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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Mar 31, 1954: Dean Earl Back at Eddie Levine’s

Pianist Dean Earl, back leading the house trio after working some gigs across Columbus Ave at the Hi-Hat, closed out the month at Eddie Levine’s, and Eddie would bring him back in April, too.

Ad for Eddie Levine's
Newspaper ad for Eddie Levine’s, 1956

Dean Earl and nightclub owner Eddie Levine went way back together, all the way back to 1935 when Levine opened his first Mass Ave nightspot. That was Little Harlem, where Earl led the band. The city revoked Levine’s license that time, but by 1946, the Licensing Board apparently thought that Levine had learned his lesson and would be more law-abiding. Levine opened Eddie’s Musical Cocktail Lounge that year at 425 Mass Ave, right across the street from the site of Little Harlem, where Wally’s Paradise was about to open.

Eddie’s was a small place, on the second floor, and it might have held 100 people if there were no tables and everyone stood shoulder to shoulder. There was a bandstand on one side, at the top of the stairs, and a bar on the other. From the earliest days, in late 1946, Dean Earl was leading the band, either a trio or a quartet. His most constant companion was Walter Sisco, who played clarinet and alto and was a fine singer besides. Given the club’s small size, Earl generally filled his quartet with bassists and guitarists. Earl didn’t work at Eddie’s exclusively, but he worked at least one long residency there every year.
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Feb 27, 1937: City Bureaucrats Hit “Lawless Nightclubs”

It was page one news in the Boston Post: “Lawless Nightclubs Doomed by New Rules”! In the first major push to “clean up nightlife” since repeal of the Volstead Act, Police Commissioner Joseph F. Timilty (no angel, that one), the Boston Licensing Board, and the state’s Alcoholic Beverages Control Commission mandated strict club closing times and an end to after-hours liquor sales.  And wouldn’t you know it, the bureaucracy found a jazz club to serve as whipping boy.

In early 1937, there were two nightclubs at Mass Ave and Columbus featuring jazz prominently in their entertainment mix: the Royal Palms at 410 Mass Ave, and Little Harlem at 428 Mass Ave. Both were owned by whites, hired black performers, and entertained racially mixed audiences.

Little Harlem was the hotter spot, with one of the top bands in town, the Little Harlem Orchestra led by Dean Earl and including the violinist and saxophonist Ray Perry, bassist Slam Stewart, and drummer Dave Chestnut. It also had a colorful owner, Eddie Levine, who just had trouble remembering to close his club at the appointed hour of 1 a.m. With repeated closing violations on its record (three in the first eight days of 1937 alone), Little Harlem was just the kind of “all-night, liquor-selling type” of club that the licensing board was after. The new regulations stationed police on the premises of problem clubs to ensure prompt shutdown, and also explicitly forbade barricading the door, a common tactic held over from speakeasy days, used to stall the police until any potentially incriminating evidence was poured down the sink.
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