The Lively Arts
A Little Night Music
Silver City musician Dane Dexter knew all the greats — and, at age 86, still plays all that jazz two nights a week.
by Donna Clayton Walter
"That's Chet Baker! Yeah, I knew him." Silver City musician Dane Dexter points out the trumpeter, immediately recognizable to anyone who knows anything at all about jazz. The classic black-and-white photo is on the cover of a book, West Coast Jazz, loaned by a friend to this locally known and much loved trumpeter and keyboardist with a long life in the music biz.
"Well, it's not at all surprising I know so many of 'em. These were my years," he points out, noting the book's subtitle, Modern Jazz in California: 1945-1960. He flips through the book, adding, "Yup. Knew him. Knew him."
He pauses for a moment, a mischievous smile on his face, and says, "Well, I don't like to toot my own horn…" The man who shared the stage with many a jazz legend and played trumpet for 14 years with the Ink Spots waits a moment for his little joke to land. Ba-dump-bump! It's hard to tell which is brighter — the sunlight glinting off his white hair or the twinkle in his eye. "I mean, really, I'm who I am just because of when I was born. Well, and I guess where, too."At age 86, Dane Dexter now calls Silver City home; he moved here about five years ago after a friend did. But it's no retirement destination, as he still plays gigs twice a week downtown — at Diane's Parlor on Wednesdays and at Isaac's on Friday nights.
Born in Anaheim, Calif., raised in Santa Paula, Calif., the 17-year-old Dane Dexter Culbertson — his real full name — signed up for the Navy and was lucky enough, he says, to attend the Navy School of Music. He was stationed for a year in Washington, DC, then was sent to Norfolk, Va., then Hawaii. After his time in the service ended, he went back to his California roots in 1946 — just in time to hit the LA jazz scene when it was really cooking, he says. And while he never got to the point of giving up his "day job" — mostly administrative and clerical positions with the state — Dexter got to play a lot on nights and weekends.
"There was a lot of competition there, so I wasn't going to ever get that big," he says. Still, he was fortunate to make some good connections — "It's all about the connections," he says with a laugh — and soon had steady gigs and was sharing the stage with some real heavy hitters — like Miles Davis, his one-time next-door neighbor. He'd first met the famed horn player when he heard Davis playing in New York City with Billy Eckstine, a singer of ballads and ground-breaking bandleader during the swing era. Dexter describes his relationship with Davis at that point as "a tiny acquaintance. Just casual. You'd go hear someone and hang out and you'd get to know them somewhat, you know?
"That was a funny thing," he goes on, seeming to cast his mind back to recapture a memory. "I was getting out of the service, going back to San Francisco, and Miles Davis says to me, 'Look up Lucky Thompson.' He was a well-known tenor sax player at the time." Lucky turned out to be, well, lucky for Dexter. "I moved in with him and guess who's living in the little house right behind Lucky's — Miles Davis!"
That proximity gave Dexter more chances to come across the jazz great, waving at the mailbox, saying hello now and then. "He was just 'the guy next door,'" says Dexter. Then he adds with an explosive laugh, "I could kick myself now that I didn't use it to greater advantage!"
Eckstine also turned out to be a beneficial connection, giving Dexter a start in composing — and selling — musical arrangements. "Do you know Billy Eckstine?" Dexter asks. He pauses for just a beat, then launches into a baritone impression of Eckstine. "Everything I have is yours," he sings, hanging onto "yours" to almost comical lengths.
"I went to hear Miles playing. Billy (Eckstine) also was playing," Dexter says. "I submitted an arrangement to him, which was a little bold, and he bought it! He bought six more from me over time."
Writing and selling musical arrangements became a nice little source of some bread and butter, Dexter admits, but even more, it brought him a new level of professional musical satisfaction.
"You listen to Tommy Dorsey. Then you listen to Glenn Miller doing the same song. What's the difference?" he asks. "The arrangement. That's the guy! And that was me!" he says with evident pride.
"You hear Count Basie and you know it's Count Basie! There's a sound to it, a distinctive sound." Dexter describes his style of arranging as "a simple style. Clean, I guess you'd say." He says Tommy Dorsey was, in fact, his inspiration when it came to arranging.
Ina Ray Hutton, with her "all-girl orchestra," the Melodears, was another client for Dexter's arrangements. "I wrote her two arrangements a week for a year and a half, for her TV program ('The Ina Ray Hutton Show'). That was about 150 arrangements." His arrangements were for "band sound," he says, usually writing parts for keyboards, bass, drums and horns.
"I've made a record or two, back when it was on vinyl," he says. He also has two self-produced CDs of music that he sells at his local gigs.
Reflecting on his LA connections and playing days, Dexter mentions Alvino Rey, with whom he toured quite a bit. Again, the connections came into play.
"A gal I knew went with one of his trumpet players," Dexter recounts. Rey's given name was Alvin McBurney. "He changed the Alvin to Alvino to make it more exotic, and then made up the last name of Rey." Rey being Spanish for "king," it was appropriate that his vocal group was The King Sisters.
Dexter pulls out a framed black-and-white photo of him and a small group of others in a classic pose, singing into a microphone. He played trumpet with Rey's larger band and sang with the smaller group of vocalists, he says. Rey was an American swing-era musician and pioneer, often credited as the father of the pedal steel guitar.
"He had this gimmick, making his steel guitar 'talk,'" Dexter recalls.
With Rey's band, Dexter managed to tour around a good portion of the country. "We played everywhere, everywhere!" he says. "I didn't get to go to New York City with them, though. When they got to New York, I had to quit for financial reasons." Dexter headed back to California and the "day job," but adds that when Rey and his band came back to LA, "I rejoined them and played with them again."
Though Silver City audiences know Dane Dexter as a keyboardist, he says his first instrument was the trumpet, which he took up in grammar school. While his professional playing was on the horn, he started teaching himself piano so that he could write arrangements.
"I don't really play piano. Oh, I can fake 'Clare de Lune,' but that's about it," he says with a wink and a smile.
Early on a Wednesday evening, a cool breeze blowing in the door at Diane's Parlor on Silver City's Bullard Street, Dane Dexter sits at his keyboard for his regular weekly gig, framed in the restaurant's front window, the gold-red sun going down behind him.
Sitting front and center is his number-one fan — his new wife, Phyllis. Yes, this octogenarian must believe in the kind of love he has crooned about for all his musical life; he got married to his "beautiful bride" in July.
A young Dane Dexter, uppermost far right,
plays trumpet with Alvino Rey’s big band.
Tonight he is accompanying another beloved Silver City performer, Edie Steele, who has long performed locally with her band, The Silver Blue Roots. The duo are in perfect sync, he pausing sensitively while she glides down to the low notes, her rich, silky voice perfect for these smooth jazz standards. "Georgia on My Mind" brings gentle appreciative applause and there is a small silence and audible sigh from the audience at the end of "Moon River."
Steele glides into "Speak Low," a slow-paced romantic tune by Kurt Weill and Ogden Nash, made popular by Billie Holliday back in the day. As she sings the lyrics, "Time is so old and love so brief / Love is pure gold and time, a thief," a person might see the lie given to this by Dexter and Phyllis' new happiness.
As Steele sings "So Lucky to Be Lovin' You," Dexter seems to give a quick wink to his wife, smiling at the table. A murmur of appreciation comes from the audience when Dexter plays the first instantly recognizable notes of "Summertime." Steele's smooth vocal glides down the scale as she sings, "and the livin' is easy…" In perfect sync, Dexter pauses at "Hush, little baby," adding emphasis and musical grace to Steele's singing.
After one full hour of music, Dexter and Steele take a well-deserved break, joining Phyllis at the table. The musical duo met at Silver City's The Twisted Vine, a wine bar that operated at the corner of Broadway and Bullard from 2003 to the end of 2008.
"When Dane and I finally really connected, we started out doing jazz," Steele says. "We're very good for each other. Dane's a sensitive player and my voice goes well with the kind of music he loves playing."
Commenting on Dexter's pauses and her vocal style, she adds, "We're really in sync. It's conversational, musically, what happens between us.
"Our dream," Steele adds, "would be to have an upright bass. Then we could really do the standards!" Her wide smile and a raised eyebrow show her enthusiasm.
Dexter just smiles when it is pointed out that, at 86, he is one of the more regular Silver City musicians with two steady gigs a week, "as well as some private parties," his wife Phyllis puts in. He says he loves playing what he calls "dinner music," soft, sentimental classics and jazz pieces.
"I love to create that mood, that atmosphere," he says. This life in Silver City may not be as rollicking as his years on the road — playing with many three- and four-piece bands, his 14 years with the Ink Spots, four months playing on a New York-to-Bermuda cruise ship, The Atlantic, in the 1970s, that whole LA scene — but at this time in his life, he still gets to play live music for appreciative audiences. He gets to play what he likes, he emphasizes, and bring pleasure to others.
With a contented smile, he says, "This is just right."
Catch Dane Dexter playing the old standards in downtown Silver City twice a week, at Diane's Parlor on Wednesdays, 6-8 p.m., and at Isaac's on Fridays, 5-7 p.m.
Donna Clayton Walter is a Silver City-based writer who never gets tired of hearing Dane Dexter play "Summertime," especially when he's accompanying Miss Edie Steele's smooth vocals.