Jazz Institute of Chicago

Barrett Deems: Memories of a Drummer

by Deborah Gillaspie

The phone rang around 3:30 pm on Tuesday September 15th. "Better sit down," my drum teacher, Phil Stanger, said. "Barrett died this morning."

A flood of memories left me speechless.

Barrett at his last birthday party in March of this year, dressed in a tie-dyed t-shirt, yelling for Jane to adjust his cymbal stand, grousing and cracking jokes at the expense of the drummers who came to honor him.

Barrett on his way into various incarnations of the Jazz Showcase, wearing a leather jacket and joyfully bearing a duck call, striking terror into the hearts of whoever was on stage (once I heard a musician setting up mutter "Oh shit!" as Barrett made the grand entrance to his seat.)

Barrett with his big band playing "Airmail Special" so fast the whole thing threatened to fall apart (but never did) then yelling, "How do you like it so far?"

Barrett at Phil’s percussion ensemble one night when Jane sat in, and we had to hide every stick and mallet not in actual use to keep him from playing on the very walls and door frames.

Barrett rising to my defense when he and I were talking shop at a gig, and some guy walked by and made an ugly remark about women who hang out with drummers. "She PLAYS!" he snarled, before I could even get past the shock of the rudeness to make my own reply.

Barrett talking about what it was like to play with Louis, Muggsy, Teagarden, Bigard, Hodes, Venuti, Brunies, DeFaut, Freeman, Norvo—interspersed with such graphic descriptions of procedures from his latest doctor’s visit that I despaired of getting any kind of coherent oral history for the Archive (I never did succeed).

Barrett on an audiotaped panel at the Jazz Educators Conference here in January of ‘97: "I’m 83 years old and I’m not afraid to die. But it’s going to be a bitch getting the drums in the coffin!" (He did manage to take a pair of his signature Slingerland 19A sticks with him.)

Despite the heroic efforts of his friends to give Barrett the jazz funeral he wanted (for which I offer them my heartfelt thanks), the ultra-traditional church services failed to evoke the essence of Barrett for me. No Barrett stories were told when it came time for remarks about the deceased (maybe nobody knew any that were clean enough to tell in church!) And the priest’s image of Barrett smilingly borne into Heaven by angels staggered the imagination—the Barrett I knew would be joking and complaining all the way ("What do you guys think you’re doing?! Get your hands offa me!" "Hey you, watch it with those cymbals!" "What, even on THIS gig we gotta go in through the kitchen?" "Ah, you angels can’t play shit. Where’s Pops?")

Memories and recordings are the jazz musician’s legacy; it’s the best we can do to preserve an art form that exists primarily in the moment of performance. Please forward your Barrett stories to me at the Archive (d-gillaspie@uchicago.edu) for his file so that we have something of the man himself for the generations to come. I’ll make sure they get credited (or omitted, if you prefer!) if we decide to make them publicly available on the CJA website as part of a tribute page.

Now, where did I put that duck call....

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