DownBeat magazine has named Rahsaan Barber a rising star among tenor saxophonists. The list is compiled based on votes by international critics that cover jazz. DownBeat, established in 1936 and with a monthly circulation of 70,000, is considered the granddaddy of jazz journalism. It is rare for musicians outside Chicago and New York to be listed. Barber says that despite originating in the South, the jazz music scene is concentrated in northern cities.
In addition to the DownBeat honor, Barber has received a grant in the Jazz Road program from South Arts, a regional arts organization. The program will fund musicians on 31 tours in nine southern states. Over $360,000 will be shared by the musicians. The grant will allow him to tour in New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., Boston and Indianapolis.
In addition to his touring and studio work, Barber has been a solo recording artist since 2005. He has released several albums including Everyday Magic in 2011 and Music and the Night in 2017. Barber, a first-year doctoral student in saxophone performance, says that from the beginning he was always headed toward jazz. His mother took him to jazz camps and concerts that inspired him. In those years, he heard artists like Sonny Rollins, Joe Henderson, Al Grey and Branford Marsalis. His entire family is musical. His grandmother played classical and gospel music, his mother sings and his older brother plays saxophone. His twin brother plays brass. “He and I benefited from having each other around,” Barber said. Barber is a graduate of the Jacobs School of Music at Indiana University and the Manhattan School of Music. He has been one of the centerpieces of the Nashville jazz and studio music scene the past 15 years, including a touring stint with Kelly Clarkson that involved a live performance on the Today Show.
Even with so much jazz in his background, Barber is now studying classical saxophone with Michael Shults at the Rudi E. Scheidt School of Music. He says the experience here has been “awesome.” Having been out of school for 15 years, “I easily feel like the odd man out, but the program has embraced me,” he says. “It is the biggest challenge I have ever taken on, but it allows me to explore the other side of the saxophone.”
Barber is putting a lot of miles on his car. From Nashville, he arrives in Memphis on Monday evening and has classes on Tuesday and Thursday. He leaves class on Thursday, driving somewhere for weekend work. He says, “It is not exactly sustainable. I want to find a better balance that allows me to devote more time to my studies here.” Attending the School of Music on a graduate assistantship, Barber says he is “having a blast” teaching music theory. “I have never been more excited to get out of bed for an early morning class.”