Why veteran saxophonist Eddie Barefield sees little future for jazz
New York — Eddie Barefield has been in the music business for over 50 years, and he still practices his saxophone every day. ''I just want to play my horn,'' he'll say, and then, almost in the same breath, he'll declare that there's no future for jazz, that it's all over.
But then he goes right back to his saxophone anyway.
What does it all mean? Here's Barefield, a man who has done just about everything a musician could hope to do - he's seen it all, traveled to Europe and South America, played with many of the top names in jazz, like Louis Armstrong, Cab Calloway, Ella Fitzgerald, and Duke Ellington - and he's never had to take a job outside his chosen field and first love, music. At the moment, Barefield has one of the best gigs in town, he's the featured clarinetist in the hit musical revue ''One Mo' Time.''
Yet he firmly states: ''After bop was the end of jazz. Then nothing happened. Music got too complicated for the layman - it became musicians' music. The government killed all the dance music - jazz used to be dance music. They put a tax on the ballrooms, and the ballrooms closed down.
''People didn't dance for about 10 years, and then they started doing the rock and roll stuff. Now music isn't saying much of anything. It doesn't take any knowledge to play it. Where does jazz go from here? It's finished, it's all finished. Us old middle-of-the-roaders are holding on and playing, but it's gone.''
A lot of young musicians would disagree with Barefield, but then again, they have not seen the development of jazz firsthand the way Eddie has. He has watched it pass from one phase to another, has seen how things were and how they are now. Even though jazz seems to be in the throes of a major revival, Eddie still maintains that it'll never be like the good old days.
''When this music started in the '20s,there were bands playing every night in the ballrooms, and road bands would come in and stay a couple of months. ''You could sit and listen to a 15-piece band all day and all night for 50 cents. The bands would start on Friday and play right through the weekend.
''Since 1940 I've been stationed right here in New York. I've sacrificed my jazz to work in the (orchestra) pits and on the radio stations and played shows and all that, and believe me that's a sacrifice, if you want to play jazz. And I did that to make a living because it's better than working in the post office. But in order to make it big playing jazz, you have to do what Dizzy (Gillespie) and those guys did - you have to run all over the world, all your life. And the economy has killed that, because traveling is so expensive.''
So Eddie never made that big name for himself, but he's had a lot of musical experience and enjoyment in his life. He started at an early age.
''My mother bought me an alto sax for Christmas, and I took it all apart. I wanted to see how it worked.''
And Eddie certainly found out how it worked! It wasn't long before he was traveling across the Midwest, playing his horn. When he was 24, he accepted an offer to join Cab Calloway's band - that was in 1933. From those days until now, Barefield has never stopped playing.
''I've arranged for a lot of big bands - Fletcher Henderson, Cab Calloway. I've written a lot of Cab's music for the past 40 years.''
In addition, he conducted the orchestra for Ella Fitzgerald after Chick Webb died, and he was the musical director for the original Broadway production of ''Streetcar Named Desire.''
''For the past 20 years or so I've been doing the same thing - conducting shows, free-lancing, playing every summer in Europe at the jazz festival in Nice. The big bands broke up in about 1941, then I went into radio. I was a staff member and arranger of the ABC Orchestra, and I worked for the 'Endorsed by Dorsey' program on W.O.R.''
He becomes thoughtful. ''But now I've gotten to the age where I just want to stay home and practice.''
Life continues to be good to Eddie - his engagement with ''One Mo' Time'' is a steady one, and yet gives him time to play a few gigs around New York. Then he goes home to his house in the Bronx and to his wife, Connie Harris, a modern dancer who has appeared in 35 films. Eddie has lived in the same place for 36 years and plans to stay there.
''It's been a great life in music. My mother always said to me, 'Son, if you want to be somebody, do something!' Well, I try. Happiness is a matter of thought. You can think any thought you want at any time. You can change it - you are the master of that. You can be unhappy in a castle and be happy in a desert, so make up your mind.''
But Eddie holds his ground when it comes to the music scene today. ''There are a lot of good young musicians today, but they have no place to get experience. I feel sorry for them - a musician has to be able to do everything now - the symphony man is out there trying to play a Broadway show, or do studio work, but there isn't even any studio work any more.''
So why does Eddie Barefield still play?
''I like to play. I've never been able to satisfy my own self as a player.''