by Marj Pries
One cold February weekend in the early '80s I was in Rockford, Illinois attending the (then-annual) Clock Tower Jazz Festival. I had lived in Chicago for several years, listening to Dick Buckley, Daddie-O Daley and Count BJ on the radio, but I was still learning about jazz and the local jazz scene. Until then I had never heard of Barrett Deems. He was to make a great impression on me.
A snowstorm of reasonable size was raging that night and the drive up from Chicago was difficult. Deems was late and another drummer (Jerry Coleman maybe?) subbed for him on the first set. When Barrett arrived, there was a stir towards the back of the room and finally the lights picked out one of the weirdest looking characters I'd ever seen. He had a gaunt, lined face like a starving elf. His arms moved in a hurky-jerky way as if they were strung together from popsicle sticks and fishing line. He was wearing a boxy-cut suit that looked off the rack and a size too small but it didn't come from Sears; the principle tones were brass-brown, olive green and orange, echoing the tints in his hair nicely. The hair by the way seemed to have been glued on backward. This was Barrett Deems?!
The emcee began bantering with him, calling him the world's oldest teenager. "I've got shorts older than you..." Barrett retorted, then blew a few squawks on a duckcall. My musical judgement was on hold. What had started as a fairly restrained and serious evening was beginning to feel like a party in somebody's basement. Barrett finally settled in behind the drums and kicked the whole shebang up a notch.
Ten years later he was still kicking things up on Lincoln Avenue at the Elbo Room, on Milwaukee at the Note, at the Jazz Festival, at Andy's, in the recording studio, all around town. He was the kind of guy, who if he saw you in the clubs often enough would say, "Hey, how ya doin'," and maybe make a few cracks about whatever was going on with him.
Barrett was a guy you noticed, but his drumming you didn't. Not in the way that you noticed a Buddy Rich or an Ed Shaughnessy or your everyday rock drummer. The big thumps and rolls for special effects, the extended solos, the elaborate gestures, the sweat; that just wasn't part of his style. You heard him the best when you noticed him the least, on the snares with sticks or brushes, lightly tapping the cymbals double-time, tic-tic-atic-tic-tic-atic-tic-tic-tica-tic.
"Oh, this is a honey!" "Here's a hot one!" "How d'ya like so far?!" Arrangements with tight ensemble parts, trumpets trading solos, saxes in unison, trombones, a big vibe solo. Barrett was about driving the band, keeping the gears shifted up, the tempo on target, the accents perfect, the tune, the changes, the texture of the arrangement out in front.
Sure he would twirl his sticks, flip one up in the air, catch it and hit the skin on the beat but this was a smooth and subtle motion. To see him do it, it looked like it was just a movement that had to be made in order to get the hand and the stick in just the right place to make the right beat to get that one paackh that he knew your ear would be happy to hear at that point in time.
Barrett Deems, as a drummer—he was a Fred Astaire.
Copyright ©2003. All rights reserved.