Local drummer Tony Franklin moves from the Rock world to Jazz without missing a beat

Esteemed local pianist Phil DeGreg plays a regular Tuesday gig at The Blue Wisp downtown. My partner and I arrive just in time (9:30 p.m.) to grab the last empty table in a room crawling with twen

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Tony Franklin

Esteemed local pianist Phil DeGreg plays a regular Tuesday gig at The Blue Wisp downtown. My partner and I arrive just in time (9:30 p.m.) to grab the last empty table in a room crawling with twentysomethings. This was the last place in town where I expected to feel like the "old guy at the club," but I do. Oh well. The threesome has already started: DeGreg, bassist Bob Bodley, and drummer Tony Franklin, who is playing while barely moving, as relaxed as a guy taking a shower. As DeGreg takes a moment to introduce his band and note his new release, Whirl Away on J. Curve, he explains that Franklin is new, and indeed has not even heard a good portion of tonight's selections.

Our eyes widen, and a sympathetic tingle sets in as we try to imagine spontaneously tackling a set list of adventurous Jazz compositions. A music stand is then presented, holding several loose papers, roadmaps, presumably, to aid the driver's navigation. Franklin examines the text momentarily before they launch into one of DeGreg's new originals. What ensues is astounding — there's zero hesitation and no sense of someone trying to find his way.

Never does he hit a beat late, and it's not as if he's hanging back. He's all over it! On top of every accent, jumping out and lifting the room, then ducking back into the pocket. Grooving along with a pronounced calm, he only glances at the music stand a couple of times. The sublime unpredictability of the way he is slicing up time triggers involuntary spasms of my own muscles. We are cracking up, we love Franklin. He's a righteous dude, but this is unbelievable.

"What the hell is on that paper?," I yell into Paul Cavins' ear.

Cavins has been taking drum lessons from Franklin. Anyone who knows Cavins will tell you that the things he holds dear (e.g., James Brown, smoked meat, John Kasich, "Satchmo") are chosen slowly and with the utmost care. And Tony Franklin is Cavins' drum hero.

"Oh, I think he's the drum hero to many," concurs Todd Drake, a formidable drum stud himself. "I first saw him playing with (the local AltRock band) Schwah in about '93 and just went, 'Wow!' He's got it, he's got the feel. He's just perfectly relaxed, the embodiment of drumming, and I've never seen anyone who could jump styles so easily."

Before the thunderous Schwah, there was Grinch with Billy Alletzhauser, then stints with others before landing in Len's Lounge, post Schwah. Franklin was less visible in those days, and Jeff Roberson of Len's Lounge captured the essence of his then-elusiveness best by posting flyers advertising upcoming Roberson's shows with a photo of Franklin and the words "Have you seen this man? Please tell him he's got a show Friday at ..."

These days he's all over: Tuesdays at the Blue Wisp, Thursdays at a restaurant called Pacchia in Dayton, at Mansion Hill Tavern or Redfish with Ricky Nye at different times during the month. The Tony Franklin Trio, his pet project with guitarist Jack Broad squeezes shows in between. He's playing more music than MTV. And he can't hide now.

CityBeat: Have you purposefully transitioned away from Rock?

Tony Franklin: It's not really like that, you know? I still love Iron Maiden ... it's just hard to make a living playing Rock & Roll, unless you want to play covers. It seems like to play Rock you have to chase this certain "thing," and I don't want to. I've found that music means more to me than that.

CB: Do you miss the banging?

TF: Oh yeah, but I still do with Ricky (Nye), and I get together with people to jam and go crazy.

CB: Do you think "feel" can be taught?

TF: Feeling for music cannot be taught. You can't teach someone to love music the way you have to, in order to have that good feel. But Jazz snobs would say (Velvet Underground drummer) Mo Tucker's feel is terrible. I say it works. She just had the desire to play music.

CB: Describe "the pocket"

TF: Putting it in there, trying to keep it there. It's the bubble, it feels like a bubble when it's there, when you and the band are hooking up, it almost raises the band off the bandstand a little bit. On the other hand, if you're not there it feels like running uphill.

CB: You sounded great playing on songs you'd never heard. Have you ever felt like you've fallen on your face?

TF: Oh yeah, to a degree, but that's what's great about improvising, it's like being Robert DeNiro (laughs). Well, no, but if you can act, and smile ... But I know, I'm kind of a perfectionist, I know whether I've done things well. I just figure that if the energy is there, that's the important thing. Some of the best stuff I've seen in improvised music is when they're just going for it. I don't like the slick stuff, where everyone's hitting everything. It tells you they're not searching.

CB: Many consider you to be "The Man," but who are your drum heroes?

TF: Dan Leonard. He says no way, but I saw him years ago at the Jockey club, and he was like Keith Moon times ten. I thought, "That's what I gotta do!" Ron Enyard's an unsung master. Art Gore. John Von Ohlen (of the Blue Wisp Big Band). Melvin Broach. And a lot of good young drummers.

CB: Speaking of youth, there were more kids at The Blue Wisp than there ever used to be. Do you think Jazz is undergoing a resurgence?

TF: Yes, I think acoustic music in general: Folk, Country, Cuban ... people, my peers anyway, are looking for something other than FM radio.

CB: Do you have favorites you're listening to now that the readers must hear?

TF: Fred Hirsch, he's from Cincinnati, and he's an amazing piano player. I've been listening to a lot of Bluegrass and loving the Stanley Brothers, Carter and Ralph. Oh, and there's this drummer named Gerry Hemingway who's got a solo record called Tubworks, that's just drums. And what he does with drum sets is not for the timid!

CB: So you're not going to give me Blue Train, or Birth of the Cool?

TF: Those are great too, but gosh, that's 40 years ago. A lot of music happens in that space. But that's what Jazz is in this town, dwelling in the '50s. That's what everything is judged by. The "new modern" is like Miles in '65. But it's all good, if that music leads you to something else.

CB: You've certainly found your way to "something else." Want to acknowledge anyone else?

TF: I got to send a shout out to Matt Anderson, great musician, great person. He and I spent so much time together listening to Jazz. He showed me so much. And my parents, that's the most important one. I owe the most to them. ©

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