Doing my job

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April 4, 2005 // UPDATED 1:53 pm - April 26, 2007
By: Jeremy Stratton
Jeremy Stratton

Alex Barber, Jr.
Freelance Musician
9th Street & Nicollet Mall

The lunchtime crowd passed happily by the Downtown Target store as the slow, bluesy notes of the Chillites' "Betcha by Golly Wow" floated out of Alex Barber, Jr.'s saxophone. Both the entertainer and his audience seemed pleased with the 65-degree weather; it was Barber's first day on the job, so to speak, since the weather turned last year. He's glad that he and the good weather are back.

Barber said he volunteers at the Hennepin County Workhouse, playing "church music" for folks on lock-down. "I like to let them know that just 'cause they're in jail doesn't mean too much," Barber said.

After all, the 56-year-old learned to play and read music in Stillwater State Prison more than 30 years ago. Now, there aren't many instruments he can't play, Barber said. He used to play guitar and harmonica on the mall, but switched to the horn to beat the bus noise.

"They can't drown this out," Barber said, as he launched into Nat "Cannonball" Adderly's "Work Song."

Barber serenades the mall during the day, and Hennepin Avenue at 6th Street by night, "when everybody's drinking and stuff,' he said. "They'll give you the shirt off their back when they're drinking."

Barber is not getting rich Downtown, he said. He declined to give a best-day total, but said he's doing well if he gets $20.

"It's a lot of this," he said, pointing to a handful of change in his horn-case. A few passersby dropped change as he played. One woman graciously asked Barber to face south as he played, because his good-but-loud chops shake the windows of her mall-facing office.

"She asked me last year; I just forgot," Barber said after apologizing. "She gave me 20 bucks to face the other way!"

The police asked him not to play about two years ago, Barber said, but they didn't give him a 20. "They told me I needed a license," he said, adding that he got a piece of paper from the city saying he didn't.

Others occasionally tell him to "get a job!" Barber said. "There are all different types of people."

He likes that his job is volatile.

"I don't like nothing predictable," Barber said. "When I don't want to play, I don't have to, and nobody can tell me not to play when I want to."

Barber said he plays as much as four hours a day, and then he might go home and play some more on the keyboard, guitar and other instruments he has in his South Minneapolis home. Barber doesn't have recordings for sale.

"I tell people, if they want to hear me play, come down here." Some have asked him to play parties, he said, but Barber doesn't gig regularly. Ultimately, he plays to make people happy.

"If I can take folks away from their troubles, just for a minute" Barber trailed off and then blew into his horn - the Chillites again - body stretching up to meet the high notes, eyes closed to the passing pedestrians.

Look for Barber on Nicollet Mall or call him at 670-8463 if you'd like him to play at a party.