Frankie Dunlop’s parents to be, William (Willie) Dunlop and his wife, a very pregnant Jessie and their two children, Helen and Boyd Lee had arrived in Buffalo, New York from Winston Salem, N.C. sometime in 1928. In Winston Salem, both parents had been working in the burgeoning tobacco industry for R.J. Reynolds. They were part of the northern diaspora of Afro-Americans to the industrialized cities of the north. Willie’s occupation in Buffalo was listed in the 1930 census as a roofer.
On December 6, 1928, Willie and Jessie welcomed their second son into the world, Francis Dunlop. Curiously, the 1930 census lists “Francis” as a “daughter”, which would have us believe that little “Francis’s” blue booties had evidently been exchanged for pink ones and he had become little “Frances.” The world’s first known sex change operation on a baby? Hardly. Probably just a census taker assuming that all children with the name Franc(i or e)s were girls.
One summer day in 1938, 9-year-old Frankie and 12-year-old Boyd, were playing in the front yard of their home at 573 Clinton St. on Buffalo’s east-side. The neighbors, in the process of moving, had placed some items that they were leaving behind in a pile by the curb. Upon closer examination Frankie and Boyd discovered two treasures: an old upright piano – a rather common sight in the homes of Afro-Americans during this period- as well as the remnants of a drum set; both bass and snare drums and a bunch of broken drum sticks. Frankie immediately laid claim to the rather sad looking drum set and Boyd settled for the even sadder looking piano.
Following some repairs on the instruments, Frankie and Boyd both demonstrated natural musical aptitude on their respective instruments. This talent so impressed their uncle that he presciently predicted that they were destined to be “good musicians.”
It was also around this time that William Dunlop passed away leaving Jessie to raise her 3 young children. The 1940 census finds Jessie and the children living at the rear of 264 Cedar St., in Buffalo.
The 1940’s found Frankie entering his teenage years and his commitment to music and jazz in particular became the driving force in his young life. Jazz biographies of musicians of Dunlop’s generation usually include descriptions of precociously talented, jazz obsessed teenagers sneaking out of the house against their parents’ wishes and into a local jazz club where the musicians, remembering their own teenage years performing the same rite of passage, would aid and abet them and even occasionally allow them to sit in. Frankie’s former wife, Laura Dunlop, recalls that his mother didn’t want him to go into the music business. She was a religious person; he could play drums in the church, but she didn’t want him to do otherwise. But despite Jessie’s disapproval, Frankie would sneak out at night and repeat this ritual at some of the many jazz clubs that were so prevalent on the east-side of Buffalo in the 1940’s and 50’s.
In an effort to provide Frankie with a more respectable grounding in the art of percussion, Jessie arranged lessons with Johnny Rowland who was just beginning a distinguished 4-decade career as a percussionist with the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra. Rowland, a classically trained musician and a graduate of the prestigious Eastman School of Music, had one other qualification that was rather unique for a percussionist in a symphony orchestra- he had started his musical career in the 1930’s drumming in dance bands. By working with Rowland, Frankie was able to acquire a musical foundation that straddled both worlds and a well-rounded technique that he drew upon throughout his career.
By 1945, the 16-year-old Frankie, though not old enough to appear in nightclubs, was working with rehearsal bands at the Buffalo Colored Musicians Club, led by some of Buffalo’s best jazz musicians including George Clark who was to go on to record with Stuff Smith, Cootie Williams and Milt Hinton.
Frankie also had the opportunity to work with Lenny Lewis who led one of Buffalo’s best bebop influenced big band. Here he shared time in the drum chair with another Buffalo born drummer named Melvin Sokoloff, who was 5 months younger than Frankie. Melvin would also attain great success in jazz. Young Sokoloff went on to be nominated for 14 Grammy awards. He also was the co-leader of one of the greatest big bands of the modern jazz era, the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Orchestra under his stage name- Mel Lewis.
In his Mel Lewis biography, The View from the Back of the Band, author Chris Smith reports:
“Between 1944 and 1948 Mel cultivated a friendship with another young drummer from Buffalo named Frank Dunlop. Mel remembered Frank Dunlop as the best bebop drummer in town and the two young drummers spent hours listening to records together and sharing drumming ideas.”
I might add that at this time Mel and Frankie lived within 2 miles of each other and by 1944 both were 15 years of age and were already being paid for their work as professional musicians.
Author Smith also makes the point that the war years provided an unprecedented opportunity for very young musicians to find work that would not normally be offered to them, as older musicians were drafted or voluntarily joined the armed forces. This helps to explain how both Frankie Dunlop and Mel Lewis were able to quickly find musical outlets for their prodigious talent.
In addition to the many opportunities that the thinning of the drummers’ pool had in creating opportunities for young drummers, Frankie also put in the hard work necessary for continual improvement. Future master drummer and educator, Nasar Abadey, whose mother was a cousin of Frankie’s mother, remembers moving in with the Dunlops when he was 6 years old and listening to Frankie continually practicing in the attic. When Abadey was 7, Frankie gave him his first drum lesson and became his primary influence.
(This is Part 1 of the story of Frankie Dunlop by Steve Siegel. Look for more parts soon on JazzBuffalo.)
Copyright: Steve H. Siegel, copyright protected; all rights reserved.
(This article first appeared on the blog “Jazz Profiles” on August 14, 2020)