Barber, Patricia

Barber, Patricia
▪ 2002

      She rose from Chicago cult performer to international jazz star, but Patricia Barber's rise was slow and far from steady. On one opening night in 1984 at a small club on the city's fashionable Gold Coast, only two people showed up. “A year later there were lines of people around the block waiting to get in,” says Barber, and that six-nights-a-week gig stretched into eight years. Her audience grew in the 1990s when she began performing her own subtle, sophisticated songs and her arrangements of modern pop tunes; she also recorded four albums showcasing her originals. For her sixth album, Nightclub, Barber returned to interpreting familiar standard songs in her intimate yet dramatic style. The compact disc became a jazz best-seller, spending eight weeks among Billboard's top five jazz albums in 2001. Barber expanded her fame with months of touring clubs, concerts, and jazz festivals in North America, Europe, and Israel.

      Barber, the daughter of two musicians, was born on Nov. 8, 1955, in Lisle, Ill. She began taking classical piano lessons when she was six years old. She grew up in Illinois and Iowa, majored in classical music and psychology at the University of Iowa, and initially resisted becoming a jazz musician as “a stupid thing to do for a smart woman.” But jazz proved an irresistible lure, and in 1979, a year after graduation, she migrated to Chicago, where she scuffled for work for five years, sometimes surviving on a hot-dog diet. Her break came with that 1984 booking at the Gold Star Sardine Bar, where the club owner insisted that Barber sing and play only standards. The intimate quality of her music became evident, as she often chose slow tempos for the familiar songs that she sang quietly, over her lyrical, Bill Evans-influenced piano playing. She continually added new material to her repertoire. She also borrowed money from her sister to record her first album, which she sold from the bandstand.

      With her early 1990s move to the Green Mill, a jazz club in a former Chicago speakeasy, she began expanding her horizons, adding unusual selections, from 11th-century Gregorian chants to Santana and Joni Mitchell. Barber began writing songs too, setting poems of E.E. Cummings and Maya Angelou to music and also writing her own lyrics. Songs of hers, including “Touch of Trash” and “Postmodern Blues,” revealed veins of ironic humour, melancholy, and whimsy; she began expressing her own worried vision of today's “materialistic” society in song. Dissatisfied with the way a major label handled her second album, Barber began producing her own recordings, using her own loyal musicians, for a small local label. Against all odds, Barber's discs Café Blue (1994), Modern Cool (1998), and Companion (1999) spread her reputation beyond Chicago. When a major label began distributing her albums, sales shot up. Despite the hit status of Nightclub and her increased time on the road, Barber remained based in Chicago and still sang regularly at the Green Mill.

John Litweiler

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Universalium. 2010.

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