Some memories of John Barnes
Newport Jazz Festival 1968. Onstage, Alex Welsh and his band, concluding their set, have become vaguely aware the Duke Ellington band are taking the stage behind them. One of the band takes a baritone solo and cautiously looks round to see a beaming Harry Carney giving him a thumbs up. The longest-serving Ellingtonian is only confirming a fact that musicians and jazz fans have known for years: John Barnes is one of the great baritonists in the world.
He played swinging, Zoot-ish tenor, Tab and Willie Smith inspired alto, Bechet-ish soprano, booting Rollini-styled bass sax and a fruity-toned bass clarinet, but on baritone he became a world contender and a unique stylist.
Starting out as a George Lewis inspired clarinet player with the Zenith 6 in Manchester, John graduated to the Mike Daniels band in London in 1955. A good example of his style at this time is available on YouTube. In “When You and I Were Young, Maggie” recorded in 1959, his driving swing, lovely sound, melodic invention and sense of structure already indicate a mature stylist with a real sense of ‘presence’.
Gifted with a fine ear, he developed a wide stylistic range, as did fellow Mancunian and frequent front-line partner Roy Williams. Influences of Gerry Mulligan and Serge Chaloff were added to those of Harry Carney and Ernie Caceres.
John, as well as being a great soloist, was always a superb ensemble player especially in the Condon style – something a lot harder to do well than might be imagined. Already playing alto sax at this period, he added the baritone to his arsenal in 1963.
In January 1967 his career was interrupted for 3 months by a serious band-bus crash. John was thrown through the windscreen and hit a road sign. By lucky chance the doctors on duty at A+E that night included a clarinet playing jazz fan who recognised John and insisted that damaged teeth be painstakingly re-inserted. They were to be enough for John to play on with the aid of a gum shield. A steel frame was placed around his head to be tightened periodically to stretch his face back into place over the following weeks. John loved to tell of how it would reverberate with a definite note when he forgot and banged it on the way out of the pub.
John spent 12 years with Humphrey Lyttelton’s band and freelanced with the Midnight Follies Orchestra, George Chisholm, The Jazz Journal All-stars, Roy Williams, Digby Fairweather and “Tenor Madness” with Spike Robinson and Bobby Wellins amongst many others. He also led the “Outswingers” at Lords Cricket ground and had long stints with the Alan Elsdon Band and Alex Welsh.
One of his proudest moments was being asked to perform Sidney Bechet’s “Blue Horizon” at Phillip Larkin’s Memorial service in Westminster Abbey.
I first met John at the famous Sunday lunchtime Jazz venue, Merlin’s Cave, behind Kings Cross. When I asked to sit in John was immensely gleeful to discover we shared a surname. He set about imagining a series of events which implied I was a long-lost son who had inherited his love of saxophones; a gag he shared with the crowd that day and anyone else who’d listen in following years. This myth persists and I’m still asked “How’s your Dad?” referring to John. Less flatteringly, perhaps, others mistake us for the same person: “I used to see you at the Fishmongers Arms in 1963”.
That first afternoon, in the interval, he quickly taught me his original. “Boko’s Blues”. “Who’s Boko?” I asked “That’s me, Boko Banana” was the reply and I got my first glimpse of his unique view of things: all manner of cross references and bizarre juxtapositions had built up in his mind into an amazing and very funny alternative world. In this case, he was identifying with a long-forgotten comic book character from his youth. We once looked up “Barnes” in a book about the origins of surnames and learned that its first mention was in the ‘Great Boke of St Albans”. And so, of course, for a while, John became “The Great Boke”. He also answered to “Rossi” which originated with a Middle-Eastern TV producer mishearing “Barnsie”. The mistake was apparently quickly taken up by the band who joined in with the calls of ‘Come on Rossi”.
Things took a truly bizarre turn when he told me he was writing new lyrics to well-known melodies, the words all being materials that shoes were made out of. So far he’d fitted “Leather upper, man-made sole” to the last phrase of Froggie Moore Rag and “Synthetic fibre, synthetic fibre” to La Cucaracha.
He had inherited his love of word play from Bruce Turner. But whereas Bruce’s spoonerisms were smooth and slick (the Buck Clayton Jam Sessions becoming the Jack Clayton Bum Sessions) John loved to make his puns as torturous, lumbering, and impenetrable as possible. ‘Whats next?” I’d ask him. “Warm Banjo Skin”. “What? “Warm Banjo Skin, Cosy Vellum, Kaiser Vilhelm… Echoes of Harlem…” He’d roll the words around, just about making it work but also not quite.
One day he told me “Naive Lamb’ was one of his favourite bass players. “Hick Mutton”-“Mick Hutton”, he explained.
Other names he made up for musicians in the Humph band were less well received: Scots pianist Stan Grieg never warmed to being called “Kilty Mc Shite-y Breeks, the Filth of Forth”. Adrian Macintosh had his name Chinese-whispered into “Thunderin’ Crash ’n’ Bash”, and whenever Pete Strange was introduced John would sing “Sweet Potato Pete” to the tune of “Honeysuckle Rose”- a reference to a war time propaganda poster: Potato Pete says “I make a good soup”. My name was “Kemal”: “Young Turk” became “Kemal Ataturk” after the founder of the Republic of Turkey.
John loved the theatrical. With his arched left eye-brow (probably the result of the accident), and flamboyant dress sense, there was always something of the last of the great actor/ managers about him. All activities were entered into with gusto. Anyone who has witnessed him doing the full Jolson on “California Here I come” will attest to this.
His monologues were much requested. On nights when drink had been taken, Pete Strange, although just as pissed, was an infallible prompt.
One day Humph suggested the reed section pay more attention during his announcements: “I know you’ve heard it before”, he explained, “‘but just a flicker of interest and maybe a smile would help”. That night Humph’s first bit of patter was greeted with a deep, diabolic laugh worthy of the worst pantomime Geni, delivered with the full jutting and gurning expression! “Oh God, what have I done”, muttered Humph, and in future John’s taste for extensive conversation between numbers on stage went unchallenged.
On another night, when John was late back on the stage, his clearly identifiable silhouette was outlined at the back of the venue in full anecdotal flow. Humph felt that the show must go on and a point be made. “We’ll do a busker, then he can come on second number and join us as if that’s what we planned” Humph suggested. A silent movie ham couldn’t have given a better performance of a panicking late arriver than Boko shooting through the audience when he realised we’d started without him.
One of the set pieces in the band would get quieter and quieter until Humph was almost inaudible playing in harmon mute with only pianissimo bass accompaniment. It was quite a dramatic moment, completely ruined the night John dropped his enormous, metal baritone reed cap at the softest moment. The cap bounced several times, clanking loudly, and putting me in mind of the ping pong ball in Mr Hulot’s Holiday. John suppressed his glee at this for about .5 of a second before the full torrent of theatrical laughter. It was probably an accident.
We were always paid by cheque; a safer forum for the bandleader to make his point. John would find his pay dated 1918, or made out with phrases such as: “Pay John -gets pissed and keeps the bandleader awake-Barnes, nothing at all”.
At one Edinburgh Jazz Festival the band were billeted in a small stately home on the outskirts of town. Late one night I staggered in to find that the tiger skin rug had come to life and was propped up in my bed with Boko’s cap and glasses on, reading the paper. Inspired by this, and by a bottle of scotch, we used half a dozen newspapers to tailor him an entire new suit and identity as “the Paper Man” (see illustration). On this trip John really bonded with Baldrick the house boxer dog. Their final goodbye, facial expressions mirroring each other through a giant glass window, was something to see.
John had an on-going stage banter with Bruce Turner, insulting each other’s efforts (“How was that?” “Stinks!” etc,) and I was proud to inherit Bruce’s role. “Baritone requires young lungs” I’d suggest. “‘Needs maturity” he would counter. One night our host at the Jersey jazz festival suggested John and I leave our instruments in the car as it was a quiet rural area. John was happy to do so but I took mine in. “Why don’t you just leave them?” he asked in some irritation. “Remember I have a future” I replied. He loved this and the story became part of his regular repertoire. But our host, not realising how musicians are, took this as a sign of gross disrespect for a senior man. He cooled towards me and was appalled when, during a jazz blindfold test I managed to identify Corky Corcoran and Dodo Marmarossa after eight bars. John did not give away that he and I had listened to the track only 2 days earlier.
In the early 90’s, I found myself homeless due to a flat sale being held up. John and his wife Pat, the kindest of people, insisted I moved in with them, a sojourn that lasted about a year.
I was not always the best of house guests. In the first week, Pat drove us to the 100 Club for a Humph gig. I became over-refreshed and on our return threw up on the neighbours’ hedge. Pat actually cleaned the hedge with a bucket of soapy water before going to bed, and never forgot that I blamed my illness on her ‘Wavy driving’.
John loved pretending to be the Northern landlord. On my first night, I came back from a late gig and was creeping up the stairs and was startled to hear “What bloody time do you call this?” - alarmingly like my own dad used to do.
At the time, my mother had bought me some underwear. “Seconds off the market” she explained. These bright yellow underpants tripled in size on first washing and I hung them sagging, shapeless and unattractive on the line in the garden. Going to collect them in in the evening, I found a huge sign saying in large letters ‘Neighbours: these are not my underpants – signed, John Barnes”.
I would practice sax and clarinet for hours, looking out of my bedroom window at the garden. Inevitably, at some point a sign would rise slowly up in front of my eyes nailed to the top of the wooden clothes prop, encouraging me with the words: “Why don’t you f….ing shut up?!”
A loft conversion took place whilst I was in residence. John had a large selection of dish-dashers and other eastern garb and some truly impressive Bedouin headwear, picked up on his British Council tours. One morning he picked the most elaborate costume and set off up the ladder towards the roofers whilst I was sent upstairs to gauge the reaction. He was a bit disappointed, only getting a lethargic Scouse ‘Hey, there’s an Arab coming on the roof” from one of the lads.
Cricket was one of his great passions and he often tried to pique my interest-and I did try and follow the ins and outs of the game. He was a member at Lord’s and took great delight in putting Harry Gold up for membership at the age of 80. It was a 15 year waiting list and Harry missed it by a few weeks. I had to draw the line though at his taste for ending the evening listening to LPs of great steam trains.
Each morning John, a lover of ritual, would stick his head round the door of my bedroom and bark, with a pantomime laugh, “Morning young Turk!”
Then there was a game of “Where’s your mouse?” This was with “The Colonel” one of the beloved cats-the others being Miss Matilda, Digby, and Larkin, a large ginger Tom who, perhaps realising that I’m allergic to felines, made a point of always sitting on my knee. The game consisted of a repeated soprano shriek of ‘Where’s your mouse” as a cat-nip-filled cloth rodent was hurled up and down the stairs with the cat in hot pursuit. The nicknames even stretched to the cats and “Colonel Versijyamouse of the Polish army” was invented.
This was followed by the making of the porridge, something he insisted on doing in the microwave. Two times out of three he’d zap it for a second time and we’d hear the dull thud of exploding oats coating the interior of the machine. At lunch we would have a look in the ‘Magic Box” in the fridge, so named because it had miraculously re-filled itself with goodies. The miracle, of course had been performed discreetly by Pat of the “wavy driving”.
All during that period, John was generous and patient with me, teaching me a whole bunch of tunes. I worked my way through his L.P collection and found some truly wonderful examples of his own playing. His duet with Earl Hines on which he plays clarinet is a classic. He made great records with Bruce Turner, Roy Williams, Red Allen as well making contributions to many other bands, especially Humph and Alex Welsh, Mike Daniels and the Midnight Follies. His only solo album, which typically he invited me to guest on, is a gem- “It happened in Monterey” is a superb baritone performance and the track on which he overdubbed a whole sax section “Boko’s Bounce’ became the theme tune to BBC’s “Jazz Score”.
John himself was truly a Magic Box – of energy and humour, scorn for humbug and love of good. His music was warm, humorous, clever, skilled, and inspiring. Every day, as if by magic, he refilled and gave again to friends and audiences. Now inactive, but never forgotten, he will always merit true respect, and a beaming thumbs-up. Harry Carney was right.