Barry Elmes: Interview with the Drummer


Heather Schnarr talks with Barry Elmes, Jazz drummer, performing with the Barry Elmes Quintet at the Kincardine Summer Music Festival, Friday August 12, 7:00pm Huron Heights Public School Auditorium, 785 Russell St., Kincardine.

HS – Barry Elmes is an internationally known, jazz drummer now living in Kincardine, this is exciting!
Welcome and thank you for joining us at KSMF this summer! You will be performing with your Quintet as well as giving jazz presentation/workshops which are open to the public, we’re really looking forward to all of this!
You’ve played on over 90 jazz CD’s, you’re a producer, composer, recording artist, and teacher!
Checking out your website, I see that there is so much you’ve done in your career, so many musicians you’ve played with..Dizzy Gillespie, Tommy Flanagan, Charlie Haden, Diana Krall, Joe Henderson, John Abercrombie, Oliver Jones, Cedar Walton, Phil Nimmons, and Moe Koffman..incredible.
BE – It’s a lot of stuff, yeah. music has made it possible for me to see all kinds of places in the world, all kinds of people and work with fantastic musicians. It’s just a gift to be able to have a career in music, you know, to make that your profession–a Canadian Jazz musician–and actually get away with it and make a living.
I’m just thankful, – that I was able to do it.
HS – When did you start playing the drums? How old were you?
BE – I started making a bunch of racket in the house when I was very young, I was about six or seven, didn’t have drums, and hitting old pots and pans, typical crazy kid story.
So I think the first time I got into the drums was when my parents put me into the local Kiwanis Youth Band, which was actually a marching band. But I got some snare drum lessons, rudimentary stuff.
A few years later when I’m 12, turning 13, I get into a rock band, and everyone else is 17. I was just a kid, you know? And my father had to drive me to the gigs – because I was so young. I joined the Musician’s Union when I was 12.

When I was a kid, I was crazy about the Beatles, and the Rolling Stones, and all the other crazy bands that came along like Jimi Hendrix and the Who. Eventually I got interested in Blues songs, and was in a Blues band by the time I was at the end of high school, and then— it’s kind of a crazy story.
I was listening to a Blues station [on the radio] one night. There was a storm, and the station wouldn’t come in because of this storm. And instead there was this other station breaking in, and they were playing some kind of weird jazz music, and I was transfixed. It was a live recording that they were playing. – It was the Jazz at Massey Hall Concert with Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker, you know, Mingus, Bud Powell and Max Roach on drums. And I listened to this guy named Max Roach and it was like an epiphany. And I just thought – I knew right then and there: I have to learn how to do that.

BE – [York University] started a Jazz program, the first one in Canada, actually, and I was one of their first students. That was a fantastic experience because I wanted to learn, not just drums, but – learn theory; I needed to learn how to play this music.
Part of learning how to play Jazz is just studying recordings and going to hear everybody even if you have to borrow the money to pay the cover. You don’t miss an opportunity to hear somebody.
HS – For kids out there loving music and thinking about a career in music, I feel the main thing is to allow yourself to keep getting pulled in by the music and let that guide you. Then it just starts to roll like any other career, basically, right?
BE – Right. It’s not a constant rise in success, it’s a bumpy road.
HS – Yes.
BE – But I wouldn’t trade a single minute for any other way – there were a couple of things along the way that were not so beautiful, but overall it was just fantastic.
HS – The Barry Elmes Quintet has been together for how many years?
BE – This past year we’re actually celebrating 30 years. It’s a long run for any Jazz band. Now, mind you the personnel has changed a little bit, but that’s only in recent years.

HS – I’m interested in how you set up your drum kit.
BE – It’s bizarre from the outset to other drummers, because it’s set up backwards. I’ll clarify that: It’s set up for a left-handed player. But I actually play it right-handed.
HS- Okay.
BE – To complicate it further, I am a left-handed person.
HS – That’s great, really cool! So left-handed drum kit, but you’re playing right-handed but you are a left-handed person.
BE – Exactly! You’ve got it!
HS – That’s so funny!  Also, a Jazz drum kit setup – is it smaller than a rock drummer set up?
BE – Not always, but your standard [jazz] drum set is pretty basic, and mine’s about as standard basic as you can get. One of each kind of thing. I don’t have a zillion tom-toms. Snare drum, bass drum, a mounted tom-tom, another bass drum, fairly high pitched, then a lower, called a floor tom because it sits on the floor on legs. And a couple of cymbals and a high hat. That’s more than you need.

HS – It’s been a really special opportunity, having you at KSMF over the years. Performing and teaching and bringing other amazing musicians with you to Kincardine, we are very lucky, thank you!
You and I were on the phone the other day, planning this year’s festival programming and you told me you bought a cottage in Kincardine, after the first year you were there at KSMF in 1991, 1992 almost 30 years ago?
BE – As far as I remember, yes. I don’t know what year the camp was, I was hired the second year. I’m kind of a private person. It’s not that I’m anti-social, it’s just I like my own little space, and that’s it.
So instead of a billet, [KSMF] found me a – bed and breakfast, (the owner is now my next-door neighbour) and one night, after the evening concert, at the Festival that I just played, it’s a thousand degrees… So I’m out in the lake.
The husband of my neighbour, my host, was out there, and I just happened to say to him, “You know, my family had a cottage at Sauble Beach when I was a kid. But if I
could have my own place,” I said. “You see that little A-frame chalet place up there, if I could ever have a place that would be it.”
And he goes, “Well actually it’s for sale. It’s a private sale, and all you can do is buy the building.”
And I said “I don’t have very much money, so this could work!”
And he said, “Well, they’re away, and I have the key. So why don’t we go look at it.?”
So I went in and looked at it, and I thought, wow this is unbelievable.
My offer eventually got accepted, and so that was our cottage. Every year at the Kincardine camp when everyone else was coming up, since many of them were billeted, this became the “hang” place at the end of the day, and sometimes for lunch. It became a tradition.

It wasn’t until I retired in 2019 that we sold our home in Schomberg and said “Why don’t we just live in Kincardine?” Well, I’m one of those weird guys, that when we were touring and everything, there’s something about the water. And so if I was going to the East Coast, and I would land in St. John’s Newfoundland, we had a concert or something, if there was time, I would take a cab right from the airport and get him to drive me to Signal Hill, just so I could look over the Atlantic, because it just – I
don’t know what it is – that’s my spiritual thing. I just sit there and look at it and listen to it. Same thing if I go out west to Vancouver, if there’s time, or Vancouver Island, first thing is a cab – forget the sound check – first thing is an hour down by the water.
So moving here and being able to actually have a place on Lake Huron – I couldn’t be happier.

BE – It doesn’t matter if it’s classical music, Jazz, whatever it is, that relationship between what’s happening on stage and an audience right there, that interplay I think is a large part of the whole experience of the music. And so I’m really thrilled that this year we’re finally – barring some unforeseen disaster – we’re going to be able to finally do it.

I’m excited about it because I’ve wanted to bring this band here for quite some time, and we were almost there three years ago, and then COVID came, and I thought okay, here we go.
When you go and hear and see musicians perform, it kind of envelopes you. We’re a Jazz band, and we’ll be playing a bunch of my own compositions as well as standards, but our music is still very accessible.
I’m not here to have a musical science project going on. I’m here to play for people. You know, to reach out to the audience, and make a connection. Otherwise why would anybody spend their whole life trying to play a musical instrument? It’s not an easy road if your goal isn’t to play with people and for people.

NEW THIS YEAR AT KSMF – 2 Jazz Presentation/Workshops, open to the public – FREE at Huron Heights auditorium with Jazz superstars:

August 10 – 2:00-3:00pm Brian O’Kane, trumpet
August 11 – 2:00-3:00pm Barry Elmes, drums; Pat Collins, bass; Brian O’Kane, trumpet.
EVENING CONCERTS AT KSMF: All at Huron Heights Public School auditorium, 7:00pm. $25.
16 and younger free!
August 8 – Dan Needles and Ian Bell: “More Confessions – A Guide to Rural Living”
August 10 – Heather Bambrick Quintet – Jazz Singer
August 12 – Barry Elmes Quintet – Jazz