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The Boyd Variations

story by Geoff Kelly / photos by Brendan Bannon


At 85, Boyd Lee Dunlop, a Buffalo jazz legend, celebrates his first CD with a concert at Hallwalls

One late morning in November, Boyd Lee Dunlop, 85 years old, is showboating for two visitors and his fellow residents as they trickle into the room for lunch. As he plays a fast blues, he describes a great sweeping arc with his arm, a single finger extended to hit a high exclamation, calling attention away from the left hand, with which he’s laying down a rollicking shuffle. He finishes with a swirling run, laughing, hand over hand, all the way to the highest key.

Boyd Lee Dunlop Trio CD Release Performance

presented by Hallwalls Contemporary Arts Center & the Colored Musicians Club of Buffalo

Saturday, December 10, Doors 7pm, Show 8pm

Hallwalls Contemporary Arts Center, 341 Delaware Avenue

$10 general admission, $5 members/students/seniors

Tickets can be purchased online at hallwalls.org or in person at Hallwalls (854-1694).

“It’s easy!” he exclaims, smiling. “You could do it. You just have to know the formula.”

He hits the high note again. “But listen to that last note—it’s off. They tune the piano for me all the time, but you can hear it: It’s off.”

Boyd begins another piece, he can’t recall its name—”Something Italian,” he says—and soon he’s forgotten his visitors. He is curled over the keyboard, opening up the melody within a tight little pocket, expertly turning it inside out. No more flourishes, no more showmanship. It’s beautiful. When he finishes, he uncurls slowly and sees the room again. He smiles broadly at his visitors and raises his index finger in the air.

“What can I say? God—he did it. I don’t know how I got the notes together. Must have been Jesus.”

Here is the skeleton of the narrative that makes Boyd Lee Dunlop’s story so appealing: Boyd was born to a poor family in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. His mother and he moved to Buffalo, where she had family, for work and to get away from her husband. The husband followed anyway. There, his younger brother, Frankie, was born.

When Boyd was six or seven, he and Frankie found a broken-down piano, half the keys missing and the rest out of tune, and dragged it back to their yard. Boyd banged away at it for hours and asked his mother if he could bring it in the house. She said no, but one of her brothers, recognizing the boy’s passion, eventually bought him a decent piano. The uncle even paid for five lessons—the only lessons Boyd ever took or needed.

He proved to be a prodigious talent, as did Frankie, who started on guitar, an instrument their father played, but quickly moved to drums. Both brothers drank in jazz, blues, church music; both were playing professionally from the time they were teenagers. Frankie toured with the rhythm and blues bandleader Big Jay McNeely, did a stint in the military during the Korean War, then caught a big break when Maynard Ferguson asked him to join his band. He went on to play with Sonny Rollins, Charles Mingus, Sonny Stitt, Duke Ellington, and most famously with Thelonius Monk, beginning in 1960 and into Monk’s early years with Atlantic Records, when Monk’s music began to reach a wide audience.

Boyd toured with Big Jay McNeely, too, but quit after a year. (“I didn’t care for him—for his music,” he says.) For one reason or another, Boyd’s big break never came; or maybe he let his breaks pass; in any case, the narrative trajectories of the two talented brothers diverged. Boyd played in local clubs, taught piano, worked at Bethlehem Steel and assorted other jobs, and became a fixture, and eventually a respected elder, on Buffalo’s talent-rich jazz scene.

In April 2006, a nephew who was suing Boyd over a family debt shot him in the chest to prevent Boyd from appearing in court. When he’d recovered from the wound, Boyd was discharged from the hospital to the Delaware Nursing and Rehabilitation Center, at the corner of West Utica and Delaware. The nephew went to jail.

He’s 85 and he plays every day on that temperamental Everett upright in the home’s cafeteria. His chops are still intact, and, thanks to a chance encounter with Brendan Bannon, a Buffalo- and Nairobi-based photographer hired to shoot portraits of the home’s residents, last winter Boyd recorded his first CD, Boyd’s Blues, the release of which will be celebrated with a concert at Hallwalls Contemporary Arts Center on Saturday, December 10.

Boyd’s stories are a kind of jazz, themselves: The themes, the vocabulary, and the architecture are all familiar, but they’re never played the same way twice.

“That piano is out in the yard, and I hit one C, and then I hit another one an octave higher,” Boyd says. “It was out of tune but I could tell they were related, you know. I said, ‘Damn, I like that.’ I said, ‘Mom, there’s this piano. Can we bring it in the house?’ She said, ‘No, don’t bring that junk in here.’”

“My uncle worked on the docks down on Michigan Avenue there. Stevedore. And she told him when he came by the house to see her, and he said, ‘Don’t worry, I’ll get you a piano.’ He went to some furniture store and got a piano—it was just all right, but it was in tune. He said, ‘Do you want that?’ I said, ‘I don’t want you to get me anything.’ He said, ‘No, I’m going to help your mother. I’m going to help my sister.’ So he went and bought the piano and put it in my house. It took five men. They—all my uncles, my mother’s brothers, and their sons, older than me—they all came over and lifted it off the ground, and carried it inside, and sat it down, and rolled it over in the corner, where it sat for 12 years. I said, ‘I’ll be damned.’

“And my uncle came back—all he could play was un-deh un-deh un-deh-deh—but he came over and played. And he said, ‘You have an instrument, now learn how to play it.’ And I said, ‘Uncle, now you know we’re real poor.’ He said, ‘I’ll pay for it.’ I said, ‘What?’ My Uncle Jack paid for my first five lessons. I didn’t want him to pay for it. I said, ‘Uncle Jack, I’m not your child. You’re my cousin’s father.’”

Still, he took the lessons. His teacher taught him scales. After his fifth lesson, Boyd says, she died, and after that he drew his education from the music he heard every day on records, on the radio, in church, and in music halls, of which there were many, not least of which was the Colored Musicians Club, where local and touring musicians met and challenged each other’s chops.

Bannon met Boyd in late spring of 2010, on his first visit to the nursing home to see if he would take the job documenting the residents and their relationships with each other, with staff, and with their families. As it happened, the first person he met was Boyd, who was friendly and mentioned that he was a musician. “Pretty soon we were talking about music and art,” Bannon says, “ and I decided I would take the job based on meeting this one guy.”

On return visits, Boyd played for Bannon, who began recording him. Once, after the piano had recently been tuned, Boyd mentioned that he’d never heard himself recorded before; he’d been on a couple of records when he was much younger, but in the background, never featured. He liked what Brendan was playing back to him. What could he do in the studio with a trio and a decent piano?

Not too long after Boyd started playing, Art Tatum came to Boyd’s house to see the boy play piano. The jazz giant had played a gig at Jan’s on Main Street and later at the Colored Musicians Club; maybe Boyd’s Uncle Jack brought him back, maybe Tatum was sweet on Boyd’s mother. In any case, Tatum improvised on “Sweet Lorraine” on Boyd’s piano, beginning just with the left hand, reaching down with his right hand from time to time to grab a bottle of the beer he drank like water while he played.

“In the middle of the second chorus, he set that beer bottle down, and then I never heard so much piano in my life,” Boyd says. “I didn’t know a piano could be played like that. To watch his fingers move—like lightning.”

Boyd says he couldn’t pull out the notes Tatum was playing; the pace was too dizzying. But he knew his chords well enough to know that Tatum’s execution was flawless. Afterward Boyd told him, “I like the way you play piano.” Tatum asked if Boyd played, and when Boyd said he did, they spun the piano stool as high as it could go so Boyd could show him a little. Tatum was impressed.

“He said, ‘Wow, who taught you?’” Boyd says. “I said, ‘I’ve only had five lessons. He’s like, ‘What!’ I said, ‘Five lessons.’ He said, ‘Damn,’ and that’s all he ever said. And he said, ‘God knows best.’

“I often wondered what he meant by ‘God knows best.’ But he told me, when I saw him five years later, up on Michigan Avenue at the Moonglow. I said, ‘You don’t remember me, but five years ago you were here and you made a statement and it befuddled me.’ I used big words; instead of saying it bugged the shit out of me, I said it befuddled me. He said, ‘You be what?’ I said, ‘I mean mixed-up.’

“Then he told me what he meant by telling me that. He said, ‘If you’re interested, if you keep it up, you’re going to be great pianist. You’ve got your own voice. Keep after it.’

“I’d heard him play, and I wanted to make a piano sound like he did. I wanted to be able to play a song any way I wanted to, like he did. And that’s what I do.”

The recording of Boyd’s Blues took place over seven hours on one day in February at Soundscape Studio on Vermont Street, which is run by Jimmy Calabrese. The producer was Allen Farmelo, a Buffalo native now based in Brooklyn, with whom Bannon had shared his recordings of Boyd.

Backing Boyd in the studio were two of Buffalo’s most accomplished jazz musicians, Sabu Adeloya on bass and Virgil Day on drums. (“I played with Virgil’s father at Jan’s when Virgil was just a kid,” Boyd remembers. “I played drums.”) Adeloya has played with Dexter Gordon, Charles Mingus, Randy Weston, and Abbey Lincoln. Day toured with Mingus in the late 1960s and has played with Chu Nero and Freddie Hubbard, among others. Bannon had heard the two of them playing with bassist and violinist Henry Grimes at the Colored Musicians Club when Grimes came to Buffalo last fall.

They seemed a perfect fit. Both certainly know Boyd’s playing, and Boyd knew theirs.

In the studio, Adeloya and Day fell right behind the pianist’s lyrical, confident voice. “It sounded like they’d been playing all their lives together,” Bannon said.

When Boyd arrived at Soundscape for his recording session, he walked right to the piano, sat down, still wearing his big winter coat, and started to play.

“Well, at first it scared the shit out of me,” Boyd says, remembering the prospect of walking into the studio. He’d stayed awake the entire night before in anticipation.

“I was nervous as hell the first time he told me I was recording. Then the second time, I felt a little better, but I was nervous. When you have things that have happened to you, it affects your talent. You know. You’re not yourself. But after a while, I said, ‘What am I running from? God gave me this gift. If it’s not right, it’s not right. Don’t be so worried about that. It’s a God-given gift.’”

“It was like he just had to get it out,” Farmelo says. “He was like, ‘Now!’ I had the engineer hit record right away. That’s on the record, it’s called ‘Boyd’s Epic Journey,’ and it’s about 13-plus minutes of beautiful improvised music.”

“You know what it was?” Boyd says. “All of that, the melody, was in my head, and I didn’t want to walk in and forget it. When I saw the piano, I said, ‘Let me see what I can do with it.’ I didn’t say hello, I walked directly to the piano and started with that melody. I was saying, ‘Look, fellas, here I am. Look what I have.’ The chord changes, everything concerned with that song, was in my head. I can go to the piano right now and play it.”

He’d stayed awake the entire night before the recording session in anticipation. Afterward, he crashed for two days.

This is not story of discovery, of course: Boyd has been a known quantity to three generations of Buffalo’s jazz musicians. Maybe it’s a redemption story. Maybe it’s a path, with its origins in the Great Migration, one of many, which affords a unique perspective on African-American life in Buffalo and the history of 20th-century music. Maybe, as Farmelo believes, Boyd’s journey appeals because it is an especially resonant variation on another story: that there are geniuses scattered throughout the world who forsook or never found fame.

“You hear these stories, or you imagine them,” Farmelo says. “I think that the sense of discovery is a big part of it. But I also think that the music itself is why that sense of discovery is validated, because I think he’s just such an amazing player. He really is an incredible repository of the last century in music—African American jazz, blues, and church music.”

Calabrese’s studio had all the necessary qualities to produce the sound Farmelo had in mind, based on the recordings Bannon had made of Boyd playing in the cafeteria.

“I wanted it to match Boyd’s style of playing, which I sort of targeted as late ’50s up to mid ’60s bebop,” Farmelo says. “Monk, Coltrane, and especially the tonality of McCoy Tyner.”

With its vintage microphones, its vintage-style preamps, and, most importantly, its beautiful Steinway baby grand piano, Soundscape was perfect. Back in Brooklyn, Farmelo recorded the music for an analog console on to tape. It was mastered by Magic Shop Recording Studio’s Jessica Thompson, who just finished restoring and remastering great quantities of 1960s recordings from the Newport Jazz Festival. Even the cover art, designed by Betsy Frazer of Frazer/Montague Design using Bannon’s photographs, evokes the Atlantic Records cover art of the era that all involved in the project hoped, and succeeded, to capture.

Boyd shined shoes. He made a little money as a boxer as a teenager, too, but he quit that when he was about 18, after his mother told him his face was too pretty to be pulverized by other men’s fists. He wasn’t worried about his hands. About the same time, he started playing piano regularly at clubs.

“A lot of time I played with a hat, and they had to drop money in the hat. But the hat was always full,” Boyd says. “And if I didn’t have money I’d go out to the white places, and they’d like me, and they’d fill up my hat with quarters and dimes. I made a lot of money like that.”

He laughs: “And that’s the story of my life! It ends at 18, and starts again at 85. Son of a gun.”

That’s not true, of course: He worked at Bethlehem Steel for a time (“With that hot molten steel running,” he says) until his boss, having learned that Boyd was a pianist, asked him to come out to his house to play. At the end of the evening, the boss’s wife told Boyd to quit the steel plant, come work for her as a landscaper, and play piano for her and her guests from time to time. He worked at Pratt & Letchworth. He taught piano, preferring apt pupils. He charged a dollar a day when that was a lot of money. He told families, “If you can’t afford a loaf of bread, don’t buy piano lessons.” He had a daughter, Corliss, to whom, along with his brother Frankie, he dedicates Boyd’s Blues.

And he always played piano.

“I’ve had myself a good life. I mean, I’ve had my problems like anybody else. But I’ve had a good life,” he says. “I really paid my dues to be where I am. It brings tears to my eyes.”

It did, too: He was crying. “Oh, that’s all right, I’ll dry my eyes. But I know what I went through, and when I have a person to whom I can tell it, who understands it, it renews the feeling in me. And I feel better.

“Now I feel like I can lift a building. Now the world is getting to know me as a pianist. When good things happen for you, they happen all at once.”

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