[ Interviews: Faculty & Artists ]

Allan Dean: 35 Years and Counting
at the Norfolk Festival

July 23, 2019

Trumpet player Allan Dean has a long history with Norfolk Chamber Music Festival. He shares some of the reasons why the Festival remains so special.

Anyone wanting proof that Norfolk is a special place for Faculty, need look no further than trumpet player Allan Dean. Recently retired from the Yale School of Music Faculty where he taught trumpet and coached chamber groups, Dean has been teaching and performing at Norfolk for 35 years “at least.”

Proximity helps, he says. His home is only 30 minutes away in the Berkshires. But an easy commute belies the real allure of Norfolk. “Norfolk Directors take brass seriously,” Dean says. “For 50 years or more there has always been a brass group at Norfolk and that’s a fantastic tradition.”

This choice, Dean says, is even more striking given the route many brass groups have taken in recent years. “The most successful groups are more entertainment groups,” he says. “In the brass world, we don’t have the literature or chamber music popularity to play 200 concerts a year.” That reality has forced some groups to focus on other types of music, which in turn, Dean says, has changed the public’s expectations to some extent of brass group concerts. “That image has sunk in.”

Norfolk’s continued focus on brass instruments makes a difference. “It’s a fantastic festival for brass players.”

Dean’s duties at the Festival include coaching the brass ensemble as well as periodically performing. The Festival’s Fellow brass quintet plays a major piece every week, no small endeavor. “It makes for an incredibly intense week every week,” he says, noting that the Fellows typically might work up a couple of pieces in an entire semester. “In this situation, every Thursday or Saturday morning they are going to perform a major piece.”

Dean started playing trumpet when he grew up on a farm in Iowa. His father was a good singer and violinist while his mother was a pianist who gave lessons on the side. “Music was always in the house,” he says. His brothers, who are eight and 10 years older than he, also played but they were strictly jazz buffs. “I grew up in the [musical] middle,” he says. “I play classical music and love jazz.”

But music was important beyond Dean’s family. He also grew up in Mason City, Iowa, the town that inspired the popular musical, Music Man. Meredith Willson, who wrote the book, music and lyrics, grew up in Mason City. “Music Man is really about our hometown,” he says. “It’s a band tradition in this little town that goes back to the first World War. It’s the tradition I grew up in. If you were in the band, you didn’t play sports. You didn’t do anything else.”

Still, Dean initially didn’t plan to become a professional musician. He went to the University of Iowa thinking he’d be a music teacher. It was there that his first trumpet teacher suggested he had what it takes to become a pro. He suggested Dean go to New York or Los Angeles — “that’s where the business was in those days” — since he was primarily interested in jazz, commercial playing and chamber music.

Dean’s eclectic musical interests are echoed in the groups in which he has played while also being a professor. He plays or has played with the St. Louis Brass, the Yale Brass Trio, and the New York Brass Quintet. He is a frequent soloist with Keith Brion and his New Sousa Band and he is well known as well in the early music field, where he was a founding member of Calliope: A Renaissance Band and the New York Cornet and Sacbut Ensemble. Before joining the Yale faculty, Dean taught at Indiana University, the Manhattan School of Music, the Hartt School, the Eastman School and the Mendez Brass Institute.

“I grew up wanting to be more of a commercial player, somebody like Harry James, not first trumpet in the New York Philharmonic, Dean says. “The trumpet is so versatile.You could play Broadway. You could record jingles and commercial things. I could sit on that fence with the trumpet.”

At 81, Dean doesn’t take a musical moment for granted.  “I can still play the damn thing,” he says happily, noting he was on tour the week before this interview in North Dakota. “Not many people my age can still perform in a classical situation.”

He attributes part of that ability to a tenet music teachers have likely been espousing since the first music lesson: Practice. “The hardest part is you have to put the thing in your face every day,” Dean says. “Put the trumpet down the first day and you know it. The second day the other musicians know it. The third day everybody knows it. The instrument can get away from you very quickly. I have played almost every day of my life since I was 12.”

By Janet Reynolds

Janet Reynolds is a writer, editor and content strategist living in Connecticut. She’s a lifelong cellist and viola da gamba player, and has played in the Farmington Valley Symphony Orchestra for 36 years.