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Playing for Time

Drummer who started at 13 finds jazz endlessly creative.

September 10, 1998|ZAN STEWART | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

At an age when most of us were just getting a vague idea of what we'd like to do with our lives, Donald Dean launched his career.

Dean, from Kansas City, Mo., was on the road, with parental approval, at age 13. He landed a gig, at 14, touring with Amos Milburn, a versatile pianist-singer who had such major hits as "Bad, Bad Whiskey."

"A shake dancer named Peaches recommended me for the job," said Dean. "It was a jazz experience with a blues background."

Later came associations with jazz notables such as tenor saxophonist Dexter Gordon, trumpeter Kenny Dorham, organist Jimmy Smith, pianist-singer Les McCann and vocalist Betty Carter.

Dean was impressed by concerts he attended as a kid. His mother took him to see Count Basie. At Jazz at the Philharmonic programs, he saw Lester Young and Illinois Jacquet.

Naturally, he wanted to play the saxophone.

"At school, there weren't any horns left, so I was stuck in the drum section, which made me angry," Dean said. "But I took lessons, and caught on fast."

Dean, who has a subtle yet driving sense of swing, started playing young and never stopped.

"I work 24-7," the Los Angeles resident said of his long hours and hectic weekly schedule. Recent engagements have included an appearance with trumpeter Jerry Rusch in Hermosa Beach, with ex-John Coltrane bassist Art Davis at Border's Books in Long Beach, and a guest slot with the Glory Land New Orleans Band at Disneyland.

Locally, he plays with Jim and Martha Hession's American Jazz Quintet tonight at Jax in Glendale and Friday at Residuals in Studio City.

Of all his performances, Dean considers those he had after he moved to Los Angeles in 1961 as pivotal. In particular, he cites a brief tenure with Dorham, who had played with jazz giant Charlie Parker. "I hadn't really been exposed to hard-core jazz played like that," he said. "I was in a dream world, I was so happy."

As for longevity and exposure, nothing can top Dean's mid-1960s to early '70s stint with McCann, with whom he made one of the most popular jazz records ever, "Swiss Movement," which contains the hit, "Compared to What." The drummer recalled that recording, made live at the 1969 Montreux (Switzerland) Jazz Festival.

"We did it all with no rehearsals," he said. "While we were recording that tune, [drum greats] Kenny Clarke and Jimmy Cobb were standing behind me, yelling, 'Come on, man!" At one point, Ella Fitzgerald walked into the hall, and that drove the audience nuts."

Since 1990, the drummer has performed with the Hessions. "It's a great group," he said. "Jim knows almost any tune in the book, so I learn a lot. And Martha's quite a song stylist."

He also holds no grudge against the school that ran out of saxes and handed him drumsticks. Drums are the perfect instrument for him, he said, and jazz is the perfect style.

"I love the challenge to be creative," he said. "I always try to play the drums, not beat them, to complement the other musicians. And when given a chance, I do my thing."

* Donald Dean plays with American Jazz Quintet tonight, 9-1:30 a.m., at Jax, 339 N. Brand Blvd., Glendale. No cover, no minimum. (818) 500-1604. He also works with the group on Friday, 8:30 p.m., at Residuals, 11042 Ventura Blvd., Studio City. No cover, no minimum. Call (818) 761-8301

*

Hold the Solos: Most jazz groups spotlight improvisations, but Mike Miller decided, just for once, to heck with that.

"We'll play a lot of my originals, some of which are completely composed, just trying to capture a mood and hold it," said Miller, the engaging ex-Chick Corea guitarist. He appears tonight with two old friends--drummer Ralph Humphrey and bassist Jimmy Johnson--from 9 to 1 a.m. at the Baked Potato (3787 Cahuenga Blvd., North Hollywood; $10 cover, two-drink minimum; [818] 980-1615).

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Pair of Guitarists: Superb guitarist Joe DiOrio makes a rare local appearance when he joins fellow guitarist John Pisano for some serious duets Tuesday, 8:30 p.m., at Papashon (15910 Ventura Blvd., Encino; no cover, no minimum; [818] 783-6664).

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