What can one say upon learning that we have lost the great Von Barlow? Quite a lot, as it turns out, but it takes time to figure out just the right words. Von was a pillar of this community, and not just in the metaphoric sense of the word. He was a physical structure, elegant and stylish and strong; he bore the load of thousands of pounds’ worth of men and women who owe him a debt that cannot be expressed in mere dollars and cents. More like rare jewels and precious metals.
I count myself among those people. Barlow was the first drummer I saw with my own eyes. My uncle took me to my first jazz concert back in 1991. Trumpeter Longineu Parsons was working the Jazz Festival at the (recently demolished, for no good reason) Jacksonville Landing, and Barlow was the drummer that night. I am happy to say that both those men would later become two of my closest friends in this business, but I am sad to say that one of them is no longer here.
Barlow was a fixture at all the hip spots, either as a performer or hawking his patented “Clix Stix,” which gave the common man access to some of the percussive effects he developed in the course of a career that ran close to 60 years. He worked the festival countless times, in countless settings, and joined its Hall of Fame in 2007. He even performed at Woodstock, backing O.C. Smith, but their set didn’t make it into the movie. That really sucks.
He may be best known for his Sunday sessions at the Casbah, which remains one of the most unique live music settings you’ll find anywhere in this era. For more than a decade, that spot was the proving ground for young musicians from JU, UNF, FSCJ, Douglas Anderson and elsewhere. They would gather around their hookahs and Turkish coffee, cases in hand, just waiting for their chance to get that work on heads like “Cherokee” or “A Night in Tunisia.” If they could hang, especially on the meteoric tempos he preferred, bragging rights were earned, stroke accumulated. The smart ones brought a date, because if there was ever an opportunity to show off for a girl, that was it. I used to lug a five-pound antique tape recorder to Barlow’s sets; that later evolved into microcassettes, digital recorders and smart phones, and I’ll cherish that stuff like the treasures they are.
I’ve always told everyone that Sundays at the Casbah are probably the best, most consistently interesting date nights in the region. That is still true, although I would add the monthly appearances at Prohibition Kitchen by the Raisin Cake Orchestra to that list now. Probably every serious girlfriend I ever had got to see Barlow play at least once, and often much more, and each one got a sample of his own quirky charisma. I still have a couple of the “Free Hugs” coupons he would give out, a gimmick since adopted by Kelly Green for her Sunday sessions up in New York.
When I heard about his death, these were the moments that first came to mind (and the tears followed close behind): Sarah Whitlock and I, watching Barlow and co. play on my 28th birthday—the last show we ever saw together, and the last memory I have of the person I used to be. Time goes by so slowly, but time can do so much, as they say. My favorite such moment involved a brilliant ginger dame who can’t stand me any more, but it was epic for a couple of years. We sat at the closest table, so close you could almost see the notes as they jumped out of the bell of the saxophone. Speaking with Barlow during the break, he offered up what she later said was the greatest compliment she ever received: “You’re like a sugar cube with legs!” How do you compete with that? You can’t. Don’t even try.
For years, Barlow led the trio that played at Casbah every Sunday night. That group still plays there, every Sunday night, with pianist Jonah Pierre holding down that back corner where Barlow’s drums were a fixture for so long. Tenor saxophonist Eric Riehm and bassist/vocalist Lawrence Buckner filled out that classic trio, which was, at its peak, the single finest jazz group that ever existed in the state of Florida. That covers a lot of ground, a lot of musicians who also played with Barlow.
Barlow was an old man; he was an old man for a long time, so his death comes as no great surprise. He must have been close to 80, although his spirit remained youthful to the end. Still, though, it’s a shock. It’s devastating, and it closes the book on one of our city’s truly great stories. If you ever met him, then you understand. Even if you never did, you still understand. I assume that he’ll be buried in the captain’s hat that he wore everywhere, but if not, it surely deserves a place of honor somewhere that we can salute it and honor his memory, forever. RIP.