Charlie Barnet Biography

Charles Daly Barnet, 26 October 1913, New York City, New York, USA, d. 4 September 1991, San Diego, California, USA. Of all the swing era band leaders, Barnet was the one most able to do as he pleased. Born into a rich New York family, he played piano and reed instruments while still at school and by his teens had decided that he wanted to play jazz. For a number of years he played on ocean-going liners, often as leader, and also paid his dues in numerous bands across the USA. He formed his first mainland big band in 1933 and, on and off, continued to lead a band throughout the swing era. Barnet could afford to indulge his whims and his musical preferences and did so. Although he lived riotously, marrying six times, he adopted high musical standards and refused to compromise on commercial matters. Barnet was also a leading figure in breaking racial taboos in the hiring of black musicians, and as early as 1935 he had a mixed-race band. Over the years, the roster of black artists hired by Barnet includes such distinguished names as Frankie Newton, Peanuts Holland, Clark Terry, Charlie Shavers, Lena Horne, Dizzy Gillespie and Trummy Young.

Although he never matched the huge popular success of Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw and Tommy Dorsey, Barnet had some hit records including ‘Cherokee’, ‘Things Ain’t What They Used to Be’ and ‘That Old Black Magic’. By the 40s Barnet’s was one of the best big bands and he had several more popular records, such as ‘Skyliner’. Adept on several saxophones, Barnet favoured the alto, although it was his use of the soprano that helped to give his band its distinctive sound. His arrangers, notably Billy May and Bill Holman, were particularly gifted, but while Barnet’s devotion to the music of Duke Ellington ensured that he constantly strove for the highest qualities, he rarely attained the Duke’s degree of perfection. By the end of the 40s, Barnet had done all that he wanted in the big band business. He folded his band and became a hotelier. In later years, he periodically formed small groups and big bands for special engagements, usually hiring top-flight musicians such as Conte Candoli, Willie Smith, Nat Pierce, Don Lamond and Al Porcino, all of whom were given free rein to play hard-swinging, big-band jazz. Barnet’s autobiography is a no-stone-unturned account of his wild life.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.

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