As a child, violinist Jannina Barefield didn’t miss a single one of her father’s concerts. When other children were noisy, she got upset with them for disrupting the music. And when grownups asked what she wanted to be when she grew up, she would reply, “I’m going to play at my daddy’s concerts.”
That’s no surprise. Detroit jazz guitarist A. Spencer Barefield began immersing his daughter in music even before she was born by putting headphones to the swelling abdomen of his wife, Barbara. Months later, he played an African harp to lull his newborn girl to sleep.
On a recent Sunday afternoon, Barefield sits at his kitchen table at home in Detroit’s Palmer Woods neighborhood chatting with his daughter, now Jannina Norpoth, via a laptop video connection to her home in New York. The conversation is punctuated by laughter and joking as they recall and dispute a lifetime of stories.
When Barefield began doing concerts at the Detroit Institute of Arts in 1979, toddler Jannina listened from the comfort of her mother’s arms. When she got older, she would sometimes run to the stage mid concert to say, “Hi, Daddy.”
“You were really mad about that,” Jannina says, speaking through the computer monitor. Replies Barefield: “I just pretended to be mad.”
As she grew, Jannina yearned to perform; that was her natural element. Famous musicians regularly visited the Barefields’ home. Among them was bassist Richard Davis, who found that Jannina reminded him of his own daughter, Barefield says, and they “fell in love.” That affection prompted her to announce: “I want to play the bass, like Richard Davis.”
Barefield once awoke in the middle of the night to find his daughter and Davis in their pajamas, playing “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.” Jannina played violin, which Barbara called the “little bass,” a compromise for the real one.
Barefield also took violin lessons as a child, switching to guitar at 11 and creating a band with neighborhood kids, including former Detroit City Councilman Nicholas Hood III. His parents encouraged music as an extra activity, but wanted him to become a doctor. They eventually came to terms with his choice of career, he says, but, because of the pressure, Barefield wanted to help his children, Jannina and his son, Spencer IV, follow their inclination.
Today, at 29, Jannina lives with her husband, bassist John-Paul Norpoth, in Brooklyn, where they play in Hollands, an alternative band. They plan to release their first recording this fall.
New York brought new opportunities, but Jannina says she misses Detroit all the time and doesn’t see her father as often as she would like. Last year, she, her husband, and her father, along with violist John Madison, performed for the first time as A. Spencer Barefield Super String Quartet at the Imagination Station and then with the big ensemble at the Art X festival. The quartet plays a mix of avant-garde jazz and classical music, including old standards and new string music written by Barefield.
They will be performing June 22 at the Palmer Woods Music in Homes series. Their future plans include a project in New York and perhaps a show on the road.
Barefield typically performs improv with jazz and avant-garde, although he says he prefers to not define his sound. Jannina plays primarily classical. Lately, however, their roles have switched as they experiment with a new sound.
“I’ve always looked up to my dad,” Jannina says, which makes the music they’ll perform in this month of Father’s Day just that much sweeter.
Music in Homes, a collaborative project of the Palmer Woods Association and Creative Arts Collective by Barbara and A. Spencer Barefield, features concerts performed in various houses. Proceeds benefit the neighborhood. This month, A. Spencer Barefield Super String Quartet will perform on the 22nd; the Ralphe Armstrong Quartet plays the next day.