Notes On The Life and Death of New Orleans Jazz Drummer Paul Barbarin

I’ve been building a Mount Rushmore for New Orleans drummers over the past few years.

Paul “T-Boy” Barbarin is sitting on top of that mountain.

By the time Barbarin turned 14 he was a veteran of the sort of ad hoc playing that all drummers are immersed in in their early years: beating out rhythms on the kitchen table, thrumming the noggins of other school kids, tapping out beats on upside down buckets.

That sort of thing.

You know his daddy, Isidore Barbarin of the Onward Brass Band was proud.

When T-Boy turned 14, cornet king Buddy Petit came calling and the teen joined his Young Olympians – leading to a lifelong career as a professional musician. The Young Olympians performed in the so-called Tango Belt near the French Quarter where clubs like Oasis Cabaret, the Elite, Butzie Fernandez’s place, the Haymarket and the Black Orchid ran wide open across the way from the brothels of Storyville. These barrooms were near where where the Black Penny and Bar Tonique now sit.

In 1917 he fled New Orleans and rode a train to Chicago where he took a square job working at the Armour and Company stockyards by day so he could pick up drumming work in the clubs at night.

Barbarin would team up with Joe Oliver, Jimmie Noone, Bill Johnson, Lottie Taylor and Eddie Vinson (who also used the name Vincent) to start gigging at Royal Garden Cafe. That outfit would have a two year run before T-Boy got homesick and migrated back down to New Orleans

Notes On The Life and Death of New Orleans Jazz Drummer Paul Barbarin

As I’ve repeatedly said, the life of a jazzman is an itinerant one, and Paul would take the train between New Orleans and Chicago countless times over the next decade most notably when he joined back up with Joe Oliver, Barney Bigard, Red Allen, Omer Simeon, Paul Barnes, Edward “Kid” Ory, and Panamanian pianist Luis Russell to form the Dixie Syncopators.

Finally, Paul Barbarin made his recording debut when he cut Jackass Blues in Chicago on April 23, 1926. The 78 was released as Vocalion A1014 for all the collectors reading. The Syncopators kept the recording studios hot as well as working a residency at the Plantation Cafe.

A reporter writing for Variety magazine extolled that Oliver’s band dispensed “real jazz,” “loud, wailing, and pulsating,” music with “no conscience.

The cover charge for a hot Saturday night’s concert? A buck.

Does this not sound like an archetype for punk rock but 50 years earlier than the genre’s reported start?

After the Plantation Cafe mysteriously burned to the ground, Barbarin and his men loaded their brass on a train and hightailed it to New York City. They soon began a two week residency at the prestigious Savoy Ballroom on May 10th 1927.

Read and please refrain from weeping over this lineup: Joe Oliver, Red Allen, Jimmy Archey, Albert Nicholas, Luis Russell, T-Boy, Pops Foster and Barney Bigard.

Notes On The Life and Death of New Orleans Jazz Drummer Paul Barbarin

Ever the tough negotiator, Joe Oliver screwed his band’s chances to stay for a longer bid at the Savoy by demanding a bigger salary. The Savoy refused citing the fact that they only paid union scale, and once again the outfit was at loose ends.

Luis Russell migrated to Harry White’s Nest Club to join George Howe’s band and soon enough Howe was out, and Luis was the leader employing J.C. Higginbotham, Louis Metcalf, Albert Nicholas, Red Allen, and Pops Foster with Barbarin beating the traps.

We played the Savoy Ballroom, then we went to the Roseland and took Fletcher Henderson’s job away from him. The rhythm was really rompin’, man, I mean, really bouncing. And, the trumpet players were screaming soft—so you could hear the people’s feet scraping the floor. We worked seven days a week and we loved it. It was like back home in New Orleans. Luis Russell’s band was rompin’ so good in 1929, we had everything around New York sewed up!

That’s Pops Foster recalling the magic of the band.

When he wasn’t performing live, Paul Barbarin stayed busy as an in-demand sessions man recording with a litany of all-time heavyweights like Louis Armstrong, King Oliver, and Jelly Roll Morton laying down tracks at 17 different sessions in ’29.

And he was watching history being made as the old Syncopators outfit went from being King Oliver’s group to seeing Luis Russell take over before finally becoming Louis Armstrong’s outfit. T-Boy returned to New Orleans in 1932, and lived the life of a club musician for three years before once again taking the long train to New York City where he rejoined Luis Russell’s collaboration band with Armstrong.

The peripatetic drummer never hung his hat on the same nail for too long though and come 1938 New Orleans beckoned once more, and he returned to his home town.

Notes On The Life and Death of New Orleans Jazz Drummer Paul Barbarin

During the forties Barbarin led his own band as well as backing Armstrong, Red Allen, and Sidney Bechet. Ever the vagabond he also traveled back to Chicago as well as New York as fortune and money dictated.

When TV show Wide Wide World with Dave Garroway came to New Orleans in February of 1948 to provide coverage of the 10th anniversary of the New Orleans Jazz Club, the lineup of concerts for the event was typically superb. Barbarin’s outfit was there, and reportedly in fine form but the TV producer was unimpressed, and for unknown reasons asked T-Boy if he could play “dirtier”

He’s lucky he didn’t get tossed into the Mississippi but instead Barbarin merely asked him where he was from. When the lad replied “Iowa,” Paul let him have it. “Young fellow…you’re from Iowa and you’re telling me how to play the blues?”

By the time the fifties rolled around T-Boy was well-settled into his hometown and enjoying being an elder statesman of jazz.

Notes On The Life and Death of New Orleans Jazz Drummer Paul Barbarin

But it was an artform he was worried about. In an April 24th, 1955 interview with the Birmingham News Barbarin sadly intoned that “Dixieland is dying, I hope not but that’s the way I see it.” He further lamented that “The youngsters want to put in modern licks; they don’t fill in with the old licks.”

In 1960, he and his brother Louis re-formed their father’s Onward Brass Band, and played regularly at Preservation Hall as well as making several recordings. Paul Barbarin died in 1969 while he was playing with The Onward Brass Band in a carnival parade leading the Krewe of Proteus on Lundi Gras.

His funerary second line was one for the ages with Pete Fountain saying “in terms of people this has got to be the biggest.”

Thousands of people lined the route from Our Lady of the Sacred Heart Catholic Church to St. Louis Cemetery number 2. The funeral lasted two and a half hours. Four marching bands led the second line.

Barbarin most famously wrote “Bourbon Street Parade” and “Come Back Sweet Papa” and the former was the final song played at the affair.

b. May 5th 1901
d. February 17th 1969

I was unable to find an address of Paul Barbarin’s ancestral home but his brother Louis lived here.

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I Remember Jazz, Six Decades Among the Great Jazzmen By Al Rose
Frontiers of Jazz By Ralph de Toledano
New Orleans: A Cultural History By Louise McKinney
Spectacular Wickedness: Sex, Race, and Memory in Storyville, New Orleans By Emily Epstein Landau
Chicago Jazz: A Cultural History, 1904-1930 By William Howland Kenney

Dixie Syncopators discography

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