Buffalo, by virtue of its large and growing Black population as well as its geographic location- about halfway between New York City and Chicago, 200 miles from Cleveland and 90 miles from Toronto, Canada- was a frequent destination for the nationally known big bands as well as small groups playing “the new thing,” bebop. Nothing, including school, would stop Frankie from finding his way to the theater to see his idols such as Gene Krupa (who Mel Lewis also cited as an influence) and Lionel Hampton perform. On any given night at the Buffalo nightspots such as the Anchor Bar or McVan’s, you could hear Mead Lux Lewis, Art Tatum, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Nat Cole, and other musicians of a similar musical pedigree.
In Buffalo, Frankie continued to synthesize his ever-expanding knowledge of drumming. The city had provided him with the opportunity to assimilate a wide range of influences, from the percussion lessons with Johnny Rowland, to the small group and big band rehearsals provided by the Colored Musicians Club and the opportunities to actually play in the many downtown Buffalo clubs that featured jazz. The consolidation of these influences opened the doors for Frankie to even greater opportunities in both the short run and long run. In the short run it gave Frankie the confidence to make frequent trips to New York City where he met and occasionally worked with such established jazzmen as Max Roach, Kenny Clarke, Charlie Parker and Frankie’s future employer, Maynard Ferguson.
The long run benefits were even greater. Much like Mel Lewis, Frankie’s varied musical experiences during these formative years allowed him to successfully work in a wide range of jazz configurations throughout his career. He could drive a big band as he did with Maynard Ferguson and Lionel Hampton, as well as successfully negotiate the angular rhythms of Monk’s piano style, yet provide the melodic and powerful drumming that Monk expected.
Throughout the late 1940s, Dunlop continued to freelance around the Buffalo area with occasional side trips to New York City. In 1949 Dunlop cut his first record, a 10-inch, 78 rpm 2-sided single. It was recorded by a pick-up band under the nominal leadership of 21-year-old Canadian saxophonist/flautist Moe Kaufman and included Frankie’s brother Boyd on piano and another musician from Buffalo, Elvin Shepherd on trumpet.
As the decade of the 1950’s began, the 21-year-old Dunlop joined the band of saxophonist Big Jay McNeely. McNeely fronted a rhythm and blues group that was riding high in 1950 after his 1949 recording of “The Deacon’s Hop” topped the R&B charts. In a 1985 interview for Modern Drummer, Dunlop related: “McNeely took me under his wing and showed me the rhythm-and-blues approach to the drum, because I wasn’t giving him the right beat.”
The linear development of Dunlop’s career was interrupted in 1952 when he was drafted into the Army and was sent to Korea as part of an anti-aircraft unit but eventually ended up as the drummer in the Seven Dukes of Rhythm army band.
Upon his release from the army in 1955, he left Buffalo and moved to New York City. His first recording session was hardly inauspicious. It took place in October of 1957 and was a Charles Mingus session which produced the album Jazz Symposium of Poetry and Music. The album combines music and narrative. Frankie did not play drums, Dannie Richmond did and Frankie only appeared on one selection – for about the 2 seconds it took to throw a garbage can lid to the ground.
Dunlop relates the rather weird story to Scott Fish for Modern Drummer magazine in 1985:
I did another record date with Mingus that was on Bethlehem Records. That particular record will be a collector’s item — I don’t give a damn how long the world stands here. You can dig this particular record by Mingus up 50 years from now and it’ll be a collector’s item…
…Mingus slides down on his bass. All this is on the record. The guy [musician] walks upstairs [and] the music imitates that. And he says, “Oh, there’s my room.” There’s a knock at his door. “Hey, who is that?”
“This is your landlady. You owe me rent.”
“I told you I don’t have it. I was downtown tryin’ to get a gig.”
“Well, look. If you don’t get any, you’re going to get evicted. I’m goin’ to throw you out if you don’t pay.”
Then [the musician] hears some noise in the alley. He yells down, “Who is that?”
“It’s the garbage man.”
Mingus yells out, “OKAY? FRANKIE.”
I threw the garbage can top down. Mingus said, “Wait a minute. Cut! Cut! Hey, Frank. You didn’t throw the can down on time. You’re behind. Hey, take that take over.”
Here I am at my first record date in New York, throwing a garbage can lid in the RCA Victor recording studios. Dannie Richmond was playing the drums. He was playing all the intricate stuff. But my thing was, when the [musician’s] yelling down to the garbage man, “Man, stop rattling that stuff. I’m tryin’ to sleep!” — that’s when I was supposed to slam the lid down. And I missed it.
Mingus says, “No. You’re supposed to wait, Frank, until [the musician] says [the word] ‘sleep.’
The A&R man is sitting in there looking at Mingus, thinking, “What in the hell are we doing? Who is this cat? What kind of record date is this?”
Dunlop’s first major recording which did not involve a garbage can lid was a 1957 session under the leadership of bassist Wilbur Ware and included Johnny Griffin, Junior Mance, John Jenkins and drummer Wilbur Campbell, who Dunlop shared the drum chair with.
The summer of 1957 also provided one of the highpoints in Dunlop’s musical life followed a few days later by what might be considered a very low point.
(This is Part 2 of the story of Frankie Dunlop by Steve Siegel. Look for Part 3 soon on JazzBuffalo.)
(Part 1 can be found at this link: Frankie Dunlop: Monk’s Drummer – Part 1)
Copyright: Steve H. Siegel, copyright protected; all rights reserved.
(This article first appeared on the blog “Jazz Profiles” on August 14, 2020)