Heads Up! This article is 20 years old.
Mention the name Ron Barber to jazz musicians around Fort Wayne, and you’re likely to elicit a similar reaction: a knowing smile, a nod of the head, and comments like “authentic” and “genuine” delivered with what can only be described as a reverent tone.
“Ron’s contribution to the Fort Wayne jazz scene is immeasurable,” James Baker says of Fort Wayne’s premier jazz pianist, “He’s nothing less than an icon.” Baker is a bassist and a jazz promoter who recently booked Barber to play piano with saxophonist and national recording artist Richie Cole. “Ron can hang with the best, and he’s a sweetheart to boot. He’s a brick with a ‘B’.”
Barber recently celebrated his seventieth birthday, and with over 40 years of playing piano behind him, he is one of the city’s most highly regarded and hardest working musicians. Such high regard comes from a lifetime of setting and achieving important goals. For Barber, those goals went far beyond mastering the piano.
In 1954, Barber received a degree in music education from Jordan College of music at Butler University in Indianapolis. He would never use that degree. After a stint in the army, Barber pursued a degree in engineering.
“I knew early on that the road wasn’t for me,” he says, ” I wanted a career in engineering and a family.”
A job a General Motors in Kokomo followed, and in 1962 he landed a job a Magnavox in Fort Wayne. He raised a family, daughters Betsy and Vickie, and son Brian. Through the years, Barber played as much piano as time would allow, gigging whenever he could. Twelve years ago, he retired from United Technologies where he worked as a marketing product manager.
But long before starting a family, before United Technologies, Magnavox, GM and the Army, Barber gained some important on-the-job training in jazz that would have a profound influence on him, his family, and any musician fortunate enough to land a gig with him. By the time he entered music school in 1952, the bebop movement spearheaded by Parker, Gillespie and Monk had long since supplanted the formulaic swing and was evolving into the progressive jazz sounds typified by West Coast pianist Dave Brubeck. Barber had become fascinated with the harmonic complexities and technical challenges of playing bebop.
“I started out with bebop,” Barber remembers, “it really caught me and turned me on to playing.” Before bebop snared him, Barber experimented with a variety of instruments – bassoon, saxophone – before settling on piano.
While pursuing his studies at Jordan College in the early 50s, a colleague asked him, “do you know enough on that piano to play a job?” Barber didn’t think twice; he answered with a confident ‘yes’ and soon found himself gigging and jamming around the highly charged Indianapolis club scene.
“When I first played in Indy, you went to the gig with no book to go by. You had to know the tunes that guys wanted to play. It was sink or swim. If you knew your stuff, you were asked back. If not well …” That was an important lesson that kept Barber working. “I learned early on that if you go right to the memory bank with a song, you play better. If you know the song you can concentrate on playing jazz, on being creative, rather than just reading.”
Barber’s abilities earned him gigs playing with Hoosier legend Wes Montgomery, whose own star was on the rise.
“I remember thinking, here I am, playing with the best around town,” Barber recalls, “and still I was wondering, how did I get here, and how do I get better?” His answer to such questions was simple: “surround yourself with people who play better than you.”
Today, Barber is one of the better musicians that other players aspire to working with. “We called him ‘The Great Shaheem,” recalls Tim Beeler, his hands outstretched in a mock bow. Beeler is one of many young musicians who worked with Barber during his stay at Hall’s Guesthouse throughout the late 80s and early 90s. “He just knew so much music. He could play anything off the top of his head. We thought he was a jazz god.”
Vocalist Shelly Sanders recalls a conversation with guitarist George Ogg on what it’s like to work with Barber. “One night we realized that Ron hears everything. You can’t fake him out. You always have to be at the top of your game. I can honestly say that I have grown more as a musician in three months playing with Ron. He’ll stretch my ear by setting up intros that make me hear things in a different way than what I’m used to.”
Sanders and Ogg, along with bassist James Baker, vocalist Jamie Wise and trumpeter Dave Sapp, currently share in Barber’s highly successful six-night-per-week run at Club Soda. Barber plays solo piano each Monday and Tuesday. Thursdays through Saturdays feature various combos, including a Nat King Cole piano-bass-guitar trio that gives Barber a chance to sing some of his favorites.
On Friday and Saturday evenings, Barber plays a couple of sets at the Summit Club before heading around the corner to Club Soda. “I tell people I play eight days a week, and that’s hard to do.”
On a typical Wednesday at Club Soda, an eclectic assortment of folks in suits, cocktail dresses, cargo pants and polo shirts are elbow to elbow at the bar. Tables are crowded with listeners lingering over tall pilsner glasses and martinis. Barber waves his hands over the keys of the Packard Grand and gathers a few notes into and indigo introduction. Drummer Steve Smeltzer drops in on ride cymbal, Sanders takes up the mic and the low dirge of “Lover Man” begins to sizzle. Occasionally a couple rises and eases their way to the front of the room where they embrace and melt into the smokey melody.
The last breath of “Lover Man” still hangs in the air as the band leaps into a blistering “Straight No Chaser.” As Barber leans into a solo, he smiles out over his band with an almost childlike look of discovery that seems to say look at what I’ve found. Near the end of his run through the changes, he nods to one of his bandmates as if to announce, “Here you are, it’s yours, see what you can do with it.” Barber and company are happily engaged in what they do best: grafting their own experience onto time-honored melodies and deeply rooted standards.
Barber took that lead-by-example approach when exposing his children to music. “I always kept them surrounded with music, but I never pushed it on them.” Like their father, all three are accomplished and educated musicians. And also like their father, all have pursued careers and interests other than music. Betsy and Brian, the two oldest, both studied music at North Texas State and eventually branched off into commercial art and finance, respectively.
His youngest, Vickie, is a singer who as a child was “so natural I tried not to get her a voice teacher.” Vickie is now raising her own family, and Barber proudly recalls her recent visit when she sat in for a night with him at Club Soda. “Music is still a direct connection for us all. Brian plays piano, and we get together and exchange ideas. It’s a common language we all share.”
Barber likes to spend his free time working around his eight acres of property near Roanoke. “I still enjoy engineering type thinking. I’m building a small house in back, and I’m trying to figure out a type of roof that’s not in the plans. I like creative thought.” And just like jazz, “I like improvising, getting away from the plan, not going by the book.”
Reflecting on his life, Barber leaves no doubt as to his biggest accomplishment: raising his kids to be well rounded in music, business and family. And as for playing piano? “Well, music has been a really good paying hobby.” But despite the self-deprecating view of his musical vocation, Barber’s “hobby” has had an impact and influence on many who share in rewards that are, in a word, immeasurable.