b. 8 July 1905, Vicksburg, Mississippi, USA, d. 23 April 1940, Natchez, Mississippi, USA. Barnes studied clarinet and saxophone before deciding to form his own band in 1926. At first he led only a quartet but this expanded into a bigger band. Barnes and his Royal Creolians played mostly in the Chicago area but also appeared in New York. In the 30s the Royal Creolians were one of the best of the Midwest and south west territory bands and enjoyed considerable popularity. The band grew in size during the swing era and in 1939 returned to Chicago for an engagement at the city’s Savoy Ballroom. On tour in April 1940 the band reached Natchez, Mississippi, for a dance date at the Rhythm Club. The building was built of sheet steel and decorated inside with dried Spanish moss. To avoid people sneaking in without paying, all exit doors were kept locked and the windows barred. The front door was the only way in - or out. This night, a fire started and the hall’s ventilation system, a fast-running fan, caused flames and smoke to spread rapidly. Reports describe how Barnes tried to calm the panic by keeping the band playing, but approximately 200 people died, including Barnes and the band, save only the bass player and drummer. The band made few records and these offer only a glimpse of the qualities that made it popular for so many years. Sadly, it is the manner of the band’s passing, rather than its music, that keeps its memory alive in jazz history books.
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