Photo of Dean Earl

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

It’s time to recognize a local jazz hero. Everett G. Earl, better known as Dean Earl, was born on April 10, 1914, in Corona, Queens. Years later, he said he couldn’t recall a time when he wasn’t playing the piano. Earl 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 Theater 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. He thus became 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.

Meet the Original Dean

It was Levine who named Earl “Dean.” At a time of Kings and Dukes, Levine thought Earl needed a nickname, so he dubbed him the Dean of piano players. The name stuck, and in the 1960s, when Earl joined the faculty at Berklee, they called him “the Original Dean.”

The city shut down Little Harlem in early 1937 (Levine was selling booze after hours), and Earl freelanced around Boston, often with Ray Perry, through the late 1930s. He was the music director and intermission pianist at Southland 1939-40, and in early 1941 went to Alpini’s, a club near Kenmore Square, where he was a hit: “That man is too much!” Down Beat wrote of Earl in June 1941.

In 1942, he enlisted in the Army Air Corps and was stationed at Chanute Field in Illinois. There, he played with the 505th Army Air Force Band.

Earl again worked with Ray Perry following his wartime service, and in 1947, he again went to work for Eddie Levine. The previous year, Levine opened a new club, Eddie’s Musical Lounge, right across the street from the old Little Harlem. Earl became a fixture there, working for months at a time between 1947 and 1955. Earl didn’t work at Eddie’s exclusively, but sometimes it seemed that way. Eddie’s was a small place, on the second floor of a South End row house, and it might have held 100 people on a good night.

Given the small size, Earl used trios or quartets, no drums, playing on the quiet side. Earl’s most constant companion was Walter Sisco, who played clarinet and alto and was a fine singer besides. In 1954, Earl had a particularly good band, with Sisco, bassist Jimmy Woode, who went with the Ellington Orchestra the next year, and drummer Clarence Johnston, only months away from joining James Moody’s group. Eddie’s was a good room for singers, like Mae Arnette and Pat Rainey. Earl’s knowledge of tunes was encyclopedic, and he played with all of them

Earl loved melody and always stayed close to it. Although he liked bop, especially Bud Powell, he confessed he never could master it. Nonetheless, in early 1953 Earl worked two significant gigs at the Hi-Hat, with Sonny Stitt and Charlie Parker. Perhaps they supplied Earl with motivation—that fall, he enrolled at the Berklee School, saying he wanted to feel more comfortable on the bandstand. He graduated in 1956.

Earl led the Hi-Hat house trio, with Bernie Griggs on bass and Marquis Foster on drums, from September 1953 to May 1954. Many of the Hi-Hat headliners traveled as singles and worked with the house band, and Sonny Stitt was among those the Earl trio backed. These sessions were recorded and released on Roost LP 418, and subsequently reissued on CD. Others backed by the Earl trio included Slim Gaillard, Dinah Washington, and Billie Holiday.

In 1957 Earl joined the trio of drummer and vocalist Clarence Jackson, with Lee Farrell on bass. This group worked for three years at the Saxony, a club in Park Square. Then there was a trio with guitarist Bill Leavitt and bassist Pete Herman. In fall 1961, Earl joined the faculty at Berklee (as did Leavitt, in 1965). According to the Berklee website, he taught until shortly before his death in 2002.

In the 1960s and 1970s, Earl continued to perform, often in the company of other members of the Berklee faculty. John LaPorta and Alan Dawson were frequent bandmates. In the early 1990s, he was part of trumpeter Tom Lindsay’s quartet. Lindsay, incidentally, was also a veteran of the 1939 Coleman Hawkins “Body and Soul” session.

In a career that spanned almost seven decades, Dean Earl witnessed the history of jazz piano from the Harlem stride masters through the contemporary playing of Cyrus Chestnut, one of his best-known students. But in all that time, he never recorded under his own name, and only once as a sideman that I know of, with Stitt at the Hi-Hat. If you should track down that album, “If I Should Lose You” has a fine melodic Dean Earl solo.