John William Barber (May 21, 1920 – June 18, 2007), known as Bill Barber or Billy Barber, is considered by many to be the first person to play tuba in modern jazz. He is best known for his work with Miles Davis on albums such as Birth of the Cool, Sketches of Spain and Miles Ahead.
Barber was born John William Barber in Hornell, New York, near Rochester, in 1920. He started playing tuba in high school and studied at the Juilliard School of Music. After graduating, he travelled west to Kansas City, Missouri, where he played with the Kansas City Philharmonic and various ballet and theatre orchestras.
He joined the United States Army in 1942 and played in Patton’s 7th army band for three years. Bill is quoted as often telling his family “I never killed anybody with my Tuba”. After the war, he started playing jazz, joining Claude Thornhill’s big band where he became friends with Al Langstaff trombone player and Gil Evans and Gerry Mulligan in 1947. Barber was one of the first tuba players to play in a modern jazz style, playing solos and participating in intricate ensemble pieces.
Barber became a founding member of Miles Davis’s nonet in 1949 in what became known as the Birth of the Cool recording sessions. He then worked in theatre pit orchestration of The King and I, Paradiso and the City Center Ballet before joining up with Davis and Gil Evans in 1957 to record albums such as Sketches of Spain, Miles Ahead and Porgy and Bess. Barber also played on John Coltrane’s album Africa/Brass.
Barber completed a master’s degree from the Manhattan School of Music and became an elementary school music teacher at Copiague, New York. He continued to play where possible including with the Goldman Band. In 1992, he recorded and toured with a nonet led by Gerry Mulligan, reworking material from Birth of the Cool. From 1998 to 2004 he was part of The Seatbelts, New York musicians who played the music of the Japanese anime Cowboy Bebop. He died of heart failure in June 2007 in Bronxville, New York.
His granddaughter is filmmaker Stephanie Barber.
With Art Blakey
With Bob Brookmeyer
With Kenny Burrell
With John Coltrane
With Miles Davis
With Gil Evans
With Urbie Green
With Gigi Gryce
With Slide Hampton
With Pete Rugolo