A man with attitude – and talent
Wellington musicians gather on Sunday to honour a pianist and former music teacher whose name became a byword among his peers for his exacting professionalism.
Long-time Titahi Bay resident Bob Barcham, 82 tomorrow, began playing professionally in the late 1940s and was still doing regular gigs with the X7s dance band as recently as late last year.
He last played in Auckland earlier this month at the 80th birthday celebrations of his old mate Graeme Saker, a fellow member of the band that played at Wellington’s famous Majestic Cabaret in the 1950s.
‘‘I drove up for Graeme’s birthday and ended up playing for the afternoon with the Vintage Jazz Band, the leader of which [trumpeter Lindsay Meech] is one of my ex-pupils,’’ Barcham said.
‘‘A vintage jazz band isn’t my metier, but they want me back. They were a bit impressed, I think, to see this doddery old guy get up and play.
‘‘I think I play slightly better than most of them,’’ he added mischievously.
Name a musical instrument, and chances are Barcham has played it: piano accordion, cello, double bass, E-flat bass (a brass instrument) and trumpet, to name a few. He even toured with the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra as a percussionist.
There’s no doubt though about his preferred instruments.
‘‘If people ask me what instruments I play, I say the piano and the organ.’’
It was as a pianist that he became a fixture at the Majestic Cabaret during its golden era in the 1950s and 60s. His services were also in demand for recording sessions and he toured with artists as diverse as the British comedian Jimmy Edwards and Welsh torch singer Shirley Bassey. Barcham simultaneously pursued a career as a music teacher, tutoring an average 80 pupils a week for 40 years.
Though he’s an entertaining raconteur with a dry sense of humour, he admits no one ever hired him for his personality.
He recalls the leader of the band at the Majestic, the late Don Richardson, once told him the other musicians didn’t like his attitude.
‘‘So I said, ‘ How’s my playing?’ He said, ‘It’s always impeccable’. So I said, ‘ Well, that’s all you need to worry about’.’’
He had a long and close professional relationship with Richardson, but it was often prickly.
Barcham tells of a time when they didn’t speak for months and a fellow member of the band installed phones on the bandstand so Richardson could bark instructions down the line.
On one fabled occasion, a cabaret patron lurched up to Barcham and asked how he could call a taxi.
Barcham cranked the handle on the phone and handed it to the patron, who found himself talking to an irascible and uncomprehending Richardson.
Barcham laments that most of his musical contemporaries have passed on. He counts himself lucky that he’s not only still alive, having survived a life-threatening cancer, but remains married to Jean, his wife of nearly 63 years.
‘‘That must be a world record in the music trade,’’ he says.
In Sunday’s tribute, organised by the Wellington Jazz Club, the X7s will play original arrangements written by Barcham. The venue is the James Cook Hotel and the performance starts at 5pm.
The piano man: You name it, Bob Barcham will play it – and that goes for the instrument as well as the tune. The musician and teacher will be the subject of a tribute concert by the Wellington Jazz Club this weekend.
Golden days: Barcham playing at the Majestic Cabaret in 1952, alongside Tony Noorts.