Rahsaan Barber: Nashville’s jazz messenger

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Album cover for "Everyday Magic"

Album cover for “Everyday Magic”

DownBeat magazine, the national bible of what’s up to date in jazz, rarely turns its gaze Nashville’s way. But recently, it made an editor’s pick of Everyday Magic, the new CD by saxophonist and composer Rahsaan Barber. The album and his new Jazz Music City record label are part of Barber’s mission to redefine what the world thinks and knows about Nashville jazz.

Rahsaan Barber and his band drew an overflow crowd at the Nashville Jazz Workshop on a recent Sunday afternoon. Not unusual around these parts for a CD release and a label launch. But this was intended as something more – a coming out party for a new kind of evangelism for Nashville jazz.

“There’s nothing like being supported in your hometown,” Barber says. “It’s exciting. It’s exactly the thing that encourages us most about the record label and about the future of the music and its perception here in Nashville.”


Barber says that perception became a big issue for him after he left Nashville to study and play with masters from New York and other jazz hubs. One particular conversation at a summer festival with a famous trumpet player he declined to name left him nonplussed: “He said, ‘Man be honest there’s not any jazz musicians really playing this music well in Nashville TN. You know?’ And it has stayed with me!”

Barber rattled off his A-list of Music City jazz: “Yeah man, John Birdsong, Beegie Adair, Denis Solee, George Tidwell, Bruce Dudley. Yeah, it’s just a city full of slouches man.”

The famous musician didn’t know these names, and that moment is one inspiration behind Jazz Music City. It is a record label, but not only that. It’s a concert promoter and scene-maker – a vehicle to build ladders to national success.

“We don’t have that YET. But it’s not for lack of talent,” says Barber.


Rahsaan Barber is so passionate about the Nashville jazz community because he was raised in it. His older brother influenced him to pick up the saxophone as a kid, and his TWIN brother Roland, an acclaimed trombone player, has been his virtual shadow on his musical journey.

Rahsaan and Roland perform at the Nashville Jazz Workshop

Rahsaan and Roland perform at the Nashville Jazz Workshop

Rahsaan and Roland even lived in the same room for 24 years – through college and a move to New York, where they earned masters degrees at the Manhattan School of Music.

Rahsaan says, “With so many hours of honing our craft together, both on stage and then just in our shorts and t-shirts in the kitchen working on stuff over at my mom’s when we were growing up – I can’t really put it into words accurately.”

Their household teemed with music. Rahsaan and Roland’s mom is a singer, and their grandmother a classical and gospel pianist. Meanwhile their father, based in Memphis, exposed them to the earthy roots of jazz.

“He said, ‘If you’re going to be serious about music, you have to go to Beale St. with me. You have to get the blues…You have to understand it,’” Rahsaan recalls. Their father even took them into nightclubs when they were barely teenagers.

“And the band’s looking at us like: ‘What are you guys doing here, you know?’ And I remember my dad saying, ‘Okay, you guys need to go up there and sit in with them.’ And we’re going: ‘Hey, wait a minute. Wait a minute. Huh? What?”

And eventually they did just that – there on Beale Street, at countless Nashville jam sessions and ultimately in New York, where they were welcomed and nurtured as emerging artists. Then in 2005, Rahsaan moved back to again make Nashville his home and his musical base. After about five years as an instructor at Belmont University, he recently left the school to focus on his label and his career as an artist.


“Jubilee,” the opening track on the new Everyday Magic album, speaks volumes about what Barber is aiming for. The sound is up to date, reflecting his years of travel and collaboration with masters old and young. And his band of local musicians, all around Barber’s age, represent a new generation, which Barber says is stepping forward and finding common cause with the veterans who have been performing and recording in Nashville for years.

Rahsaan Barber rehearses with vocalist Stephanie Adlington

Rahsaan Barber rehearses with vocalist Stephanie Adlington

“Jazz at its best is a celebration and an acknowledgement of what has been but also a reminder of the imaginative spirit of what can be,” says Barber. “And without both of those segments any scene is going to struggle. And the reason in this town people are saying something’s happening is that both those sides are starting to not just work but work together in many situations.”

Which is why Barber thinks that if he can break through Nashville’s jazz glass ceiling, he’ll be in a great position to bring others along with him.


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