Before Dave Frishberg the pianist became Frishberg the celebrated songwriter, singer and wit, he was a journeyman musician. When he had established himself in New York in the late 1950s, he played with Al Cohn and Zoot Sims, Ben Webster, Jimmy Rushing, indeed, a cross section of the best jazz artists of the day. In the course of working into the jazz community, however, he took the jobs he could get.
Pianist Jack Reilly recently sent me an account that Frishberg wrote some time ago about one of his early New York gigs. I was so taken with it that I asked Dave if it had been published. He said that it had only been circulated now and then among friends. What would he think about its appearing in Rifftides, I wondered. Here is part of his reply:
I’ve never considered putting something out on the internet—in fact this is the first time it’s been proposed to me. All in all, I would be pleased to see the piece in Rifftides, and there’s a good chance that my audience—(retired dance band musicians) and your readership might overlap to some degree.
With Mr. Frishberg’s permission, you will find in the next exhibit his account of a moment of Greenwich Village history that, alas, can never be recaptured because of the passing of many of the central characters.
But first, in the unlikely event that you don’t know his work, I refer you to two essential Frishberg CDs, one in which he sings many of his best-known songs, the other concentrating on his piano playing. Just click the links to find them.
Tim DuRoche says
I read this piece a while back when I was doing a profile of Dave for a Portland magazine that went broke before they ever published their first issue. Frish has a few other remembrances that are equally a scream.
Here’s my piece on him below
PS Shelly Manne’s 2-3-4 is one of my favorite albums ever (Raksin’s Slowly is superb).
DAVE FRISHBERG: Shooting from the Hip
“I’m from the old school
The proper and the prude school
Where it’s stiff upper lip
stay quietly hip”
—Dave Frishberg, The Hopi Way
Portland, Oregon takes great pride in its hipster indie-cred, in a certain low-slung holster of free-and-loose, artistic, frontier-justice ideals, a cool DIY ingenuity. To many in the younger ranks, a 72-year-old, four-time Grammy-nominated songwriter with a body of witty, poignant songs that make you think of (as well as tap your foot to) subjects as obtuse as attorneys named Bernie, long-gone ball players, Oklahoma toads, and the legislative process might seem the absolute antithesis of Johnny-on-the-spot hip.
But then again they’ve probably never met Dave Frishberg, jazz pianist, composer and one of our most enduring beau ideals of Beat-meets-Bing Crosby, cultivated cool.
A pianist (“I never tell people I’m a musician, because they might think I’m responsible for what’s on the radio.”) with an unassuming, avuncular wryness, Frishberg is unparalleled in his musings on the vagaries of daily life and the seismic impact of love, death, nostalgia, and the state of the world. Known for penning such things as Schoolhouse Rock’s “I’m Just A Bill,” featuring a mopey, lil’ animated legislative writ, as well as such well-traveled tunes like “My Attorney Bernie,” “Blizzard of Lies,” “Heart’s Desire,” “Peel Me a Grape,” I’m Hip” (with Schoolhouse Rock mastermind Bob Dorough), Frishberg (once called the “e.e. cummings of jazz”) is a master of curveball lyricism and hip delivery. His tunes have been performed by vocal greats like Tony Bennett, Rosemary Clooney, Michael Feinstein, Diana Krall, Mel Torme, Anita O’Day, Cleo Laine, and Jackie & Roy among others, and his sly sense of right place/right timeness even landed him a role as a piano-playing pawn in Henry Jaglom’s 1986 film Someone to Love (with a gargantuan Orson Welles).
Now better known for his songwriting and singing, Frishberg initially wanted to be one of the boys in the band—fielding chord changes and supporting the song, a Tinker-to-Evers-to-Chance team-player. Growing up in St. Paul, MN in the ’30s and ’40s, nurtured on the golden days of baseball, bebop and writers like James Thurber, S.J. Perelman, and Robert Benchley, Frishberg understood the triumvirate of America’s great gifts to the world—baseball, jazz and democracy (concerning the waning currency of the latter, listen to his “My Country Used to Be”). But a nice, Midwestern boy didn’t just up and become a jazzman.
We forget that jazz was the original “alternative” music. It was lowlife crazy-cool, outsider, indie and DIY to the nth (long before that was necessarily a good thing), and definitely the kind of thing your parents didn’t want you doing. As Frishberg has written, “You choose music, you say goodbye to. . .a predictable future. . .My parents listened to my pianistics with puzzled disapproval, and I once overheard my dad telling his friends that I wanted to be a ‘klezmer’ . . .a low class performer, a clown, maybe a step above organ grinder.”
After earning a degree in journalism, spending two years in the Air Force, and doing time in the ad-world, Frishberg landed in New York. NYC in 1957 was a hotbed of jazz and the arts—a wild creative frenzy of activity between the clubs (Village Vanguard, The Five Spot, The Shalimar, and the Half Note), the studios, and after-hours haunts like painter David X. Young’s famed loft, where the cream of the jazz elite stretched out and blew. With a regular gig at the Half Note, Frishberg was in the thick of it—developing into a wonderful, on-call pianist able to traffic in an array of jazz piano styles. Throughout the 1960s, he worked with an A-list of jazz’s greatest, including Ben Webster, longstanding confreres Al Cohn/Zoot Sims, Carmen McRae, Jimmy Rushing Roy Eldridge, and Gene Krupa, to name a few.
And it was during the ’60s he began writing his own tunes, inspired by the model of the great Frank Loesser, a masterful lyricist and composer known for such shows as Guys and Dolls and How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, as well as “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” “On a Slow Boat to China” and “Praise The Lord And Pass The Ammunition.” Loesser himself advised the would-be songwriter that his “role was less that of the poet, but more that of the journalist. . . [guiding] the listener through the song.”
From his first published work (“Peel Me a Grape” for Anita O’Day) onward, Frishberg produced songs firmly rooted in jazz with breezy echoes of Loesser—clever, well-crafted songs rich in everydayness and a tasty topicality (minus the ur-satire of say, Tom Lehrer or the cloying smartiness of Randy Newman). This droll and playful, felicitous ease is in evidence as far back as the 1968 tune “Van Lingle Mungo,” a lovely paean to ballplayers’ names—essentially a long, elliptical list-poem. . .”Heeney Majeski, Johnny Gee, Eddie Joost, Johnny Pesky, Thornton Lee, Danny Gardella. . . .”
In 1971, Frishberg “took a left” and moved to Los Angeles, where he fell in with the studio/jazz scene there. Once there he worked on a short-lived variety show hosted by Gene Kelly and subsequently with the great songwriter Bob Dorough on the ABC Schoolhouse Rock franchise. LA has a habit of weighing on the soul (to misparaphrase saxophonist Paul Desmond, “It’s like living in a house where everything’s painted red”), so after 15 years he moved to the less imposing environs of Portland, feeling it was a better place to raise his children (his second son was born here).
These days Frishberg rarely does his bit—that is, singing his songs around Portland—preferring instead to work as a sideman-named-Dave with saxophonists or singers. It’s in those moments, however, you realize just how underrated he is as a piano player. Relentlessly musical and undeniably swinging, he plays tickle-and-pounce, left hand-right hand, cat-and-mouse games with tunes—suggesting moments of Harlem stride, Count Basie-esque chugging momentum, and the pre-bop sublimity of players like Joe Bushkin, Jess Stacy, John Bunch, or a less heavy-handed Dave McKenna. And it’s a delight.
Regardless of the hat he chooses to wear, there’s an ever-present special reserve of warm humor, musicality, and an affinity for vivid storytelling in the work of Frishberg—revealing a left-field romantic with a gentle sense of irony. And this mashup of Plains-prophet wit (a la Hoagy Carmichael), a keen Ring Lardneresque eye for cupidity, and a deferential big-city urbanity (playing free-and-loose with our expectations of status quo) might just be what we need to keep us honest and indie of spirit.