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The Bergen Record

Sunday August 15th, 2004.

Jim Beckerman

Here and Now: New Jersey Arts:


Bandleader James L. Dean learned how to put on a show from some of the biggest names in the business: Billy Eckstine, Neil Sedaka, Charo, Melba Moore, Buddy Greco, Leslie Uggams, and Connie Francis.  From others he learned how not to put on a show.  Yul Brynner didn’t go over very well,” recalls Dean, 56, a Haledon resident.  “Just because you’re a big star, it doesn’t mean you can walk onstage and jive your way through it.”


Dean got to know these performers and many others during long stints in the house bands of several Catskills hotels during the waning years of that resort community in the 1970s.


Nowadays, when Dean goes onstage as frontman for the 15 piece James L. Dean Big Band (the group plays at 7:30 pm Thursday at the Whiskey Café’ in Lyndhurst), he takes with him the lessons he learned from his salad days at resorts like the Concord and the Pines.


Brynner’s act just wasn’t prepared,” Dean remembers.  “The night before, Shirley Bassey was there and she knocked ‘em dead.  It was a memorable gig.  The following night was Brynner.  It was a dull show.  All he could do was a couple of songs from ‘The King and I’.  It just didn’t happen.  That was a big education, working at the Catskills.”


The upshot:  When Dean goes onstage to play swing-era standards for his audience of lindy-hoppers, ha makes sure that his show is tight as a drum.  Preferably one of Gene Krupa’s.  “Younger people are knocked out by this music”,  Dean says.  “It’s a whole new experience to them, the power and the sound and the guts and the drive”.


His set mixes the expected swing-era standards like “Sing Sing Sing” and “Pennies from Heaven” with obscure Artie Shaw charts and offbeat tunes by Benny Goodman, Count Basie, and Duke Ellington.  Some of this music has ended up on the band’s first CD, “Swingin’ at the Whiskey Café’”, being released this week.  “In this band, there’s no comfort zone”, he says.  “I don’t just do charts everyone knows.  Some of the material can be pretty challenging”.


Dean grew up in Paterson and learned his material trade playing horns and reeds in the U.S. Navy band in the 1960s.  For his band, which does about 30 shows a year, he’s gathered a bumper crop of great players who cut their teeth touring with major stars or playing in the pits of Broadway shows.


“I’m pretty fortunate, I have good players”, he says.  “I can’t have regular Joe Shmoes, or the thing is a disaster.  With the right players, the thing burns”.


For more information on the Whiskey Café’ performance (swing dance lessons begin at 6 pm), call (201) 939-4889 or visit  For more information about the James L. Dean Orchestra visit


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