Doug Dean had no idea that a Woody Herman concert his concert-pianist mother took him to when he was 14 would change his life.
“My mom was an amazing woman,” says Dean, 78, a Palm Desert resident for 10 years. “She played on a radio station in Chicago and also taught piano. I remember hearing her on the radio when I was about 5. She started teaching me piano and how to read music. I played on and off until she took me to that concert—and I decided then and there that I wanted to study the drums.
“I was in the hospital at about 10 or 12 years old, and I remember listening to Daddy O Daylie,” the first African American with a syndicated jazz radio show in Chicago. “He used to say he was ‘the musical host who loves you the most’ and ‘I’m as nice as a mother’s advice.’ I never forget that, and I absorbed that music.
“In junior high in those days, there was always a music teacher. Mine was one of the best on the planet! I studied with him all through high school, and I learned to combine reading music with technique on the drums. A lot of drummers don’t really read music and only play the rhythm staffs, so I had an advantage that helped me get jobs.”
Dean and his older sister were born and raised in Winnetka, Ill. “My dad had played the saxophone in 1920s Chicago, but when he heard how good others played, he pawned all his instruments, because he realized he would never be as good as they were. For him, money was more important than anything, and he ultimately bought a seat on the Chicago Board of Trade and continued in that until he was almost 100.
“My dad never approved of anything I ever did, but he became an example of how not to be. I guess that’s what I learned from him.”
After getting an associate’s degree from Los Angeles Valley College, Dean went on to UCLA for a year—and then began drumming for a living.
“My first real work was when I was 27 with a group called The Sandpipers, an acoustic trio that had a hit with ‘Guantanamera.’ From there, I was lucky enough to go with a 35-piece orchestra with Anthony Newley on his first gig doing a nightclub act. (See the photo to the right.) When I auditioned for that, I got the job, because I could read. We were at the Waldorf Hotel in New York, and people like Barbra Streisand and Sidney Poitier would come in. It was probably the best job I ever had!”
Dean spent about 20 years working on cruise ships and has been all over the world, including the Caribbean, Mexico, and a world tour from San Francisco to Quebec, Hawaii, Australia, India, Singapore, Thailand and Burma.
“We were halfway across the Atlantic heading toward Nova Scotia when Sept. 11 happened,” he says. “There were 28 747s parked there in a row unable to take off. It was like the end of the world.
“Maybe my favorite place was Juneau, Alaska. When I was first there, it was 65 degrees, crystal clear, and snow on the mountains. The salmon was awesome—I thought I’d died and gone to heaven.”
Dean can drop names with the best of them: “Sarah Vaughan was once working in Reno, and I would go by about 2 a.m. every night for about two weeks. A couple of months later, I met her piano player, Chick Corea, before he went with Miles (Davis), and I remember he said to me, ‘There’s work out here.’
“I worked with Julie Andrews, Caterina Valente, Robert Goulet, Liberace, Florence Henderson, Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca—that one was fun! I was blown away when working with Jackie Evancho. She was about 12 at the time, and it was a 45-piece orchestra. She is amazing.”
“They are the two incredible jazz drummers on the planet. The brushes on a snare are felt with no rebound like sticks on the snare. And, of course, with rock ’n’ roll, it’s a thump,” he says with a laugh.
Does Dean ever plan to retire? “I play locally with Ted Herman’s 16-piece big band on Sunday nights (at the Indian Wells Resort Hotel), and I still get calls because I can read. For example, I was asked to do a benefit at Shadow Hills by Alexis Gershwin, George Gershwin’s niece. (I’ll play) as long as I have my health, and as long as somebody wants to hire me. I hate to admit that I actually enjoy it; musicians usually like to complain. I come alive when I start playing.”
There’s another skill that makes Dean come alive: flying. He got a commercial pilot’s license through the G.I. Bill (“I probably should have gone back to college, but I didn’t!”) and then got his glider license.
“I was in Las Vegas with Robert Goulet and was asked to fly the tow plane, which was the only time I actually got paid for flying,” he says. “I remember once I took a girlfriend up. She managed to hold it in until we landed—then she threw up.
“I once flew under the Golden Gate Bridge. That was really something!”
His mother’s influence is key to understanding how he found his passion. “My mom took me to hear classical artists, like Arthur Rubinstein, but she liked jazz and almost every album she bought that we listened to was jazz.”
The Woody Herman concert when he was 14 changed the course of Doug Dean’s life forever. What did it for you?
Anita Rufus is also known as “The Lovable Liberal.” Her show That’s Life airs weekdays from 11 a.m. to noon on iHubradio, while The Lovable Liberal airs from 2 to 4 p.m. Saturdays. Email her at Anita@LovableLiberal.com. Know Your Neighbors appears every other Wednesday.