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By Don Dilorio
Herald News

With its old rust-colored carpeting, sound-killing acoustics and
institutional lighting, the room inside the Musicians Local building in
Paterson hardly makes an ideal rehearsal space.

But it does ably fit all the instruments and 15 men of the James L. Dean
Big Band in a fairly convenient location. Most important, the space is free.

It's another Monday night practice session for the band and leader Jim Dean
has a full agenda for his players.

"Let's do that Coltrane thing," he shouts out to the band. "This is a new
one the guys haven't seen before," he lets his journalist visitor know.

The Coltrane thing is called "26-2," which Dean arranged for the band, most
notably charting the solo for ensemble play.

Even for these veteran musicians, the task seems daunting. Skeptical
murmuring and complaints rise. "I'd rather not do this. My head is not
here," says one of the saxophonists, but Dean ignores the complaint, too
concerned with sorting out the arrangement and getting everyone ready to

"He's not hearing me, is he?"

If Dean is listening, he doesn't let on.  "I wish you a lot of luck with
this one," Dean hails, and the band launches into the number.

Despite all the grumbling, the band makes it through the song admirably.

"'That wasn't bad for the first time," Dean tells his troops and points out
a sec­tion that needs to be cleaned up a bit.

Pianist Bob DeBenedette, sharing space with a soda machine and an old
Magnavox radio-phonograph, is squinting at his chart.

"Where the hell is Q?" he wonders aloud.

"Right after P," Dean replies. "I can't read your letters," he says as the
leader goes back to attending immediate needs of the other players. The
pianist turns to the nearby drummer looking for a sympathetic ear.
"Chicken scratches!" he says holding the chart in his hand.

"Right from the top!" Dean announces and once again the band begins
seriously moving air molecules around.

The group is getting ready for its regular gig at Tierney's Tavern in
Montclair, one of the few places outside Manhattan that features a
schedule of big bands.

Dean's band has a recurring monthly slot, as do the Diane Moser Composers
Big Band, the Somers Dream Orchestra and the Rich Szabo Jazz Orchestra.

With a stumbling economy and post 9-11 fears still haunting would-be
revelers, entertainers will generally admit that times have been tough
lately. It's no different for big bands, perhaps more so for them.
Considering the costs and logistics surrounding the presentation of large
ensembles, getting your big band a gig is a tough sell. And Dean says many
organizations and institutions have cut back their concert presentations
this year.

Still, the bands soldier on the best they can. Dean says he'll routinely
call 10 or 15 possible clients a day: libraries, corpora­tions, recreation
departments, country clubs - trying to drum up work.

"The trick is getting in there and breaking the ice," Dean ex­plained.
"Once you play and they see what you can do, they usually call you back."

Not that anybody is making their bread and butter playing big band music.

Generally speaking, most mu­sicians in local big bands make their salary
on other endeavors. Many of Dean's players have day jobs, music teacher
being a com­mon occupation. Some have pro­fessional music gigs. A trumpeter
works with Alicia Keys. Another with Frankie Avalon. Dean plays in a
variety of situations, mostly small combos in restaurants.

The motivation for keeping a big band alive is simply musical: It's a
sound and a challenge that musicians just don't find else­where.

"It's very different from doing small group or single things," says
DeBenedette, a retired mu­sic teacher. "It's a very exciting sound
especially when it's a very good band like this one. Most of us play other
things for money, for the real money. We do this really for the

An interesting aspect of the various bands is that they find their own
performance niche. Among the bands playing at Tierney's, Dean's band plays
a diverse repertoire usually concen­trating on things not often heard,
like original arrangements by him or Billy VerPlanck, or compositions by
Coltrane, Thad Jones, Clifford Brown, Hank Mobley, Boyd Raeburn and
others. Their more commercial side comes out with their Frank Sinatra
tribute, featuring singer Van Martin. The Somers Dream Or­chestra is more
mainstream, while Rich Szabo's orchestra almost exclusively plays the
music of Maynard Ferguson.

Most unusual is Diane Moser's Composers Big Band, which concentrates solely
on new works by new composers.

"When I started the band I said I wouldn't do it unless it was new music,"
Moser explained. "There isn't anybody else doing this. It goes anywhere
from straight-ahead to avantgarde and anything in between as long as it's
fresh and challenging, but I try to stay away from music that sounds like
it's from the '40s."

Moser's band celebrated its sixth year at Tierney's in January. She said
that along with her compositions and those of the band members, the group
has performed music from 40 guests.

"It's very rare that something like this happens," said Moser, who has a
teaching studio in Montclair. "It's definitely an endeavor of love and art
and music. Knowing you're creating something special that bands wouldn't
normally do is very satisfying."

Despite the seeming non-commercial nature of Moser's band, the group has
acquired a steady loyal following, according to Jimmy Tierney, the
entertainment manager of Tierney's Tavern.

"I like the diversity," Tierney said of the bands he books. "The music
itself is very interesting and they bring a decent crowd. Not a huge crowd
but a nice crowd. Maybe an older crowd, maybe a dress-up crowd. Montclair
is a strong arts type of community and there are a lot of musicians around
so it helps, I think."

Under his black beret, drummer Rick Visone asks to take five but the leader
says they'll first do a couple more, determined to get the work done in the
allotted two hours. The pianist is now turning to the bassist: "His
handwriting is so hard to read!"

The band is now working on "Glider," an old Basie tune recorded by Artie
Shaw. As they work through the arrangements, the players bandy about the
technical language of "A minor 7th chords" or reference numbers on their
charts, but just as often they speak in the players' lingo, scatting parts
with a "be bop bu bu bah."

They sit behind their charts with faces rather stoic, even tired, rubbing
their eyes and yawning. Yet the playing is on cue and full of energy, a
testament to the collective talent and experience in the room. Jokes fly
freely in between numbers.

Dean got his start leading bands in the late '60s with the Navy. Stationed
in Hawaii, he performed in Navy bands, later leading the U.S. Navy Stage
Band of Hawaii in the early'70s.

In the mid '70s he moved to Las Vegas and led his own band, mainly a
rehearsal band that musicians frequented in the wee hours after their own
gigs. In the 20 years between that endeavor and starting up the James L.
Dean Big Band in 1995, he played tons of gigs as a sideman in show bands
backing such people as Billy Eckstine, Neil Sedaka, Melba Moore, Bobby
Rydell, and many others, and produced jazz records for Cexton Records.  But
then he got the gumption to revisit the charts he had created back in his
Las Vegas days. He approached Tierney's with the possibility of holding a
concert there and soon assembled a band to tackle the songs he wanted to
explore. It didn't take too long to find appreciative listeners.  "Our
audience is a niche," Dean said. "They're disenchanted or bored or not
interested in contemporary music at all.".
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