Mich. firefighter's other job saves lives through jazz
By Alex P. Kellogg
Detroit Free Press
DETROIT, Mich. — Doctor, Lawyer, Police Officer, Firefighter — each was a dream career for Stan Barnes as a child.
But a choice was made for him, he says, when he had to help save his two younger brothers from a blaze in his mom's Detroit home at the tender age of 14. The experience defined his life, he says, and a firefighter he became.
"It was a big tragedy for our family," says Barnes, 43, of the fire he survived as a child. "We pretty much lost everything that we had."
Barnes' second career choice was simpler. He loved music. He loved the saxophone, and he was good at it.
So the married father of three and a Farmington Hills firefighter and paramedic for 11 years also is a jazz musician.
Barnes and some friends — a couple of whom filled out his 12-person band at the last minute — expected to play to a packed house at the Millennium Theatre in Southfield on Saturday night. Barnes puts on the annual concert every November and has even raised money for burn victims by selling CDs.
In preparation for the show, he practiced at U-Next Barbershop on 7 Mile between Evergreen and Southfield roads in northwest Detroit. There, amid vintage salon decor such as the swiveling red leather barber chairs, Barnes and his band, Stan Barnes and Friends, practiced for hours a couple of times a week in recent months. The sounds of Charlie Parker bebop and soulful old-school hits by the likes of crooner Frankie Beverly and his band, Maze, slipped out the back door into the alley. Last year, Barnes' concert drew 900 people; in 2005, he raised $2,000 for the Great Lakes Burn Camp, a charity for Michiganders.
The acoustics were "just OK" admits Barnes of the shop, which belonged to the friend of a friend and was the last, best hope for a consistent place to practice before his most important show of the year, he says. "Everyone wanted to turn down the music so we could hear each other, but when you did that, you didn't get the oomph you needed to get into the songs."
The consensus: Keep it loud, and funky.
Barnes, who works out of Fire Station 2 at 12 Mile and Middlebelt, is a unique talent in the Farmington Hills Fire Department, his colleagues say, and one whose warmth brings joy to colleagues and to the elementary school students he regularly speaks to about safety on behalf of the fire department.
"We do have some other really talented people," says the city's deputy fire chief, Kevin Bersche -- but no fireman who's as talented a musician as Barnes, he says. "The saxophone's not all he plays. He plays darn near every instrument."
Barnes says he can fiddle around on the keyboards and drums without embarrassing himself, and plays all saxophones — alto, soprano, tenor — as well as the bassoon. He has independently released two albums he's recorded in his home, most of them original work. His first CD, released in 2005, is called "Dedicated to the Love of Music." The second — "G522 The Fruits," making reference to the Bible's Galatians 5:22 — came out earlier this year. When the band practiced at the barbershop, Barnes' three sons — Jordan, 11; Brandon, 8, and Kavan, 4 — usually sat in the back room listening in or watching television.
They look up to their dad, and not just because he stands over 6 feet tall.
"He's a real nice person and has a good sense of humor. I dance like my dad, too," said Jordan, a seventh-grader at Power Middle School, gleaming with pride.
Among Stan Barnes' favorite jazz saxophonists are Gerald Albright, who also plays base guitar and keyboards, and alto saxophonist David Sanborn, a smooth jazz, pop-jazz and fusion aficionado, whose style Barnes, like many, calls "white soul."
Barnes says he grew up listening to his mom and dad separately spinning records by iconic figures such as Louis Armstrong, Dean Martin, Ella Fitzgerald and Bing Crosby. When Barnes was 14, the second oldest of seven boys growing up with his single mother on Detroit's west side, a faulty electrical outlet sparked a fire in the family kitchen.
He said he and his brothers would stick plugs into the outlet to see it spark, as it did each time. He considers them lucky. His 9-year-old brother, Keith, and 8-year-old brother, Dante, were playing with him in the backyard when the fire started, but Dante ran inside to grab his favorite skateboard.
The smoke almost lulled Stan Barnes to sleep when he ran inside to get Dante out — a lot of times, it makes people faint or knocks them out before the fire kills them, he says, something he learned as a professional years later.
"I thought it'd be easy to put out," said Barnes. "But our house really wasn't up to code."
That experience years ago shaped his life. Today, he saves people as a firefighter and paramedic, and entertains them with his music.
He and his wife, Brenda, 40, who used to run a day care and now stays at home with their kids, met in high school.
"People do ask me all the time which he likes better," Brenda said of her husband's two professions. "But he has a strong passion for both."
Still, his most important job is being a firefighter, Stan Barnes says — and helping save lives as he did when he got his younger brothers away from their house and to safety.
"If I wasn't with them, they wouldn't have made it out," said Barnes. "I'm glad I was there."
And he's glad that he has the opportunity, at work, to say that over and over again.
Copyright 2007 Detroit Free Press
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Business News