They’ll honor the late Boyd Lee Dunlop like they would any fearless and gifted musician, by letting it all out with a jam session next month inside Buffalo’s Colored Musicians Club.
Decades ago, Dunlop put bread on his table by laboring in Buffalo’s steel mills and rail yards. He’d lift souls at night as a jazz pianist in clubs around the city.
As a performer he slipped into obscurity late in life until Brendan Bannon, a photographer and music lover, heard him play in his nursing home and knew there would have to be a CD.
In fact, there would be two: “Boyd’s Blues” in 2011 and then “The Lake Reflections” released early this year.
“One of the things that was always circling around when he sat down to improvise was ‘Round Midnight,’ ” Bannon said. It’s a tune composed by the great jazz pianist Thelonius Monk.
Dunlop died Friday at 12:39 a.m., ’round midnight. He was 87.
“He went out in keeping with what he’d been playing,” Bannon said.
Dunlop was born in Winston-Salem, N.C., and was brought to Buffalo as a young child. His family followed an aunt who had taken a job as a violinist with the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra. His first piano was found discarded on a nearby street corner. He gave his younger brother, Frankie, his first drum lessons. Wood plucked from chair-backs served as their sticks.
Frankie, who survives him, would go on to play with Monk, Sonny Rollins, Lena Horne and Charles Mingus. In 2012, the Buffalo Music Hall of Fame called the brothers “members of Buffalo jazz royalty” and gave them its President’s Award.
Tall and lean, Dunlop would swagger into a room, often with his cowboy hat over a mischievous smile.
When complimented about his music, he would point heavenward and say, “It comes from God.”
Bannon met Dunlop in 2010 when he waited inside the Delaware Nursing and Rehabilitation Center to talk with a doctor about a photography project.
Dunlop had just come back from a walk and eased into a chair beside him.
“You a doctor?” Dunlop asked.
“Photographer,” Bannon answered.
“Yeah? I’m a musician.”
Bannon heard him play and sent a recording off his cellphone to a music-producer friend in Brooklyn, Allen Farmelo. Even with the out-of-tune piano and rough recording, Farmelo agreed, the guy had something. They recorded both of Dunlop’s albums at Soundscape, Jim Calabrese’s studio on Buffalo’s West Side.
“Boyd was an incredibly sincere person. And it was sometimes alarming to be around somebody who was that sincere all the time, and that truthful all the time,” Farmelo said.
“When he would record something and then we would listen back to it, that’s a reality moment. ... He was brutally honest, which allowed everyone else to be brutally honest about whether something was any good.”
Dunlop, Farmelo said, fully appreciated the second chance he received as an artist – his career “renaissance,” as the Buffalo Music Hall of Fame put it when it honored him in 2012. “Boyd’s Blues” had captured worldwide attention that year when it shot to No. 5 on the jazz charts.
“He was blown away by, I think, in equal measure, his friendship with Brendan and by the recognition and success he was receiving as a musician simultaneously. They were intertwined to a certain degree, but they were also very separate things for him,” Farmelo said.
In appreciation for what Bannon had done, Boyd would tell him, “You gave me back myself.”
Bannon was often with Boyd as his health worsened, with age-related complications, in recent days.
“We had a great friendship that I think ended up being wonderfully productive in terms of getting some late recognition for what he did,” Bannon said. “I think I might have been the tip of the spear in that effort. But over the last couple of days, as his passing approached and now that he’s gone, it has given me a chance to reflect and see how many other people were behind that energy.”
A memorial service is planned for 11 a.m. Jan. 18 in Evangelistic Temple, 92 Hedley Place.
A musicians’ tribute and open jam session will be held at 8 p.m. the next day in Buffalo’s historic Colored Musicians Club, 145 Broadway.