The story of Thelonious Monk’s engagement at the Five Spot in the summer of 1957 has entered into jazz lore as possibly the most consequential club engagement in the history of jazz, bringing together Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane and serving to rapidly propel both careers forward. But Frankie Dunlop’s very short role in it and his near-miss at having a “back-row-seat” while jazz history unfolded in front of him, is less well known.
Monk had opened at the Five Spot with a temporary trio of Mike Matos on bass and Mack Simpkins on drums. During the first 2 weeks at the Five Spot, Monk began to put together his permanent quartet. John Coltrane and Wilbur Ware quickly came on board. For the drum chair Monk remembered a drummer named Frankie Dunlop, who he had recently seen performing at a club in Harlem. Monk had been very impressed by the drummer. So, Frankie Dunlop was hired by Monk and completed the quartet. Monk, Coltrane, Ware and Dunlop opened at the Five Spot on July 16, 1957.
At this time in New York, if you were playing in a union ensemble, you needed a union card issued by New York City Local 802 and a 3-month waiting period existed between time of application and when the card was issued. By July 16th Dunlop had yet to complete the waiting period, so a few days into the gig a union representative appeared at the club and notified Monk and Dunlop that he could no longer play. Monk protested to the union rep but to no avail and Dunlop was immediately replaced by Shadow Wilson.
Tough break for Frankie but at least Dunlop was now on Monk’s radar and 3½ years later he would get his second chance to work with Monk.
From 1958 until November 1961, when he was again hired by Monk, Dunlop gained valuable experience. He played with Sonny Rollins but did not record with Rollins until 1966 on the Impulse issued album Alfie. He spent the period 1958 to early 1960 propelling the Maynard Ferguson band, with whom he recorded three albums: Swingin’ My Way Through College, Maynard Plays Jazz for Dancing and A Message from Birdland. In the Spring of 1960, he spent a month with Duke Ellington while Sam Woodyard was away from the band. He did actually record with Ellington on April 25, 1960, on a session for MGM that has remained unissued.
Dunlop also used this period to sample marriage. In 1958, he married Elizabeth Kimber who was born in Wales and at the time of the marriage lived at 137 E. 22nd St. NYC.
The fact that Monk had even offered Dunlop, a relatively new arrival to the NYC jazz scene, the ill-fated Five Spot gig in 1957, served as a huge boost to Frankie’s confidence. He rightfully felt that he could compete for the best jobs in the most competitive environment in the country for jazz. By October 1961 he felt well prepared for new challenges, so when Monk’s then drummer, Roy Haynes, gave notice and Dunlop was offered the drum chair, he quickly accepted. Dunlop’s first engagement with Monk was, ironically, to be at the Jazz Gallery, currently owned by the Termini brothers, who had owned the Five Spot where Dunlop’s very short tenure with Monk had been.
On opening night Monk, always the rather idiosyncratic teacher, posed a challenge for Frankie. Monk knew that Frankie was solid at fast tempos but Monk wanted a complete drummer. Frankie related the story in his Modern Drummer interview:
“I learned so much from Monk—things that he told me about his philosophy on life that have helped me—things that I laughed about. He used to tell me that it’s easier to play fast than slow. When he first told me that, I thought, Oh no. There’s no way in the world. But Monk was right. It’s harder to play slow and accurate. He proved it to me. I’d been playing fast with all these groups. Man, there was no way anyone could tell me that some of the upstairs tempos I played with Maynard weren’t the end all to drumming. Monk proved it to me on my first night, when I rejoined him in 1960 at the new Five Spot (the Jazz Gallery). We were in the back room and Monk said, ‘You want to solo and play fast all the time. All drummers are that way. When you’re playing fast, soloing, and throwing your sticks, you think you’re really playing. In your estimation, that’s the hardest. Well, you know, it’s really harder to play slow than it is to play fast, and to swing and create something while you’re doing it.’ Monk finished talking to me, and we went up to the stand. Monk had his hat on. The place was packed. He started off the tune with an extra-slow tempo. I wondered what was going on. Charlie Rouse came in and played the ensemble; Monk jumped off the piano and started dancing during Charlie’s solo. He danced over to me and said, ‘Okay. Get to me now. Swing it, pal.’ I was wondering if I was doing it. I had to concentrate so hard on the music that I couldn’t look at the audience. I couldn’t look at the door. I couldn’t even look to see what time it was. I had to swing. I thought, “Oh, my God.” I was playing slow, which was the hardest thing for me. Monk would dance up to me and say, ‘Okay Frankie, come on now. Let me see you swing now. Shit. I told you it ain’t easy to swing when you’re playing slow. I told you that, didn’t I.’
Here I was coming back with Monk. They (musicians in the audience) figured that I was going to be wailing. I was thinking the same thing and Monk put this on me. Do you know what? It not only made me look like an ass, but I also played like an ass.”
For a good example of how Frankie successfully applied Monk’s advice, hear the recording of Misterioso, recorded live at Lincoln Center on the album Thelonious Monk’s Greatest Hits.
Dunlop’s hiring came at a fortuitous time. Monk had now put together what was to become his classic quartet, featuring Dunlop, tenor saxophonist Charlie Rouse and bassist John Ore.
The Jazz Gallery gig concluded on New Year’s Eve. As 1961 unfolded, impresario George Wein approached Monk’s manager, Harry Columby, about the possible of Monk’s quartet accompanying him on a tour of Europe, to commence in mid-April. Arrangements were made and a series of concerts took place over a six-week period throughout western Europe and Scandinavia.
While in Europe, the quartet was well recorded, including the final two albums that Monk owed Riverside records to satisfy the terms of his contract. This cleared the way for Monk’s representatives to enter into negotiations with Columbia for a contract that would provide Monk with a distribution and promotion system unequaled by any other jazz label. This association would also provide Frankie Dunlop with the type of public exposure that, up until this point, few jazz drummers serving as side-men could claim.
While on the tour, Dunlop’s efforts behind the drum kit did not go unnoticed by the European critics, with one critic stating that Dunlop’s drumming was…” tasteful and alert” …and (he was) “quick to spot when special interpolations were required.”
From the time of the quartet’s first sessions for Columbia in October and November of 1962, until late January 1964, Dunlop participated in a series of well received albums including Monk’s Dream, Big Band and Quartet in Concert, Criss-Cross, Monk in Tokyo, and Miles & Monk at Newport, as well as later releases from the European tour including Thelonious Monk in Italy and Monk in France- the two albums that were released on the Riverside label and satisfied the terms of the contract with Riverside.
(For a thorough account of Dunlop’s time with Monk, read Robin D. G. Kelley’s book, Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original.)
As 1963 was winding down, Dunlop began to reevaluate his current situation with Monk. He had felt for a while that he was being underpaid. At the time, you could probably have found support from critics and musicians that Dunlop was the most important of the three band members not named Monk. The initial difficulties that Dunlop’s eventual replacement, Ben Riley had in adjusting to Monk’s music, would give much credence to that opinion.
In addition to the compensation issue, Dunlop was becoming frustrated by the repetitiveness of the nightly playlist which had become rather formulaic. He was also somewhat bored with music in general and was even contemplating a change in careers.
Finally, towards the end of January 1964, a little over 3 years after he had joined Monk, he gave his notice.
As it turned out, one of Frankie’s biggest fans during his time with Monk was Monk’s son, Thelonious Jr. who, in an interview with Modern Drummer, had this to say about Frankie’s time with his father:
“Thelonious S. Monk Jr., chairman of the board of trustees at the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz and a drummer who also played with his dad, tells MD, ‘Frankie Dunlop was the ideal drummer for my father. Their combined understanding of time, and particularly space, made for one of the greatest and perhaps the most unique rhythm section in the history of jazz.”
Frankie tells of a time when he was attending the dedication of a street in New York City to Monk and Thelonious Jr. told him: “Of all those cats who wailed with my dad, I always dug you. You always fed that beat and made that stuff swing.”
Following his departure from Monk, Frankie’s career was split between music and show business.
(This is Part 3 of the story of Frankie Dunlop by Steve Siegel. Look for the final Part 4 soon on JazzBuffalo.)
(Part 1 can be found at this link: Frankie Dunlop: Monk’s Drummer – Part 1)
(Part 2 can be found at this link: Frankie Dunlop: Monk’s Drummer – Part 2)
Copyright: Steve H. Siegel, copyright protected; all rights reserved.
(This article first appeared on the blog “Jazz Profiles” on August 14, 2020)