By Norm Harris
As Flushing Council on Culture and the Arts held its annual gala at Flushing Town Hall, recognizing the generous support from business and institutions that have kept the organization afloat through troubled economic times, another uplifting Queens story was unfolding on stage.
Dr. Dean Saghafi, the featured soloist on saxophone with the headlining Antonio Hart Septet, cut an imposing figure with an equally impressive tenor style. His solo ramped up the group’s already excellent musicianship with a powerful yet sophisticated display of his chops that had the audience begging for more. As fascinating as his mastery of the tenor sax is, the story of his unique history and how he became a member of this special ensemble is inspirational to say the least.
Saghafi, who proudly identified himself as “a lifetime resident on the same block in Flushing, Queens, for 44 years,” was born of a Persian father and a Lithuanian/German mother. He attended PS 24 and IS 237, graduating from John Bowne HS in 1984.
By 1991, after studying at City College of New York and SUNY-Stony Brook, he was a medical doctor. But after completing four months of leukemia research at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, and a year and a half of his residency, he said, “I decided to refocus and dedicate my life to education in the sciences and becoming a professional musician.”
Saghafi began studying music when he was 11 years old at the now-shuttered Flushing branch of the Brooklyn Queens Conservatory of Music, where he was classically trained on the clarinet. At that tender age, the talented young Saghafi placed into the adult division at the Conservatory, where he “learned classical clarinet repertoire, studied four-part harmony, form and analysis, including keyboard harmony.” By the time he turned 12, Saghafi was an accomplished multi instrumentalist playing clarinet, saxophone, flute, and piano.
His interest in jazz grew after he saw the famed Preservation Hall Jazz Band perform in Queens College’s Colden Center, where he met and talked with band member Willie Humphrey. His earliest influences were earlier artists such as Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Eubie Blake, Lester Young, Billie Holiday, and Count Basie, and he was soon turned on to the unique styles of Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane and Thelonious Monk. He joined the jazz program at the conservatory and developed a strong foundation in jazz theory.
One could say Saghafi made his own luck, because after putting in the hard work to dedicate himself to his music, he soon serendipitously crossed paths with a giant of the genre: the legendary Jimmy Heath, founder of the jazz program at Queens College, and two professors who would come to occupy a special place in his life, Antonio Hart and Michael Mossman.
“By coincidence, I was called in to sub for the baritone sax chair in the big band class at Queens College, where, fortuitously, I continued to play that instrument for two years,” he said. “Finally, I asked professors Mossman and Hart if I could join the graduate program.” They were happy to have him on board, so he applied and was immediately accepted.
As clichéd as it may sound, the rest is history.
The big man from the block with the big talent on tenor saxophone had a chance to play one of the late jazz icon Rahsaan Roland Kirk’s original compositions for his widow in the neighborhood where he has lived all his life. Dorthaan Kirk, one of the evening’s honorees at the gala on April 22, watched in appreciation as Dean Saghafi not only played like a pro, but paid musical homage to the legacy of great jazz.
The Antono Hart septet, led by Hart on alto sax and flute, performed a swinging set of jazz standards and original compositions. The septet is a multicultural crew of Hart’s graduate students, including Sejin Bae on piano, Joao Mota on drums, Evan Jagels on double bass and Francisco Lelo de Larrea on electric guitar, with accompaniment by Mossman, the chairman of the jazz program, on trumpet.
If he’s not performing in a big band, an Afro-Cuban orchestra with artists such as Cachao and Ray Santos or a small combo in a jazz club, you can also catch Saghafi’s next appearance in his daily dedication to the process of education, as he continues the mentoring role he has filled for the past 18 years. While teaching audio engineering as an adjunct in the Queens College jazz program, he is also the director of the Science Research Academy at Lincoln HS in Yonkers.
Saghafi, who always speaks with a genuine tone of humility, paid tribute to the teachers who have become his jazz colleagues, saying, “Professor Hart and Professor Mossman have not only been my teachers, but have been my musical mentors and my brothers. I have learned so much from them in all aspects of music, as well as life.”ï»¿