The Voices of Danny Barker
Danny Barker is known primarily as a jazz musician who became a beloved cultural icon in his native New Orleans, but he was also a master storyteller and writer. His storytelling legacy has been viewed as belonging primarily to an oral paradigm, but he was also a writer, researcher, and historian who contributed to modernist African American literature and advocated for black subjectivity in jazz historical narrative. This study examines Barker's multivocal, multifarious storytelling practice, focusing on its dynamic bridging of the personal and the political, its context within black history and culture, and its contributions to both jazz history and historiography. His storytelling was informed by oral and written traditions as well as independent research, and he often blended self-telling with African American history and folklore, employing them in ever-shifting configurations. Like other figures of the Harlem Renaissance and the black arts movement, Barker explored themes related to migration and border crossing, dualism and multiplicity, and racial performance. My thesis examines certain "voices," to use his term, he used to express complex ideas about the black experience, from the menacing shadow of the minstrel mask to the signifying figures of the trickster and badman. Barker's facility with subtle shape-shifting through storytelling engendered a mystique that followed him after death. The knowing but unknowable storyteller was his ultimate role, one he developed over decades of practice. This study examines the context, craft, and politics at work in Barker's storytelling, and the aim is twofold: first, to foster a greater understanding of his many roles and cultural contributions, and, second, to advance in scholarship Barker's ideas about black perspectives and narratives in jazz history.