I first heard Frankie Dunlop’s drumming in the best way possible. When I was about 17years old, I was visiting a friend who had Two Hours Of Thelonious on the turntable. The drumming on that record went straight to my heart, and my enthusiasm for Frankie’s drumming has never lessened over the years.
I owe a big thanks to Mel Lewis for putting me in touch with Frankie. The first part of this interview was done in October ’84 in New York City. Part two was taped at my home in Connecticut. If I’d had Frankie’s energy, we possibly could have pulled an all-nighter, and wrapped this up in New York City. He doesn’t smoke, and he rarely drinks. He came to Connecticut armed with bottles of spring water and apple juice, and gave my wife and I some excellent tips on the health benefits and proper preparation of papaya juice.
Frankie Dunlop is as good an actor/ impersonator as he is a drummer. When he was speaking about Monk, he became Monk. And when he spoke about Sonny Rollins or Charlie Mingus, he became those people. One of my biggest challenges was translating a facial expression, a body motion, or an accent into the printed word.
This interview is a glimpse at a great person and a funny man, who has earned the right to perform and record with Thelonious Monk, Sonny Rollins, Charlie Mingus, Maynard Ferguson, Duke Ellington, Lionel Hampton, and many other jazz greats. Frankie has also played in hotel and theater bands, backed some of the best singers in the music business, and even done some stints with rhythm & blues bands. You can almost say he’s done it all. If you ever have the chance to see Frankie in concert or clinic, do it!
FD: My earliest influence was Gene Krupa. I used to skip school to catch Gene Krupa’s band. All the big bands used to come through Buffalo—Cab Galloway, Lucky Millender, Billy Eckstine. But on the Gene Krupa shows, I’d skip school and stay in that theater all day. I’d darken my mustache with a pencil to look older. The lady at the theater knew I wasn’t of age, but she must have seen by the anxiety in my eyes that I really wanted to hear this music. The band would play four shows a day. The first show would go on about 11:00 or 12:00. After the show was over, I’d hide in the ladies’ room, because the ushers would never look there. They were supposed to clean out the theater, so new people could come in for the new admission. They’d just knock on the ladies’ room door, or maybe just stick their heads in and yell, “All clear.” Then they’d let the new people in. I’d come out of the bathroom and catch the next show. Sometimes I’d do that and catch all four shows.
My early love in music was the big bands. I think Lionel Hampton and Gene Krupa were the best at that swing style. I’m not saying that Hamp was the soloist that Gene Krupa was, but he was a good swing drummer. I admired Krupa for two reasons. When I was a youngster, he inspired me. The second reason had to do with something that happened, years later, when I was playing in Great Neck, Long Island, with Maynard Ferguson’s band. Gene Krupa” was on the bill with us. We had played two or three numbers, and Gene was behind the curtain watching me. I wasn’t aware of it.
After the set was over, Gene asked Maynard if I liked Slingerland drums. Gene was on the Board of Directors of the Slingerland Drum Company, and they were looking for drummers to endorse the drums. My drums were these rattletraps that I’d brought from Buffalo. Any drumset would’ve been an improvement. Gene said to me, “I think you play great.” I would never have expected that. For him to say that and to ask me to endorse Slingerland was the biggest turning point for me. The compliment was great, and so was the fact that I was going to get a new set of drums and advertise for Slingerland. I could never have continued to play with Maynard on the rattletraps that I was playing. So I stayed with Maynard for three years, and advertised for Slingerland and Zildjian during that time. Those were exciting days.
SF: Mel Lewis suggested that I ask you about George Clark, and some of the other bands you started with in Buffalo.
FD: Mel and I are both from Buffalo, we’re about the same age, we came up around the same time, and we both played with George Clark. In the ’40s, I had this steady job with George Clark in Buffalo. He had a quartet. Mel Lewis and I would go to the union and keep our chops up by working with a local rehearsal big band that was run by Lenny Lewis. But it turned out to be a very good band, and Mel Lewis went with that band. That was one of Mel’s first experiences on the road. Mel had more big band experience than I did, but both of us learned how to take care of business, not just in our playing, but also so that we could work the good jobs. We both got the same knowledge from the old-timers. Both of us would come to New York to see the drummers who influenced us. Mel was the only drummer that George Clark would let take my place when I wanted to come to New York. He’d say, “Well Frankie, if you can’t get Mel, you can’t go.”
I’d come to New York to see what was happening and to try to introduce myself to the people I looked up to. I heard all these drummers playing with all of this coordination. Max Roach and Kenny Clarke had the bebop style. Ed Shaughnessy and Charlie Persip were doing it with two bass drums. Charlie had two bass drums when he started with Dizzy Gillespie’s sextet. I used to say, “How can you do that?”
Even with Max Roach, I’d be saying, “How can he keep that beat going with his right hand, and do all that other stuff with his left hand and bass drum?” I was growing up right at the beginning of the bebop era. That’s what excited me.
SF: Is it true that you studied with Max Roach?
FD: Max had come to Buffalo with Charlie Parker, and he didn’t have a bass drum. The Secretary of the Union was calling around looking for one. I happened to have two bass drums, so I loaned my drum to Max. One or two years later I saw Max on 52nd Street, and he remembered me. That made me feel so good, because, just like Krupa, Max had influenced me, and I had a great admiration for him.
Max had never heard me play. All he knew was that I was a drummer who had loaned him my bass drum in Buffalo. When he saw me that night at the Three Deuces, he came over and said, “How are you doing?” He couldn’t remember my name. When I told him, Max said, “Oh yeah, Buffalo. You did me a great favor, man. Look, come hang out with me. Where are you staying?” He knew it was my first time in New York, and I ended up staying at his apartment for three days.
He got his drums out and a practice pad, and started to do a few things. I started to play a single-stroke roll and a double-stroke roll. Max was correcting me on my hands—showing me how to get more power. It wasn’t a case of my staying in New York and actually studying with him. He showed me some things that helped my coordination.
But the one who really showed me the key to coordination was my teacher in Buffalo, Johnny Roland. When I left Buffalo to move to New York, he’d been percussionist with the Buffalo Symphony for 30 or 40 years. I’ve been in New York for 25 years, and Johnny’s still with the Symphony, so he’s got to be 75 or 80 years old. He’s a very good instructor. He had that love in his heart and a will to share his knowledge for a small amount of money. He didn’t have to do that. Even though he was involved with symphonic pieces and the classics, he knew just what to teach new drummers, so they could play jazz or whatever they wanted to play.
If you asked 1,000 young drummers if they wanted to study with the percussionist from the Buffalo Symphony, they’d say, “No. I can’t get what I want out of a cat who’s playing in a symphony. I’m a jazz drummer.” But my experience was the complete opposite. I learned more about coordination from Johnny Roland, at a time when even the average drummer in Buffalo thought it was a drag that I was studying with him. He showed me all the intricacies, and gave me the kingpin lessons in all the things that would lead me to coordination and independence—how to be able to play modern. I realized from one simple little exercise that I could practice on my knees that this was the same kind of stuff I heard Persip and Shaughnessy play- ing.
SF: How did you land the job with Maynard Ferguson in 1959?
FD: I knew Maynard Ferguson from Buffalo. We’re about the same age, and he had a big band that played Crystal Beach in Canada, when he was 14 or 15 years old. Crystal Beach was about 70 miles from Buffalo, and it was like Coney Island. At that time, they called Maynard “The Harry James of Canada.”
There were two union locals in Buffalo at that time—the colored musicians and the white musicians. The colored musicians had a club where they’d have open jam sessions every week, and everyone was invited. I met Maynard at one of those sessions. He asked me then to come hear his band at Crystal Beach, and he also asked me if I was interested in big band work. I was afraid of big bands, because I had no experience. And I had very little experience with reading, outside of the reading I did with the musician’s concert band at the local, which was basically march music for snare drummers.
Studying with Johnny Roland helped stretch my reading ability, but then I was drafted into the army. If the army hadn’t drafted me, I’d probably be playing with Leonard Bernstein right now. I’d be that finished a player on the whole percussion scene, because Johnny Roland would have taken me all the way. I’m not the only musician who was drafted, but I had daggers in my eyes for Uncle Sam, for taking me from my music studies.
SF: Did you play drums in the army?
FD: I didn’t get with a musical outfit until I was shipped overseas to Korea. I was assigned a position in an anti-aircraft unit. First, I spent 14 weeks of basic training at Fort Dix, NJ. Nelson Boyd, the bassist who was recording and playing with people like Max Roach and J.J. Johnson at that time, was taking basic training at Fort Dix at the same time I was. But on Monday nights, I’d turn on Symphony Sid’s radio program—which was a live broadcast— and I’d hear him say, “This is Symphony Sid, and I want to tell you, we’ve got a crazy lineup here. We’ve got some swinging cats. We’ve got J.J. Johnson on trombone, and we’ve got my man, Sonny Stitt. Yeah. He’s going to play some alto and a little tenor. And we’ve got my man here, Max Roach, on drums. And we’ve got a real cooking bass player—Nelson Boyd.”
I would wonder how Nelson could be in basic training and playing jazz in New York City on Monday nights. He must have known somebody. When I shipped out to Fort Bliss for anti-aircraft training, Nelson Boyd stayed at Fort Dix. Every Monday, I’d turn on the radio to catch the jam session at Birdland, and Nelson played three Mondays out of every month. Monday wasn’t even a pass day!
I cried on so many shoulders in the army. I was determined that I was going to get into that band. There was a piano player at the Service Club, and there was a little raggedy drum on stage. I’d get up there and play, because I wanted to be heard. Man, the army had taken me when I was so inspired and doing so well with my lessons. It was like a break in my life. I knew I had to be in the army, and I was determined to make the best of it. I didn’t want to go A.W.O.L. But I wanted to use my talents, and I felt like nobody understood me. I never did get in the army band.
Two officers knew about my enthusiasm for playing, so they had me lead a little drum corps. Every time we’d have formation, they’d have me give the military beats, and we’d all march out. That was great. My concert training from Buffalo came in handy there, and so did my lessons with Johnny Roland. He used to show me the standing up technique of playing snare drum. You know those old method books, where you see those pictures of old drummers, standing up with the sticks held up high over the drums? I used to think, “What the heck do 1 need this for? That’s corny.” But I never would have been effective in leading 250 to 300 men out if I didn’t have that power.
When I was shipped from Fort Dix to Fort Bliss, Texas, that was the end of my drumming again, and I finally gave up. Then I got my orders to go to Korea. I remember taking that long ride over to Korea on the ocean. I was thinking, “My God. I’m in the army. I’m not going to be in Special Services.” I was thinking about Nelson Boyd and all the guys stateside who were going to continue their music. I’m talking about a long, dreary ride across the Pacific. It was 14 days going over there. I was so torn up inside that I lost about 20 pounds on that trip. Man, when I was crossing the Pacific on that boat, they had put me on garbage detail. I’d put these bags on a conveyer belt that would dump them off the stern. Sharks would follow that boat to eat the garbage. I was seriously thinking of going right off the back of that boat with the garbage. That’s how deep in the dumps my mind was. I thought it would all happen in the States, but it didn’t.
When I got to Korea, my musical experience was still on my military records. There was a Sergeant Brown, who had requested that all musicians be sent to his Battery. When I first got there, they sent me out into the field with a gun unit, only ten miles from the front lines. I had no idea that the sergeant was a musician. I thought I was going to go crazy without music, but again. I decided to make the best of it. I took a corporal’s suggestion and acted like I wanted to be there, even though I didn’t. Eventually, Sergeant Brown formed a group called The Seven Dukes Of Rhythm, and he asked me to join.
We traveled all over the Far East in our own plane. I probably would have cracked up if not for that group. We weren’t just a jazz band. We also did some group singing. We did choreography in 1952—years before Motown. So, the place where I thought I was going to lose my mind, because it broke up my musical training—the last place on earth where I thought I’d continue my music—was the place that pulled my mind together.
After I got out of the army, I moved to New York City. I didn’t have enough time in the union to play the New York clubs. You had to be a New York City resident for three months. You could play one night a week, I think, or you could play in the City if you were in a traveling group.
At this time, Thelonious Monk was starting a group, after having been idle for about seven years, when he didn’t have a cabaret card. He heard me play at a jam session and asked me to join his group. I was with Monk at The Five Spot for two or three weeks at the most. Then a union man pulled me off the job, because I hadn’t been a resident long enough. The group was John Coltrane, Wilbur Ware, Monk, and me.
It was funny when the union man pulled me off the job. Monk said, “What are you doing pulling my man off?” The union man said, “This man can’t work. This man is on transfer from Buffalo.” Monk said, “I don’t understand. Can you play drums, man?” The union man said, “What do you mean? I’m not even a drummer. I’m a trumpet player. I haven’t touched my horn in 20 years.” Monk replied, “That’s something, man. You’re going to pull this man—my drummer—off and you can’t play?” The union guy said, “Well look, the man is on transfer. He knows about it.” So Monk said, “Oh, that’s a drag, man. You come and mess up my group. Can you swing like he can?” The union man said, “Don’t give me a hard time. Look, I’m a delegate here. I could fix it so this man won’t even get his card.” So, Monk danced around and he said, “Aw, damn. This is something else, man. You’re going to pull the man off who can play drums. You can’t play. You can’t find me anybody who can play. Now, who looks stupid? You or me?”
Shadow Wilson took my place. I had to leave the group because I wanted to get my union card. Monk was kind of down on the union anyway. I mean, here it was, his first job in seven years, and a union man came in and took his drummer away! So, I left and went with Charlie Mingus, only because he was traveling outside of New York. If he had only been working in New York, I couldn’t have worked with him either.
SF: How did you get in Mingus’ band? What happened to Dannie Richmond?
FD: This was for a job in Washington, D.C. Dannie couldn’t make it. I knew that I was basically filling in for Dannie. But I knew that if Mingus liked my work, later on I might be recommended for other jobs, which did happen. Mingus recommended me to Sonny Rollins, who I did go with. But playing with Mingus was an experience. It kept me together.
I remember one time when I was playing with Mingus at The Half Note. We were in the middle of a tune like “Salt Peanuts” and Mingus said, “Hey Frankie, keep playing. I have to go over here and talk to Joe.” Joe owned The Half Note. Well, the tempo was way upstairs, and I wasn’t adjusted to playing that fast. I’d just gotten into New York. Playing at that tempo was bad enough with the bass. Here I was with just a piano player.
Mingus finally came back on the bandstand after several minutes, picked up his bass, and started playing the same tune. He turned to me and said, “Hey man, the tempo has gone down. That’s not the tempo I started!” And I guess it had gone down. I was scuffling. That man was a perfectionist. He didn’t tell me that because he disliked me. If he didn’t think I could’ve made the gig, he wouldn’t have hired me. But Mingus was such a perfectionist that he wouldn’t let things slide that the average musician or bandleader would say to hell with.
All of the geniuses are like that. They may be eccentric, but deep down inside, they’re concerned about their music. Monk, Mingus, Rollins, Miles Davis— they didn’t want any substitutions for what it was really supposed to be. I’m glad I came up under the guiding lights of those cats.
SF: You did some recording with Mingus, too. On his Tijuana Moods album, you’re listed as the percussionist, and Dannie Richmond is listed as the drummer.
FD: There were several tracks where I played tambourine, or I shook something. That’s why they listed me as a percussionist. Dannie Richmond played drums on most of the tunes, but I played drums on a few. That was in 1957—a long time ago. If I heard the record, I’m sure I could tell you what tracks I played on.
I did another record date with Mingus that was released on Bethlehem records, called Tales Of The City. I don’t care how long the world stands, that particular record will be a collector’s item. The original lyrics were written by Langston Hughes, and it’s the story of a jazz musician who’s just moved to New York. I was playing a garbage-can top on the session. There’s a section in the music where the musician is in his apartment trying to sleep, and he hears the garbage men in the alley. He yells down, “Who is that?” “It’s the garbage man.” And right at that moment, Mingus cued me. “Okay, Frankie!”
I threw the garbage-can top down, and Mingus said, “Wait a minute. Cut. Cut! Hey Frank, you didn’t throw the can down on time. You’re behind. Hey, do that take over.” Here I was at my first recording date in New York, throwing a garbage-can lid in the RCA Victor Recording Studios! The A&R man was looking at Mingus, thinking, “What in the hell are we doing? Who is this cat? What kind of record date is this?”
Mingus’ music was very accurate, and you had to get used to his method. He might not be angry with you, but he’d jump up and holler instructions at you. Mentally, if you’re not geared toward receiving that kind of approach, you might take offense, which most musicians did. That’s why I give Dannie Richmond so much credit for staying with Mingus for so long.
SF: Did your concept of drumming change after you’d been with Mingus?
FD: Well, sure. It changed from three giants of jazz that I was with: Sonny Rollins, Mingus, and Monk. After Mingus, I went with Sonny, when he didn’t have a piano player. The trio was Sonny, Henry Grimes, and myself. I have great admiration for Sonny as a great tenor player and for his humanity. He actually got me into the union, and he took a chance on hiring me to play with him at Birdland, when I still had three weeks to go to complete my residency requirement. When we played at Birdland, Maynard and his band had a chance to hear me.
SF: Did you get a chance to record with Sonny and Henry Grimes?
FD: No, not with the trio. I recorded a big band date with Sonny, under the direction of Oliver Nelson, on an Impulse album called Alfie. Down beat gave that album a five-star rating.
SF: Did you like playing in the big band better than the small group?
FD: Well, going with Maynard was like a dream come true, but I didn’t really know if I was going to be accepted. I don’t know what the guys in Maynard’s band heard in my playing with Sonny’s trio, but they heard something that made them say, “That’s the drummer to get for our big band.”
My first challenge was learning to play harder in order to get the drive I needed. And I had to sharpen up my reading. I hadn’t been playing any music that required reading. In Maynard’s band, everything was charts, and the two key writers at that time were Slide Hampton and Don Sebesky. They both wrote demanding arrangements.
I had to take Jake Hanna’s place, and I almost didn’t make it. When a drummer is reading, it’s not like a horn player reading. Horn players have the music right in front of them. I had to set the music up to my side. I was nervous about learning the songs and about trying to find the charts on the bandstand. The music would fall over and I’d miss a beat. All of that tension was on the drummer. With the music set up to one side or the other, you can’t give your full attention to the director; you’ve got to watch the director for tempo, and you’ve got to watch the music. But the drummer has to be the one who’s playing from start to finish. Once that beat starts, the drummer’s time carries the band.
Jake Hanna was in the audience the night I opened with Maynard at Birdland. The stage at Birdland was very compact. All the musicians were on top of one another. The audience was buzzing with, “Oh, my God. They’ve got a new drummer.” We opened up with “Humbug,” and I was able to get through that—more or less—without looking at the music. They say that your first impression is your greatest. I believe that, if I’d really dropped the egg on that first tune, it would have pulled my courage down.
But, after that, we started playing some standard charts with simple figures, and these were hanging me up. I had relaxed because they were standards—songs that people danced to all the time—and I was thinking of the original melody lines. But these charts were arranged so that I should have been accenting in places that were different from the phrasing in the original melodies. Man, I was missing half of them. I wasn’t looking at the charts. I heard the melody in my head, assumed where the accents should fall, and they came in just the opposite.
The whole thing came to a controversy between Maynard and the band’s pianist, John Bunch. John convinced Maynard that I should stay. John later told me about it. He said, “Knowing how you were at rehearsal, and knowing that you had the motivation, will, and determination, I knew you were going to get it. I told Maynard to stick with you, and you were going to turn out to be one of the best drummers he’s ever had.” And that’s just what Maynard did.
SF: Can you recollect the moment you felt totally comfortable in the band?
FD: It was when Ann Marie Moss joined the band with a few of her own charts. Up until that time, we’d never had a regular singer in the show, and Maynard had really only heard me play musical arrangements. Following a singer is a different concept; following a dancer is too. When I was 16, I started out playing floor shows, and I used to think that that wasn’t important, but following an actor helped me relax in following the hands of a bandleader.
Ann Marie had charts of show tunes, where I had to get loud and soft—tunes like “Almost Like Being In Love” and ”Taste Of Honey.” When Maynard asked her how she liked my drumming, she said, “He kicked it right in there where it should be.” She shook my hand and said, “Frankie, I’m glad you’re here. I’ve had a lot of problems with drummers who get loud when they should be soft and soft when they should be loud. They don’t kick it at the right places.”
SF: What’s your answer for learning to play loud, but not physically hurting yourself?
FD: Well, I played rhythm & blues with Big Jay McNeely. One day he took me into the cellar of a house we were staying at in Philadelphia. He had a little four-inch snare drum. It was the first one I’d ever seen. It was his own personal drum, but basically, he was a saxophone player. He took me under his wing and showed me the rhythm & blues approach to the drum, because I wasn’t giving him the right beat. Big Jay showed me how to play a shuffle by turning my wrist over to the left and snapping my hand. Instead of hitting up and down, I’d snap my hand over on every second and fourth beat. That way, I learned how to play loud without killing myself.
You use the same principle with your right hand. When you hit a cymbal in a big band, you’ve got to hit those dynamics. Learn to snap the right hand, and you can catch those dynamics on those cymbals. If you’re not snapping, then you’re using your whole arm, and it’s going to tire you out. You’re going to work twice as hard.
What Big Jay McNeely taught me was a big help, but I was so angry with him at the time. Everybody has his or her own personal way of approaching you. When you’re young and playing something new from an era that’s new to you, you sometimes think that people are jumping down your throat. And sometimes that can happen.
After I left Maynard, I went with Lena Home. I thought her husband/musical director was jumping on me, but Lena was satisfied with my work. I’ve worked with a long list of performers. No matter what idiom the bandleader was playing in—whether it was rock, calypso, jazz, rhythm & blues, or whether it was a trio, a singer, a dancer, or a floor show—I would always go. That’s the reason I have my versatile knowledge. I never turned down any work. When I was coming up, the people who wanted to hire me would never ask, “Can you play Latin music?” They’d always say, “Hey, you don’t mind playing a little Latin.” I could’ve messed up my chances for getting the job if I’d said, “Hey, I don’t know.” I grew up in an era where it was taken for granted that musicians could play everything. It wasn’t like it is now for certain musicians. “Man, I can’t make that. That ain’t my stick, baby.” That’s not the attitude. I’m glad I came up in a time when older musicians gave me such direction that, sometimes when I was called for a job, they didn’t have to tell me what they were playing at all! They’d say, “Hey, I have a job for you. Can you make it? Wear a dark suit and a bow tie. I’ll pick you up.” Sometimes you wouldn’t know what the hell you were playing. It might be a floor show, a juggler, shake dancers, a chorus line, or rhythm & blues. I might get a job where a guy would say, “Hey, they told me you knew how to sing.” They weren’t always looking for you to be Frank Sinatra or Billy Eckstine. But even if you couldn’t sing lead, sometimes they’d tell you to sing background parts. And I’d have to play my drums while I was doing it. That automatically opened my eyes to versatility.
SF: After you left Lena, you rejoined Monk.
FD: Well, I took Sam Woodyard’s place with Ellington, and then I went with Monk in ’61, starting at The Jazz Gallery. That was with John Ore on bass and Charlie Rouse on tenor. I was with Monk for three-and-a-half years. After a while, John Ore left and Butch Warren joined the band.
SF: Monk’s bassists always seemed to be restricted to straight timekeeping, more so than his drummers. Even during solos, Monk’s bassists rarely broke out of a walking bass line.
FD: That’s right. Monk always liked an exceptionally strong bass man and drum- mer. 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 the driving sound—the dynamics and the attack of a heavy, hard-driving section like those of Count Basie or Duke Ellington. That was the way Monk thought. 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—just like Woody Herman stomping off “Woodchopper’s Ball” or “Northwest Passage.” We played a little louder than the average quartet, but basically we played with a lot of dynamics. We were just four pieces, but all of Monk’s things would be hard-driving.
SF: Monk’s music was usually called experimental, but I can hear a lot of tradition in his music. When he was relaxing at home, do you know what kind of music he enjoyed listening to?
FD: He would listen to Duke Ellington. Monk was inspired a lot by Duke. Eventually, you heard him do Monk, but if you listen especially to his ballads on the trio or solo piano albums, you’ll hear Duke Ellington. Monk would also listen to Jimmy Lunceford. He thought that no one in the world could swing like Jimmy Lunceford.
SF: And Monk played with that same two-beat feel.
FD: Right. I remember one Monday night in the wintertime, Clark Terry had his big band up at The Baron. Monk ran out of the club and saw me. He said, “Hey Frank, I want you to sit in and play with Clark. Go in and swing one. Man, you can make that band swing like it’s supposed to.” Then Monk went back in and went up to the bandstand. He said, “Hey Clark!” Clark knew Monk. Clark said, “For those of you who are not aware, that’s Thelonious Monk—The High Priest of Bop—over there hollering at me. What do you want?” Monk said, “I was just outside talking to Jimmy Lunceford and his band. They want to sit in and play one. Is that alright with you?” That was the way Monk would give you a message. He was comical, but he had a message. He said very little, but what he did say made sense. It would make you laugh. He didn’t want you to feel bad. He thought you’d get the message if he told you in a humorous way. He never even fired anyone. He used to say to me, “Frank, as long as you’re swingin’, man, I don’t care what you do. You know what? On intermission, you can go out and kill a cat if you want to, as long as you swing when you come back and hit the stand with your drums.” His point was that the main thing was to concentrate, swing, and play your instrument.
He was giving Clark Terry a message that night at The Baron. He was saying, “Look, I’ve been listening to you guys up there. I’ve been in this place for a whole hour, and you cats aren’t doing anything for my ears tonight. You cats aren’t really making it.”
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 1961 at the new Five Spot. 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? Come on.”
I said to myself, “Well, I’ll just keep the time and get with John Ore. I know I’ll never get a solo.” Monk played his little solo after Charlie. Then he jumped up and said, “You got it. Drum solo.” And John Ore was still playing the bass. Monk said, “It’s a solo, John. Frankie’s got it. Goon, Frank. Wail.” And John stopped. The tempo was way down here. I thought, “What do I do?” I’d been used to playing all this fast stuff. It was so fast that, even if I’d miss a beat or lose my ideas for two measures, it wouldn’t mean anything because the people wouldn’t know it. But the tempo was way down. Monk said, “Drum solo. Let me hear something, Frank. Don’t be bullshittin’.” I was trying to do things that I couldn’t do. Monk said, “And keep the time. Here’s the tempo. Don’t play some shit that you don’t know nothing about.” I didn’t even know how to put a paradiddle in there, because I’d never played a paradiddle that slow. And whatever I played, Monk said that he wanted it to make sense. I couldn’t do any of my rudiments.
It’s a different musical approach that I’d never attacked. And all these people were looking at me. Tony Williams, Tootie Heath, Clifford Jarvis—all these drummers were out there, because they’d heard me play a little on the first gig I had with Monk. They knew I’d been with Maynard and Duke. Here I was coming back with Monk. They 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, and it really showed me how handicapped I was. Monk sensed it had me stumped, and he got back on the piano.
When the set was over, I was so embarrassed that I went right to the back room with Monk. He pulled out a cigarette and said, “Hey, Frankie, you got a match for me?” I said, “Yeah, Monk.” He said, “Hey, didn’t I tell you, Frank, that it was harder to play slow than to play fast? You dig it? You thought I was going to play all that fast stuff that you did out there with Sonny and Maynard. That’s cool, but drummers don’t think that the stuff can swing when it’s slow. They think that that shit is easy to do, you dig?”
I couldn’t say a word. Do you know what it taught me? Monk used to say that, when you played that way, you got the whole scope. He said that, if you were swinging in jazz, it could go with any tempo, even a ballad. Monk said he liked to double up. He considered Lunceford to be so rhythmically great because of the two-beat. And you can hear Monk use that long meter, even on a tune like “These Foolish Things.” In the second chorus, you can hear him double up the tempo in his right hand, over the two-beat/long meter in his left hand. He was showing me that the real concentration comes with the slow concept.
SF: You always played very melodic solos.
FD: That basically came from working with Monk. With Monk’s conception, a drummer is almost forced to think of the drums as a melodic instrument, in order to play something and have it make sense, too. If you’re going to play something on the drums, but Monk leaves you out there by yourself, and you have to keep the beat going and the concept of the tune going so that Monk can come back in, then you’ve got to play melodically.
Playing with Monk was the greatest challenge of my melodic playing. For power, my greatest challenge was Maynard. For stamina, my greatest challenge was with Lionel Hampton’s big band. Just let him stomp off “Flyin’ Home” and that song will be going for 30 minutes. If I wasn’t in 100% physical shape, I’d be biting the dust right now. I was with Hampton for seven years. There have been quite a few drummers that Hamp worked to death. Wilbur Hogan and George Jenkins come to mind. I’m not saying that those drummers were taking care of themselves physically, with proper food and rest.
When I went with Hamp, my attitude was different. I drink very little. I continued my sports: handball, paddleball, swimming, weightlifting, and skating. I do this to keep up my stamina. In Hamp’s band, the drummer is a workhorse. In any Lionel Hampton set, you can look for five tunes: “Sweet Georgia Brown,” “Basin Street,” “Flyin’ Home,” “Hamp’s Boogie Woogie,” and “In The Mood.” Those are five songs that you’re going to do every night, come rain or come shine. And those are the back breakers.
SF: Did you rehearse much with Monk’s quartet?
FD: I played with him for three years, and we never rehearsed. The first night Monk asked me to join his band, I was anticipating a couple of months of rehearsal, but I played my first job with him the following night. He said, “All I want you to do is swing like you’re swinging tonight.” He also said, “Cats come in here with their new horns—their new shiny trumpets. Usually I find that the shinier and the more beautiful the horns are, the sadder these cats sound—the less they can play. Even you, Frankie—when I first saw you play, if you had had cymbals that were sparkling and blinding me in the eye, I wouldn’t have hired you. You wouldn’t have had a chance to get into them to make them mellow. Look at Kenny Dorham. As much as he played, his horn needed an overhaul. It had turned green, and he played that horn.” He was talking about musicians having a chance to age and develop with their instruments.
SF: Of all the other drummers who’ve played with Monk, do you have a favorite?
FD: I liked some of the things that Roy Haynes and Art Blakey did. Blakey was one of the first drummers to record with Monk on those early Prestige and Blue Note records. Some of those tunes, like “Wee See,” had some swinging arrangements. Some of them aren’t that popular, and some of the ones that aren’t played now, to me, were more swinging than a whole gang of them that they do play. But Blakey’s style was more appropriate for Monk because he had a hard swing: a hard, definite beat. You felt Blakey’s bass drum, but you didn’t really hear it. It felt like he was playing constant quarter notes, but he wasn’t. He was playing in a bebop style, alternating between his hands and his feet.
There are so many drummers who have forgotten what the drums are basically for. Before all the solos, the rudiments, the flashiness and the twirling sticks, which is good, the basic thing is timekeeping. That’s one of the things I loved about Monk. He used to say, “Keep that time. If you’re going to play something, make sure you play it within the meter.” And if something comes to mind during a concert that you’re not sure you can pull off, don’t do it. That’s why they have the woodshed. Monk said he’d rather have a drummer play strictly time than to bust in with some flash and mess up the time.
I was influenced by Art Blakey from the early Monk records, and I knew that Monk played his chords and voicings over the old swing beat that Ellington and Lunceford had. That beat was nothing new. But I had a nice compliment recently from Monk’s son, who’s also a drummer. I saw him at the dedication of a street in New York City to his father. He said, “Of all those cats who wailed with my dad, I always dug you. You always fed that beat and made that stuff swing.”