Barrett Deems resembles a rooster. His Adam’s apple sticks out a mile, and he is improbably thin. On this Tuesday night at the Elbo Room, Deems turns his back to his band, which appears to do fine without him, and faces the audience, right index finger keeping a steady tempo. In his red pullover sweater and rose-tinted bottle-thick eyeglasses, with his off-white crewcut (his hair has 18 cowlicks, a hairdresser once said), Deems is grooving.
The smoky basement of the Elbo Room is an unlikely location for a swing orchestra, but the Barrett Deems Big Band is here for its regular Tuesday gig, and the place is full of Deems fans. Tonight they include a bunch of high-school-age aficionados armed with fake IDs and a small contingent of flirtatious female admirers who buy him drinks and ask for his autograph.
The band continues without him, as Deems approaches a young woman who’s holding a pair of drumsticks. Deems takes them from her, twirls them around, looks at her, and squawks “Save your money. Buy war bonds.”
From the back of the club someone shouts, “War’s over, Barrett!” Deems just shrugs and twirls the sticks, dancing a little two-step. The crowd eats it up; the band plays on.
After 60 years as a drummer Deems is finally leading his own band, and some of the best jazz musicians in the city are part of this weekly aggregation. Trumpeter Brad Goode, saxophonist Richie Corpolongo, and trombonist Audrey Morrisson turn out to play, as do assorted music teachers, arrangers, and store owners. The group also plays special events like the annual jazz festival and the occasional wedding.
Deems drums tonight, for about half the show; Chicago veteran Ron Barron takes the other half. Someone once called Deems “the world’s fastest drummer,” and although he has slowed down a bit he’s quick enough on his crisp, rhythmic solos to put most younger drummers to shame. After one especially speedy number, the same voice from the back asks, “You been eating your Wheaties, Barrett?”
Legend has it that Deems was given his first drum because he was a hyperactive child. He started playing with big bands at 16, a high school dropout downstate in Springfield, and plunged headlong into the improvisational soup of late 1920s and 1930s swing jazz. In 1940 he came to Chicago, his home ever since, to play with legendary violinist Joe Venuti and bandleader Woody Herman. He had been a fixture here for more than a decade when Louis Armstrong tapped him for his big band.
“He was the most beautiful man I ever worked for,” Deems says about Armstrong. “He should have been president–Satchmo the Great.” From 1952 to 1960 Deems toured with Armstrong as lead drummer. Deems fans like to tell the story about the stop in Ghana on an African tour when Deems’s drum solo so excited a crowd of 100,000 that a riot broke out.
Deems appeared in all of Armstrong’s movies, including High Society. In Europe, the band made movies that were never shown in America. Deems says one was banned in the States because of a shot involving Armstrong’s trumpet and Gina Lollobrigida’s breasts.
“Gina Lollobrigida–beautiful woman,” Deems says.
A conversation with Deems is cognitive dissonance exemplified. “He has that kind of energy,” says Jeff Thomas, a local musicologist. “No two sentences go together. Talking to him is a lot of work.”
Although almost everyone loves working with Deems, no one ever said it was easy. Penny Tyler, Chicago Jazz Festival coordinator for the Jazz Institute of Chicago and a longtime friend of Deems’s, remembers opening night of the city’s first jazz festival, in 1979.
It was the beginning of Jane Byrne’s term as mayor, and people involved in the festival wanted to make her as comfortable as possible. “Barrett was about to go on,” Tyler says, “and I tried to keep him away from her, because you never know what he’s going to say. It was the first festival, and the last thing we needed was for him to mouth off.”
Somehow Deems made his way to where the mayor was sitting, just offstage. Deems tapped her on the shoulder.
“You know, I don’t care what they say about you,” he said. “You’re not a bad looking broad. And you’ve got great legs, too.”
She smiled. “Thank you very much,” she said.
Tyler tells another Deems story, abut the time she and Deems went to the musician Sid Dawson’s funeral in Crystal Lake. She begged Deems to behave, but in the car he kept saying over and over again, “Do we get to go to the skull orchard? I want to go to the skull orchard.”
In the middle of the funeral, Tyler noticed that Deems had disappeared. He had gotten into the funeral director’s office and taken hold of a bunch of calendars. As the guests left the service they encountered Deems, calendars in hand, thanking them for coming.
“It doesn’t matter who he talks to,” Tyler says. “There’s no holding Barrett back.”
Deems’s career spans nearly the entire history of American jazz, though in a galaxy full of legendary characters, Deems’s star has gone relatively unnoticed. “He’s almost more interesting because he’s not world famous,” Thomas says. “The history of music is not only made up of household names–there are any number of people who contributed to music who were just as talented.”
Deems is the draw, but he doesn’t run the operation. All the musical arrangements and the bookings are made by his wife, Jane Johnson, who is at least 35 years his junior. Johnson also plays saxophone in the band. “She really watches over him,” Tyler says. “Nobody ever expected it to last as long as it has.”
Johnson met Deems years ago when they were both working at the Gaslight Club, he as a drummer, she as a singing waitress. Now she and Deems live in Old Town with their three dogs and six cats.
Johnson and Ron Barron started the band with the intention of making money, but as she says, “the business part didn’t exactly work out.”
“This band, they just want to swing and be on the team,” Johnson says. “It’s a mixture between the old way and the new way. You hear younger bands trying to play stuff from the swing charts, and they just don’t seem to have any heart.”
Generation gaps loom larger in jazz than in most art forms. Deems’s roots are in the earliest days of jazz, the music of vaudeville halls, where drummers had to perform more than just percussion to keep pace with jugglers, fire-eaters, and sideshow freaks. Drumming had as much to do with stick-twirling flights of athleticism as it did with music.
All that changed with the onset of bop. Jeff Thomas says the great drummers of the swing era, used to working in traditional big band forms, had a lot of trouble keeping up as jazz evolved.
“Each one of them reached a point where they couldn’t get a grip on what the younger guys were doing,” Thomas says. “Gene Krupa, Buddy Rich, and a lot of swing-era players couldn’t make the conceptual jump to the bop era. They just couldn’t place some of the things bop drummers were doing.” Deems stays current, Thomas says, by keeping his ear open for changes, even as he remains true to pure swing.
Between sets, Deems sits at a side table holding court, sipping a Coke, signing drumsticks. “Hey, Bobby,” he calls out to a guy across the room. “Looking more like Jim Belushi every day.”
A young woman named Dale comes up to Deems and puts her arm around him. “You kick butt, sir,” she slurs. “Give us more.”
“Chippendale,” he says. “You are a Chippendale.”
The band’s getting ready to play again, but they never start until Deems is done talking. “Jane, are you ready yet? Jane?” he asks.
“Oh sure,” Jane says. But a couple of band members are bickering about what to play next.
“Goddamn it, I am not going to play that!” a guitarist shouts. He tears off his instrument and storms over to the bar.
“Relax!” Deems shouts. “Everyone have a glass of prune juice.” Nobody knows what he’s talking about.
“Prune juice,” Deems says. “How do you think I stay so thin?” Everybody laughs, the tension broken. The band kicks into “Love for Sale,” and, doing his best Satchmo impression, Deems squawks into the microphone:
“Goodnight, Gracie. See you next year.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bruce Powell.