Tributes for Two New York Tuba Legends
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Part I: Bill Barber
Bill Barber: Stan Woolley talks to the “Birth of the Cool” tuba player
—a former key figure in the Miles Davis Nonet
by Stan Woolley
Editor’s Note : This article/interview was originally published in the Jazz Journal International (United Kingdom, Jazz Journal Limited, 0140-2285) in September 1993 (Volume 46:9, pp. 16–17). The ITEA Journal would like to thank the JJI for permitting this reprint of this rare and highly significant interview.
Since the fifties, when Miles Davis and Gil Evans helped keep his diary full, tuba player Bill Barber has been a pit musician, schoolteacher, and strolling restaurant entertainer. Last year he was back on the road and back on record, with the Rebirth of the Cool Band. Stan Woolley took the opportunity to talk to one of the key figures in the Miles Davis Nonet.
Although it performed publicly for just two weeks and cut only twelve 78s at three recording sessions with varying personnel, the Miles Davis Birth Of The Cool Band was one of the most innovative of jazz groups (1).
The composing and orchestrating talents of Gerry Mulligan, John Lewis, John Carisi, and Gil Evans brought the trumpeter’s highly original musical concept to fruition, but the initial inspiration was the bop-tingled Claude Thornhill orchestra of the mid-forties. This had achieved a very distinctive and sonorous sound by the addition of two French horns and a tuba to the conventional swing band format. In terms of replicating the Thornhill sound with the minimum of instruments, the key voice was the tuba. This gave the Davis nine-piece its rich, “rumbly” texture and before the more marketable title of Birth Of The Cool was chosen, the combo was referred to in some quarters as Miles Davis’s Tuba Band .
Gil Evans had scored much of the Thornhill orchestra’s library and although he contributed only two charts to the nonet’s repertoire— Boplicity and Moon Dreams —he forged the link between the Miles Davis and Claude Thornhill groups.
The man who played the tuba during the band’s two-week engagement at New York’s Royal Roost in September 1948, and, on the three recording sessions in which the dozen historic sides were cut in 1949 and 1950, was John William “Bill” Barber.
Barber was also the tuba player with the Rebirth of the Cool Band, which, in 1992, re-recorded all 12 of the original pieces (2). Apart from Barber, Gerry Mulligan is the only other musician to have been on all three of the original sessions and the remake.
Barber, a tall, wiry individual with a rapid-fire manner of speaking, was born in Hornell, New York on May 21, 1920. He was coerced into taking up the tuba because the school band needed someone to play the instrument. “The bandmaster said it would make me big and strong but that hasn’t happened yet,” the slightly built Barber commented. “I loved the sound of the instrument right from the start and it sort of took me over. At first I was just interested in symphonic music. Stuff like Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade , but I remember hearing Benny Goodman record on the radio— White Heat . I think it was called—and I liked that, too.”
Barber studied at the Manhattan and Juilliard schools of music but because of the entry of the United States into World War II his academic career was cut short. “I never graduated from Juilliard because in my last year I was drafted. Twelve of us from Juilliard went at the same time and we joined a band, which later became General Patton’s Seventh Army Band. We were told the band would be based at Lake Placid for the entire war, which sounded great. In the event we were sent overseas for three years! After the war, I played with the Kansas City Philharmonic and several theatre orchestras and—oh, yes—I got married. By this time I’d become interested in jazz and started going to jazz joints and buying records because I’d heard a lot of it in the army. I used to listen Dizzy Gillespie, Lester Young, and the Count Basie band, things like that. I liked Woody Herman too.”
“The pay with the symphony orchestra and pit bands was—well, just crab apples and ice water—and I decided to try my luck elsewhere and auditioned for Claude Thornhill’s band and got the job. I’d heard Claude’s band at the Glen Island Casino in New Jersey but never thought I would ever be playing in it. It wasn’t a jazz band, it was a ballad band. The music was so soft that when you played, you could hear everybody except yourself. I loved that sound and the band was always so in tune.”
“All the musicians loved working with Claude’s band—Gerry Mulligan, Billy Exiner. Billy was the most musical drummer I’ve ever heard in my life and there were times when the band was playing really softly that he played the drums with his fingers. Louis Mucci was the featured trumpeter with Claude and he once told me that he left Benny Goodman and took a pay cut of something like $10–12,000 just to work on Claude’s band for a year. Lots of musicians did that because the band was so musical.
“When I first joined the band there were only about three tunes with tuba parts, so I would find the root of the chord and make my own parts. It was quite unusual having a tuba in a band and after a while Claude would send me out front to play a little solo. It was a novelty to hear the tuba playing something other than um-pah!
“While I was with him, Claude had a big hit with A Sunday Kind of Love which was sung by Fran Warren. We used to play it at all the shows, which is when we played Gil’s things like Robbin’s Nest and Anthropology (3). We never played the bop things at dances, just straight dance music. All the bands did this. Spike Jones only played his comedy numbers at shows and during the night he played dance music, too.
“After about 10 months Claude had to let me go and then the two French horn players went. It was the end of the big band era and a band like Claude’s was very expensive to run, but it was a great experience and one which I will never forget.”
The Claude Thornhill Orchestra was somewhat ambivalent musically. It possessed the polite, restrained qualities of a “society” band while, at the same time, keeping pace with the harmonic complexities emanating from 52 nd Street via the charts of Gerry Mulligan and Gil Evans.
Photography from the original Birth of the Cool recording session. Frank Driggs Collection.
But what about the leader of this remarkable band, what sort of a man was he? “He was rather vain and had this little bald spot which he always tried to hid.” Barber recalled. “And out front on the marquee, the picture of him would be one taken 20 years earlier. He liked a drink but didn’t like any drugs in the band. There was a point when someone did come on the band who was a noted drug user, and the FBI began following us all over the place. But mostly there was a little pot and some drinking and that was it.”
“As a piano player, Claude wasn’t comfortable playing bop. He was a sedate, old-fashioned man in many ways. He didn’t have the chops of Oscar Peterson or the energy of Erroll Garner, but, because of his conservatory training as a classical pianist, he did have musicianship. And that’s what we all admired him for.”
“It was because Miles Davis liked Claude’s orchestra so much that the Birth of the Cool Band came about. Miles wanted the sound. He and Gil were very close and between them they decided they needed four brass, including French horn and a tuba, and an alto and baritone saxophone along with a rhythm section to achieve it. They got myself, Lee Konitz, and the French horn player Sandy Siegelstein from Claude’s band, although Sandy couldn’t make all the dates and Gunther Schuller and Junior Collins substituted on some. They wanted Danny Polo for that band too, but he couldn’t make it because of other commitments. Danny was a beautiful laid-back clarinet player and when they couldn’t get him they dropped the idea of a clarinet altogether. He died shortly after we did those recordings. He had an ulcer and bled to death.”
“We used to go to Nola’s, which was an old studio in New York City, and rehearse and rehearse. Miles was a very different guy at that time and was very quiet. The ones that did most of the talking were the guys who brought the arrangements along and wanted to be sure we got them right.”
“I remember we got a date with the band at the Royal Roost in New York City when I was doing a show called Magdelena which was the only Broadway musical Villa-Lobos ever wrote. My show used to finish at 10:30 pm, and I would dash the 20 blocks to the club and come on late. While we were at the Royal Roost, someone came in and recorded the band on an old wire recorder and when they first put the record out-in Italy, I think they called it the Tuba Band (4). I have heard it and think the recording is hideous, and they never should have issued it.”
“When Capitol first released the band’s records they put all of them out except Moon Dreams as 78 singles and not a lot happened. Then they decided to make an LP out of them and included Moon Dreams because they needed the extra length. I don’t know why they held on to it for so long, it was one of our favorite pieces.”
In common with everyone else associated with these recordings, Barber has no idea where the name Birth of the Cool came from. He does, however, feel it neatly sums up Davis’s musical philosophy at that time. “Although he was a great trumpeter, bop wasn’t really Miles’ thing. Dizzy and Red Rodney, they were the guys who did it best. It wasn’t that Miles couldn’t play it but it just went against his grain. He wanted it more laidback with not too many notes. I remember when we were making those big band things, like Miles Ahead (5) and Porgy and Bess (6), he had this big conversation with some people about which notes of the scale should be left out. The notes didn’t matter, it was the sound that was important to him.”
The Birth of the Cool recordings are now rightly regarded as representing one of the great creative peaks of jazz but did the musicians involved sense this at the time? “No, to me it was just another job. I was married and my wife was expecting our first child, and I just looked upon it as bringing in the bread. I was [paid] $41.25 for each of the three recording sessions and that was it.”
Apart from the Claude Thornhill Orchestra and Miles Davis’s short-lived nonet, there were few opportunities for a tuba player in the jazz world, and Barber, in the main, earned his living playing in the pit orchestras of Broadway shows. On March 29, 1951, The King and I opened at the St. James Theatre, New York City and in the starring roles were Gertrude Lawrence and the then relatively unknown Yul Brynner. Amongst the names of the unsung musicians in the pit band was that of Bill Barber.
“I was on The King and I show for over three years but somewhere along the line I also worked for Charlie Ventura at the Paramount Theatre. I can’t remember what he called his band but he used to feature himself playing all the saxophones from soprano right down to bass saxophone. His piano player was a real good-looking guy and the women used to line up to get his autograph. They were much more interested in him than Charlie Ventura.”
“While I was working on The King and I , I did several recording sessions with the Sauter-Finegan Orchestra. The contractor for the show would allow you to get off one day a week to do record dates and things like that but you had to send in a reliable deputy, which I always did. Eddie (Sauter) wanted me to go on the road with the band but I couldn’t give up the security of the show.”
Another bandleader who Barber recorded for in the early fifties was Pete Rugolo and he has the following observations to make about Stan Kenton’s former associate: “Pete had a legitimate background and was a very intellectual writer but wasn’t very commercial. He was too interested in music: that was his failing.”
As for the Kenton band itself which, because of its bias towards brass instruments, you might have thought would have been of interest to Barber: “It was never one of my favorites. I know a lot of the guys that were in the band, but it wasn’t the kind of thing that appealed to me.”
A glance at the Miles Davis and Gil Evans discographies indicates that Barber was involved in a flurry of recording activity during the late fifties and early sixties. Two of the resulting albums have already been mentioned but in addition there was Sketches of Spain (7), At Carnegie Hall, 1961 (8) and its stable-mate, Live Miles: More Music from The Legendary Carnegie Hall Concert (9). There was also Gil Evans’s finest recording under his own name, Out of the Cool (10). “That was lovely. Gil was always writing tunes but he was a very slow, fastidious writer. If he didn’t like something, out would come the eraser and he would do it all again. He wasn’t what you would call a commercial writer. He would never have made it in Hollywood writing for pictures because they have to have everything by yesterday. He was not that kind of a guy. He was too much of a perfectionist.”
The music business changed dramatically in the sixties. The big bands were well and truly gone; studio work in New York had declined and most musical shows were a thing of the past. Andrew Lloyd-Webber had yet to emerge as the savior of the Broadway musical and so Barber accepted a full-time position as a music teacher in a Long Island school. “It wasn’t the end of the world because once you have a certain reputation people still call you with playing jobs. Whatever came over the phone, if it was suitable I would do it. And that’s what 1 did for 25 years until I retired. I did all sorts of jobs and strolled the tables in German and Italian restaurants playing the tuba. Lots of musicians do these sort of jobs and when you work with someone you know, it is a case of—I won’t tell anyone you were here if you don’t tell anyone I was here.”
“When Gerry (Mulligan) called me and asked me if I would like to do the Rebirth band it was a bolt out of the blue. I was delighted to accept and the whole thing has been like a renaissance for me.” Barber has now started playing string bass, an instrument he picked up when he retired from teaching: “When you’ve been a tuba player you play Wagner, Tchaikovsky, and Strauss; you don’t play Mozart and Beethoven because there is nothing written for you. I love the music of those two composers, so to get to play it I had to learn the bass.”
As a bassist, Barber has yet to make his mark, but as a jazz tuba player his modest but important role in the evolution of the music should not be underestimated .
(I) Capitol CDP 792862 (CD)
(2) GRP Records GRD 9679 (CD)
(3) The Memorable Claude Thornhill (Columbia KG 32906) (LP)
(4) The Real Birth of the Cool (Bandstand BDCD 1512) (CD)
(5) CBS 460606 (CD)
(6) CBS 450985 (CD)
(7) CBS 460604 (CD)
(8) CBS 46001i4 (CD)
(9) Columbia CK 40609 (CD)
(10) MCA MCACD 39104 (CD)