Four Scenes from Dave Frishberg’s “My Dear Departed Past”

Dave Frishberg’s main claim to fame ended up being wonderful songs like “My Attorney Bernie” and “I’m Hip,” sung in a droll style by the composer, and the lyrics of “Just a Bill” from Schoolhouse Rock. The NY Times obit by Barry Singer is very good.

However, Frishberg apprenticed as a jazz cat and paid dues with some true masters. None of the early records are essential, but Frishberg sounds loose and creative, somewhat like a modernist Earl Hines, on recordings with Bud Freeman (Something to Remember You By, 1962) and Ben Webster (Valentine’s Day 1964, a raw gig at the Half Note with Richard Davis and Grady Tate).

My Dear Departed Past, Frishberg’s memoir from 2017, seems to have been underappreciated, so I am taking the liberty of copying out four short scenes.

No. 1, learning the basics:

[My brother Mort collected piano records and] showed me how the blues was structured — twelve measures divided into three groups of four bars each. I understood quickly, and I began to play the blues, copying Albert Ammons and Pete Johnson. They each had their characteristic bass figures, and I worked hard to get them under my left hand, striving for strength and steadiness of beat. I tried to get that skipping buoyancy that those players had, but that was the hard part, where they showed their real finesse. I learned the recordings chorus by chorus and tried to copy exactly as I could….

…When I got hold of Mezz Mezzrow’s book Really the Blues, which had recently been published, my musical imagination was fired…At Louise’s Music Store in downtown St. Paul, I made my first record purchase — a Brunswick album of 1928 Chicago jazz by Frank Teschemacher, Jimmy McPartland, Bud Freeman, and other early “hepcats.” Mezzrow’s book made such an impression on me that I accepted everything he had to say without question….at age fifteen I was a stodgy purist, following the gospel of Mezz, which led to the smug and comfortable notion that “modern,” or “progressive,” music — or “sounds,” as they called it — was not jazz at all…

[Leo Adelman, a trumpeter a few years older than Frishberg, explained how] modern musicians played extensions off the chords — “changes,” as he called them. I told him I had heard the Dial record of “Ornithology” by Charlie Parker and was puzzled because I didn’t understand the song. “Why, it’s nothing but ‘How High the Moon,’” he explained. That evening I played the record, and, as if the sun had broken out of the clouds, I understood in a stroke what Adelman was talking about….

[Jimmy Mulcrone, active as a bebop pianist in the local nightclubs, gave Frishberg theory lessons in Northeast Minneapolis.] Since the blues was the only song form I had ever dealt with at the piano, I knew how to build seventh chords on the degrees of the scale I recognized as one, four, and five. Jimmy quickly showed me how to incorporate a new chord — what he termed a “two” chord — into the blues framework. “It’s called a minor seventh chord,” Jimmy said. And as Jimmy demonstrated the voicings of the minor seventh chord and how it behaved as an auxiliary to the related five chord, I was stunned by sudden insights and revelations that would shape the rest of my life. The systematic magic and mathematics of music were being revealed to me, and I was blown away by the power and logic of it all.

No. 2, the cabaret days:

[In the late 50’s, during my time at the Page Three, a cabaret on Seventh Avenue a block south of the Village Vanguard,] I began to grasp the fundamentals of how to be a helpful accompanist, and by the time I was ready to move on, even Kiki Hall [who was ruthless about having his busy cabaret piano parts rendered accurately] was pleased and confident with the way I played for him. In fact, when I told him him I was leaving, Kiki threw a tantrum. “Oh no! Who’s going to play my Noël Coward material?” “I got just the guy,” I told him.

About a week earlier I had met the pianist Herbie Nichols, who was a unique jazz stylist, very advanced and adventurous, and as unorthodox and original as Thelonious Monk. But I’d heard Nichols play in a conventional situation, and I immediately understood that this guy could be musical and appropriate in all kinds of contexts. I sounded him about the Page Three. He was interested.

As the anecdote continues, Herbie Nichols sends in Cecil Taylor(!?) to sub for the Page Three cabaret acts.

No. 3, sideman to the stars:

In 1962 I was playing with Gene Krupa’s quartet at the Metropole in Times Square. One night Benny Goodman walked in and the place went crazy. We were on the bandstand, just having finished an hour-and-fifteen minute set. I looked at Gene and his face was white. He says, “It’s the King of Swing, and he’s got his horn. I don’t believe this. Here he comes.”

So Benny walked up on the stand and began to try out reeds. He sat on a high stool, staring off into space, and tootled and fluttered up and down the scale. This went on for long minutes. Meanwhile, Jack Waldorf, the Metropole manager, had herded dozens — hundreds — of passerby into the club, and he had them chanting, “Benny! Benny!” Some were hollering years — like “1936.” The camera girl, standing down by the bar, snapped a picture, and hurried downstairs to make prints, promising photos for Goodman and Krupa to sign.

Benny was finally ready. He said, “Brushes, Gene.” Remember, this was Gene’s band. Gene obediently picked up the brushes and flashed a smile but I could see he was in a cold fury. Then Benny turned to me and said, “‘Sweet Lorraine’ in G. Give me a little introduction.” I complied, and Benny entered in F. He waved me out and continued his solo without piano. [What Frishberg is alluding to, I believe, is that Goodman didn’t know enough to tell the piano player the right key: On the clarinet, F is G. — EI.]

We stayed on the stand for about an hour. The camera girl was going into a second printing. Then, abruptly, Goodman packed up his horn and descended, demanding safe escort though the crowd, and was gone into the night. He hadn’t signed one picture. Krupa was drenched with two shows’ worth of perspiration, but he sat patiently on the steps of the bandstand and signed dozens of photos. I saw that he was writing personal notes on each one, and he was asking each customer, “Who shall I inscribe this to?”

Later, in the dressing room, Gene said to us, “I was glad to sign this picture. This will be in a lot of homes, believe me. Did you get a load of this?” We inspected the picture then. And there was Benny with his horn in his mouth, perched on a stool with his legs spread wide. His fly was wide open; two buttons showed plainly. “Buttons!” Gene said. “Buttons! That suit’s probably from about 1940.”

No. 4: “Re: Rowles”

I recognized early on in my piano-playing life that there are certain pianists (and I’m talking about jazz players in this discussion) that can touch the keyboard in such a personal way that the informed listener, upon hearing a few notes on a recording, knows instantly who is playing; and I also recognized the remarkable fact that among these pianists, there are a handful who draw such a personal sound out of the keyboard that nobody can duplicate it.

For instance, Duke Ellington can strike a three-note chord in the middle of the piano along with a single note down in the bass, and you can walk up to the same piano and hit the same four notes and you can’t get Duke’s sound. Blosson Dearie can play a chord and it will sound unearthly quiet, and you can play the same voicing, and it will be beautiful, but it won’t sound like Blossom…

Jimmy Rowles was unique in a different way. It was the way he proceeded from note to note. He spun passages that were so dynamically constructed that he seemed to be bending notes, and everyone knows that’s impossible with a piano. Rowles could milk sound from the bass clef register that was almost organ-like. He splashed chords down with a rolling-waisted technique that was his alone. I’ve never heard anyone come close to his piano sound.

I think he has been my main piano influence, even though I long ago stopped trying to sound like him. I was a teenager in the late ‘40s when I first heard him on the Woody Herman “Woodchopper” Columbia records. I was stunned by the way he handled his parts in the rhythm section and the sometimes startling way he comped behind soloists. Then I bought the Peggy Lee ten-inch Decca LP Black Coffee, and I heard Rowles as an accompanist. For my money, nobody touches him when it comes to playing behind singers. His imagination is outrageous, and his taste is flawless — a perfect model for artistic playing.

A couple of decades later, when Jimmy and I had become friends in L.A., I told him what an impact his musicality had on me when I was young. Jimmy was quiet for a moment; then he said, “I notice you’ve been playing a lot of solo piano lately.” He took me over to the piano and showed me some Ellington voicings that opened up my ears and changed my playing in a big way, especially when playing without bass and drums. Jimmy wasn’t exactly a teacher, but he could spot what my instincts were, and he knew he could help me. It took less than ten minutes, and I’m still contemplating the insights that Jimmy pointed out.

Once in St. Paul when I was about nineteen, a trumpet player said to me, “Hey, you sound like Jimmy Rowles.” Although it wasn’t true of course, and it never would be true, I still consider it the most generous and rewarding compliment I ever received. But “sound like Jimmy Rowles?” Forget it.

The book has dozens of additional priceless anecdotes and is recommended to any serious jazz fan — and also recommended to any serious American Song fan, for Frishberg shares many secrets about that elusive craft.

Unimportant personal comment:

Dave Frishberg was one of the first serious pianists I saw live, in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, as part of a small university jazz festival in 1986 when I was twelve or thirteen. During the final big band concert, Frishberg took the stage alone and played a solo piano selection, some kind of Duke Ellington medley. I barely knew Ellington’s name, but I was very impressed with those mysterious sounds emanating from the concert grand.

These days, as a professional, I know that dealing out swinging Ellington in a solo context is very difficult. One of the best examples is Jimmy Rowles’s astonishing disc Plays Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn.

It took a long time for me to “get” Rowles — certainly I cannot say, like Frishberg, I was impressed with Rowles as a teenager —  but now I am an addict. While I never heard Rowles live, I did hear Frishberg play Ellington way back when, and the comment “Re: Rowles” in My Dear Departed Past links my contemporary admiration for Rowles back to that medley from ‘86. Onstage with Ellington, Frishberg seemed very quiet and serious, and it wasn’t until reading the memoir that I could reconcile that awesome solo moment with the many cheerful Frishberg songs that I’ve heard over the years since.