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Bill Barber, 87; refashioned tuba to suit rhythms of modern jazz

July 02, 2007|Adam Bernstein | The Washington Post

Bill Barber, a musician who helped refashion the jazz tuba from its predictable oompah passages to suit the complex melodies and rhythms of Miles Davis and other postwar jazz modernists, died of congestive heart failure June 18 at his home in Bronxville, N.Y. He was 87.

A fixture of many early jazz bands, the tuba was largely reduced to a jazz relic by the early 1930s as sound technology improved. The upright bass took the place of the booming brass instrument.

Yet a core of post-World War II arrangers, notably Gil Evans, admired the tuba's tone color possibilities. They advocated its use in small jazz groups more as a melodic instrument than for any rhythmic pace-keeping.

The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz credited Barber, who took a central role in Evans' experiments in sound with trumpeter Davis, as probably the first tuba player "to take solos in a modern jazz style and to participate in intricate ensemble passages."

Harvey Phillips, an emeritus music professor at Indiana University and a leading tuba player since the 1950s, wrote this year in the journal of the International Tuba Euphonium Assn. that Barber "is a legend to me and many others for ... pioneering the interpretive styles and phrasing of the tuba in modern American jazz and for helping define the variety of roles the tuba can play in other music disciplines."

John William Barber was born May 21, 1920, in Hornell, N.Y. His music career began when his grade-school band needed a tuba player. After attending the prestigious Interlochen music camp in Michigan, he entered New York's Juilliard School but left in 1942 with a dozen musician friends to join the Army during World War II, playing in the band of Gen. George Patton's 7th Army in Europe.

After the war, he performed with the Kansas City Philharmonic Orchestra and other symphonic groups. But in 1947 he returned to jazz, winning a coveted spot playing with the cliche-busting big band of Claude Thornhill.

The Thornhill group was a novelty -- a traditional swing band with two French horns and a tuba that gave it an ethereal and romantic sound. Although not a huge commercial success, the orchestra had a terrific reputation among musicians and critics.

Evans was an arranger for the band and worked with Miles Davis to reproduce the Thornhill sound with a minimum of instrumentation. Out of this collaboration came the dozen recordings with Davis' nonet, or nine-piece band, that made up the 1949 "Birth of the Cool" release and is often regarded as a high mark in the era's musical creativity.

Barber was featured on "Birth of the Cool" and later Davis albums such as "Blue Miles," "Miles Ahead," "Porgy and Bess" and "Sketches of Spain." He stood out on the 1957 Leonard Feather and Dick Hyman release "The Hi-Fi Suite" for his solo on "Woofer" and also played on recordings led by saxophonists Gigi Gryce, John Coltrane and Gerry Mulligan.

By the early 1960s, Barber settled into a full-time career as a high school music teacher on Long Island.

In 1992, he participated in Mulligan's Carnegie Hall concert called "Rebirth of the Cool" that paid homage to the original "Birth of the Cool" release. The group toured internationally and issued an album.

Survivors include his wife of 60 years, Dora Aloi Barber; three children; nine grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.

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