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Remembering beloved D.C. jazz drummer Howard 'Kingfish' Franklin, lost to COVID


Over the past year and a half, we have been remembering some of the more than 750,000 people who have died of COVID-19 in the U.S., and we've asked you to share their stories with us.


Today, we are remembering Howard "Kingfish" Franklin. He died in August at the age of 51. A native Washingtonian who was known for his jazz drumming prowess, his daughter, Naki Franklin, said he loved music more than anyone she's ever met.


NAKI FRANKLIN: When my dad was, like, a kid, he worked at a deli, a local deli. So, like, he gathered some different, like, random buckets they had around the deli and, like, used duct tape and, like, contrapted (ph) his own drum set from, like, buckets and tape.

KELLY: Every week, he brought his paycheck down to the music store to pay for a drum he had put aside on layaway.

FRANKLIN: Once he gave them enough paychecks, he caught the taxi there and then got the drum set. And then he called my grandmother to come pick him up with the drum set. She said she would, but then next thing she knew, he was pulling up at home in a taxi with the drum set because he just couldn't wait.

CORNISH: Jazz gave Howard Franklin his nickname, Kingfish, which was often shortened to just Fish in D.C. jazz circles. While he was working toward a degree in jazz studies at the University of the District of Columbia, his mentor, Calvin Jones, named him after a character from the "Amos 'n' Andy" show.

FRANKLIN: I believe he had a strong personality, and my dad had a strong personality. I'm a rule-follower. I'm, like, quiet, introverted. My dad is like the complete opposite. He was very loud and, like, extroverted. He loved being around people. And he was a rule-breaker (laughter) naturally. You know, it was kind of funny, like, us being dad and daughter.

KELLY: Now, nothing illustrated this better than one moment on Naki's 16th birthday.

FRANKLIN: I was just, you know, in my history class, in high school and just a regular day. None of my classmates even knew it was my birthday, you know? And he just, like, busts into the room, interrupts the whole history lesson. And needless to say, we didn't learn anything that class. And he made, like, everyone sing happy birthday for me and brought cupcakes. Yeah, it was so embarrassing, but it was also really funny.

CORNISH: He kept that energetic spirit going throughout his life. But in early August, while Franklin was in New Jersey, he started feeling sick and a test showed it was COVID-19.

FRANKLIN: The sickness accelerated very fast. August 17th, I believe, is when they intubated him, and he passed away August 18th. So it was all very fast. Grief is, like, wild because it's just - it will sometimes be the littlest things that will just make you sad or, like, trigger those emotions. So like just texting him, like, an Apple Music song that I just heard or, like, he ordered me last year, like, a new car part for my car. And, like, now I have to kind of do that myself in the future.

KELLY: Naki Franklin, who aspires to write for TV after she graduates later this year, says she will always be inspired by her father's passion for music and life and his desire to keep getting better at what he loved.

FRANKLIN: I always saw him as super extremely confident and just, like, unafraid. He would introduce himself to anybody. He could speak to anybody. But I learned just after he passed that he would actually get nervous, like, when he would meet, like, jazz musicians that he admired and stuff. Like, that was like the only time he would get nervous. He was always looking to improve at the drums and stuff. So that kind of inspired me in my writing to just, like, focus, always look for ways to improve. Like, it's OK if I'm a little nervous about things as well sometimes.


KELLY: Howard "Kingfish" Franklin - he died of COVID-19 in August at the age of 51. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.