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Interview: Dean Fraser in Kingston (Part 1)

Interview: Dean Fraser in Kingston (Part 1)

Interview: Dean Fraser in Kingston (Part 1)

By on - Photos by Veronique Skelsey - Comment

"You have to go where the music is pointing"


Non-musicians can easily recognise the sweet saxophone sound of Dean Ivanhoe Fraser.

It’s a sound that has been appearing on reggae rhythms since the 1970s. He rose to prominence as a solo act in the 80s when live instrumentation and horns were at their lowest ebb in the music. But then, Dean Fraser has always been something of a Trojan horse, breaking down barriers. As a producer, he combines roots music with smooth pop, soul and jazz, bringing prodigies Tarrus Riley and Duane Stephenson to new audiences while maintaining their hold in Jamaica.

United Reggae met Dean Fraser at his Kingston apartment. The meeting took place a few days after a charity concert for February's Reggae Month, and two weeks after the passing of his old friend and colleague, the trombonist Nambo Robinson.

Like musician-producer Lloyd Parks who was interviewed the same day, Dean’s home is full of awards – including the Order of Distinction. These accolades honour a foundation player who has stayed relevant, mentoring and instructing the younger generation. “This is just a selection” he says in his voice as high and clear as his soprano sax. His apartment is also decorated with African masks. He has a “stolen from Africa” tattoo - reminding that, however easily his playing and productions ride the easy-listening late night airwaves, this product of Trench Town is roots-rock-reggae to the core.

Part one of this career spanning interview traces his progress as a feted young band and session musician to a solo star. Like Lloyd Parks, Dean is a gentleman – when the discussion overran he kindly drove United Reggae to the next destination.

Dean Fraser

Where in Kingston were you born?

I was born at the Victoria Jubilee Hospital, which is downtown Kingston, and I grew up in Trench Town. Well, it started in Jones Town when I was very young. Then I went to the country maybe for a year or two and then my parents were able to get one of these scheme houses – so we started to grow up down in the Rema area of Trench Town.

How did you get the name Ivanhoe?

I think my godmother gave me that name.

It's a distinctive name.

I know! I don't know how or where she came up with it…

Was there music on either your mother or father's side of the family?

No. There was none except for my aunt who played keyboards. She did that while she was going to college in the 60s and that's where I started to show interest so she was the person who sent me to learn music.

Babe O'Brien... thought that I was some star

Where did you learn?

In Jones Town. It was like you're walking from one community to the other. It was the National Volunteers Organisation.

The first instrument you played was the clarinet – “the black stick”.

Yeah. My aunt took me to the NVO where I met a great musician Alfred Babe O'Brien. He just looked at my fingers and said I should play clarinet. So that's how I picked up the instrument and started to learn.

When did the saxophone come in?

Maybe a year or a year and a half later. I started to move around and I recognised that both instruments were basically the same with just little minor differences so I started to play some saxophones. I actually started to play tenor saxophone. And then after I started to play alto, soprano and a little baritone.

Is it right that you met Nambo Robinson and trumpeter Chico Chin at NVO quite young?

Yes. As you know Nambo died two weeks ago. And so from the first day I went at age 12 that's where I met Nambo and Chico.

What are your memories of that meeting?

Of course when everybody speaks about Nambo it’s that smile and the energy. I remember going to learn to play and in comes Nambo. I got my nickname Cannon. My teacher says "Nambo, who him remind you of?" And Nambo said "Cannon man!" So from that they called me Cannon. And Nambo, even to his death, I don't remember hearing Nambo call me Dean. Not once. Nambo always called me Cannon.

So what was the next step after learning at the National Volunteers Organisation?

Dean FraserThe next step was a fine beating from my parents. They gave me a fine beating for skulling, we call it “skull”, not turning up for music class. That was because as a youngster I got into sports and I loved to play the sport called cricket. I wanted to make my cricket team so I would not go to music class because I had to practise in order to make the team. So I got a fine beating from my parents and my aunt who took me there, she was the chief instigator in a beating and then my mum joined in. So ever since I got that I really took music seriously.

How did you join Sonny Bradshaw’s band?

What happened was my teacher Babe O'Brien, for some reason he thought that I was some star. I don't know how he conceived that at that early stage, but he said that I was some kind of star. So at age 15 he sent me to play in a band called the Sonny Bradshaw Seven. That was very premature of course as far as I'm concerned because I barely could play five or six major scales and I was in this band that with musicians who were jazz orientated, very studio and very seasoned. I mean excellent musicians.

I remember them - Tony Ramsay, Hux Brown of course - who gave me a warm time, that is the other person that made me get sharp. Hux Brown, Winston Grennan, a trombone player named Joe McCormack, Sonny Bradshaw, a singer called Errol Walker and another singer called Winston Clarke. So that was the band in total. I had all these great musicians and big brothers around me and I had to perform. So even though I was a way back I was able to work and learn at the same time. Sonny Bradshaw Seven was that first step. Sitting in that band for maybe seven or eight years - I think that may have been my college because that's where I learned everything.

Melba Liston taught me that way of playing. "Stop thinking about it, just play and be aggressive!"

And luckily for me the government at the time also brought a lady to Jamaica called Melba Liston. A famous jazz trombone player who played with Duke Ellington, Quincy Jones, everybody. When she came to Jamaica to help to develop the musicians she was a super inspiration and she taught me that way of playing. “Stop thinking about it, just play and be aggressive! Be firm within yourself” and all of that. So I was able to do some of that plus play in the nights and I developed over the years.

What were you doing concert-wise? Where were you playing?

Oh, we were called like a Top 20 band so we played a lot of dance music in the clubs and all of that. We used to play at the Sheraton - as it was called at that time.

The Sheraton Hotel. It’s closed down now.

Right. And we played at the Jonkanoo Lounge and at the Devon House for the dinner cocktail thing. But because Sonny Bradshaw was a bandleader, he had all the scores so sometimes we instead of playing dance music we would just play big-band music. Music that featured the band as a music band - you understand? And people came out just to listen to us play all of this stuff. So we would like to show off sometimes and then other nights on the weekends we were a dance band - playing Top 20 music.

Did your recording career overlap with your time in Sonny Bradshaw or was it after?

Well actually, I first recorded while I was in Sonny Bradshaw’s band. I recorded on an album called Roots [Jamaica Roots] as Sonny Bradshaw Seven.

Bob Marley came and listened to me and liked me

That was in 1975 right?

That may have been the year of Marcus Garvey words when Burning Spear did Marcus Garvey and Swellheaded and those songs. So maybe ’76? And at that time I was the singer who sang all the Burning Spear and the Johnny Clarke stuff on the album. But as a studio musician I started a couple of years later. Because I played in the Jonkanoo Lounge with Sonny Bradshaw but also with the resident band at that time there called the Caribs - led by Jackie Jackson of course.

And what happened was I remember Bob Marley came and listened to me and liked me. I remember when JoJo [Hookim] from Channel 1 came and Errol Thompson from Joe Gibbs came and then both of them invited me to come to the studio. First I went to Channel 1 and I remember playing Death In The Arena. That was like the first official studio recording. And then I went to Joe Gibbs and I played on Visions of Dennis Brown album and all of that. And then my career started.

And I remember of course the great Gussie Clarke, Donovan Germain, Hawkeye, and one more person from England, King Sounds. They recorded at Duke Reid so I would spend days at Duke Reid recording for these producers. And then myself, Nambo, Chico, and Clive Hunt of course, we would knock heads there and Clive was producing Culture for Mrs Pottinger.

First I went to Channel 1 and I remember playing Death In The Arena

He told me this story.

Yes and he'd come and call Nambo all of us would go and...

Something happened with Tommy McCook. There was a falling out and Tommy McCook left the studio?

Yes. And ting. Clive wanted a little more edge and all of that so that is how Rass Brass was formed.

I have also interviewed I Kong and he said that he was one of the first who brought you to the studio.

Actually, he's so truthfully said that. He actually came for me while I was in Sonny Bradshaw Seven and took me to play on the Abyssinians song, This Land. That had to be maybe ’76 or ’77. Somewhere around that. Because I was still a member of Sonny Bradshaw band at that time.

Nambo invited me to join Lloyd Parks

So prior to you playing on the Culture sessions for Mrs P, had you Nambo and Chico played together since the Volunteers organisation?

After Sonny Bradshaw… Well, Nambo was not in Jamaica for a little stint and then Nambo came back to Jamaica. When Nambo came back I was at home like now when I hear (knocks on table) and it’s Nambo laughing and saying "Cannon! I come for you!" Nambo invited me to join Lloyd Parks. I became a member of Lloyd Parks and We The People band. And we were a force to be reckoned with. We were like very, very up. We played well, we vibed well, and we sounded great. Of course you had Chico also in that band so this is where that big brass section started.

But at the time now, studio-wise, we’d usually just play with the band and the Nambo would do day-work where he would drive. And then Clive came and said "No man, come" so we went to Mrs Pottinger and this is after we did Visions of Dennis Brown and we had started to play on little songs down at Joe Gibbs and things. But at that time Tommy and everybody and Vin and everyone were still the resident horn players there so we had to take what's left you know? But Mrs Pottinger down at Duke Reid with Clive was basically where it all started.

What are your memories of Dennis Brown?

Lots of memories man. I mean he was one of my good brethren. He was always fun. We had a great relationship. D Brown, whenever he came, his first person that he would ask for was Nambo because he called Nambo “the spiritual advisor”. And then he would say "Where is Cannon?" And we worked well over the years both in studio out of studio and otherwise. We had fun.

Dennis Brown called Nambo "the spiritual advisor"

So how did you come to do your first solo album, Black Horn Man in 1978?

That came from me doing a recording of Redemption Song and Errol loved it. That is Errol Thompson at Joe Gibbs. So Gibbo, as Joe Gibbs was called, said "Let's do an album". That's where I did my first album down at Joe Gibbs called Black Horn Man. Then I remember doing some tracks with Donovan Germain who put out another album. And then a couple of years after that I went to London where Castro Brown hooked me up with Suzette at Island Records and we did Pumpin’ Air.

But wasn't there also a 1979 album that came out on the UK label Cha-Cha called Pure Horn with a naked woman on the cover?

That's right. That was basically a bootleg album. What had happened was, at this time I was the young horn player that everybody wanted on records. So I would do the tracks and sometimes do the instrumentals. So what they did was they got tracks from me, maybe Hedley Bennett and other horn players and they just put these tracks together and put Dean Fraser at the top with this naked lady.

Dean Fraser

Didn't you do a bit of stuff in the late 70s for Derrick Harriott? You did an album with guitarist Willie Lindo? Double Dynamite in ’79.

Yes. Right. That's it. Derrick came along of course because I started to record for him and we ended up doing a little album also.

What was your experience like with Island doing Pumpin’ Air in 1984? Was it a good experience?

Yeah man. It was good you know? I mean you had Trevor from Island, Trevor Wyatt who became a very good friend of mine. Still is. And him and Suzette were quite flexible and energetic and all of that.

You were also doing some nice session recording at Island – Wailing Souls, Pablo Moses – and you were recording for Sly and Robbie on their productions in the early 80s.

We were doing a lot of good, good, good, good songs. I mean they chose some of the old Roland Alfonso songs and we did some of the Ethiopians. We did some nice instrumentals.

Tell me about the time that you performed Redemption Song at Sunsplash in 1981 – shortly after Bob died. Because even today with Tarrus that is a big part of your show.

I think that may have been… I would say that may have been the most… I don't know how to put it now but it was mind blowing for me personally. To silence 15,000 people. I just couldn't imagine that I was standing there playing in front of 15,000 people and only hearing my instrument. I heard nothing else. There was not a chatter, laughter anything. Just my horn.

I was standing in front of 15,000 people and only hearing my instrument

How well did you know the three people that were in the Wailers trio?

How should I put that now? I have known them since I was like maybe 11 years of age. Because as a youngster I lived on Fourth Street. Fourth Street was the first street that crossed Collie Smith Drive from First Street to Third Street. You had a little bridge but Fourth Street you could drive.

And I sat there in the evenings and watched Bob, Peter, Bunny and they would make that you turn to go down to Boys Town club, it's a famous football club here, to play football in the evenings. So it was excitement where people would say "Oh the Wailers coming! The Wailers coming!" and all of us would run up the street. We would run after the car down to Boys Town and when the ball went out of play everybody would fight to throw back the ball onto the field. So that was my first kind of interaction.

And then the other part was when in 1980 when Bob Marley sent Tommy Cowan to get me to play on that Survival album. Yeah. I had a nice real good time. Then years later comes a man called Peter Tosh and I worked on an album called Wanted and then Mama Africa. And then Peter called me and he wanted me to be a part of Word Sound and Power because he had stopped touring. Maybe two weeks before his death I sat at his house with him and we spoke until 3 in the morning - talking about music and about what he is going to do and all of that. So that was him.

And then after that Bunny Wailer and myself we got really close because I played on the album called Rock N Groove. Maybe I played on like four Bunny Wailer albums. So at different times I really had the time to really get some interaction with all three Wailers.

One person who played with Bob and Peter was Robbie Lyn. Robbie told me that in the 80s the horns thing kind of went down a bit. Producers felt there was a lack of young horn talent and increasingly they started asking keyboard players like himself to do the horn parts. How did you manage to ride the digital thing so well? You did the Big Bad Sax album for Jammys in 1987.

I don't really know. I think I just stayed within the music. It was most important to stay within the music. You have to go where the music is pointing. And I think that's what happened with me. I stayed within the music. So the digital thing never really had much impact on me personally because really and truly I stood there and I stayed within the music.

Read part 2 of this interview here

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