Saying farewell to a Jamaica jazz drummer

By Norm Harris

Master jazz drummer, percussionist and Queens resident Walter “Baby Sweets” Perkins passed through the lives of countless individuals both in his role as a world-renowned practitioner of jazz and as a dedicated representative of the parishioners of Merrick Park Baptist Church of Jamaica, where he served as deacon.

After a lengthy illness Perkins, described by his many friends, family members and adoring colleagues as, “the most loving, happy and gentle souls any one has ever known,” died on Valentine’s Day.

Originally from Chicago, where he served in the Boy Scouts, Perkins made his final home in Jamaica in 1965, where he continued to help raise his family of six girls along with his wife of over 40 years, Barbara Jean. It was here that Perkins, also lovingly referred to as “the dancing deacon,” became deeply committed to his community. The commitment continued even while traveling internationally with major band leaders and ensembles to promote the stylings of straight-ahead jazz. Like many talented and hard-working artists, Perkins would help offset his bills by working as a musician at weddings and other formal affairs.

Perkins’ beautiful church on Marsden Avenue in Jamaica was filled to the rafters with standing-room-only space last Thursday evening. An awe-inspiring turnout of parishioners, family members, friends and members the jazz community came to say their farewell. Many funny — and often poignant — stories, some of them quite long and detailed, were told by a few of those who knew him the best, including the Bishop of the church; his close friend and colleague Hank Wentz, the local jazz master from Carmichael’s; musicians Eli Yamin and John Malina; and Pastor Millicent J. Norton.

Jazz luminaries like vocalists Mikea Keith and Keisha St. Joan, drummers Roy Haynes and Tootsie Bean, pianists Dr. Barry Harris and Stan Hope, bassists Bob Cranshaw and Lyle Atkinson and a “Who’s Who” of other jazz colleagues came from places far and near to pay tribute to their beloved fallen mentor and friend. They played his music in the early afternoon in the adjoining church yard and later stood in the main church hall as stories and prayers were offered up to the family and attendees.

To say that Perkins will be missed is without a doubt, for anyone who knew him, an understatement of immeasurable magnitude. To say that we were lucky to have met him, as I was very fortunate to have done on occasion at Carmichael’s and at other venues, is a reward enough during this lifetime. But surely I will miss his infectious smile, his friendly approachable manner and his up tempo attitude about dealing with life’s little problems.

Deacon Walter Perkins’ internment was held this past weekend at Calverton National Cemetery in Calverton, L.I.

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