Born: 1926 Primary Instrument: Piano
After nearly 80 years as a live musician and mainstay at the storied Colored Musicians Club of Buffalo, NY, Boyd Lee Dunlop will release his debut recording, Boyd’s Blues, on December 10, 2011. Boyd’s Blues swings with a divine cadence, the sound of the long-marinated dreams of a self-taught musician who learned to play upon discovering a discarded and broken piano on the streets of Buffalo, NY in the early 1930’s. Hailing from a musical family, Dunlop’s younger brother, famed jazz drummer Frankie Dunlop, recorded over 100 albums with jazz luminaries such as Thelonious Monk, Duke Ellington, and Charles Mingus.
Boyd Lee Dunlop was born in 1926 in Winston Salem, NC. Music brought him to Buffalo, NY as a child. His family followed his aunt who had taken a job as a violinist with the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra. Dunlop’s first piano was found outside his house on the corner, discarded with only half the keys working. As Dunlop remembers, “I asked my mother if I could bring it into the house. I thought it would be easy for me to play. If I could see the notes, I could play. What can I say, a year later we bought a piano, and here I am.”
Dunlop gave his younger brother, Frankie Dunlop, his first drum lesson. Dunlop recalls, “We used the thin wood from the back of a chair as our sticks.” Younger brother Frankie went on to find fame as a drummer, playing with Thelonious Monk, Duke Ellington, Charles Mingus, Sonny Rollins, Big Jay McNeely, Lionel Hampton, and many other jazz greats, and recording nearly one hundred sides during his career.
Boyd Lee Dunlop’s trajectory followed a different course. Until now he could be found only on one record, a blowsy rhythm and blues session from the late 50’s by Big Jay McNeely. For years Dunlop worked in Buffalo’s steel mills and rail yards, yet his calling was the piano and he played in the clubs around Buffalo, including the storied Colored Musicians Club.
Boyd’s Blues was born of a chance encounter between Dunlop and internationally-regarded photographer, Brendan Bannon. After becoming acquainted during Bannon’s visits to Dunlop’s nursing home about an unrelated photography project, Bannon started recording Dunlop on the broken-down, out-of-tune piano in the lobby. Hearing himself play, Dunlop told Bannon that he’d like to make a record. After hearing some of these first recordings, New York City producer Allen Farmelo flew into Buffalo and the record was made in one day-long session on a snowy winter day. Boyd is backed by Sabu Adeyola on bass and Virgil Day on drums. Dunlop played with Virgil Day's father in Buffalo clubs and long admired Adeyola's work with American jazz master Ahmad Jamal.
A smidgen of Art Tatum here, and a dash of Bud Powell there, hints of Jaki Byard sprinkled on top, sometimes in the space of one song. But where Tatum and Powell often spearheaded their songs with lightning fills and the elaborate technical prowess youth will cling to, Dunlop lays back in a pocket of blues, deftly knowing when to slow the pace, shifting from standards, to improvised embellishment, to “Mary Had a Little Lamb” and into his own distinctive phrases.
After the session Dunlop said, “I waited my whole life for this day and I was gonna do it if it killed me.” At the age of 85, Dunlop’s passion and inventiveness are finally captured on Boyd’s Blues, and these notes will continue to ring out, over and over.