Beyond his legacy as an superb guitarist and banjoist, Danny Barker was known for his passion for studying jazz music and passing that knowledge along. Throughout his lifetime he would meet musicians, question them about their experiences, observe them and pay homage to them through his unique and trailblazing work as a writer and cultural historian.
Born January 13, 1909 in New Orleans’ French Quarter, Daniel Moses Barker began his life with music in his blood. He came from a family of immensely talented musicians, in a city known for sound during a time when jazz was developing into an original, American music form.
Barker’s first instrument was the ukulele. He was still in grade school when he formed his first band, the Boozan Kings. In his teen years Barker switched from uke to banjo, and when he was 21, he moved to New York City. There he met, got to know and played with such top jazz artists as Jelly Roll Morton, Cab Calloway, Billie Holiday and Charlie Parker.
During his time in New York, Barker would collect eyewitness accounts, photographs, memorabilia, recordings, and questionnaires that would later be used for his memoir entitled, “A Life in Jazz,” detailing other musicians’ accounts as well as his own.
A little over a decade after his move to New York, Barker started his own group that featured his wife, Blue Lu Barker. After three decades plus in New York – and a brief stint in California – the Barkers returned to New Orleans in 1965. Danny Barker took a position as curator of the New Orleans Jazz Museum, started leading his own band, the Jazz Hounds, and in 1970 founded his church-sponsored youth brass band, The Fairview Baptist Church Christian Band. Many young musicians in that band – including such now internationally acclaimed artists as Dr. Michael White, Leroy Jones, Gregg Stafford, Herlin Riley, Branford and Wynton Marsalis – have enjoyed outstanding careers in music, and credit the mentorship of Danny Barker as a key element in their growth as artists and individuals.
Barker continued to be a regular performer at venues throughout New Orleans. He was honored as King of Krewe du Vieux in the 1994 Mardi Gras season.
Danny Barker was the recipient of numerous prestigious awards in his lifetime, including the National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Masters Award (1991), the Big Easy Entertainment Award for Best Traditional Jazz Group (1989), and Big Easy Lifetime Achievement in Music award in 1993. The Danny Barker Banjo and Guitar Festival, launched in 2015, celebrates Barker’s life, legacy and music - as well as the musicians that he trained and helped in their careers.
During his long career with many different instruments, Barker took credit for a plethora of favorite songs including “My Indian Red,” “Careless Love Blues,” “Bye Bye Blackbird,” and “Royal Garden Blues.”
Barker was awarded many notable titles in his lifetime. In 1989 he received the Big Easy Entertainment Awards for Best Traditional Jazz Group, Lifetime Achievement in Music award in 1993, and the 1991 National Endowment for the Arts NEA Jazz Masters Award.
Barker lived during a time of segregation in America which contributed to many obstacles in his career, obstacles which he deftly navigated with wisdom, insight and a great sense of humor. He struggled with diabetes and eventually died of cancer in his hometown, New Orleans, on March 13, 1994, at 85 years old. His legacy goes beyond hit records and memorable performances. . His legacy as a mentor and multi-disciplinary artist: writer, instrumentalist, vocalist, composer, lyricist and raconteur - places him among the most accomplished, significant and beloved New Orleanians of the 20th century.