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Bill Barber, 87, pioneer in melding of tuba, jazz

WASHINGTON -- Bill Barber, a musician who helped refashion the jazz tuba from its predictable oom-pah passages to suit the complex melodies and rhythms of Miles Davis and other postwar jazz modernists, died June 18 at his home in Bronxville, N.Y., at age 87. He had congestive heart failure.

A fixture of many early jazz bands, the tuba was largely reduced to a jazz relic by the early 1930s as sound technology improved. The upright bass took the place of the booming brass instrument.

Yet a core of post-World War II arrangers, notably Gil Evans, admired the tuba's tone color possibilities. They advocated its use in small jazz groups more as a melodic instrument than for any rhythmic pace keeping.

The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz credited Mr. Barber, who took a central role in Evans's experiments in sound with trumpeter Davis, as probably the first tuba player "to take solos in a modern jazz style and to participate in intricate ensemble passages."

Harvey Phillips, an emeritus music professor at Indiana University and a leading tuba player since the 1950s, wrote this year in the journal of the International Tuba Euphonium Association that Mr. Barber "is a legend to me and many others for having pioneering the interpretive styles and phrasing of the tuba in modern American jazz and for helping define the variety of roles the tuba can play in other music disciplines."

John William Barber was born May 21, 1920, in Hornell, N.Y., in the Finger Lakes region.

His music career began when his grade-school band needed a tuba player. "The bandmaster said it would make me big and strong, but that hasn't happened yet," he told the British publication Jazz Journal International in 1993.

After attending the prestigious Interlochen music camp in Michigan, he entered New York's Juilliard School of music but left in 1942 with a dozen musician friends to join the Army during World War II.

When speaking of his experiences in General George S. Patton Jr.'s Seventh Army band in Europe, he liked saying, "I never killed anyone with my tuba."

After the war, he performed with the Kansas City Philharmonic Orchestra and other symphonic groups.

Dismissing his orchestral pay as "crab apples and ice water," Mr. Barber won a coveted spot in 1947 playing with the cliche-busting big band of Claude Thornhill.

The Thornhill group was a novelty -- a traditional swing band with two French horns and a tuba that gave it an ethereal and romantic sound.

Although not a huge commercial success, the orchestra had a terrific reputation among musicians and critics.

Evans was an arranger for the band and worked with Miles Davis to reproduce the Thornhill sound with a minimum of instrumentation. Out of this collaboration came the dozen recordings with Davis' nonet, or nine-piece band, that made up the 1949 "Birth of the Cool" release and is often regarded as a high mark in the era's musical creativity.

Mr. Barber was featured on "Birth of the Cool" and later Davis albums such as "Blue Miles," "Miles Ahead," "Porgy and Bess," and "Sketches of Spain." He stood out on the 1957 Leonard Feather and Dick Hyman release "The Hi-Fi Suite" for his solo on "Woofer" and also played on recordings led by saxophonists Gigi Gryce, John Coltrane, and Gerry Mulligan (another Thornhill veteran).

Mr. Barber played with arranger Pete Rugolo's band and the experimental Eddie Sauter-Bill Finegan outfit in the early 1950s while holding down a three-year nighttime job playing in the pit band of the Broadway show "The King and I."

By the early 1960s, Mr. Barber settled into a full-time career as a high school music teacher on Long Island. He continued to perform, often with the now-defunct Goldman Band, a historic concert group, as well as regional symphony orchestras.

In 1992, he participated in Mulligan's Carnegie Hall concert called "Rebirth of the Cool" that paid homage to the original "Birth of the Cool" release. The group toured internationally and issued an album.

About that time, he told Jazz Journal International about his varied career: "I did all sorts of jobs and strolled the tables in German and Italian restaurants playing the tuba. Lots of musicians do these sort of jobs, and when you work with someone you know, it's a case of 'I won't tell anyone you were here, if you don't tell anyone I was here.' "

Mr Barber leaves his wife of 60 years, Dora Aloi of Bronxville; three children, John Barber of Coventry, R.I., William Barber of Manhattan, N.Y., and Jill Segarra of Bronxville; nine grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.