Sunday, October 06, 2013

Happy Birthday, Demas!


Today would have been the [make that 110th] birthday of my dear friend, jazz trumpeter Demas Dean. When I first met him in the mid-1980s, Demas lived in L.A.'s mid-Wilshire area in a pleasant, neat, well-kept one-room apartment. The walls of his abode were an arresting photographic who's who of black entertainment; with many of the photos having been personally inscribed to him from: Maxine Sullivan, Billie Holiday, Valaida Snow and Elisabeth Welch, et al.

Of all his professional accomplishments, the one he liked most to talk about were the recording sessions he did with Bessie Smith; the first on February 9, 1928 with a second one almost two weeks later on February 21, for a total of six sides: "Thinking Blues," Pickpocket Blues," "I Used to Be Your Sweet Mama," "Standin' in the Rain Blues," "It Won't Be You," and "I'm a Cheater." Here is a little of what he told me about the experience:

" I had never heard Bessie Smith. I had only heard of her up until the time I recorded with her. I was so surprised when I finally heard her in the studio. She was so far above all the other blues singers I'd heard up until then---and that includes Lucille Hegamin whose band I was in one time and who probably was just as well known as Bessie in those days.

"You just couldn't stop listening to Bessie and looking at her when she sang. She was a large, attractive, brown-skinned woman, with very good legs. Later on I heard stories about how difficult she was, but I found her very relaxed, very sedate. As long as you were no problem to her, she was no problem to you."

The quote is taken from a never-completed film documentary I was working on about Demas in 1988. Looking back to the Spring of that year, there's little doubt that Demas knew, as his weight begin to plummet vertiginously, that he was dying and not just sick. Then one day I received an emergency call from his nurse asking me to drive him from his home to the hospital. The Demas I saw then was clearly quite ill but still chipper. After a few hours at the facility, I brought him home, and that was the last I ever saw him.

I later learned that that night, instead of his near-pabulum diet, Demas had ordered a fried chicken meal from a takeout restaurant. The next evening, unquestionably still in his right mind, he upped the ante even more by demanding and devouring the best barbecue dinner that money could have delivered to one's home. Demas then went to bed and died a few hours later on May 30, 1990. When people get very very old they sometimes become strangely unafraid of death. I would suppose that such fearlessness must have always been the case with the highly evolved Demas, but---as evidenced by his final dietary daring----it was truer of him than ever in his last days. Death by barbecue.

Not a day goes by. . ..


Here's part of that video I shot of Demas in 1988 not long before he died.


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