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Barrett Deems: 1914-1998
Barrett Deems
Drummer and bandleader

Born: March 1, 1914 in Springfield, Illinois
Died: September 15, 1998 in Chicago, Illinois

A Fast Pair of Hands

Copyright © 1999 

The Scotsman, 1998

Deems, Barrett Barrett Deems achieved numerous distinctions in a long career as a jazz drummer, but perhaps the most notable of them arrived in 1954, when he was asked to replace the great Cozy Cole in Louis Armstrong's All-Stars. He remained with the band until 1958, and supplied a propulsive drive to their music that brought him widespread commendation, including a stamp of approval from the man he replaced.

Deems's family had moved to Chicago by the early 1920s, and he began his professional career in the city at a precocious age, touring with violinist Paul Ash and then leading his own bands by the time he was 15. He moved into more rarified company in the late 1930s, working with violinist Joe Venuti from 1937 until 1944, and subsequently with bands led by Red Norvo, Jimmy Dorsey, Charlie Barnet and Muggsy Spanier.

Deems developed a highly polished technique characterised by the very fast, driving style which became his trademark, and earned him frequent billing as "the world's fastest drummer", but his many employers valued his sure time and ability to drive the band with a propulsive but faultless momentum just as much as his speed.

His tenure with the Armstrong All-Stars (in a band which did not normally feature white musicians) was a very successful one, and he is featured on many recordings of the period, including the benchmark Louis Armstrong Plays W C Handy album in 1954, Ambassador Satch in 1955, and Louis Armstrong At The Pasadena Civic Auditorium in 1956, as well as in the documentary film Satchmo The Great, filmed during a tour of the Far East sponsored by the US State Department in 1956. Deems made several other celluloid appearances, including a featured spot in the film Rhythm Inn (1951), and in High Society (1956), where he is seen accompanying Armstrong and Bing Crosby in the song "Now You Has Jazz".

Eventually, the drummer grew tired of the rigorous touring schedule maintained by the trumpeter, which had taken the band not only around the USA on a regular basis, but also to Europe, Africa and the Far East. He opted for the less peripatetic option of freelance work in Chicago, and formed his own band for a residence at the Brass Rail Club in the city.

In the early 1960s, he worked regularly with another former All-Star, trombonist Jack Teagarden, and both toured and recorded with the Dukes of Dixieland, a long-running band led by the New Orleans trumpeter Frank Assunto.

From the 1970s onward, he concentrated mainly on accompanying a plethora of visiting artists to Chicago, but could still be lured onto the road on occasion. He toured in Eastern Europe with Benny Goodman in 1976 and in South America with Wild Bill Davison in 1981, and joined a number of former All-Stars in several popular tours of Britain organised by trumpeter Keith Smith and billed as The Wonderful World of Louis Armstrong.

Deems remained a colourful character as well as a pugnacious drummer, and enjoyed regaling interviewers with spicy stories of his years in jazz, most of which were deemed unprintable. He continued to play until very recently, when illness forced his full retirement. He is survived by his wife, Jane Deems.

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