Eric Deans: The Man, The Myth, The Maestro

milkchocolat 10/11/2014


A country known for Reggae, Bob Marley, and good vibes, Jamaica has a rich history of music and culture. Dorsh “Chocolat” Deans is half of the mix here at Milk Chocolat and shares in that rich Jamaican heritage, the country of his roots. His Great-Grandfather, Eric Deans, is a legendary Jamaican musician credited in the Reggae Hall of Music as having a significant impact on today’s beloved genre of Reggae.

Although a largely forgotten figure in Jamaican musical history, among his peers Deans was regarded as the leading innovator of popular Jamaican music in the decade after World War II. He taught himself to play music and by early adulthood he had become a multi-instrumentalist though his primary instruments were the tenor saxophone and clarinet. In addition to mastering jazz and swing standards with ease, he was also known to have written his own tunes.

Coined as “The Maestro” by his fellow musicians, Eric Deans revolutionized the reggae sound by fusing American R&B with Caribbean Calypso. He is well known for being immensely involved at the Alpha School for Boys and for developing the first, all-female band in Jamaica. The Eric Deans Orchestra was a premier Jamaican big band during the 40’s and early 50’s. The line-up featured many musicians who have made an incredible impact on the development of Ska and Reggae music as a whole.

Deans began his career as a bandleader and music teacher in the parish of St. James where he worked at the army barracks and the Montego Bay Boys Club. From his early days in Jamaica’s western parish, he earned a reputation for demanding discipline and perfectionism from his band; when musicians made a mistake he would note it and reprimand them after their performance. Deans was much like a drill sergeant, pushing musicians to improve through long hours of daily rehearsals, and insisting that they be able to read music as well as play it. This intense work ethic became ingrained in the band members and would be transmitted to later generations of Jamaican musicians.

The Eric Deans Band also known as the Eric Deans Orchestra or the Colony Club Orchestra was a dance or “Swing” band. The band’s Trombonist, Don Drummond was rated by pianist George Shearing to be amongst the world’s top five trombone players, and main Guitarist, Earnest Ranglin created the “scratching” style of guitar playing found in nearly all Ska music. Deans discovered many of his band members at the Alpha Boys School, renowned for both the discipline it instilled in its pupils and the outstanding musical tuition they received. Along with Lennie Hibbert and Sister Mary Ignatius Davis, Eric Deans was one of the notable music instructors whom volunteered his time to work with the children.

Deans, who was stationed as the resident band at the popular Colony Club at Cross Roads, was determined to move beyond the Kingston big band scene and take his orchestra outside Jamaica. By the mid-fifties, the Eric Deans Orchestra was the only touring orchestra from the island. He hoped the exposure to new music and regional musicians would strengthen their playing and popularity back home.

On November 10, 1950, Deans and his twelve-piece band boarded a plane at the Palisadoes airport and left Kingston for Haiti. It might well have been the first tour of its kind for Jamaican musicians. The originally scheduled one-month engagement lasted ten days longer because of popular demand (Daily Gleaner 1950)…. Billed as the “famous Jazz Jamaican” the band debuted at the Cabane Choucoune the night after their arrival.

During its heyday, the big band scene in 1940s-1950s Jamaica was intended to provide the “high class entertainment.” The long residency of the Eric Deans Orchestra in Haiti opened up a new musical world for his musicians and likely shaped their performance and musical styles as well. The band disassembled in the early 50’s and Don Drummond, Tommy McCook, and Roland Alphonso went on to form the Skatalites. Touring the Caribbean, United States, and United Kingdom with the Eric Deans band lead to many successes for its past members. The absence of surviving records of the Eric Deans Orchestra makes it difficult to measure the extent of the band’s appropriation of Haitian rhythms or those of any of the other places the band toured. We find clues, in later recordings of some of the musicians. Tommy McCook’s “Reggae Merengue,” with its distinctive merengue riff over a reggae backbeat, hints at the type of fusion that may have emerged in the 1950s Jamaican scene when the “Maestro” returned to Jamaica from Haiti as the “Merengue King.”

Although Eric continued to write and play music, his stardom faded and he moved to Manchester, England, leaving behind his big band and superior sounds. He is succeeded by several children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. If he were still around today, he would be happy to know that he now has two great-great-grandsons that will be raised with a love and fervor for music.