The Troy Street Observer

Dean Earl: “The Original Dean”

Photo of Dean Earl
Dean Earl, mid-1950s. Photo New England Jazz Alliance

It’s time to mark a centennial. Everett G. Earl was born on April 10, 1914, in Corona, Queens, and years later he said he couldn’t recall a time when he wasn’t playing the piano. He was mainly self-taught but he had big ears; he grew up in the New York City of James P. Johnson and Willie the Lion, and by age 13 he knew enough stride piano to play at rent parties and YMCA dances.

By age 17 Earl was already on the road, traveling  as far west as St. Louis on the RKO Theatre circuit. During his Boston stops, he stayed at the Railway Club on Yarmouth Street, a combination rooming house and speakeasy, where the jazz was quite good. In 1933, the Railway Club asked Earl to stay on as the resident piano man, and he did—thus becoming one of the first, if not the first, jazz musician to move from New York to Boston rather than the other way around. In 1934 Earl joined Joe Nevils’s Alabama Aces, and after that went to Eddie Levine’s nightclub, Little Harlem, on Mass Ave.

In 1936 Earl organized an eight-piece group to work at Little Harlem. Its members included Ray Perry, doubling on reeds and violin; alto saxist Jackie Fields, who in 1939 would play on the legendary “Body and Soul” recording of Coleman Hawkins; and bassist Slam Stewart, then a student at the Boston Conservatory. “The Boston musicians liked to play with me because I had that New York feel,” Earl later recalled.

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July 31, 1949: Jimmie Martin Orchestra at the Rio Casino

Label of Motif M 2003
Mamie Thomas and the Jimmie Martin Orchestra on Motif, 1949

I dedicated a chapter of The Boston Jazz Chronicles to Boston’s two late 1940s big bands, the “white contingent” of Nat Pierce (in the blog on July 5 and July 16) and the “black contingent” of Jimmie Martin.

The bands had much in common—passionate and talented musicians, skilled arrangers, and a decidedly modern outlook. Unfortunately, they also shared a mostly empty schedule, and if the Pierce band only worked a little, the Martin band worked a little less. In what little mention the Martin band merits in the jazz literature, it is often called a rehearsal band.

Some members of Martin’s orchestra became household names, at least in jazz households—Jaki Byard, Joe Gordon, Gigi Gryce, Lennie Johnson, Sam Rivers. Some, while not household names, were quite influential. Trombonist and arranger Hampton Reese was B.B. King’s music director for almost 25 years in the 1950s-1970s, and trumpeter Gil Askey, who had the same role with Diana Ross, was one of the founding fathers of the Motown Sound. Still others were active sidemen on the national scene (Jack Jeffers, Clarence Johnston), or doubled as performers and educators (Andy McGhee, Floogie Williams).
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