Music Interviews
3:59 pm
Fri December 9, 2011

A Jazz Pianist Gets His Big Break — At Age 85

Originally published on Thu December 15, 2011 5:56 pm

Back in the 1930s, Boyd Lee Dunlop taught himself to play music on a broken piano left out on the streets of Buffalo, N.Y. Only half the keys worked.

He also taught his little brother Frank to play the drums while they were growing up. Frankie Dunlop went on to record with Thelonious Monk and Charles Mingus, among other jazz greats. Boyd Lee Dunlop went to work in the steel mills and rail yards of Buffalo, occasionally playing piano at local clubs.

Another chance encounter with a busted piano has now led Boyd Lee Dunlop to record and release his first album, at the age of 85. Brendon Bannon, a documentary photographer by trade, is the album's producer.

"We met when I went into the nursing home where Boyd's living, in Buffalo, to talk to the doctors there about doing a photo project. Boyd was sitting down in the waiting area also, and we struck up a conversation really quickly," Bannon says. "He told me about his piano playing and invited me down to the cafeteria to listen to him play. I looked at the piano, and there were keys broken off of it ... It didn't look well. But Boyd was wrestling some beautiful sounds out of it."

Here, Weekend Edition Saturday host Scott Simon speaks with Bannon and Dunlop about Dunlop's debut album, Boyd's Blues.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Back in the 1930s, Boyd Lee Dunlop taught himself to play music on a broken piano left out on the streets of Buffalo, New York.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AFTER HOURS")

BOYD LEE DUNLOP: The first song I played was "After Hours."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AFTER HOURS")

SIMON: Only half of the keys worked. He also taught his little brother, Frank, how to play the drums while they were growing up. Well, Frankie Dunlop went on to record with Thelonious Monk and Charlie Mingus, among other jazz greats; Boyd Lee Dunlop went on to work in the local steel mills and the rail yards in Buffalo, occasionally playing piano at local clubs. Another chance encounter with a busted piano has now led Boyd Lee Dunlop to record and release his debut album at the age of 85. His new CD is called "Boyd's Blues." And pianist Boyd Lee Dunlop and Brendon Bannon, the album's producer, join us from the studios of member station WBFO in Buffalo. Gentlemen, thanks so much for being with us.

DUNLOP: Thank you.

BRENDON BANNON: Thanks for having us.

SIMON: Brendon Bannon, how did you hear about Boyd Lee Dunlop? How did you two meet?

BANNON: We met when I went into the nursing home where Boyd's living, in Buffalo, to talk to the doctors there about doing a photo project. Boyd Dunlop was sitting down in the waiting area also, and we struck up a conversation really quickly and...

DUNLOP: You struck it up.

BANNON: He told me about his piano playing and invited me down to the cafeteria, to listen to him play. And I looked at the piano and there were keys broken off of it.

DUNLOP: Strings popped out and everything.

BANNON: It didn't look well but, you know, Boyd was wrestling some beautiful sounds out of it. I started recording him with a little MP3 recorder, and moved on from there.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIMON: Mr. Bannon?

BANNON: Yes.

SIMON: What went through your mind when you first heard Boyd Lee Dunlop play?

BANNON: Well, I mean, a couple things. The first was, I was just filled with joy and wonder that this guy was sitting down and playing his heart out in what was an empty cafeteria in a nursing home in Buffalo. You know, the fact that he had to do it, that he wanted to do it, that he was doing it, really filled me with wonder and inspiration. And the fact that the music that he was making was so gorgeous, compelling, heartfelt and smart music made me think, somebody needs to make a record. And eventually I thought, maybe I should make a record. And you know, we kind of took it from there.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIMON: Mr. Dunlop, do you have a favorite song on this CD?

DUNLOP: Everything on there is my favorite.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SIMON: Well, that's as good an answer as I've had to that question.

DUNLOP: OK.

SIMON: Mr. Bannon, do you have something on this CD you want to point us to?

BANNON: You know, there's two things on the record. There is Boyd with the band, and it's an amazing band - Sabu Adeyola...

DUNLOP: Oh, Sabu and - oh yeah.

BANNON: ...and Virgil Day, two players in Buffalo who played around the world with some of the greats.

DUNLOP: It was a trio - that trio, you like the trio better? Oh, you didn't like me by myself, huh?

BANNON: No....

DUNLOP: Now I hear it, for Christ's sake.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BANNON: You know, as much as I love listening to him play with the band, the things that are closest to what I originally heard him playing, when we met, are tunes like "Boyd's Epic Journey," which is about 13 and a half minutes. And, you know, I listen to that and I can hear references to classical music, to other jazz tunes, to nursery rhymes. It's a song that to me, has a whole lot of life in it.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "BOYD'S EPIC JOURNEY")

SIMON: So, Mr. Dunlop, you've been playing the piano for almost 80 years, I guess.

DUNLOP: That's right.

SIMON: I don't know of anyone else who can say that.

DUNLOP: Yeah, well, and I thank God I'm able to say it.

SIMON: Let me ask you both this question, and if you could take it in turn. Do you think there are some things that you can play better on a piano because of the life you've had at the age of 85, than you could have played them when you were 25 or 30?

DUNLOP: Overall, I can play the blues better.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIMON: Mr. Bannon, do you think there are things that Mr. Dunlop can play better now?

BANNON: Well, I mean, I met Boyd Lee Dunlop just last year, so I don't know what he was playing all those other years. I wish I could hear it. But what I do hear when he plays is, I hear an incredible openness and a fearlessness. And I don't know if you can have an incredible openness like that and that kind of fearlessness, that kind of musical bravery, at age 25.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BANNON: I think you've got to have a chance to not be doing things that other people are asking you to do, and you have to get to a place in your life where you're doing what you want to do because you want to do it, you feel it - and you've got to let it out.

DUNLOP: You're right. I was so wet.

SIMON: Well, second album in the works?

DUNLOP: Second album?

BANNON: What do you think, Boyd? Do you want to do another one?

DUNLOP: I'll do as many as I can. Yes, I would, sir.

SIMON: OK, good.

DUNLOP: Best way to put it. Yes, sir.

SIMON: Well, gentlemen, it's wonderful talking to both of you. Good luck with this album, OK?

DUNLOP: Thank you very much.

BANNON: Thank you very much. It was a pleasure to be with you.

SIMON: Boyd Lee Dunlop, the distinguished pianist, and Brendon Bannon, speaking with us from WBFO in Buffalo. Mr. Dunlop's new album - his debut - is called "Boyd's Blues."

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIMON: And you can hear songs from "Boyd's Blues" at NPRMusic.org.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIMON: And as we bring this hour to a close, let's remind you, you can always find us online at NPR.org; on Facebook at NPRWeekend; and on Twitter, the show @NPRWeekend, my Twitter handle is NPRScottSimon. Some tweets already rolling in. ArizonaWildcat: Thanks for reminding us about Laura Nyro's versatility, beautiful voice, and messages that still resonate. TokyoCharlotte: They're talking about hackerspaces on NPR Weekend #IWantThat. Sandra Valentini listened to our coverage of the European debt crisis and Germany's increasing prominence and tweeted: I'm Italian and yes, uncomfortable. It looks frightening to me.

RKHall tweeted this message after our conversation with the head of the Family Leader Group about Christian conservative voters: For the life of me, I cannot figure out how universal health care is not Christian. And special thanks to our newest Twitter followers, including Boyd Lee Dunlop, the 85-year-old jazz musician we just talked to. You're never too old to tweet or to tickle the ivories. Tickle us. Let us hear from you. This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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