By Dee Dee McNeil / Jazz Journalist

It’s preposterous to realize that the young man I see sitting on that well-worn piano bench is only a senior in high school. How can someone who plays piano so masterfully still be a teenager?

I’m sitting at the Dolo Coker Scholarship Foundation auditions and listening to a variety of hopeful, young jazz musicians. Jamael Dean is one of them and his talent is astonishing! He wound up winning the scholarship that year and then again, the next year. Everyone was buzzing about his piano chops. I went to someone who knew him well to gather history on this developing jazz artist. Here’s what his grandfather told me.

His grandfather, Donald Dean Sr., has been a jazz drummer for nearly five decades. He’s the one laying that groove down on the 1969 Atlantic Records release, “Swiss Movement” with Les McCann and Eddie Harris ‘Live’ at the Montreux Jazz Festival. He’s worked with Kenny Dorham, Ernie Andrews, organist Jimmy Smith, and a host of other notable jazz names. Donald is beaming with pride about his grandson.

“Remember when we used to do those school gigs back in the day?” He reminds me.
As the narrator for a program that taught young people the three elements of jazz, I remember those days very well.

“Well, I still do these school gigs every year for black history month,” Donald Dean Sr. told me. “So Jamael had a great ear for music and he started playing piano by ear as a kid; Picking out all these tunes on the piano when he was about seven years old. That’s when I first noticed it. In school, he started off playing violin. But his piano chops were so good that I kept challenging him. I would give him music to listen to, like Thelonius Monk. I would take him to the schools with me, when I was playing the school circuit. The musicians that were on those gigs were folks like saxophonist, Charles Owens and four or five of us would be playing. The schools were so impressed with this kid and so were we, because he would hear it and he could play it. You know, he would listen to Stevie Wonder and all that kind of stuff and learn to play it. Each year he got better and better. I would challenge him to listen to a plethora of people and I would tell him, listen to this and play that for me. I’d put it on a disc for him and he’d go home and come back with it sounding exactly like the disc. Back then, he was playing by ear. At the University up there in Bakersfield, they took an interest in him and started teaching him to read music. I had a little piano at home and I had a few books. We would sit down and the guys would come over, you know like Art Hillary, René Van Helsdingen and Phil Wright. They’d show him a few things and he loved it. That female bassist, Nedra Wheeler, she helped him. So did trumpeter Richard Grant. But all the credit is due to him, because he wanted to do it. It wasn’t about showing him. He wanted the music bad.”

Jamael’s father, Bill Dean, remembers that as early as age two, Jamael seemed smitten with music. In an article written by Richard Simon and published in LA Jazz Scene newspaper, his father spoke about his son’s obsession with music.

“Jamael would pull out pots and pans and beat on them as if they were drums. He would get his sister’s clarinet and try to play it. He started playing the violin at his school in the third grade. I bought him a little keyboard just before he was nine. His mother and I were surprised at what he could do on the piano without any lessons.”

While interviewing Jamael himself, I asked exactly what had turned his interest to jazz and he was quick to say it was his grandpa.

Jamael told me, “I used to go to gigs with my grandpa and he would just have tons of fun with his friends. I thought, oh man, that’s what I want to do.”

I asked Jamael, “What made you choose piano because your grandpa is a drummer?”

He responded, “Well, I couldn’t play with grandpa if I played drums.”

We laughed about that, but it made sense.

“When I would listen to my grandpa with Les McCann, like … Les’s approach to piano made it seem so cool. I was influenced by Les McCann, Bobby Timmons and Ahmad Jamal when I was just a kid.”

Jamael is a quiet, unobtrusive individual. He’s appropriately hesitant to sing his own praises, but his grandfather was quick to tell me how multi-talented he is.
Donald Dean Senior said, “You know I was teaching him drums too. He’s multi-talented. He can play the drums. He’s got a saxophone, he’s got a trumpet, he’s got a bass, he’s got a guitar and he tinkers around with all of these things. He started on violin, when he was in grade school, and it was donated to him by my good friend, bassist, Louie Spears. I’m so proud to have a grandson that’s interested in jazz.”

I spoke to master bassist and educator, Richard Simon, who remembers Jamael as an eleven or twelve-year-old piano prodigy who participated in the JazzAmerica Foundation.

“Back in 2010, I was playing a private party in the Baldwin Hills area of Los Angeles. It was just before Christmas. Donald Dean was the drummer and he asked me if his grandson could play a tune on the piano when the band took a break. I wasn’t the leader, but I said I thought it would be fine. A very thin, shy youngster of about 11 0r 12 years old climbed onto the piano bench and proceeded to play Monk’s ‘Ruby My Dear’. That’s a daunting piece, even for older folks, never mind a pipsqueak pre-teen. But Jamael played it with so much soulfulness it was clear that he possessed a rare depth of understanding about the music. When he finished and the raucous ovation subsided, I practically tackled him and said, you’re not leaving this room until I get your name and phone number. We have a jazz program on Saturday mornings and you’d be perfect for it. His dad said that they lived in Bakersfield, some 90 miles away, but he said the family would discuss bringing Jamael to Hollywood once a week. Apparently there was one teacher up there helping nurture Jamael’s interest in jazz, but no program like JazzAmerica for group instruction.

“Buddy Collette was a co-founder of JazzAmerica in 1994. In the first several years, JA operated on two tracks; Saturday ‘Master Classes’ for high school musicians and weekday jazz instruction at four middle schools and Fairfax High School as an After-School program. The original mentors on Saturdays included Gerald Wiggins, Bobby Bryant, Ndugu Chancler, Tony White, Buddy (Collette) himself and yours truly. We were supported by the Music Center of the County of Los Angeles, which gave us access to the rehearsal rooms adjacent to the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. The first several summers, we served ninety students. Later, we solicited the help of the Skirball Cultural Center in the Sepulveda Pass at Mulholland for new funding, hired school buses to bring in kids from the city, and performed at Skirball’s annual arts fairs. One special year there, 2005, we were blessed with the likes of Katie Thiroux, (now a successful professional bassist), and Austin Peralta, the phenomenally talented pianist who later died tragically in his early 20’s. Today, we’re still in business, more canoe than cruise ship, but nonetheless, buoyed by a handful of organizations and propelled by the interest in jazz that still beats within the heart of the community. In twenty-two years, we have provided a home for a thousand youngsters. On July 31, JazzAmerica youth will open the second day of the 2016 Central Avenue Jazz Festival.

“Getting back to when I first met Jamael, our program resumed in early January of 2011. The Dean family car was usually the first one in the Musicians Union’s parking lot. Jamael was the quietest student in the band and the most focused. He clearly had listened to the recordings of the pieces we rehearsed and arrived at each rehearsal ready to play. He had an instinctive feel for the way jazz piano supports the collective improvisation of the brass and saxes in traditional jazz. He crafted his solos, creating personally meaningful phrases that incorporated the jazz vocabulary without clichés. Music is simply in his blood and in his soul.”

When I interviewed Jamael Dean, he explained how he was influenced by McCann, Timmons and Ahmad Jamal. But it didn’t take long for his taste in music and musical concepts to grow.

“Now, I’ve kind of gravitated more towards Herbie Hancock, Alice Coltrane, McCoy Tyner and Sun Ra. They were definitely trying to reach a higher place … and I’m trying to tap into that,” Jamael shared with youthful sincerity.

When he was in the 8th grade, they had a program called the Bill Green Mentorship. Jamael was still living in Bakersfield, California, where he attended Compton Junior High school. Many young students, who have an interest in music and jazz, are unable to afford private music lessons and need the opportunity to grow and become professional musicians. Initiated in 1998, the Los Angeles Jazz Society’s Bill Green Mentorship Program provides that opportunity for qualified students every year. The purpose of the program is to supplement the education of promising young jazz students and encourage their development as future professional jazz artists. They invested wisely in the blossoming talent of Jamael Dean.
At a point when he was graduating from Junior High School to High School, his family moved from Bakersfield to Los Angeles so their gifted son could attend The Los Angeles County High School for the Arts. Jamael lit up when he talked about his school.

“My school gives me a lot of opportunities, like going up to the Generation Jazz Festival and also the people they bring in for Master classes are great. For example, this guy named Dayna Stephens (a saxophone player from New York), he’s a bad dude. He came a couple of times and Gerald Clayton visited us. The Thelonius Monk Institute always comes up to our school as well. I plan to go to the Brubeck Institute next and then I was going to try and go to The New School in New York. I have a scholarship already,” he spoke quietly, but with a determined firmness to his tone.

“My musical dreams and goals are kind of eclectic. I started off playing R&B and gospel music. I really just want to tie all of the genre’s together to show that it comes from the same place. It all comes from improvisation from the beginning and bridging the gap between musicians and people who aren’t musicians. Because musicians like a certain type of music and audiences might not be able to deal with it sometimes (for lack of a better term) the intellectualness of it. So, I want to be able to find the complexities and make it come across as simplicities and all the simplicities come across as complexities. After all, clearly music is a universal language.”

In the summer of 2015, Jamael spent 10 days in Vienna, Austria as a scholarship recipient for the Zawinul Foundation for Achievement.

“I’m actually going to get to go to Japan this summer, touring with (saxophonist) Kamasi Washington. That’ll be pretty cool. I’ve always wanted to visit Japan,” Jamael told me.

This is only the first trip, in a string of many, that I visualize for this talented pianist. I won’t be surprised when he is leading his own band and touring to promote his own CD. Meantime, keep the name of Jamael Dean on your radar, and listen for his amazing talents as he plays around town. Watch him jamming with Jon Baptiste in the video below, and I’ll be featuring him on Sunday, June 12th, with the amazing Michael Session sextet, in concert at Maverick’s Flat in the historic Crenshaw district of Los Angeles, as part of my Sunday Best Jazz Series.

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