Aspen’s JAS Caf features Lucien Barbarin
ASPEN – Somewhere along the way, the history of jazz, at least its early history, became a seedy story, the music taking place against a backdrop of drug addiction, disreputable clubs and dangerous characters. But for Lucien Barbarin, jazz music was precisely the opposite of an entrance into a dark world – instead, it was a way out.”You gotta understand – I came up in a housing project,” said Barbarin, a 56-year-old who grew up in the Lafitte Housing Project in New Orleans’ 6th Ward, near the Treme neighborhood. “That means you’re around a lot of negativity, you see a lot of things, crime. It’s a low-income area. As a kid coming up, it’s how your parents raise you: ‘Don’t do that. Don’t go there.'”The best instruction Barbarin got from his elders was, ‘Here’s an instrument. Let’s play.” From the time he was 6, Barbarin was too busy playing music, and too enthused about the opportunities that music might provide, to spend much time in the troubled corners of the projects.It’s common, when talking about kids and staying on the paths of rightness, to speak of making good choices. But Barbarin didn’t see music as a choice so much as it was a birthright. Lucien represents the fourth generation of musicians in the Barbarin family, a history that dates back to 1872 and the birth of Isidore Barbarin, who became a noted cornet and French horn player.”It’s in my blood. I have no choice in doing what I do,” said Lucien, a trombonist who leads a quintet, the New Orleans Rhythm Revue, to shows Friday and Saturday in the JAS Caf Downstairs@the Nell series.Lucien was just a few years old when Isidore died, in 1960. But Isidore left a full quartet of sons to carry on the family jazz legacy. Lucien keyed in on his great-uncle Paul, a highly regarded drummer who played with Louis Armstrong and Sidney Bechet, and showed Lucien and his brother, Charles, that music could be a thrill, and the way to a productive life. Lucien got some hint of what doors music could open when Paul took him backstage at New Orleans’ Memorial Auditorium, in the early ’60s, and introduced him to the gentleman he had just performed with: Duke Ellington. Barbarin didn’t know who Ellington was at the time, but the words he offered stuck with him: “He told us, ‘Pay attention. You might learn something,'” Barbarin recalled.”I wanted to be like Paul,” Barbarin continued from his home in Slidell, across Lake Pontchartrain from New Orleans. “I used to see him playing and went, Wow, I want to do that one day. I said, ‘Uncle, I want to play in those clubs.’ And he said, ‘Don’t worry; you will.'”Paul wasn’t the only influence. Just outside the project’s doors were people marching, dancing, blowing into brass instruments and banging drums. “You had parades come down Orleans Avenue, and see second lines coming down the street,” Barbarin said. “We’d say, ‘Second lines coming, can we go?’ We’d run three, four blocks, get in the band.”Which was more attractive than the alternative. “I could have easily strayed toward the crime area,” the plain-spoken Barbarin said. “That’s the environment I was in. You either get in that or you get out of it. You see your friends locked away or dead. The music took me away from that. I’m glad I was around that culture – second lines, jazz funerals, jazz musicians.”A drummer, Barbarin began playing in the percussion section of his school band. Around fourth grade, he took notice of the brass instruments in the music room and became interested. Encouraged by his teacher, he focused on the horn. At Andrew J. Bell High School, his existence was focused on the band. “I had a passion for it. Everything was about music for me,” he said.An incident from his high school days shows, though, that music came with other valuable lessons. As a ninth grader, Barbarin was part of a band that lacked tuba players. He told the band teacher that he would volunteer for the unwieldy instrument.”He was amazed I volunteered to play tuba,” Barbarin said. “But I wanted the band to sound good. I even convinced another guy, a trumpet player, to switch so we would have a full tuba section. So I was a type of leader.”Shortly after, Danny Barker, Barbarin’s uncle and, after the death of Paul Barbarin, Lucien’s mentor, invited him to play gospel tunes in Barker’s house in the 7th Ward. The sessions allowed Barbarin to play drums on tunes like “Just a Closer Walk with Thee,” but again he saw his talents were needed elsewhere. The group was heavy on drummers, light on trombonists, so Barbarin switched instruments again, and found the instrument he would make his mark with.When Barbarin was 19, June Gardner, a drummer who had been friendly with Barbarin’s dad, invited the teenage trombonist to play a steady gig on Bourbon Street. After getting permission from his parents, Barbarin started in on his career, playing six days a week, six hours a day at the Famous Door.”I always had a vision – one day I’m going to be playing in a club somewhere. Amazingly, it came true,” he said.In fact, that dream has been surpassed. Some years ago, Barbarin saw a young pianist and singer play a bit at the inauguration for New Orleans’ district attorney, Harry Connick. The young musician was the D.A.’s son, Harry Jr. In the early ’90s, Barbarin became a featured member of Connick Jr.’s band.”Early on, Harry said, ‘We’re gonna be old guys. We’re gonna be together a lifetime,” Barbarin said. “And it looks like the truth. We’re still together.”Barbarin has also become associated with the other icons of New Orleans. He has played gigs with Wynton Marsalis and recorded on the trumpeter’s “Standard Time Vol. 6: Mr. Jelly Roll,” a tribute to pianist Jelly Roll Morton; recently, Barbarin got a call from saxophonist Branford Marsalis to play an upcoming date in Boston. He also plays occasionally at Preservation Hall, the legendary French Quartet spot devoted to old-school New Orleans sounds, where Barbarin ranks as one of the kids.”I had never wanted to play with older musicians,” he said. “Then one day I thought, You can learn from them. It was like a bell going off: ‘What are you saying? Why don’t you want to learn from these guys?'”This weekend in Aspen, Barbarin takes the leadership position. His New Orleans Rhythm Revue features pianist David Torkanowsky, trumpeter Leon “Kid Chocolate” Brown, and the rhythm section from Connick’s band, drummer Arthur Latin and bassist Neal Caine. He promises that the quintet will bring “the real New Orleans.”The music has left Barbarin too occupied to get into much mischief.”Each individual as a musician coming up has his own personality,” he said. “You’re a drughead, you’re a drughead. But the straight guys hang with the straight guys. You can be influenced by whatever. Where do I fit in? I’m neutral.”email@example.com
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