Still Clinging to the Wreckage 12/19

Sixty years ago, drummer Barrett Deems was making it clear why the UK needs to emulate the US. This was the first article Steve Voce had published in the Melody Maker, done while Deems was in the UK with the Louis Armstrong All Stars in 1956. Later, Steve heard that Deems thought it a wonderful piece, and here he confers the ultimate accolade: 'Man, you’re a nice guy. You should be a US citizen'

1231

The coffee lounge of Liverpool’s Adelphi Hotel is designed to strike awe into all but cabinet ministers and the most eminently U.

But in Mr Barrett Deems they hit a dead end. The ornate chandelier shimmered under the harsh Illinois tones and waiters scudded for refuge from the piercing blue eyes of the original son of Uncle Sam.

For Mr Deems does not like Europeans. Unlike other Americans he is not hypocritical about it, nor is he afraid to say it. Mr Deems is a great drummer and an honest man.

‘None of these Europeans will ever come up to the standard back there in the States. They don’t swing the same. Things are much slower over here – the trains, the taxis, the shops and the bands’

“Look what the guy in this paper says. ‘Louis Armstrong’s tiny drummer…’. First, I’m unsociable, next, I’m a lousy drummer, and now I’m tiny”. He took a large bite from a lobster sandwich and sprinkled some more salt in his beer. (“Back in the States we always have salt in lager. It takes the bitter taste away”).

“I got no time for these newspaper guys. They’re always knockin’ somebody. When we were in Paris last year they started on me, and I ain’t got no time for them since. They heard me once and then panned me”.

He took out a pack of Camels, handed me one and lit it with a lighter like a blow-torch.

“That’s a real lighter, man. The best make in the world. You can’t knock it out, you can’t blow it out. Look”.

He blew.

The lighter went out.

“I got six, maybe seven hundred lighters back home. I collect them”. Mr Deems obviously didn’t want to talk about music. “This one’s a present from Zildjian”. He lit the monster again.

“Look, you can’t blow it out”. He blew more gently. The huge flame flickered – and then shot up again. Mr Deems beamed delightedly.

“See!”

Trummy Young called the Hungarian waiter over and asked for the bill. The waiter looked at the proffered Irish pound note in bewilderment. Barrett’s face wrinkled in a disapproving frown. The waiter shuddered – and disappeared, almost as though dematerialized.

“That guy looks unhealthy”, said Deems sourly, adding his favourite two-word phrase.

Barrett, who used to be a boxer, believes in keeping fit.

“I don’t drink much, but I smoke four packs a day. Trummy gave it up three months ago.

“I play drums the way I used to box”. He demonstrated with a quick jab and uppercut.

“The way we travel around the world, you got to stay healthy. Take Trummy: he doesn’t smoke, he doesn’t drink much, and look at the way he blows!

“Look what happened to Barney Bigard. A lot of people think Barney is just about all through, they think he can’t play anymore. But when he wants to Barney can leave any clarinet player in the world”.

“That’s right”, said Trummy. “Now Barney’s mad because he knows people think he’s through and he’s blowing like hell just to show them he’s not. He’s got his own group out West now. Take it from me there’s no better clarinet man playing jazz than Barney”.

Barrett recalled one night at a jam session. “Benny Goodman was there and he was scared to sit in. Benny used to come and watch Barney all the time when he could. When we’d play New York, all the clarinet men used to come just to listen to him. And he could lick the pants off any of them. But he’d have to be mad first.

“Yeah, when we’d play New York, there’s Peanuts Hucko, Hall, everyone. And Bobby Hackett used to come. Now he is one nice guy. And what a musician!

“You don’t get guys like that over here. None of these Europeans will ever come up to the standard back there in the States. They don’t swing the same. Things are much slower over here – the trains, the taxis, the shops and the bands.

“Here, I’ve got a picture of my wife. She used to be a concert pianist and a model. She’s wonderful”.

He pulled about five packets of cigarettes and a wallet from his pocket. He passed over the photograph of a very beautiful woman. She was wonderful.

“This is my daughter. She’s 11 and plays tympani in the school orchestra. All this band business is nothing to family. That’s what counts. A guy can’t be happy if he’s away from his family.

“I don’t give a damn for this life. All these guys pestering you all the time. ‘Mr Deems, why don’t you play like Baby Dodds?’ or ‘Hey, Trummy, can you play like Kid Ory?’ They think we’ve all got missions in life. All I ever wanted to do in that line was to play with Louis, and I’m doing that now.

“Back home when I was a kid we was always sneaking out into the back shed and my mom used to say ‘What you kids got out there?’ We had a beat-up record player and some Armstrong records. I used to tell the kids ‘I bet you a hundred bucks I get to jam with Louis and make him hear me’.

“I never thought I’d get to make his band, though. Ain’t nobody play like Louis, and there won’t ever be, not in a hundred years. Even Dizzy won’t claim to be that good, and he’s the only one come anywhere near.

“You know there was an English guy come up to Louis last week and told him he couldn’t play jazz any more. Man, how square do you grow ’em round here? This cat tells Louis that he can’t play jazz trumpet and the only guys that count these days is George Lewis and some English guy called Barker or something.

“All them old guys like Lewis, Bunk Johnson and fellers that play bass fiddles made out of soap boxes – they’re way out. You take a banjo or a tuba to a band in the States and try to get a job with it. They’ll laugh you to death. You gotta swing. All this chunk-chunk music is out”.

The Hungarian waiter came back and, presumably enlightened, asked Trummy and Barrett for their autographs.

‘Two things you gotta have. You gotta have swing and you gotta have showmanship. Now this band’s got plenty of both. There ain’t no better showman than Louis’

Barrett continued: “Two things you gotta have. You gotta have swing and you gotta have showmanship. Now this band’s got plenty of both. There ain’t no better showman than Louis and he makes the rest of us keep up with him. We could play nothing but good jazz tunes all the time and it would be great – but it wouldn’t sell.

“During the war I had the swingingest band anywhere, at the Sherman Hotel in Chicago. We knocked all the local cats out, but we didn’t get the business. Then I started a few gimmick drum solos and the other guys wore funny hats or something, and we were made.

“Tell you another thing I had with that band. There was a kid came up to me and asked me if I knew any work for him. I asked him what he played and he said accordion.

“I thought, hell, an accordion! All that Italian gipsy music. But I was wrong. One day my piano man was sick and I give this guy a buzz to come over. The other guys in the band was awful sore. They thought I was nuts.

“Anyway, we went into Rose Room and pow! That guy rocked like the whole of Basie’s brass section.

“I never did like accordion, but this guy was exceptional. You heard Ernie Felice with Goodman? Well this guy left him standing. I gave my piano man two weeks’ notice.

“Muggsy? Yeah, I was with Muggsy. I was getting 130 bucks a week with Muggsy and every day they’d come and say ‘Look how well we look after you, Barrett’. Man, my union dues and everything had to come out of that. And then when I quit they said I didn’t appreciate the way they’d been good to me.

“They was right”.

Barrett was fumbling for a cigarette. I offered him an English one, which he took.

“Man, you’re a nice guy. You should be a US citizen”.

He promptly turned out three packs of Camels, two Phillip Morris, odd Chesterfields and several of the more unorthodox makes, insisting that I should have them. “I want to give up anyway”. He gave me a light from the Zildjian and said “Let me tell you about this lighter”.