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By Dee Dee McNeil / jazz journalist
February 1, 2021
It’s Black History month and I was thinking about Donald Dean and his long history in jazz music. So, I gave him a call and interviewed him. That’s when I discovered some surprising and amazing things about Donald’s life and legacy as a jazz drummer.
Donald Wesley Dean was born in Kansas City, Mo on June 21, 1936. This is a midwestern city that has birthed a number of incredible and legendary jazz players including Mary Lou Williams, blues singer Big Joe Turner, Buster Smith, Ben Webster, Lester Young, bassist and bandleader Walter Page, famed pianist and bandleader Bennie Moten, Jay McShann, Count Basie and trumpeter Oran “Hot Lips” Page. Our very own Los Angeles legend, Betty Bryant, (singer, pianist and composer) is from Kansas City and also, Burt Bacharach. He’s not a jazz player, but we sure enjoy playing his songs. I asked Donald about his musical roots.
“My mom was a great lover of jazz and my dad also. She would take me to every concert that came to town. My dad was a hard worker, loved his ball games and smoked a pipe. He was a blue-collar laborer and worked more than one job to support our family. I had one sister, but she died young. I miss her to this day,” Donald told me.
“I took piano lessons for two or three years but I wanted to play saxophone. My dad was a great lover of Louie Jordan. My mom took me to see Louie Jordan in concert and he had all these fancy clothes on and he was smiling; all the girls were around him and I said, Ooo – I want to play saxophone. But, when I got to school and got the opportunity to play music, they were out of saxophones. So, they put me into the percussion section of the school band, until they got an available sax,” Donald recalled the reason he started playing drums.
NOTE: Louis Jordan was a popular songwriter, saxophonist and bandleader who had eighteen number one hit records on the Billboard R&B Charts. One of the most famous was “Caldonia”. His song lyrics and stage presence were often tinged with a little comedy.
“I attended R. T. Coles Vocational Jr. High School in Kansas City, MO. I was in the 8th grade, and Leo Davis was the musical conductor there. They stuck me into the percussion section and this girl, Shirley Edmunson, was quite a great drummer. I was very disappointed to be stuck in the drum section, to be honest with you. I showed my resentment and she said, well – can you do this and can you do that? She played the drums and put a ‘roll’ down and said, let’s see if you can do that. She challenged me! I immediately left school and got a drum teacher to teach me how to play a roll. Dave Burdell was my teacher. I loved him. He taught a lot of us drummers around there. So, I learned to ‘roll.’ Then I went back to school and showed Shirley I could roll,” Donald chuckled.
“But I still didn’t want to play drums. However, my drum teacher encouraged me. Maybe he saw something in me. He said, hey man, you should stick with this. I said Ok, I’ll do it on the side. One drummer that came up in my neighborhood was James Gadson. Surprisingly, when I went to school, my teachers put me in the band playing mellophone, which is like a French Horn. Strange, all through school I ended up playing French Horn and trumpet. I played my drums outside of school, because when the music teacher heard that I had a little success drumming, he wouldn’t let me play drums. He said it was because I was playing professionally. See, at that time, I was lucky enough to get recruited by a band led by a famous piano player and singer. His name was Amos Milburn and he was a popular rhythm and blues artist in the 1950s.
“Amos Milburn came to town and this girl recommended me to him. I knocked on his door and he looked at me and said what the Hell is this? He was shocked, ‘cause I was fourteen years old. He told me, well, come on. I can’t change it now. So, we went to the gig. He was so impressed, that we all left the gig that night and the band came over to my house. Amos and his manager begged my mother to let me go on the road that summer with them. They promised to take good care of me. So, at fourteen I went on the road with Amos Millburn. I was so young, my mother had to write a note to permit me to play with the band. She had to have that note notarized. On our breaks, I had to go into the office. I couldn’t hang out in the clubs we were playing. The guys in the band would all get drunk and run out of money. They’d come try to borrow my money, ‘cause I was putting all my earnings away. I didn’t go out and party, because I was too young. Their manager would tell me if I loaned them money I should get paid back with interest. Consequently, I ended up going home with a whole lot of money.
“I was working with some talented people like Willie Smith on alto saxophone, Tina Brooks on tenor saxophone, Wayne Bennett on guitar, a guy they called Sweet Pea on baritone saxophone and later, Donald Wilkerson on baritone Sax took Sweet Pea’s place. It was a great training ground for me. On That trip, we were in Cleveland Ohio when I met Little Jimmy Scott. He came over to me and gave me good advice. He was really strung-out at that time and he warned me against drugs. Later in life, we met again in Los Angeles. He hired me to work with him. Even though he was so high the original night I met him in Ohio, he still remembered me.
“After working with Amos Milburn, I went on the road with the Melody Lane Orchestra. I was fifteen. It was a big band. We toured South and North Dakota. I got paid in silver dollars. I will never forget that! I made $35/per night. So, I was making over $200 a week. I didn’t spend a dime. I went home with a drawer full of money. My parents were so proud of me.
“I went to the Navy, after high school, because I wanted to go to college. I went to get GI help to continue my education. In the service, I was placed in electronics. I did secret code work. I worked up and down the East Coast with various bands on my days off. One of the bands was with Gene Barge out of Chicago. He played tenor saxophone.
“I was stationed in Norfolk, VA and later on the West Coast, in Hawaii. After the Navy, I enrolled in the University of Kansas (KU) in the music program. I was studying to be a Music Therapist. That’s when I got a call from trumpeter, Carmell Jones, who wanted me to come to the West Coast and record a record with him and Harold Land Sr.,” Donald Dean explained what brought him to Los Angeles.
It was 1961. Once he arrived in L.A., there was no going back to Kansas City. That record with Carmell and Harold Land Sr. came out in 1962 titled, “Business Meeting” on Pacific Jazz label. You can hear Donald’s tasty drum chops clearly on this song from that album.
“I was working with Marvin Jenkins. We were at the Playboy Club five nights a week. One night, Les McCann came through and, on my break, he said to me, why don’t you come by my house for rehearsal on Saturday morning? So, I went by and after rehearsal he told everybody, we leave for our tour on Monday morning. That was 1967. In 1969, we recorded the historic “Swiss Movement” album for Atlantic Records with Eddie Harris and Les McCann. This was followed by “Much Les” released in the same year.”
In 1970, Donald recorded the McCann album “Comment” and in 1971 the popular “Second Movement” album. There were two more releases in 1972; “Invitation to Openness” and “Talk to the People.” He was on the road constantly and making good money drumming with the Les McCann aggregation. In 1973, they recorded two other albums: “Live at Montreux” and “Layers,” still on the Atlantic label.
“Right after working with Les McCann I started working with Jimmy Smith. This was before he opened his supper club in the Valley. Jimmy and I were great friends. It was his wife, Lola, who I didn’t get along with. Ray Crawford was the guitarist in the group and we were playing all over the place and recording. Yamaha came in and gave us all instruments for us to endorse. They gave me two drum kits. They gave Jimmy an organ and Ray Crawford a guitar. Lola started giving me a hard time, because I had a big following just like Jimmy did. A lot of my friends came around and used to hang out and she didn’t appreciate the women who were giving Jimmy too much attention. I think she blamed me. So, she got pissed off and fired me. Next thing I knew, she wanted the drums back. I endorsed the drums in my name and I wasn’t thinking about giving her my drums. So, she took me to court. Of course, she lost that case. Funny, later on down the road, she called me back to play with Jimmy.”
Donald Dean recorded “Bluesmith” on Verve with Jimmy Smith in 1972. In 1974 they recorded “Paid in Full” on the Mojo label and in 1975 Mojo released another record titled “75.”
“I was also working with Willie Bobo around that time and O.C. Smith. I also worked with Kenny Durham and Dexter Gordon,” Donald reminisced.
In 1988, Donald recorded with the great Horace Tapscott. The album was titled “Live” and released on the Americana label. Later he was on the 2019 Tapscott release of Dark Tree “Why Don’t You Listen.” He also recorded with the late Earl Anderza, on an album called “Outa Sight” released in 1998 by Pacific jazz. I asked him who Earl Anderza was.
“Earl was a very good alto sax man. Unfortunately, he was a drug addict and he couldn’t stay out of jail,” Donald acknowledged with sadness tinging his words.
In the summer of 1988, when I was singing jazz instead of writing about it, this journalist got a four-month gig in Jakarta, Indonesia. I had the pleasure of working with Donald Dean on drums, Spanish bassist, Salvadore on double bass and Dwight Dickerson on piano as my trio. Working with Donald Dean was pure pleasure. Not only was he a master timekeeper, he always had a warm smile, no matter what the situation, and a quick sense of humor. He taught me a good attitude on the road is half the battle.
With the onslaught of the pandemic, Donald hasn’t been playing his drums much. The day I talked to him, he had just taken his second shot of the vaccine. Until COVID19 made everything come to a crashing halt, Donald Dean was offering inspiration to young people in schools by presenting concerts to inner-city youth and giving them a glimpse of jazz history on public school stages around Los Angeles. Speaking of youth, he is proud to brag about his grandson, Jamael Dean who is an amazing young jazz pianist and his granddaughter, Darynn Dean who is a jazz vocalist. I’ve heard them both and they each have exciting futures in the music business. Jamael already has released one album and Darynn is working on recording her debut CD.
Three Generations of Deans: William Dean, Donald Dean Sr., & Jamael Dean
“Have you seen that Lexus commercial on TV?” Donald asks me. Without waiting for my reply he says, “My grandson, Jamael is on it. He’s doing the Lexus commercial and he wanted me to do something with him one day, so I went with him. And lo and behold, I’m in the commercial with him.” Donald Dean’s life is full of surprises!