Barrett Deems Remembrances
by Jim Beebe
Judi K. and I had just come back from Barrett's funeral when I wrote this letter to a friend.
We have just lost a formidible presence. One of the great drummers and great characters. He was 85 and died in his sleep of pneumonia in the hospital but he had bladder cancer, pulmonary problems and a host of things. Nothing kept him down for long, though. Major health situations which would lay most of us low he would brush off as thought he had a cold.
I've known Barrett since the '60s when we played with Frank Assunto and the Dukes. Then we worked a lot at Jazz Ltd. Don Ingle was on trumpet and can tell you a lot of Barrett stories. Barrett would always be the first with the bad news,"Guess who died today? etc."
He worked with me for several years at the Blackstone Hotel five nights a week. He quit one night and I fired him...all in the same set. One could tell a thousand stories about Barrett and many were flying around last night at his wake. He could be a real contentious s.o.b.
Barrett had impeccable time and swing. Very big ears. He could hear and respond faster than most to anything musically going on. In a room full of people with him on one end and you are on the other end talking about him he would hear it. He was a 24 hour-a-day drummer.
He was on many of Armstrong's greatest recordings and was a contributing factor to their greatness. Trummy Young told me once, "Barrett was the swingingest drummer that I ever played with. . .a little bit crazy but in a nice way." That nicely sums him up, I think.
Barrett was one of the most colorful characters on the Chicago scene and his wake and funeral reflected this. Many top musicians were there but a lot of peripheral characters as well. Bobby Lewis and George Bean played a mellow jam at the wake and Bobby played 'Over the Rainbow' on his flugel at the funeral. Bobby and Barrett were together with Jack Teagarden's band.
Jack's band was driving around the country in several cars and someone asked Bobby how they stood it on these trips with Barrett. Bobby said, "It was easy. We put Barrett in the trunk and the drums in the car."
In 1967 Frank Assunto, Barrett and I left Chicago for Washington D.C. and the great Chicago blizzard struck. 10 hours later we were only 30 miles south of Chicago. I'm driving and Barrett's mouth is going a mile a minute. I knew that we would be trapped at any minute and I saw three dim lights through the snow.
I said, "Frank, I don't know what is there but we can't go any further and I am going to make a run for those lights." It turned out to be an old motel that had been rented out to some hillbillies. There was one vacant room with a bloody mattress and a chair. We were there for two or three days. The hillbillies were nice people and fed us, etc. Within 10 minutes Barrett had them waiting on him hand and foot. These people knew that they had celebrity in their midst but they could never fathom who he was.
I drove Barrett and Polly Podewell out to see Buddy Rich once. Buddy was doing an outdoor concert in Oakbrook. It was very touching to see the genuine affection and respect that Buddy held for Barrett. Barrett worshipped Buddy and this meant a lot to him. Buddy introduced him from the bandstand and fawned all over him. Backstage the two of them jived each other and carried on in a wonderful fashion.
When we were at the Blackstone Hotel, Barrett started carrying a pistol around. I know that he had never fired it and didn't know how to but he felt secure with it. He always carried a big wad of money and was not shy about showing it off.
Our bass man, Duke Groner, kept telling Barrett to get rid of the gun as he was going to get in big trouble. So one day Barrett is in the coffee shop of the Croyden Hotel where traveling actors and musicians stayed. He is in a booth with the hotel security guy who is also a trumpet player. The security guy is the one who got Barrett the pistol. And Barrett is flapping away about this pistol and making it obvious that it is in his coat pocket.
As it happened the guy in the next booth was an FBI agent. The FBI agent overhears all of this and calls the Chicago Police who come screaming up in two police cars. They run into the coffee shop and take Barrett out in handcuffs. At the police station, Barrett is trying to get one of the officers to get him a cup of coffee. Finally a cop says, "We don't get coffee for prisoners." Barrett replies, "Oh, yeah? I'll tell you what. I am never, ever playing the Policeman's Ball again." True story. It cost Barrett almost a thousand bucks to get out of that.
In his declining years, Barrett came roaring out of the corner with a swinging contemporary big band. He corralled some of Chicago's best young turks to make this a formidable swinging aggregation. He held forth with this group once a week for several years and just last year put out a great CD on the Delmark labe., They recorded another one earlier this year—not out yet.
An important factor in Barrett's life was his wife, Jane Johnson. I remember their wedding about 20 years ago. In the ceremony, "Lawful wedded wife" came out "awful, bedded wife" from Barrett. Jane, about 40 years younger, is a striking woman and a fine musician herself who helped Barrett run the big band. She straightened out a lot of his life, smoothed out some rough edges and added greatly to Barrett's life. I would like to say...thanks, Jane.
Barrett loved and cared for animals. He had about 10 dogs and cats. I gave him an extra cat that I had and he cared for it and gave me regular reports on its well being.
I don't believe that Barrett Deems ever got the the full artistic recognition that he deserved. Paul Wertico, a noted contemporary drummer said in the Chicago Tribune yesterday, "You just never thought that he would ever die...he was like the Buckingham Fountain, just a fixture here. His playing had irony and humor—it was an extension of who he was."
I should add that underneath a lot of contrariness, Barrett Deems had a heart of gold. He would be the first to help anyone in need.
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