When little Dean blows his horn
THREE years ago, Dean Charisse was a lad looking for an instrument to play. Today he's tuning up for his first professional gig in Hong Kong, a week-long engagement at Quo quo's restaurant starting tonight, where Bonnie Gokson's well-heeled patrons will slurp rock oysters while Dean washes it down with sweet melodies from his alto sax.
But Dean is no world-weary circuit musician, he is a 10-year-old primary school fifth-grader at Sydney's Coogee South Public School where a school newsletter led him to sign up for saxophone classes when he was just seven years old.
By the time he'd seen his eighth birthday, Dean had entered his first talent contest, where he reached the semi-finals, and begun busking on Sundays at Circular Quay, Sydney's top weekend tourist draw where Dean pulls in on average HK$700 for a few hours' playing.
Any weekend will find Dean at the Quay or the Pitt Street Mall, where the money's easy but the Rangers sometimes move him on. It was at Circular Quay that Bonnie first discovered the young talent and set in motion Dean's first trip out of Australia and his maiden flight.
With the support of the Australian Consulate General, this talented and ambitious 10-year-old is now the draw for a week-long promotion of food and wine. It's not exploitation, insists Bonnie, who says she talked it over with Dean's dad, Dan, before organising a trip to the territory.
Bonnie says she was intoxicated by the music, and was astounded to see that these mature sounds were being produced by a kid.
'It's great to give a little boy a chance. When he was told about coming to Hong Kong, he said, 'Does that mean I get to fly over the bridge?' He's so sweet. They're best when they're innocent,' Bonnie said.
For his part, Dean thought Bonnie was 'having me on . . . say if you where playing and someone comes up and says, 'Do you want to go to Hong Kong', what would you think?' asked Dean, just hours off the plane where he had entertained the economy class passengers.
'But then it was like 'Aaagh! Let's get packing!',' recounted Dean.
Hong Kong, he says, is a bit of a culture shock and there are 'heaps of people', but he's looking forward to playing and shopping. He'd like to get some clothes and maybe a new saxophone.
Dean didn't last long in the school saxophone classes. 'It was beginners' stuff, with handicap instruments and the music was ancient history.' He played for three straight hours the first day he got his sax and now practises for at least an hour every day.
He first went to perform at Circular Quay because he says he wanted to see what it was like, and he thought it was great.
Now he has a musical director, who worked with him twice a week in the two months before he jumped on the plane to Hong Kong. He has expanded his repertoire to 30 songs.
'I'm not nervous about this, I'm looking forward to it. It's like a holiday,' said Dean.
One of Dean's greatest fans travelling with him is father Dan. Their surname is Charissis, but both go by the name Charisse because it is a better stage name, explains Dan.
Wherever Dean goes, Dan goes too. Although Dean is getting more 'personal about his music, his style is developing', said Dan before a wave of his son's hand stopped him mid-sentence.
It was through his father that Dean was introduced to the sounds of jazz. The host of a local Radio Eastern Sydney Sunday jazz programme, on which he now mostly plays contemporary music 'to keep up with this fella'. He is also the caretaker at Sydney's Basement jazz club. Dan, it is fair to say, is a jazz freak and his conversation is peppered with 'did you know?' music trivia aimed mostly at young Dean.
Dan is obviously a little in awe of his son's talent and commented: 'I don't know how he does it. It's very tough physically.' 'Dad had a blow one and nearly fainted,' chips in Dean.
But, says Dan, he doesn't push the kid. 'I have always told the kid, 'you want to do it, that's fine if not, pack it in.' The more I say it, the more he encourages himself,' Dan said.
'I have been beside him all the way, with him every Saturday and Sunday.' When I pressed the point that some may see him as a typical pushy stage parent, he quipped: 'I'm not a pushy parent, I just bash him up that's all.' Father and son chuckle together.
The future, Dean hopes, is more of what he's experiencing now. There's a gig at The Basement with James Morrison on the books when he returns to Sydney and he has a television agent on the look out for a suitable vehicle.
He has already played on TV, performed with a seven-piece orchestra, has appeared in concert with such international names as Herbie Mann, Dionne Warwick, The Supremes, Natalie Cole, The Drifters, Village People and the Glenn Miller Big Band. He also opened the Sydney Jazz and Blues Festival earlier this year.
Europe may be the next stop, says Dean, and he'd love to tour around the world. 'The future is what I'm doing now,' Dean said with an easy shrug.