Lucien Barbarin, Soulful Trombonist and Link to New Orleans Musical Tradition, Has Died at 63

Jan 31, 2020

Lucien Barbarin, a playfully suave and boisterous trombonist who carried a torch for traditional New Orleans music, most visibly as a featured soloist with Harry Connick, Jr. and a member of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, died on Thursday. He was 63, and lived in Slidell, across Lake Pontchartrain from New Orleans.

The cause was Stage IV prostate cancer, for which Barbarin had been in treatment since 2018.

Barbarin had a full, braying sound that he could deftly turn in any direction — toward murmuring balladry or a rambunctious blare. Forged by the venerable rituals of New Orleans street parades, he was one of our era’s leading exponents of the growly tailgate style. But he remained a modern musician, never boxed in by the traditions he served.

“Every trombone player in New Orleans will say they got something from Lucien,” Ben Jaffe, the creative director of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, tells WBGO. “He was one of the giants of New Orleans music, and I’m not overstating that.”

That towering stature began with a birthright. Barbarin hailed from one of the most storied musical families in a city that takes its musical families seriously: his great-uncle was Paul Barbarin, a drummer who worked in bands led by King Oliver and Luis Russell in the 1920s, later founding and leading the Onward Brass Band. (Looking back one more generation, Paul Barbarin’s father, Isidore, was a member of the Tuxedo Brass Band, which helped hone and launch a hot young cornetist named Louis Armstrong.) 

Among the contemporary New Orleans musicians who voiced their sadness at Lucien Barbarin’s passing were trumpeters Nicholas Payton and Leroy Jones, saxophonist Branford Marsalis — and Connick, who shared pictures of the trombonist in the studio, one year ago.

Lucien Barbarin was born on July 17, 1956 in New Orleans. He grew up in the Lafitte Housing Project in the Sixth Ward, which includes the heart of the storied Tremé neighborhood.

As a small child, he had a formative relationship with great-uncle Paul, who once introduced him to Duke Ellington; by age six, he was playing drums with the Onward Brass Band. He continued as a drummer in school bands, until pivoting toward brass instruments in the fourth grade. He played baritone and tuba for a while, switching to trombone in high school.

In 1970, he joined another family relation — banjoist Danny Barker, a second cousin — as a founding member of the Fairview Baptist Church Brass Band. The group quickly attracted a following in New Orleans, in no small part due to the bravura presence of Leroy Jones. In 1974, after a union dispute, Jones broke off and formed the Hurricane Brass Band, bringing Barbarin along. Around the same time, Barbarin got a steady gig on Bourbon Street, at a club called The Famous Door. 

In recent years, Barbarin was a fixture at The Palm Court on Decatur Street, along with peers like Jones and another spirited trumpeter, Mark Braud. His second album as a leader, from 2000, is credited to Lucien Barbarin and the Palm Court Swingsters. Its high-spirited tone rings clear within moments of the opening track, a Tin Pan Alley tune called “Blues My Naughty Sweetie Gives to Me,” a former vehicle for Sidney Bechet. (Barbarin begins a terrific solo at 0:41, but you should also note the brawny quickness in his rapport with the other horns.)

Barbarin was a cherished member of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, but his first priority as a gigging musician was always with Connick, who featured him not only as a trombone player but also a comic right-hand man. He joined Connick’s band in 1990, appearing on more than a dozen of the singer’s albums, on a succession of world tours, and in at least two Broadway shows. (His illness interfered with the most recent, Harry Connick Jr. — A Celebration of Cole Porter.) He was in the house band for the syndicated talk show Harry during its two-season run, from 2016-18.

Along with his many credits in the Connick discography, Barbarin recorded with Wynton Marsalis, Kermit Ruffins, Dr. Michael White and Wendell Brunious, among others. He also appears, playing himself, in a 2011 episode of Tremé, the HBO series.

Among his survivors are his wife, Sheryl Barbarin; two sons, Robert and Paul; two daughters, Alissa and Darlene; two brothers, Jerry Walker and Charles Barbarin; two sisters, Diane Abram and Angela Barbarin Foy; and seven grandchildren. A third son, Lucien Joseph, died in 2017.

“I think of New Orleans and the music community here, particularly the African American community, as being an ecosystem,” says Jaffe. “And sometimes pieces of that ecosystem fall apart. But when you lose someone like Lucien, it’s like losing a huge part of a glacier. You can’t get it back.”