Date Posted: 2009-06-15
PAUL “POLO” BARNES
By Paige VanVorst
One of our new releases this month features one of the unsung heroes of New Orleans jazz- Paul “Polo” Barnes (1902-1981, whose long career included periods with Jelly Roll Morton and King Oliver as well as long periods at both Disneyland and Preservation Hall.
Barnes was born in New Orleans in 1902- the son of Catherine Frazier and Emile Barnes Sr- his older brother, Emile Barnes Jr., born ten years earlier, was one of the better clarinetists in New Orleans sand and gave Paul a toy fife when he was six. The lad showed great promise but the family were unable to afford any music lessons for him, though he studied the piano a few years later at St. Paul’s Lutheran College.
Barnes’ family was loaded with musicians- his first cousins included John and Lawrence Marrero, Cie Frazier, Sugar Johnny Smith and Dave “Fat Man” Williams, to name just a few.
His interest in music was rekindled about 1919 when he went to the circus and heard Jazzbo Curry from New York, who played laughing music on the tenor sax. Barnes’ cousin John Marrero told him the alto sax would be better in a jazz band, so Paul bought one instead. Within a few months he mastered the instrument and organized his own band, the Original Diamond Jazz Band, which included Cie Frazier, drums; George Washington, trombone; Eddie Marrero, bass; Lawrence Marrero, banjo and Bush Hall, trumpet. Later versions of the band included Bob Thomas on trombone, Henry ”Red” Allen on trumpet and Mercedes Fields on piano.
The band started to attract attention and Barnes was by this time considered the best alto saxophonist in New Orleans. The Tuxedo Jazz Band offered to give them work if they’d change their name to the Young Tuxedo Jazz Band, which they did.
He left the Young Tuxedos in 1922 for a job with the great Kid Rena, which was followed by a year with the Maple Leaf Orchestra. In 1923 he joined the Original Tuxedo Jazz Band, led by Papa Celestin and Bebe Ridgely. When Ridgely and Celestin split, Barnes stayed with Celestin and got a chance to record one of his compositions, My Josephine, for Columbia.
His recording with Celestin attracted the attention of King Oliver, who invited him to join his band in 1927- Barnes, Willie Foster and Red Allen left New Orleans together and met up with Oliver in St Louis. He toured with the band as far as New York, but Oliver was unable to make good in New York and his band drifted apart. Duke Ellington wanted to take Oliver’s whole reed section (Omer Simeon, Barney Bigard and Barnes) into his band, but Simeon had already left for Earl Hines and he couldn’t find Barnes, so he got Johnny Hodges instead.
Luis Russell recommended Barnes to Jelly Roll Morton and he joined the Red Hot Peppers in 1928- they worked around New York and did some touring, mostly on the East Coast, and there were some Victor recordings with this band in 1928. Barnes’ soprano sax solo on Deep Creek is breathtaking, a classic example of his New Orleans music can be simultaneously delicate and swinging. This particular version of the Red Hot Peppers broke up in mid-1929 after an unsuccessful road trip, and Barnes jobbed around New York.
Barnes rejoined Oliver in 1931- the King was working in the midwest, booked by a promoter out of Wichita- the band was not doing well and Barnes left at yearend to return to New Orleans. He organized a band around Lake Charles LA featuring Nellie Lutcher on piano, DeDe Pierce on trumpet and Chester Zardis on string bass.
He kept the band going for two years until he was sent for by King Oliver in 1934. He stayed with Oliver for a year, functioning as the band’s bookkeeper in addition to his musical chores. Barnes kept a daily diary in which he recorded not only his thoughts but how much money he made from each job.
The first two weeks of March, 1935, for example, provide a glimpse of the ordeal the Oliver band went through. Dates are listed on the left, each musician’s pay is listed on the right. White jobs are denoted with a W, N indicates a negro audience, a B indicates a broadcast.
1 Gadsden AL N .30
3 Columbus GA N .25
4 Columbus GA BN 3.00
5 Moultrie GA N 1.00
6 St Augustine GA N 1.50
7 Daytona Beach N 3.00
8 Lakeland FL N 2.00
9 Tampa FL N 1.00
11 St Petersburg N 2.00
12 Sanford FL N 1.50
13 Melbourne FL N 1.00
14. Melbourne FL N 1.00
15 W Palm Beach N 3.00
16 Vero Beach W 3.53
Barnes stuck it out with the King until June. 1935, then returned to New Orleans, where he worked with Butler Rapp at the Budweiser, then spent a bout three years at the LaVida, a taxi dance hall, under the leadership of Kid Howard, and he worked later under Howard’s leadership at the Palace Theater.
In September 1942 Barnes enlisted in the Navy. He was stationed initially with the crack band at the Algiers Naval Station. In August 1945 he was transferred to the Navy Music School in Washington DC where he attained the rank of Musician First Class.
When he returned from the service he rejoined Papa Celestin, who was enjoying renewed popularity as part of the New Orleans Revival. He took advantage of his GI Bill benefits to attend barber college and cooking school.
Barnes moved to Los Angeles in 1951 and spent several years outside music, working as a janitor for the Board of Education and as a substitute letter carrier. He began working a little with the New Orleans expatriates in California by the later 1950s, appearing at jazz club sessions with Johnny St Cyr, Alton Purnell, Mike Delay and others.
Barnes returned to New Orleans in 1960, just as the New Orleans Revival was gaining steam- he recorded with Kid Thomas and under his own leadership for Icon, with the Love-Jiles Ragtime Orchestra for Riverside, and he worked at Preservation Hall with a number of groups.
Polo was called back to California in 1961 to work with the Young Men of New Orleans at Disneyland. The band included Mike Delay, trumpet; Alton Redd, drums; Harvey Brooks, piano and Johnny StCyr, banjo. A highlight of this period came in 1962 when he appeared in Disneyland After Dark, when the group included Louis Armstrong and Kid Ory. The concert, the only time Armstrong and Ory were reunited after the 1940s, has been issued on DVD by Disney.
Barnes returned to New Orleans for good in 1964, though he had a hard time getting back in the rotation at Preservation Hall. He worked and toured regularly in the Percy Humphrey band during the early 1970s- this was a fine group including Percy and Earl Humphrey and Sing Miller, but it was not recorded other than on an elusive LP for the Japanese DAN label.
After Percy Humphrey was promoted to the main Preservation Hall unit following DeDe Pierce’s death, Barnes joined the Kid Thomas band, though he also spent significant time out of music, recovering from hand injuries suffered when he tangled with a power mower.
It was fun watching Barnes during this period as he looked really cute entertaining the crowd. He was a really dignified looking elderly man, with wire-rimmed glasses that made him look like a preacher or a professor, and then he’d leap around on stage demonstrating how to ball the jack, looking for all the world like he’d taken leave of his senses.
In 1973, Polo was booked for a number of jobs in Europe, including the one where the current CD was recorded. He had a good time playing with various local groups and made a number of recordings.
Barnes continued to work at Preservation Hall, retiring shortly before his death in 1981.
Paul Barnes was a wonderful musician, bringing great delicacy to his playing. He had an unparalleled background in music including spells with both Morton and Oliver, something very few musicians could claim. We’re glad to feature him on a new session which has never been issued in the US.