Barrett Deems resumed his Tuesday night platform at the Elbo Room a few weeks ago, a month before his 83rd birthday. Surrounded by his 18-piece orchestra, the drummer, who’d been on vacation for six weeks, picked up the microphone and rasped, “It’s great to be back at the Elbo Room, which has been like a third home to me. The first is my home, and the second is the hospital.” He peered into the audience through large, dark-framed glasses. “Hey! Wayne and Donna are here. Good friends of mine. They’ve been married 48 years, and I only have one question.” He paused a beat. “Why?”

During the first break Deems’s wife of 17 years, Jane Johnson, headed to a table to talk to friends. She plays alto sax in the band and is approximately half Deems’s age. Deems went to the bar and plopped down on a stool. He doesn’t drink, and never has. “No booze, no pills, no nothing. The only pills I take, and I hate to take them, are from the doctor. I’ve lost a lot of good friends to drugs and booze.”

Deems has kept time with many of the players in the Encyclopedia of Jazz. He hates small groups but has played in dozens of them. And as far as his first love, the big band, goes, well, he hasn’t been counting but estimates he’s played on at least 5,000 records.

“When I was 21 I could jump from one band to the other. I could jump from Artie Shaw, Tommy Dorsey, Jimmy Dorsey–all the big name bands.” In the 1950s he toured with the Louis Armstrong All Stars. “I started a riot in Africa in 1956, and I didn’t get no credit for it. One hundred twenty thousand people at the concert. I did a ten-minute drum solo, and they just went nuts. They broke the fence down; cops came with horses, tore up everything. They went crazy; they never heard playing like that. Ten-minute drum solo like I do here: they went out of their minds.”

The riot caused an international sensation, he said. “It was in all the magazines, Life magazine, everything. And they said the drummer this and the drummer that, and they didn’t mention a name. What the hell, it could have been an African drummer. So I’m mad. Then we went to Hamburg, Germany, and they tore up the set there.”

No riot started during the second set at the Elbo Room, but after one pounding version of “Take the A Train,” a young man in the audience screamed “rock and roll” a couple of times.

Deems later called out for his wife.

“Hey Jane, what’s the number?” he yelled.

“Number 263,” she called back.

“That Old Black Magic,”‘ he noted. “Jane, that tune stinks!”

“Well, all right then, we’ll do another one.” The whole front row began thumbing through sheet music. “We’ll do a Louie Bellson number,” Deems said, and everyone found a place. “That kid was a pretty good musician.” Deems counted off “one, two, three, four” and the whole band started to swing.

Musicians who play into their 80s and beyond aren’t much of a novelty; after all, Arthur Rubinstein played, and played well, into his 90s. But Rubinstein played piano. Deems plays drums, a more physically demanding instrument. He can thump a backbeat as fast and heavy as any 20-year-old headbanger, and he works more styles than an Oak Street hairdresser. During one number the light, deft, circular movements of Deems’s metal brushes–which just touched the top of the drum skins, adding an overtone of tremulous urgency–inspired an older man at the bar to whisper, “His touch is incredible. Nobody plays brushes like that, no one.” The song ended with a sharp roll and a hush before the audience broke in with lavish applause.

Deems paused, and the band was silent. It seemed to be a minute before he picked up the microphone and asked, “You know how they circumcise a hillbilly? They pat his sister on the head!” The band launched into an up-tempo version of “Love for Sale.”

Deems will be celebrating his birthday by playing with the big band at Andy’s, 11 E. Hubbard, Thursday, February 29 (his birthday is actually March 1). The show is from 6 to 9:30 PM. There’s a $10 cover. Call 642-6805 for reservations.

–Jeffrey Felshman

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Randy Tunnell.