A Barrett Deems Chronology
by Marj Pries
Barrett Deems was born March 1, 1913 in Springfield, Illinois. His father was movie theater projectionist and amateur ragtime piano player. His mother did not have any musical background. He received his first drum around the age of five and by eight had his first drum set—a starter set from Sears for under $100. He began taking music lessons for 25 cents each from a local pit musician. These lessons continued for five or six years until Deems became tired of the disciplines of reading music.
By 14 or 15 he was making the rounds playing with his father, sometimes backing up silent movies in the theater. By 16, he was in the local musicians union and soon after had his first road gig with the Paul Ash Orchestra. This lasted for about a year, then Deems, tired of the traveling came back to Springfield.
Back in Springfield, Deems put his own band together which played locally from 1931 to 1937. At this time Springfield had a big-city nightlife complete with gambling and after-hours jam sessions. Deems and his band worked at some of the top clubs, The Gingham Gardens, the Lake club and the Rex.
Ben Pollack heard Deems in Springfield and encouraged him to go to New York or Chicago where he could get in with the big name bands. It is not clear if he acted on this advice or not.
In 1938, Joe Venuti succeeded in persuading Deems to join his band working out of New York. He worked and recorded with Venuti for the next eight years and then off-and-on for the rest of Venuti's life.
Gigged with a large number of famous small and big bands including Red Norvo, Charlie Barnet and Mugsy Spanier.
Was a member of Louis Armstrong's All-Stars. In 1956, the the U.S. Department of State sponsored the group on a tour of Europe and Africa including the Celebration of Independence in Ghana at which 100,000 fans rioted peacefully and the band was invited to be the guests of Premier Kwame Nkrumah.
Also in 1956 appeared in the film High Society with Louis Armstrong and other bandmembers, Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire.
Gigged with a large number of well-known small and big bands.
Worked and recorded with Jack Teagarden's band.
Spent much of the time working in and around Chicago, often backing up visiting performers. Also was a member of the Dukes of Dixieland.
Toured Eastern Europe with Benny Goodman.
Toured South America with Wild Bill Davison. As one of the two remaining All-Stars, was featured with Arvell Shaw in a BBC documentary of a 1984 tour of England, "The Wonderful World of Louis Armstrong". Performed at numerous festivals including an appearance at the Chicago Jazz Festival with his own big band. Received the Living Art of Music (LAMA) Award for Big Bands in 1994 and in 1995 the received the Jazz Master Award from Arts Midwest.
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