The rhythm was playing great together […] It was a pleasure to work in those days. Russell’s band was romping so good in ’29 […] We were playing the same style we played back in early New Orleans.”
Barbarin’s unwillingness to compromise the strength of his beat by showy effects is perhaps the reason why he is rather less noticeable, and consequently less well-remembered than some of his more ear-catching peers. Musicians, however, prized him, and the fundamental tenets of his unfussy and functional style will be always be welcomed in rhythm section players in any genre of music.
“I don’t think the bass or the drums are solo instruments. They’re the rhythm […] What I like to do is get romping on a fast number and slap out a good rhythm.” – Pops Foster.
By early 1929 the Foster/Barbarin rhythm team was perhaps the hardest-swinging in the world. Unsurprisingly offers for their services began to come in from third parties. First Louis Armstrong, who had arrived in New York to play in the Fats Waller/Andy Razaf musical Hot Chocolates, hired members of the Russell band to back him on a couple of sides in March. The rightly-famous ‘Mahogany Hall Stomp’ (named for a notorious New Orleans bordello) is a masterpiece of escalating excitement and energy, and we can hear Foster and Barbarin going through the textural gears together as each soloist lifts the band higher and higher with each chorus.
After the iconic introduction featuring Barbarin’s choked cymbal, the rhythm section starts off in two, with Foster bowing his bass to sound almost like a tuba whilst Barbarin plays some snappy and nicely-recorded brushes. The pair lay out for Lonnie Johnson’s guitar solo [1:21] and re-enter behind Louis [1:36], this time with Foster slapping his bass four beats to the bar and Barbarin, having picked up his sticks, supplying driving press rolls. As the track reaches its climax it’s easy to see why Foster was more than content to ‘romp’ behind the band with Paul rather than playing solos – the whole thing is just infectious and swings majestically.
A different side of Barbarin’s playing can be heard a few months later with the great pianist and composer Jelly Roll Morton. On ‘Mississippi Mildred’, Paul demonstrates his not-inconsiderable choked cymbal technique (the very same cymbal as on ‘Mahogany Hall Stomp’, if I’m not mistaken!) and puts in a few hip New Orleans-inspired trap fills. Behind Morton’s piano solo the brushes reappear tastefully, and he drives the band home again firmly on the cymbal.
It’s interesting to note how much more complex and involved Barbarin’s (and Foster’s) playing is in this smaller and more informal setting than in Russell’s large ensemble. Both men clearly understood the eternal ‘number of musicians vs. amount of available musical space’ equation, and were able to adapt their contributions to suit the situation in which they found themselves. The next month Morton would go on to record some excellent trio sides with Zutty Singleton on drums, whose overall approach on those sessions seems to closely echo Barbarin’s on these, which poses a few interesting possibilities. Perhaps Paul was Morton’s first call for the trio date but couldn’t make it? Perhaps Zutty was inspired by Barbarin’s playing? Perhaps Morton’s famously exacting control over his bands meant both drummers received similar instructions, and arrived at similar results? We’ll never know for certain. Suffice to say, recording with Morton was another career highlight for Barbarin, whose ‘crowded year’ was drawing towards a close – although not before he had made some amazing and amusing records under leadership of the ‘gaspipe’ clarinettist and contortionist Wilton Crawley, whose unique style involved a range of percussive slap-tonguing effects and weird chicken impersonations. Barbarin later recalled that Crawley wanted to record whilst standing on his head, as he was used to doing onstage, but the record executives wouldn’t allow it.
From what little record there is, as a person Barbarin seems to have been gregarious and something of a ladies’ man. Photos from the period (see top of page) reveal that he was a handsome chap and rather a dapper dresser. Pops Foster’s autobiography contains a wealth of interesting and amusing anecdotes about the musicians’ life in the ‘twenties, particularly the antics of famous, excitable and mostly single young men out on the road in the midst of the excesses of the Jazz Age. Foster paints his erstwhile rhythm section colleague as a fun-loving but deeply superstitious man, whose fear of ghosts and snakes often made him the target of practical jokes by his peers! We can also hear what his voice sounded like; on the King Oliver’s Dixie Syncopators recording of ‘Deep Henderson’, at 0:36 Barbarin is heard to loudly shout out “OH PLAY IT, MISTER RUSSELL!” over Luis Russell’s piano solo. Barbarin was utterly dedicated to the music which was his life; unlike many of his contemporaries he never retired from the business and continued to perform literally until the very moment of his death, whilst playing snare drum in a New Orleans parade, in 1969.
“I just like music – period. That’s all. I don’t care what kind of music it is, as long as it’s good.” – Paul Barbarin
Many thanks to Brian S. Goggin for his help with this article.