Frankie Dunlop

Francis “Frankie” Dunlop, a great jazz drummer of precision, sensitivity, inventiveness, and deep swing, passed away this past July at age eighty-five, after a long struggle with illness.

Born December 6, 1928, into a musical family, Dunlop possessed determination that revealed itself early. As his former wife, Laura Dunlop, retells the tale, “His mother didn’t want him to go into show business. She was a religious person; he could play drums in the church, but she didn’t want him to do otherwise.”

When a gig opportunity arose, the twelve-year-old yearned to participate, but his mother forbade it. Recruiting a friend, Dunlop snuck his drums out his bedroom window, loaded them onto a wagon, and rolled ahead to the venue. But mothers just know. “She went right down there, pulled him off the stage, and marched him home,” Laura says. But Dunlop ultimately won out. By age sixteen, he was playing professionally around western New York.

Although steeped in jazz—Gene Krupa was his earliest influence— Dunlop cited his studies with Buffalo Philharmonic percussionist Johnny Roland as providing the key to his expansive technique.

After extensive freelancing, Dunlop jumped on a tour with sax star Big Jay McNeely that deepened his groove. In a 1985 interview with Scott K. Fish for Modern Drummer, Dunlop said, “[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.”

But just as his career momentum began rolling, Dunlop was drafted into the army, serving in the Korean War with an anti-aircraft unit. He managed to find a drumming outlet while in the service, touring throughout the Far East with the Seven Dukes of Rhythm.

Following his duty, Dunlop moved to New York City, where he quickly regained momentum. At a jam session, Thelonious Monk took note of the impressive newcomer and hired him for a steady engagement at the Five Spot with a dream band including bassist Wilbur Ware and emerging tenor giant John Coltrane. But a startling roadblock interfered. A musicians union representative yanked Dunlop off his breakthrough gig due to a three-month residency requirement, sparking a shouting match between Monk and the misguided rep.

Again rebounding, Dunlop subsequently toured with Charles Mingus, joined Sonny Rollins’ trio, and then settled into a three-year residency with Maynard Ferguson. With Ferguson, Dunlop honed his hard-driving big band chops, as heard on the trumpeter’s LP A Message From Birdland.

Following a stint with Lena Horne, Dunlop played a 1960 tour with Duke Ellington, and the following year he was asked to rejoin Monk’s group. That quartet, featuring tenor saxophonist Charlie Rouse and bassist John Ore, became one of the classic lineups of Monk’s late career, yielding a significant string of Columbia LPs from 1961 to 1963, including Monk’s Dream, Big Band and Quartet in Concert, Criss-Cross, Monk in Tokyo, and Miles & Monk at Newport. The group’s extensive European tours were also documented on several later releases, including Thelonious Monk in Italy and Monk in Copenhagen.

With this unit 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. Monk allowed Dunlop ample space to develop his thematic, melodic soloing.

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.”

In his heyday, Dunlop was on the road between seven and nine months of the year. “I have a whole collection of postcards from around the world,” his daughter, Robin Dunlop, says. “I would bring them to school for show-and-tell, to show the class where my dad was and what he was doing.”

Following his three and a half years with Monk, Dunlop reunited with Sonny Rollins, worked on several Broadway shows, and toured frequently with Lionel Hampton from 1975 through 1981. In addition to the recordings the drummer cut with his steady bandleaders, Dunlop generated a long discography with various artists, including Randy Weston, Ray Crawford, Richard Davis, Johnny Griffin, Joe Zawinul, and Mose Allison.

Friends and family knew Dunlop as a sociable person with the gift of gab. Robin recalls, “My dad loved connecting with people, talking to people wherever he went.” And Laura adds, “He was the first one to give insight or a lesson to someone, always helping young people that wanted to get into drumming.”

Also a quick wit, Dunlop possessed uncanny talents as an impersonator, a skill he employed intermittently throughout his career with his own jazz, comedy, and pantomime act, including a 1968 Fillmore East date where he shared the bill with Bill Cosby.

In 1985, Dunlop contracted the debilitating Guillain-Barré syndrome, a rare disorder attacking the nervous system. The protracted illness was later complicated by Alzheimer’s dementia, leading to Frankie’s death in July.

Citing Dunlop’s pure love for his art, Laura recalls, “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.”