A jazz banjoist and guitarist with a career that stretched over parts of eight decades, Danny Barker lived the history of jazz in the twentieth century. Then, late in life, he became one of its most qualified chroniclers, drawing upon his recollections of the early days of jazz in New Orleans.
Danny Barker spent his first six years living with his father’s family in a two-story apartment building on Chartre Street across from the French Quarter Ice. His grandfather on his mother’s side was Isidore Barbarin, a founding member of the original Onward Brass Band. And Danny’s uncle, Paul Barbarin, played in bands led by top jazz artists including King Oliver, Henry ‘Red’ Allen, and Sidney Bechet.
Barker would follow in his Uncle Paul’s footsteps, leading to his first gig playing banjo subbing for an intoxicated Babe Son in Kid Rena's band. After this surprising debut, Barker began taking banjo lessons from George Augustin of the Imperial band, and came under the direct influence of Lorenzo Stall, Buddy Bolden's banjoist. It was not long before he dubbed "Banjo King of New Orleans".
In 1930 Barker married the singer Louise Dupont, and the pair followed the migration undertaken by other jazz musicians and moved to New York. They often performed together, as Blue Lu Barker with Danny Barker's Fly Cats. Barker switched from banjo to the more modern guitar.
Barker's excellence as a musician came in the late 1930s, when he played with bands led by Lucky Millinder, Benny Carter, and, for an eight-year stint extending through World War II, Cab Calloway. Barker played sharp melodic solos on the guitar that diverged from the chordal playing that had previously been the norm. He appeared on over 1,000 recordings, and, by some estimates, played with a greater number of jazz bands and artists than any other musician.
Barker left Calloway's band in 1946. He played in the 1940s with bebop pioneers Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker, and even essayed the new and guitar-heavy rhythm-and-blues style in the postwar years. In 1947 he took a job as guitarist for the "Jazz on the River" weekend cruises up and down the Hudson River where he played with fellow New Orleanians Albert Nicholas, Pops Foster, Baby Dodds, pianist James P. Johnson and cornetist Wild Bill Davison. Barker then worked as a freelance rhythm man around New York playing and recording with Sidney Bechet and Mezz Mezzrow, Bunk Johnson, Edmond Hall and Henry "Red" Allen.