By Anita Malhotra
Trombonist and singer Lucien Barbarin stands out in the New Orleans traditional jazz scene not only for his superlative technique, soulful playing and showmanship but also for his far-reaching national and international career. A member of Harry Connick, Jr.’s big band since 1991, Barbarin has also performed with Wynton Marsalis, Kermit Ruffins, Doc Cheatham, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band and Dr. Michael White, among others.
His gigs have included the Grammy Awards, the Superbowl XXVI, the 2006 Olympics, Expo 2010 in Shanghai, the White House and playing for the British Royal Family. He has also has appeared on numerous TV shows including Late Night with David Letterman, The Ellen Degeneres Show, The Arsenio Hall Show and The Tonight Show. In addition, Barbarin – who is descended from one of New Orleans’ best-known musical families – can be heard on more than 25 CDs, including several of his own.
Anita Malhotra caught up with Barbarin on Monday, February 10, 2014 as he took a break between sets playing with The Original Tuxedo Band at Irvin Mayfield’s Jazz Playhouse in New Orleans
AM: When you play the trombone it sounds as expressive as the human voice. How do you achieve that sound?
LB: Well, actually the trombone is the closest to the human voice of any instrument that you can find. If you’ve ever seen Charlie Brown, when Charlie Brown talks to his mother, her voice is actually a trombone. And a lot of people don’t know that. And it goes “Wah wah wah wah, wah wah waah” [he vocalizes the sound].
AM: So it’s the nature of the instrument.
LB: Yes, it’s the nature of the instrument.
AM: Where did you grow up in New Orleans?
LB: I came up in the Lafitte housing projects, and that’s on Claiborne and Orleans Avenue. We had several projects here in New Orleans, and after Katrina they tore them down.
AM: How did you get started in music?
LB: Well, I inherited what I’m doing today because of my ancestors. My great-uncle, Paul Barbarin, played with Louis Armstrong, he played with Henry Allen, he played with Sidney Bechet, he played with Jelly Roll Morton, so I inherited what I’m doing today.
AM: How old were you when you started playing?
LB: I started playing at the age of six years old with my great-uncle Paul, who recorded many of the songs that are today spread around the world. The Bourbon Street Parade – that was written by my great-uncle. We have a festival here in New Orleans – the Jazz and Heritage Festival – and I performed at one of the first jazz festivals with my great-uncle Paul, and I had a chance to meet the great Duke Ellington. Yeah, he introduced me to him.
AM: What instrument were you playing at that time?
LB: My first instrument was drums because I always wanted to be like my great-uncle Paul. He was my role model. So he gave me my first set of drums.
AM: How did you go from playing drums to playing the trombone?
LB: Well, in grade school I happened to pick up an instrument – a baritone horn that I still have today. I don’t know how, but I just picked it up and started playing it automatically. And the teacher heard me and said, “Wow!” Have you ever played this instrument before?” I said, “No.” So he said, “Would you like to play it?” I said, “I don’t know, I have to ask my parents first.” So I went home and asked my parents and they said “Yeah, if you want to play it.” So the next day I was bringing home a baritone horn bigger than me at the time. Then I started playing the tuba after that in junior high school. And then I switched to the trombone.
AM: How did you build your career – did you have a big break or did it happen slowly?
LB: It started off after my uncle passed away back in the late ‘60s. It was devastating for me because I lost my role model. So my second cousin, Danny Barker, who played with people like Dexter Gordon, Dizzie Gillespie, and Cab Calloway, sort of took over my career after my uncle passed away.
He formed a band called the Fairview Baptist Christian Church Band. It was a brass band of very young musicians, and from there we started out playing church hymns during the time – songs like Just a Closer Walk with Thee, Nearer My God to Thee, By-and-By, Just a Little While to Stay Here – all church hymns. We played in many different Baptist churches as kids. I was raised Catholic, and Baptist churches were a whole different experience for me. Later, we went on to have a different band, because the musicians were more mature, and my cousin Danny Barker – he had a way with names – said, “I’m gonna name this band The Hurricane Jazz Band.” So we came to be The Hurricane Jazz Band.
AM: How did you get started playing with Harry Connick, Jr.?
LB: I remember Harry because I played at his father’s inauguration. His father was the district attorney of Orleans Parish here in New Orleans. So we were performing at the inauguration, and he said, “I want my son to play.” Harry was very young at the time and he was playing When the Saints go Marching In on the piano. And I said, “Oh, wow. That kid can really play.”
And so he moved to New York and started his career there. He put together a rhythm section and he played around town, and from there he said he wanted to put a big band together. So the first time I saw him with a big band was on Saturday Night Live. There’s a drummer from New Orleans – his name is Shannon Powell – and Harry picked this guy to be in his rhythm section. I was watching him on TV and I was like, “Look at that, my boy from New Orleans, he’s on Saturday Night Live. I would love to do that.” My ambition in life was always to play with a big band.
And so one day I was sitting at home, and I got a call because Harry decided to put a big band together and he didn’t know which musicians he should he get. He went to one of his fellow musicians that inspired him – it was Wynton Marsalis – and said, “Hey, man. What about Lucien Barbarin?” Wynton Marsalis said, “Any of the Barbarins can play. Yeah, hire him.” So, the next minute I got a call from his musical director, and he said, “Would you like to play in Harry’s big band?” And that was it.
And I’ll tell you a quick story. The first time with this big band we rehearsed in New York. So we were rehearsing without Harry and with the musical director, Ben Wolfe. They had three trombone players from New Orleans, and a trumpet player from New Orleans and a drummer who was from New Orleans. The music director said, “OK – I don’t know anyone in the band. Let’s play a blues so we can all feel each other out.” So we played a blues, and Leroy Jones – the trumpet player that’s from New Orleans – took the first solo. And then I took the second solo.
I could see some of the guys in the front that were from New York, and I could see one of them snickering and laughing, and saying, “You hear that solo? That was a sad solo.” I felt so bad. So when Harry came to the rehearsal he said, “OK, what are you guys was working on?” We said, “Oh, we were just playing the blues,” and he said, “OK, let’s play the blues.” So we started playing the blues. Once again, Leroy Jones took the first solo, then I took the second solo, and I played my solo with the mute. And I was, “wah wah wah,” playing a lot of stuff. After the rehearsal, Harry had a meeting with us. He said, “Yeah, I want my band to be raw – nasty, dirty and lowdown.” After that, he said, “Did you hear that solo Lucien took on that blues?” He said, “That’s the way I want my band to sound.” And then everybody looked around at me and was like, “Wow.” He said, “That’s the way I want my band to sound.” Just like that.
AM: And you’ve toured with him many times, right?
LB: I’ve been with him for 23 years.
AM: Was it hard to balance the travelling with your family?
LB: Well, it was, because every time I would leave my daughters would cry, and say, “Dad, are you going again?” And they would cry to see Daddy go out on the road. But that’s part of being a musician – travelling, you know.
AM: Tell me about your CD, It’s Good to be Home.
LB: Well that CD was after Katrina. When Katrina hit New Orleans it was very devastating. Harry did a Broadway show and wrote some songs, and one of the songs was called It’s Good to be Home. He wrote the song around me and the trumpet player, Leroy Jones. So I asked Harry, “Hey, man, can I put that on my CD?” And he said “Yeah, man. You can use the song.” So I decided to put it on my CD because after Katrina it meant a lot to me. We lost everything.
AM: Did you lose your house in Katrina?
LB: I didn’t lose my house – I lost everything that was in my house. All the furniture. I evacuated – I went to Shreveport. My son was in the military up there and so we went up there and we lived with him for quite some time. And then when we came back to New Orleans for the first time, and I arrived back home, and it was an unbelievable sight. I’ve never seen any devastation like this before. Everything that was in my house was destroyed. The refrigerator was turned upside down and everything that was in the front of the house floated to the back of the house because there was about three or four feet of water in the house. My neighbors actually stood there and they thought they were going to die, but they made it through.
AM: Where in New Orleans do you live?
LB: I live in Slidell. Slidell got hit really bad too. It’s about 30 minutes away from the city. I moved to Slidell because I wanted it to be better for my kids to live in the suburbs – not to be raised in a big city like New Orleans.
AM: What do you think makes New Orleans such a great city for music?
LB: Well first of all, you know, all the greats come from New Orleans. It goes from Jelly Roll Morton and Sidney Bechet, and of course there’s the great Louis Armstrong. And it just continues to grow and grow. Harry Connick, Jr., Wynton Marsalis, you know, I mean there are so many great musicians today it’s unbelievable. And Trombone Shorty – I mean it just continues to grow and grow, because this is one of the birthplaces of jazz. It goes back to the 1920s, so here we are today, and I’m glad to be a part of this city and I would never leave New Orleans.
AM: What are your upcoming projects?
LB: Well, I’m still touring with Harry whenever he has performance, and I’m just working around the city. I also travel as a special guest artist in different parts of Europe, and I perform in England a lot – the festival is called the Keswick Jazz Festival. I played there last year and they asked me to come back because they liked what I did. And also I have a tour coming up in Germany in October with a band that’s called the Maryland Jazz Band from Cologne, Germany. And the Preservation Hall Jazz Band – I work with them every now and again and I’ve toured with them also.
AM: Do you have anything you would like to add?
LB: Like I said, I came up off the housing project and I saw murders and stuff like that, and I had to fight my way through a lot of things, but the music actually took me away from that environment, and I thank God for where I’m at today because if it wasn’t for my Lord and my Savior, I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing today. And then I come from a musical family, so if it wasn’t for my family and my ancestors, I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing.
When he’s not on tour, Lucien Barbarin can be heard in New Orleans on Friday and Sunday nights with his own band at the Palm Court Jazz Café, on Monday nights with the Original Jazz Tuxedo Band at Irvin Mayfield’s Jazz Playhouse, on some Thursday nights with the Preservation Hall All-Stars at Preservation Hall, and at other venues. For more information about Lucien Barbarin, please visit lucienbarbarinmusic.com.
Postscript (Jan. 31, 2020): I heard the sad news today that Lucien Barbarin passed away yesterday. I have added a more recent clip of a Preservation Hall interview he did in 2017. His website is no longer active, but there is a Wikipedia article about him at this link.