Chicago after World War II still had an area in the Loop that abounded with bright lights and jazz. The big swing bands played at the Hotel Sherman, and clubs such as the Capitol cocktail lounge, the Brass Rail, the Prevue Lounge, and others featured the finest jazz artists in the world.
Diagonally across from the Sherman Hotel, neon lights beamed: “Randolph Square—World’s Busiest Nite Life Corner.” And underneath that were the words: “Barrett Deems—World’s Fastest Drummer.” If you were involved in the world of drums, it was a lure you couldn’t resist.
Inside Randolph Square, Barrett Deems did indeed propel a quartet of Chicago musicians with a clean, swinging performance—and it was done effortlessly. When you returned to the street, you weren’t about to argue with the premise of the sign. If anything, Barrett’s smooth work probably inspired a generation of drummers to do a bit more woodshedding than they had originally intended.
Barrett Deems is in town. In the ten days that he is spending in the Los Angeles area, most of the veteran drummers in the city will see and talk with him. Some will see him at the NAMM Winter Show near Disneyland that Barrett attends each year. Others will make a point of stopping in at the Professional Drum Shop in Hollywood—knowing that he will spend several hours there each day.
When Barrett is talking with friends, he will idly pick up a drumstick with his left hand and begin a precise, even pattern of multiple-bounce strokes on a nearby pad, done with the speed and smoothness of raindrops cascading down a windowpane. It is not done for show; it’s what Barrett does rather constantly: practice. The younger drummers that drift in and out of the shop cast furtive glances at him. Some pretend not to notice, but soon their curiosity must be satisfied, and they find themselves staring at this slightly built, pixieish man with the gray goatee. He could be a Hollywood character actor or perhaps a retired university professor. But that left hand finger control is astounding, and Barrett Deems is still influencing another generation.
Later, in his motel room on Sunset Boulevard, Barrett relaxes after a long day at the NAMM Show. “I go to both shows each year. I like to see all the stuff they show. I saw a set with three bass drums and a dozen toms. I couldn’t play a set like that; I never needed more than a couple of toms, and two or three cymbals. I still have five sets of Radio Kings at home. All the companies forgot about the old guys—and we helped make them. I’ve been with Zildjian for 55 years, and I’m working with Pearl drums now. Pearl has treated me very nicely.”
He sits on the bed, leaning on his left elbow. With a stick in his hand, he taps on a small, hard rubber pad about the size of a shoe heel. Two large cymbal bags are on the floor, but no cymbals are in evidence.
“I travel light. Everything I have is in those bags; I don’t like suitcases. I took the train out here. That was the first time I’d been on one in 30 years. I had a nice compartment; it gave me a chance to practice.”
Barrett made his earthly debut in Springfield, Illinois, on March 1, 1913, just a little later than a number of other Midwesterners who would be making jazz history within the next two decades. Goodman, Krupa, Tough, and various friends were to bring about the Chicago style in the northern part of Illinois; Iowa, Wisconsin, and Indiana would produce Beiderbecke, Berigan, and Hoagy Carmichael. It was a time when—if you were associating with the musical world—it would be difficult not to find good players.
Barrett had already worked with most of the fine players in his area when famed violinist Joe Venuti came through Springfield in 1936 and offered him the drum spot. “I joined him in New York in ’37 and stayed until ’45. Kay Starr was on the band—great singer.”
When Barrett decided to settle in Chicago, the Windy City percussion scene was producing players known for their ability to really take care of business. Red Saunders knocked out anyone who saw him work at the Club De Lisa, and he sometimes filled in for Sonny Greer when Ellington was in town. Bob Tilles was becoming known for his radio work—and would later branch out into television and the educational field. Ellis Stuckey could cut burlesque and vaudeville shows, and then handle the percussion work at the famed Chez Paree supper club or at the Sherman—when the hotel’s policy changed to the songwriter “Salute” shows. With this mob, you delivered the goods, and you did it “straight.”
Says Barrett, “I never took a drink in my life and never fooled with dope. You don’t need that stuff. Practice—that’s it. With drums, you get better. I don’t know about other instruments, but with drums, you’ve just got to get better. My chops are better now than they were 30 years ago.”
But nearly 40 years ago, Barrett Deems was being billed as the “World’s Fastest Drummer”—and his business card still states that. When the operators of Randolph Square put it in lights, Barrett was on his way to becoming one of the best-known drummers in the jazz world. “I did a show with Gene and Buddy in about ’48. They said I was fastest of all.”
Barrett also booked his own group into The Dome restaurant of the Sherman Hotel. He worked with Jack Teagarden, Muggsy Spanier, and other jazz greats that came through Chicago—often recording and touring with them. In 1953, he joined Louis Armstrong’s All-Stars and spent the next eight years traveling the globe with the great jazz master. “We used to fly a million miles a year with Armstrong—great players. We played everywhere in the world. We were always treated better [overseas] than we were here.”
Barrett appears in many film clips dealing with Armstrong’s career that have turned up on television. He can also be seen in the 1956 movie High Society that the group did with Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra. Excellent examples of Barrett’s work with Armstrong can be found in the Columbia Contemporary Masters Collection Louis Armstrong: Chicago Concert (Col C2 36426). For years, Barrett has traveled the world, appearing at many major jazz festivals. He toured Europe in 1976 with Benny Goodman and appears on the Continent virtually every year. Yet he says, “I don’t like the traveling. You play at night. Then you have to get up early the next morning to fly somewhere else. I’m a night person; I like to sleep nine or ten hours. In Chicago, I get up about one o’clock and listen to the Cubs play ball. You can practice while you’re watching television.”
A few years ago, Barrett helped put together a big band to perpetuate the name and style of Gene Krupa. “I was a pallbearer at Gene’s funeral. I made a deal later with his estate to use some of the original manuscripts. I had a special arrangement made of ‘Sing, Sing, Sing.’ We got some work; the band sounded good. But you have to be a really big name to get any money. I’ve been a sideman all my life, and I couldn’t ask those guys to go out on the road for what they were offering us.
“There are rock players making $10,000 a week, while some great jazz guys barely make $400 to $500. The only thing I like about rock is the drumming: Some drummers play good figures. Other than that, I can’t stand anything electric. I won’t let anything on the bandstand that’s electric.”
Early in ’86, Barrett spent six weeks touring Europe during the filming of a two-hour video show: The Wonderful World of Louis Armstrong. It has already been shown in England and Australia, with plans for American distribution now under way.
In the summer of ’86, Barrett appeared with Eddie Miller, Milt Hinton, Art Hodes, Jimmy McPartland, and others at George Wein’s Newport Jazz Festival in New York at Mahogany Hall. A video and two record albums have been prepared from that appearance. Then it was on to the annual Dixieland festival in Sacramento, California, to appear with Norma Teagarden. Barrett is booked well into 1987 with all-star festivals in Chicago, Milwaukee, and St. Louis. He also tries to visit with “old friends” now and then. “Buddy played several dates in Chicago just recently. I traveled around on the bus with him. He had me sit in. I always got along with him very well. The older we get, the better we play.” And Barrett seems inclined to “keep getting better” indefinitely. As he says, “If I live to be 90, I’m determined to play.” And the billing will still read: “World’s Fastest Drummer.”