Saxophonist Rahsaan Barber has played with some of the greats. At Carolina, he’s sharing his passion for jazz and other musical genres with students.
Music was a family affair for saxophonist, composer and music educator Rahsaan Barber. His grandmother was a talented pianist who played classical music as well as gospel and ragtime. His older brother played saxophone and Barber’s twin brother chose trombone.
But money was tight growing up in Nashville. When it came time to decide what instrument to play, Barber settled on saxophone since there was already one in the house and his mother wouldn’t have to buy another instrument.
“It felt very natural to go into music,” said Barber, an assistant professor of jazz studies and saxophone in UNC-Chapel Hill’s department of music. “When you understand the power of music, it brings out a passion.”
Barber has been an in-demand saxophonist because of his mastery of a range of styles, including jazz, blues, funk, classical, fusion, soul, Latin and world music.
In the jazz world, he has performed with Branford Marsalis, Christian McBride and Brian Blade. In other genres, he has accompanied an eclectic assemblage that includes the Spanish Harlem Orchestra, Gregg Allman, The Four Tops, the Temptations, funk master Bernie Worrell and pop stars Kelly Clarkson and Meghan Trainor.
His depth is due in large part to his extensive studio work in Nashville.
“You have to develop a really flexible set of skills,” Barber said. “On Monday, I might get a call to play on a Lionel Richie recording. And on Tuesday, I might get a call to play on a Kid Rock record.”
Barber has five albums, including his most recent, “Mosaic,” a double-disc of original works released with trumpeter Nathan Warner and trombonist Roland Barber, his twin brother.
Inspiration for his music often comes from things happening in the world.
The song “Breonna Taylor (How Many More)” seeks to acknowledge the grief, sadness and injustice surrounding the death of the Black medical worker killed in 2020 during a police raid in Louisville, Kentucky.
Barber has an undergraduate degree in music from Indiana University, a master’s in jazz performance from the Manhattan School of Music and expects to finish his doctorate from the University of Memphis in May. He has taught extensively at the college level for more than a decade.
At Carolina, Barber teaches jazz saxophone and oversees the Jazz Band. Many of his students are pursuing double majors. “They’re really great students who often are learning to commit the sort of investment to music that they’ve already demonstrated in academics,” Barber said.
Jazz as an art form has a complicated cultural history. As an educator, Barber said he works to shine a light on the genre’s narratives that aren’t well understood as well as what it takes to become a professional jazz artist.
“The ability for me to truly share this in an authentic way has made this place feel much more like a home than I’ve ever experienced within the walls of academia,” said Barber, who joined the Carolina faculty in 2020.
Barber has wowed audiences at many well-known venues, including Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium, Lincoln Center, the Kennedy Center and the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture.
He’ll never forget the 2019 Smithsonian performance of a suite by composer Darrell Grant celebrating the life of civil rights activist Ruby Bridges, recalling that “the weight and enormity of musically telling that tale in that space was just a tremendously powerful experience.”
On a lighter note, it was game, set, match when Barber, a lifelong tennis player, joined Kelly Clarkson’s band to kick off the 2018 U.S. Open Tennis Championships in New York. After the gig, Barber was escorted to the press box and a front-row seat to watch sisters Venus and Serena Williams, as well as Rafael Nadal, play.
“I couldn’t talk,” Barber said. “I was so excited.”
By Pamela Babcock
Enjoy a video of Barber performing with his brother at the Nashville Jazz Workshop.
Read more stories in Carolina Arts & Sciences magazine.