Frankie Dunlop: Monk’s Drummer – Part 4

Musically, shortly after leaving Monk, Dunlop signed with Atlantic Records. In 1964, Frankie recorded several rather commercial singles under this own leadership, Frankie Dunlop & His Orchestra, including Latin Twist, Lowdown Waltz, and Uptown Downtown.  He freelanced on some small group recordings with Mose Allison, Sonny Rollins, and bassist Richard Davis. The Davis album, The Philosophy of the Spiritual included a rather unusual instrumental configuration which included 2 bassists (Davis and Bill Lee, who is Spike Lee’s father) and 2 percussionists, with Sonny Brown listed as the drummer and Dunlop on “percussion.”

Most of Dunlop’s work during the post Monk period was with Lionel Hampton with whom he appeared on a series of recordings from 1977 to 1982. However, the bulk of his recorded output was the extensive reissuing and repackaging of his 1960-1963 recordings with Monk.

On the show biz front Frankie found some success as an actor and impressionist. Frankie could do a devastating impersonation of Thelonious Monk which the hip jazz crowd could appreciate but unfortunately many others could not, because Monk rarely ever spoke in public.

His jazz pantomime act entitled Frankie & Maletta, reached its apogee when it received 3rd billing on a show which took place on June 2, 1968 at the Fillmore East entitled: A Salute to Dick Gregory, with Bill Cosby receiving top billing.

Dunlop also appeared in the off-Broadway stage play The Charlie Parker Story.

In Frankie’s personal life, on March 18, 1969, 40-year-old Frankie married Laura Louise Eady, in Alexandria, Va. It was the second marriage for both. The couple settled at 2569 7th Ave. In New York City.

In 1985, Dunlop contracted the debilitating Guillain-Barre syndrome, a rare disorder attacking the nervous system. The protracted illness was later complicated by Alzheimer’s dementia, leading to Frankie’s death on July 4, 2014 in Englewood, N.J. at the age of 85.

In 2012, two years previous to his death, Frankie Dunlop and his brother Boyd were jointly inducted into the Buffalo, N.Y. Music Hall of Fame.

As it is the with many musicians who have spent much of their careers as sidemen for dominate leaders, Dunlop’s legacy may not be easily defined. Though Dunlop has performed on many recordings, his work will primarily be viewed through his 3-year stint with Monk. When you work for a leader whose style is so idiosyncratic that the listener’s ear is continually drawn to his work, then the performance of the other members of the rhythm section might, at times, be overlooked and therefore might escape much critical evaluation from the listener and perhaps even from many critics.

Thelonious Monk Quartet - Two Hours with Thelonious - European Concerts by  Thelonious Monk Quartet (2 LP on 2 CD) - Blue Sounds

As oblique as Monk could be in his communication, he clearly set performance parameters for his drummers.

Dunlop, from the Modern Drummer interview:

“Monk always liked an exceptionally strong bass man and drummer. The reason you heard so much straight playing was because Monk didn’t consider it a rhythm section – even though it was a quartet- unless it had a driving sound… rhythmically, his conception was not like the average quartet. From the first beat, Monk’s quartet would be just like the rhythm section of any good big band…”

Looking at the members of rhythm sections who played in, what might be loosely considered, the jazz “Super Bands” of the late 1950’s and early 1960’s we see drummers and bassists who were, to some degree, less constrained by their leaders’ concept of their role than Dunlop was by Monk.

 With Coltrane, Elvin Jones often functioned as a de facto second horn often playing the role of a duettist with Coltrane and accordingly was provided the freedom that a second horn would be given. With Miles, “Philly” Jo Jones played for a leader who stressed individuality in his sidemen, expecting them to figure out what that role should be. Jones was also one part of a legendary “three headed” rhythm section with Paul Chambers and Wynton Kelly, whose influence, as the rhythm section on a large number of other sessions, extended well beyond the Davis band. With Bill Evans, Scott Lafaro was charged by Evans to elevate the bass’ role to that of an almost equal partner to the piano. The importance of his role was truly confirmed after his untimely death, when Evans struggled for years to find another bassist who could fulfill that truly creative role adequately.

Only in Danny Richmond, a “creation” of Charles Mingus who converted him from a saxophone player into Mingus’ personal drummer, do we find a similar level of explicit expectations of an iconic leader for a “Super Band”, as existed between Monk and Dunlop.

Perhaps another reason for Dunlop’s relative anonymity might be his lack of longevity within high profile bands. When he left Monk, he had just turned 35 years of age. For the next 21 years until his illness in 1985 which led to his retirement, he had few high-profile long-term gigs or a steady stream of studio recordings which would have keep his name in the public eye.

It also did not help that within weeks of Dunlop leaving Monk, the Beatles came to America and “Rock and Roll” captured the attention of the nation, leading to a very difficult and confusing time for jazz, both economically and aesthetically. Consider: During this period the only instrument that was always present in every rock, as well as every jazz band, was the drum (we are differentiating electric bass from stand-up bass). So, as the 1960’s progressed, the youth culture music media determined that the great drummers of the day were no longer Max Roach or “Philly” Jo Jones but such figures as Ginger Baker, Keith Moon and Charlie Watts. Therefore, it was very easy for the jazz drummer turned actor, Frankie Dunlop, to be virtually forgotten.

Todd Bishop of the Cruise Ship Drummer on Dunlop’s legacy:

“Dunlop was one of those drummers who will make you work a little bit to figure out why they are so great— he was great in a smaller way than someone like Tony Williams or Jack Dejohnette. If your views and priorities as a musician are out of whack, you could mistake him for a mediocre drummer; so, your response to him can tell you something about your own musical maturity.”

Jeff Porter of Modern Drummer:

“With this unit (Monk’s band) Dunlop made his defining mark. Wielding crisp yet fluid technique in the service of a forward moving, swinging pocket, Dunlop created an ideal balance of precision and openness. His quirky, unexpectedly placed fills served as both swinging links and responsive commentary to Monk’s angular and playfully fragmented phrases. And he intuitively understood Monk’s idiosyncratic swing feel, which sometimes straddled a bouncing 2 and a hard-swinging 4.”

Laura Dunlop, recalling Frankie’s love for others:

“He didn’t play for money necessarily. I knew many a night when he’d be out until four or five in the morning, doing somebody a favor, playing for twenty-five dollars. And of course, he and all the musicians would go up to Minton’s after work and play all night for nothing.”

Pianist Ethan Iverson, who in the liner notes to a 2018 release of a 1963 Monk quartet live recording from a concert in Copenhagen, Denmark, had this to say about Dunlop (and John Ore):

“Frankie Dunlop was a heavy swinger comfortable with powering a full big band, yet his seriousness of purpose was leavened by cryptic snare drum fills and bass drum bombs just the right side of outrageous. For some, Dunlop was the greatest drummer for Monk… Based on this Copenhagen concert alone, Dunlop and Ore could be called one of the great rhythm sections. It is sadly typical of the history of American art that both men died unheralded in 2014 after decades of utter obscurity.”

The jazz literature often tells us that “ …on this album, the unheralded (fill in the name of any unheralded jazz musician – Herbie Nichols comes to mind as a prime example.) gives what is perhaps their greatest performance and is an artist worthy of greater recognition…” Media treatment such as this seems to indicate that the writer holds the artist in question in much higher regard than most other jazz pundits do, therefore making the case that he is offering a minority opinion. The result of this is that other jazz writers might take note of this and in future articles simply pass on that evaluation. It appears that after a decade or two of being considered “unheralded” by so many, you become permanently unheralded by both the writers and the jazz loving public, as well as permanently obscure. It appears that Frankie Dunlop (along with quite a few other jazz musicians), have suffered this fate.

This truism begs the question: How many times must an artist be referred to as “unheralded, underappreciated, underrated,” et. al., before history might lift the veil of obscurity and provide the artist his due?

Hopefully Mr. Iverson’s comments, along with the comments of others in this article might help the “unheralded and obscure” Frankie Dunlop move closer to just such a moment.

After all, having one’s story told is the worst enemy of obscurity.

(This is Part 4 of a 4-part story of Frankie Dunlop by Steve Siegel.)

(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)

(Part 3 can be found at this link: Frankie Dunlop: Monk’s Drummer – Part 3)

Copyright: Steve H. Siegel, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

(This article first appeared on the blog “Jazz Profiles” on August 14, 2020)

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