Big band favourite Guy Barker has performed at the Hall on numerous occasions, leading bands at Proms and even playing in Frank Sinatra’s band throughout his distinguished career.
He took a few moments out of a busy day preparing scores for his forthcoming Christmas show to speak to us about big band music, the trumpet, and some of his most cherished musical memories:
Can you give us a brief introduction to what big band music is?
Big bands started off in the 1920s and generally the line-up consisted of trumpets, trombones, saxophones and a rhythm section which remains the same format to this day.
The original ensembles were created to play jazz in dance clubs and became the ‘pop music’ of the day, led by the first bandleaders like Fletcher Henderson and the great Duke Ellington.
In the ’30s (the birth of the swing era) and ’40s the big bands became extremely popular and bandleaders like Harry James, Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey and Count Basie became huge stars.
As the genre gained popularity, bandleaders could afford to expand their orchestras and include string sections and vocal groups and before long these big bands became the go-to accompaniments to legendary vocalists like Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davies Jr. and Ella Fitzgerald.
For me the big bands of those days create a joyful sound that has proved to be timeless. Even now when I listen to Benny Goodman’s Sing Sing Sing it feels so exotic that it sounds incredibly contemporary.
Though the ensemble line-up has more or less remained the same, the music has always moved on and developed with the likes of Dizzy Gillespie, Oliver Nelson, Quincy Jones and Gil Evans in the ’50s and ’60s and, more recently, Maria Schneider blending their ensembles with more modern musical styles.
How did you get into big band music?
I’d taken up the cornet in the school brass band aged 12, and one day my father came home with two records, one by Louis Armstrong and the other by cornet player Rex Stewart. Both those records had a profound effect on me. In fact it was hearing the incredible vocal sounds that Rex Stewart produced on his cornet that made me want to play Jazz.
My dad took me to see the Benny Goodman band at the Royal Albert Hall in 1971 when I was 14. It was the first jazz concert I’d ever seen and Goodman was touring with a British band, so I got to hear all my British heroes like Derek Watkins and Johnny McLevy.
A year later, I went to see the Count Basie Orchestra at the Hammersmith Odeon. I remember sitting in the balcony and when the intro to Every Day I have the Blues kicked off and Joe Williams started to sing, it just changed my life.
Around that time I joined the National Youth Jazz Orchestra, before going to the Royal College of Music, and my life has been obsessed with all kinds of music ever since.
You’ve been a prolific trumpeter, composer and bandleader for many years now – who are your musical idols?
Where do I begin?! My trumpet idols include Louis Armstrong, Clifford Brown, Freddie Hubbard, Miles Davis, Kenny Wheeler, Clark Terry (who gave me lessons for a while), Maurice Andre, and so many others.
I was always attracted to composing and arranging, and draw as much inspiration from classical music as I do from jazz. I am moved as much by Igor Stravinsky, Béla Bartók and Arthur Honegger as I am by Gil Evans, Duke Ellington, Billy Strayhorn and Charles Mingus.
What are your top tips for anyone who may be starting to learn the trumpet?
The trumpet can be a physically demanding instrument but it’s the air flow that really supports everything.
The best bit of advice I could give to someone starting out is just make sure that you play every day. Even if it’s just for 20 minutes. If you remain consistent with your practice then the instrument will become much friendlier.
How do you cope with the physical demands of playing the trumpet?
With the trumpet it’s not just your breath and your lips – your whole body creates the notes so looking after yourself physically is really important.
When I was 21, I went to New York to try to learn from the greats. One person I met was Charles Colin who had written so many of the trumpet tutors and practice books. I told him I just wanted to be a much better player and the only way I could achieve that was by practising more hours in the day. So what new routine could he show me to solve this and keep my stamina up? He just looked at me shrugged his shoulders and said ‘Go swimming’, as it’s the whole body that plays the trumpet. This wasn’t the answer I wanted to hear at the time – I wanted to see some new amazing trumpet exercise that would solve it all, but he was so right; years later I took up Bikram yoga and realised that his advice was right all along! The physical demands of the yoga had changed my breath, improving my playing as a result.
The other bit of advice he gave me was that consistency is so important with the trumpet. He said it’s no use playing one way in the practice room then playing completely differently when you’re on stage… his words were ‘Never practice, always perform’.
If you couldn’t play the trumpet, which instrument would you take up?
I’d like to be able to play the piano a lot better… I think if my facility improved I could get to the music I hear in my head while composing much faster.
You’ve performed at the Royal Albert Hall on several occasions before. What’s been the highlight for you?
Every time I’ve played at the Hall it’s been a highlight! It’s my favourite building – just incredible outside and in. There’s such majesty about the place, but interestingly whenever I play here you can look out and see this huge overwhelming space but on the stage it can feel really intimate, which is unique.
I’ve played here with Frank Sinatra, John Dankworth, Stan Tracey, Paloma Faith, and last year played the Swing Prom with Clare Teal, which was really the instigator for this Christmas concert.
What are your memories of playing here with Frank Sinatra?
I was told that the Royal Albert Hall was Mr. Sinatra’s favourite venue. With the tour, we’d usually alternate the days with a concert and a day off or travel day but when we got to the Hall we would play every night for a week.
On stage you’re playing these great arrangements with this amazing legendary singer and you’d look out and see thousands of people just having the best time, including a whole load of really famous fans.
My favourite memory was when we were doing a soundcheck for the first night in the Hall. Usually he wouldn’t be there, but this particular afternoon he came in and asked us to get out an arrangement of London by Night, and he conducted the orchestra, going over to each section and getting as much emotion out of everyone as possible.
It was an amazing moment…
As we kept playing this beautiful piece again and again to the empty Hall, the guy who’d fixed the orchestra was standing just next to me and was giggling as he looked at his watch. He was saying ‘he’s doing it again… here he goes – just saying ‘thank you’. I didn’t understand what he meant… and then Frank wrapped things up at 5:05pm, saying ‘Thanks guys, that’s everything!’ What he’d done was worked us to just beyond our 5pm deadline to make sure we all got paid overtime – that was his “thank you”.
What’s funny was that we didn’t ever play that arrangement of London by Night on the entire tour!
What can we expect from your Christmas concert at the Hall?
The whole point of this concert is that I want it to be fun… there’ll be things that you’ll know and there’ll be some surprises.
There’ll be an amazing group of musicians – 38 of some of the finest musicians I know, as well as a host of incredibly talented guests performing a range of music from the ’30s to the present day – all of it will be swinging!
What’s an average day like for you?
I tend to get up early, do a bit of trumpet practice and then just write music until about 6pm or 7pm.
I live upstairs to trumpeter Martin Shaw (who is in the band tonight) and sometimes we’ll practice duets together if I’ve got some trumpet stuff coming up but these days generally I just have to focus on writing.
This year for instance, I’ve written 18 arrangements for the opening of the London Jazz Festival, another 18 for the BBC Concert Orchestra plus big band for the Cheltenham Jazz Festival. I wrote a lot of arrangements for Clare Teal to sing with the Hallé Orchestra, worked with Georgie Fame. My violin concerto was premiered in Bucharest and I’ve recently been commissioned to write a cello concerto. So it’s all been very busy.
With so much going on I always get quite fearful that I may not get it all done so I’m incredibly grateful to my friend Alan Prosser who has helped me enormously by transcribing a lot of the original arrangements for tonight before I set about them.