Boyd Lee Dunlop’s piano playing takes you back to a time before jazz musicians learned their craft at colleges and conservatories. A time when you learned jazz by listening – and living.
On a quiet weekday morning, he sits at the spinet in the Delaware Nursing and Rehabilitation Center, decades of songs are under his fingers.
“I love the old songs,” Dunlop says, smiling. “They had meaning.”
Dunlop plays every morning in the nursing home. This was his routine before he released his first CD, “Boyd’s Blues,” just over a year ago. And it is his routine now.
Even though the disc captured the imagination of journalists worldwide and reached No. 5 on the jazz charts, life continues as it always has. He laughs as he admits that.
“I’m still Boyd Lee Dunlop,” he says.
Last year, the international success of “Boyd’s Blues” was like something out of a dream. The CD, Dunlop’s first, came about by accident, through the intervention of photographer Brendan Bannon. Bannon, 42, came into the nursing home one day to take pictures, and pianist and photographer made friends.
Now, the miracle that was “Boyd’s Blues” continues.
About a year ago, a few weeks after the release of “Boyd’s Blues,” Dunlop almost died.
“He flatlined,” says Kate Wannemacher, the director of nursing at the Delaware Avenue care center.
But Dunlop, who is made of strong stuff, bounced back. And now, at 86, he is releasing a new CD that he will celebrate in concert at 2 p.m. Sunday in Asbury Hall.
It is called “The Lake Reflections” because its improvisations were anchored by a series of horizontal, moody photographs Bannon took of Lake Erie. While “Boyd’s Blues” was a trio album, “The Lake Reflections” is solo piano. It’s more conducive to Dunlop’s delicate, stream-of-consciousness playing. He admits he’s happier on his own.
Wannemacher chimes in that she is also happier to hear Dunlop by himself.
“I hear the solo Boyd,” she says. “I hear it every morning. I hear Boyd’s heart every morning. That’s what I hear.”
‘I feel good!’
Being a recording artist has changed Dunlop’s life in some ways.
“The phone has been ringing,” he admits. “I’m OK with it. But people who call me late at night, I don’t like.”
Bannon helped out, and so did Wannemacher. “We kept the public at bay,” she says.
Her resident celebrity was new to fame. His younger brother, Frankie Dunlop, was a renowned drummer, famous for his records with Thelonious Monk. But Boyd Lee Dunlop is both dazzled and disbelieving as he and Wannemacher turn the pages of a scrapbook of the media attention that followed “Boyd’s Blues.”
“I was in Jet?” he marvels.
For a man who came back from the dead, he looks startlingly alive. His eyes dance when he greets you. His smile is wide and bright.
Every Sunday, a friend picks him up on a motorcycle and takes him to church. Dunlop claims happily – and believably – that the folks at church tell him, “Boyd, you light up the room.”
If he helps God out, God helps him back. Dunlop gives generous credit to the Almighty.
“It comes from God,” he loves to say, pointing heavenward.
“You talk a lot about God, man, don’t you?” says Bannon.
“I do,” Dunlop admits. He sometimes works hymns into his playing.
Dunlop’s age has given him grace and distinctiveness. Until recently, music was always his avocation. Instead of playing for a living, he worked in steel mills and on railroads. A couple of decades ago, he was known around town as one of a number of seasoned musicians who could be found at the Colored Musicians Club, a grand old group that also included pianists Al Tinney and Joe “Groove” Madison.
Now, he is the soul survivor.
Frankie Dunlop, the drummer, is in New Jersey. He is not well, Wannemacher says, and is unaware of his big brother’s sudden success. Boyd Lee Dunlop has a daughter, but like a lot of Buffalo expats, she lives in North Carolina. He was married, but it didn’t last.
Bannon teases Dunlop, good-naturedly. “Now you’re walking on the graves of people who said you wouldn’t do it, right, Boyd?”
“That’s right,” Dunlop beams. “I feel good!”
Art Tatum’s beer
Dunlop loves to play, usually turning out two sets daily in the dining room. The staffers slow down as they wipe tables. Now and then, a resident applauds.
He would play even if no one were there. Musicians who do not need to play, he believes, are not real musicians. “They’re not playing out of their heart.”
He has always played out of his heart.
It is fun to quiz Dunlop about his past. He has an amusing habit of referring to places by house numbers. There is not only 272 Jefferson, the family home, but 361 Sycamore St. (a beer joint); 15 Walnut St., etc.
He was little when he spotted a beat-up piano in a neighbor’s backyard, and instinctively touched the keys.
“I heard these sounds in my head,” he says. “I wanted to play what I heard.”
As Dunlop loves to say, he had only five piano lessons. But a turning point came when he heard Art Tatum, in a Buffalo club, playing “Sweet Lorraine.”
“Oh, my God, that’s beautiful,” he remembers saying. “That’s how I learned to play the piano, to make beautiful sounds.”
Memories of Tatum can be coaxed out of Dunlop. “He didn’t drink whiskey. He drank beer,” he says. “He had the case right by the side of the piano. It was sitting on the right-hand side. He’d do a run up the keyboard, pick up the beer. He did it so fast you didn’t know he was drinking it.”
Other names, too, stir memories.
He liked Nat “King” Cole: “He’s funky.” He begins singing “Straighten Up and Fly Right.”
Then he shakes his head. “He didn’t have much of a voice,” he says of Cole. “It was raspy. He wasn’t a singer’s singer – I’ll put it that way.” He prefers Billy Eckstine and Mel Torme.
What about women singers? Dinah Washington gets his vote. “She could sing! But she cursed all the time. My God.” Billie Holiday? “I’m traveling light,” Dunlop sings, “because my man is gone...’ She sang hard songs.”
Mention the Pine Grill, the old gutbucket Buffalo club, and a smile slowly spreads across Dunlop’s face. “Heck, yeah,” he laughs.
He is free with his opinions.
“Earl Hines was old-fashioned even when I was a kid!”
“Rachmaninoff was really beautiful. Thick hands, but agile.”
“Sarah Vaughan? She had a man’s voice,” he says. Hilariously, he imitates Vaughan’s deep notes. Dunlop is a good mimic. His brother Frankie reportedly shared that talent.
Don’t fence him in
Once, in Hollywood, Dunlop met George Gershwin. “Not easy to talk to at all,” he says, adding Gershwin was cold.
No one could call Dunlop cold. But he has his tough side.
He doesn’t like being fenced in. When he was a toddler on Buffalo’s East Side (“We were poor!” Dunlop exclaims) his mother was talking to a friend and, restless, Boyd Lee decided to cross the street.
“A car just missed running over me,” he says. “The car skidded and got this close to me.” He holds his fingers apart a fraction of an inch. “My mother tore me up! She took her knuckle and tried to drive it through my head. She said, ‘You damn near got killed!’ ”
Bannon says that Dunlop told him, “You’re the first guy I ever trusted.” It could be true. Dunlop tells of how he threatened violence when his father objected to him playing the piano. Asked about his time in the Army – he served in India during World War II – he veers into stories of racism and fights.
More frequently, though, Dunlop is in a sentimental mood.
Bannon grows emotional as he tells how Dunlop told him: “You gave me back myself.”
He visits Dunlop frequently, and they can while away hours talking of this and that. When a woman is on the scene, the dynamic changes. “I’m sorry!” Dunlop will say devilishly, when a swear word slips out. But the conversation flows easily, if erratically.
There is a long exploration of the science of jumping on and off moving freight trains, something both of them can discuss with alarming competence. “I was a professional hobo!” brags Dunlop. He laughs about how once he wound up hitching a ride in a cattle car full of pigs.
When his food tray arrives, he broods. He likes meat, Dunlop admits. “But every once in a while I think it was an animal. And then I don’t want to eat it.”
Occasionally, the talk turns to piano.
“One guy called me a genius,” Dunlop says. “It stuck in my head. I didn’t know how to take it. It’s no effort for me to play. I feel so relaxed when I play the piano,” he explains. “I don’t back off and play. I hit this note, I hold these notes down.”
That’s what he plans to do on Sunday. He did it before, and he can do it again.
“I reached up to the sky and brought the house down,” Dunlop laughs. “God gave me the talent.”