The Book Cooks
Excerpt from

Oneliness: The Life and Music of Brian Barley
Mark Miller
(Mark Miller/Volumes; Waterloo, Ontario)

[Editor’s Note: Oneliness has no chapters per se. This excerpt is comprised of the first pages of the book.]




Brian Barley died, alone, in a downtown Toronto rooming house on June 8, 1971. He was 28, a doomed figure whose struggles during the previous five years with epilepsy, and with the effects of the medication that he was taking for it, had grown ever more debilitating.

He had worked as recently as three nights earlier, a Saturday, filling in for an evening with the house band at the Hook and Ladder Club of the suburban Beverly Hills Motor Hotel. A job was a job, and Barley, back in Toronto after four years in Montreal, was simply trying to support himself while he renewed his standing in the city where he started his career.

He had left Toronto in 1965 to play clarinet in the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, his studies at the Royal Conservatory of Music, the University of Toronto and the Cleveland Institute of Music complete. He returned toward the end of 1970 as a tenor saxophonist of uncommon determination and direction – uncommon among jazz musicians in Toronto certainly, and indeed at the time in Canada.

His career, however brief, was remarkable in its range, taking him in little more than three years – 1965 to 1968 – from playing on occasion in the Cleveland Orchestra under the distinguished Hungarian conductor George Szell to appearing at Slugs’ in New York with Ornette Coleman’s former drummer Charles Moffett.

He was neither the first musician nor the last to move at an advanced level between the classical repertoire and jazz – or, as he preferred to call it, improvised music. Clarinetist Benny Goodman, for one, had done so in the late 1930s, and trumpeter Wynton Marsalis and pianist Keith Jarrett would do so again, and repeatedly, beginning in the 1980s.

Of course, Goodman, Marsalis and Jarrett were jazz musicians who had ventured into classical music. Barley at first glance was a classical musician who veered into jazz. In fact, he had played both all along, reconciling the uneasy relationship between them in his own, unassuming way.

Ultimately – if “ultimately” is an appropriate adverb with which to qualify so short a career – Barley made a choice. For that he is remembered more by his accomplishments as a jazz musician, quantitatively modest though – again, ultimately – they were, than by his prospects in the classical world.


Barley was just one of too many musicians in the history of jazz who did not live to see their 30th birthdays. Some are legendary figures, notably bassist Jimmy Blanton and trumpeter Booker Little, who died at 23, trumpeter Clifford Brown, guitarist Charlie Christian and bassist Scott LaFaro at 25, trumpeter Fats Navarro at 26, and cornetist Bix Beiderbecke at 28.

The Beiderbecke story is an archetype, in its indulgences and irresponsibility, of a life misspent. But Brown and LaFaro died in automobile accidents, and Little of uremia, a blood disorder. Blanton, Christian and Navarro all succumbed to tuberculosis, an illness in each case exacerbated by the personal and professional exigencies of the jazz musician’s life.

The brevity of their careers is nevertheless belied by the extent of their influence. Blanton first, then LaFaro, redefined the bass in jazz, as did Christian the guitar. Beiderbecke, Navarro, Brown and Little all established stylistic lineages that would be sustained by several generations of younger trumpet players.

Other musicians are remembered simply for their promise, among them the trumpeter Sonny Berman, who died at 21 in 1947, the Swedish clarinetist Stan Hasselgård, at 26 in 1948 after a little more than a year in the United States, and two of Barley’s contemporaries in Chicago, pianist Christopher Gaddy and bassist Charles Clark, each at 24, in 1968 and 1969, respectively.

Barley’s legacy most closely resembles that of the Boston pianist Richard Twardzik, who died at 24 in 1955 of a heroin overdose. Almost all of the recordings on which Twardzik appeared were issued posthumously, including half of an LP as a leader, a full album with Serge Chaloff and live bootlegs with Charlie Parker and Chet Baker – altogether enough to identify him, if only in retrospect, as a musician of far more than mere promise, but also as a musician who, like Barley, was too personal, perhaps even too idiosyncratic and certainly too little heard, to have been influential in his lifetime.


Thus Brian Barley in death. In life, he was part of the same cohort, born in the early 1940s, that included such noted American and European tenor saxophonists as George Adams, Peter Brötzmann, Billy Harper, Frank Lowe, Evan Parker, Pharoah Sanders, Alan Skidmore and Lew Tabackin, almost all of whom, Tabackin notably excepted, emerged in their twenties – the mid-to-late 1960s – at a point in the evolution of jazz beyond bebop. In several instances, well beyond.

By the time Barley had made his only LP as a leader in June 1970, a Radio Canada International transcription intended not for commercial release but for circulation by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation to radio stations, libraries and embassies abroad, Sanders, for one,  had contributed significantly to John Coltrane’s final albums, from Ascension in 1965 through Expression in 1967. Brötzmann had recorded his fearsome Machine Gun with Parker and others in 1968, and Parker himself was two weeks away from establishing an early touchstone of his own, The Topography of the Lungs.

Sanders had played rhythm and blues in San Francisco before he joined Coltrane in New York. Coltrane himself also had a background in rhythm and blues, as did Albert Ayler, Ornette Coleman and several other members of the burgeoning American avant-garde. Parker in London, meanwhile, and Brötzmann in Wuppertal, West Germany, took the Americans’ lead as a starting point before setting out in suitably emboldened directions of their own.

Barley followed a much different path, pursuing a career in the classical world as a clarinetist, first with the National Youth Orchestra in Toronto, in passing with the Cleveland Orchestra and finally with the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra. It was a career that seemed all but assured.

Even though he had also played jazz since his mid-teens, he did not make it the sole focus of his life until the fall of 1966, at which point he was not quite 24. By the measure of Sanders, Brötzmann, Parker and the other saxophonists of his generation who were already making their mark on jazz history, he was late to the scene – too late in terms of the few years that were left to him.


Barley’s points of reference when he recorded in 1970 were not unlike those of the most venturesome of his contemporaries. In the brief liner note written for his Radio Canada International transcription by the Montreal journalist Ron Sweetman, he identified his “preferred composers” as Béla Bartók, Duke Ellington, Toru Takemitsu and Iannis Xenakis. His “favourite instrumentalists” were Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane, Eric Dolphy, Sonny Rollins and Archie Shepp.1

Those instrumentalists, saxophonists all, framed a qualified but generally sympathetic appraisal of Barley’s playing by the noted American critic Gary Giddins in 1996 for the Village Voice after the Radio Canada International transcription was finally issued commercially, on CD, as Brian Barley Trio 1970.2

“Barley was no master,” Giddins wrote, “just a gifted player who knew who the masters were. Except for Dolphy, whose signature phrases I fail to hear in his work, his muses inform virtually every decision he makes. His blending and countering of their styles is dynamic: Rollins’s discipline, Coltrane’s zeal, Shepp’s caustic sound, Coleman’s scooped tones and quarter-note pitch. They flash across his solos like patterns of light and shadow.”

Indeed Giddins broke the CD down track-by-track into a log of sightings – Rollins here, Shepp there, “Ornette bleeding into Coltrane” elsewhere.

“In the late ‘60s and the early ‘70s,” he observed, “many saxophonists in and out of big bands overhauled their styles to incorporate the innovations of Coltrane and others. Barley was different. He tried to define a personal music in which all the key influences of the era were absorbed as themes for his variations.”

In this, Barley was following a peculiarly Canadian tradition in jazz, one born of the creative perspective that comes of distance. He found his direction in Montreal, maturing at some remove from the immediacy of the music that was being created in New York by Coleman, Coltrane, Dolphy, Rollins, Shepp and others collectively, and, equally, from the temptation, if not the pressure, to conform to the compelling example of any one of them individually. Instead, as Giddins suggested, he drew on something of each.

No less a Canadian jazz musician than Oscar Peterson had engaged in the same formative process in Montreal two decades earlier when he successfully integrated the prevailing ideas in jazz piano of the day, from boogie-woogie through bebop, into a personal approach – a personal approach perhaps more than an original style – of his own.

That approach, which he complemented with an extraordinary degree of technical virtuosity, made Peterson the most famous Canadian in jazz. But when Giddins tried to find out more about Barley – the CD reissue simply reprinted Ron Sweetman’s notes from the original Radio Canada International transcription – he drew a blank

“A search of periodicals and books,” Giddins wrote, “turned up not a single reference to him outside of discographies.”

At least a search only of American periodicals and books. But Barley’s activities in Montreal, as well as his final appearance and his death in Toronto, were noted in the Canadian jazz magazine Coda, and his was one of the lives documented in the book Jazz in Canada: Fourteen Lives.3

Here, again, distance looms. Giddins concluded that Brian Barley Trio 1970 was “a worthy recovery from a bleak period and a distant shore,” the latter reference a rather poetic allusion to the 450 or so kilometres between New York City and the Canadian border at its closest, and perhaps also an unwitting illustration of the sometimes nearsighted American view of the world.

But Giddins was right. Barley attracted no attention outside of Canada during his lifetime and very little for many years after. Even his interactions with noted American musicians were limited to paths crossed in Montreal with pianist Sadik Hakim during the late 1960s, a few evenings alongside trumpeter Freddie Hubbard in the summer of 1967, and a month or so with drummer Charles Moffett in the fall of 1968.



  1. Ron Sweetman, liner notes, Brian Barley Trio, Radio Canada International RCI 309, 1970.
  2. Gary Giddins, “Lost and found,” Village Voice, February 6, 1996, 62.
  3. Mark Miller, Jazz in Canada: Fourteen Lives (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1982), 211-231.

© 2021 Mark Miller


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