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Dave Frishberg :: Lyric And Realist
by Eugene Dolgikh, November 1998

Dave Frishberg has enjoyed a career remarkable for both its quality and its diversity. Long known as one of the outstanding pianists in jazz, Frishberg has also established himself as an internationally recognized composer and lyricist, as well as a solo performer with a loyal following.

Early in his career, during the 1960s, he was a busy pianist in New York City, playing regularly with the major jazz artists of the time, including Ben Webster, Eddie Condon, Al Cohn, Zoot Sims, Carmen McRae, and Gene Krupa.

In 1971 he moved to Los Angeles where he worked as a studio musician and stayed active in jazz circles. He has recorded with a diverse array of artists, including Manhattan Transfer, Jimmy Rushing, Bud Freeman, Bill Berry’s LA Band, Susannah McCorkle, and Portland artists Jim Goodwin, Warren Rand, and Rebecca Kilgore.

But Frishberg has become best known for writing and performing his own songs, including cult classics like "My Attorney Bernie", "Van Lingle Mungo", "Peel Me a Grape", and "You Are There." Four Frishberg albums have earned Grammy nominations for Best Jazz Vocal. Other artists who have recorded his songs include Sue Raney, Rosemary Clooney, Michael Feinstein, Diana Krall, Blossom Dearie, John Pizzarelli, and Mel Torme. His songs, including the well-known “I’m Just a Bill”, appear regularly on ABC’s Schoolhouse Rock series. His three-character musical show "Quality Time", premiered in 1996 at the Milwaukee Repertory Theater.

Frishberg’s current recordings are on the Arbors Jazz label. His earlier recordings are available on the Sterling, Concord Jazz and Fantasy labels. Since 1986, he has made his home in Portland, Oregon.

Dave, you were heard and performed with many great jazz personalities. Who made the deepest impression and influence on you?

I spent the years 1957-'71 in New York City, and the years 1972-1986 in Los Angeles before I settled in my present home in Portland, Oregon. During my years in NYC and LA, I got to play with just about all the best jazz players and studio musicians on both coasts. Two musicians stand out as special influences on me, and their influence was not limited to music alone. The first is Al Cohn, whose whole attitude toward life and music was a great inspiration to me. He was among the most complete and profound jazz artists I ever associated with, a close friend and a valuable person as well. The other musician is Jimmy Rowles, whom I met later when I moved to the West Coast. Ever since I was a child, Rowles' work on recordings impressed me and inspired me. When I became friendly with him many years later, he was generous about slipping me insights and alternative ways to think about the piano. Although I've never succeeded in emulating Rowles' pianism, I still think of him as a standard of excellence, taste, and consistency both as a soloist and as an accompanist.

What was your jazz surroundings in those years?

I spent the years 1957-'71 in New York City, and the years 1972-1986 in Los Angeles before I settled in my present home in Portland, Oregon. During my years in NYC and LA, I got to play with just about all the best jazz players and studio musicians on both coasts. Two musicians stand out as special influences on me, and their influence was not limited to music alone. The first is Al Cohn, whose whole attitude toward life and music was a great inspiration to me. He was among the most complete and profound jazz artists I ever associated with, a close friend and a valuable person as well. The other musician is Jimmy Rowles, whom I met later when I moved to the West Coast. Ever since I was a child, Rowles' work on recordings impressed me and inspired me. When I became friendly with him many years later, he was generous about slipping me insights and alternative ways to think about the piano. Although I've never succeeded in emulating Rowles' pianism, I still think of him as a standard of excellence, taste, and consistency both as a soloist and as an accompanist.

I played at the old Half Note on Hudson Street from 1962-1971, most often with Al Cohn and Zoot Sims. I shared the position as "house pianist" with Ross Tompkins and Roger Kellaway, and got to work in rhythm sections there with a lot of jazz greats, including Roy Eldridge, Bob Brookmeyer, Clark Terry,Phil Woods, and many others. Jimmy Rushing sang on weekends with the Cohn/Sims band, and in 1972, just before I left New York for California, I made an album with him, Cohn, Sims, RayNance and others on RCA Victor that remains one of my favorite recordings.

During 1962-'63 I played all over NYC with Ben Webster's quartet. We played engagements at The Village Vanguard, Birdland, Carnegie Hall, The Shalimar in Harlem, and of course the Half Note. Richard Davis was the bass player and the many drummers included Mel Lewis, Philly Joe Jones, Denzil Best, Elvin Jones, and Grady Tate. Playing with Webster and these other great musicians was a great thrill, and the experience was valuable. Through Ben I got to meet my all-time heros, such as Duke Ellington, Billy Strayhorn and Johnny Hodges.

You have written many songs. Whose rendering can you recall first when you try to remember them?

Regarding others singing my songs, I appreciate the way Rosemary Clooney, Susannah McCorkle, Blossom Dearie, Carol Sloane, and Judy Roberts [all female!] have treated my material. Maybe that's because they are among my favorite singers. Also the Swedish singers Sylvia Vrathammar and Claes Janson have made some very good recordings of my songs in Swedish on the Gazell label.

I've been writing songs --words and music-- since about 1960. My first published song (1962) was "Peel Me a Grape". It was recorded in 1962 by Anita O'Day and a few other female singers. Blossom Dearie began singing it and recorded it three times during the 1970s, but not until Diana Krall's 1998 recording did the song reach a wide audience. It's never been a personal favorite of mine. I think I've learned to write a lot better since then.

Among my favorites musically are "Listen Here", "Matty", and "Zanzibar". As for lyrics, I am particular proud of "You Are There" [Music by Johnny Mandel], because it was so difficult to accomplish.

How could you estimate the recent position of jazz in America? In Russia and Belarus we see the rise of interest to various forms of jazz now. But youngsters prefer acid and smooth jazz.

Jazz in America? A dead issue. There is very little interest in jazz here. Especially the kind of jazz I deal with, which is based firmly in the classic American pop song form. There are many young players who play this music beautifully, but the audience is very small, and growing older..

Have you ever been invited to tour Russia? I know some your colleagues, for example, Ken Peplowski, are coming here this or next year.

I've never been to Russia. I have played many times (as a soloist) in London, and done a few dates in France, Germany, Norway and Sweden. In November 1997, I made a CD in Stockholm with eight Swedish singers, with my songs translated into Swedish (!).

Incidentally, my father was born in a small Russian town called Kovel (?), which I think is in your neighborhood (near Minsk). He lived there until he was about ten years old (1905), then migrated with his family to St Paul, Minnesota. (I was born in St. Paul in 1933.) Other members of my family are from Rovno which is also nearby I think.

Dave, could you tell our readers any interesting story concerning your performance in Half Note?

Please listen a short piece about that place that I wrote for you:


"There's a place called the Half Note not too far from here," I announced to my friend one summer night in 1959, as I paged through the New York Post looking for a place to hang out and hear some music. "We can walk there easily. Lennie Tristano is there this week. How bad can it be?" So I started out for the first of what would become hundreds of evenings at the Half Note.

We left my apartment on Waverly Place, taking care to bolt all three locks on the door, and walked south on Seventh Avenue past Morton and Leroy Streets, to where it becomes Varick, and when we got to Spring Street we hung a right and headed for Hudson Street. By that time we had passed out of the bustling Village night-time scene into a shadowy cobble-stoned area of warehouses and factories, all closed up tight for the night. Big trucks were parked along the curbs.

I remember my friend said, "This can't be right. There's nobody here. The streets are deserted." But then we spotted the neon symbol of a half note on the far corner of Hudson and Spring, and we could make out the sound of saxophones and drums. We waited to cross Hudson, while some huge trailer trucks rumbled over the cobblestones. Suddenly the nightclub door was flung open and two men burst out onto the corner. One, a burly guy in a white shirt, began to punch the daylights out of the other, who was dressed in a business suit. Down to his knees went the man in the suit, and the other one jerked him up by the necktie and belted him with a right hand that knocked him rolling into the gutter where he lay motionless. Then the white-shirted guy picked him up and, with a grunt, threw him into the alley down the street, well away from the club entrance, and, dusting his hands together, went back inside the club, closing the door behind him.

"Are you kidding?", my friend said. We were both shaken by the violence of what had taken place. But we decided to enter, and there, greeting us at the door, was the guy in the white shirt, all smiles now and cool, not even breathing hard. "Would you like a table?", he said, and thus was I ushered into life at the Half Note. This was to be my musical home for the next decade, during which time, by the way, I never again witnessed any comparable episode of the kind that might ruffle the warm family-style ambience of the place.

In time I grew to feel affection for the Canterino family, the owners and operators of the Half Note. Poppa and Mama took care of the kitchen, preparing pasta, their famous meatballs, and really tasty Italian food in general. The two brothers, Mike and Sonny (the guy in the white shirt) were behind the bar. The daughter Rosemary, and the two daughters-in-law, Tita and Judy, were usually on hand to check coats and help with the hospitality. It was a real family operation, and the Canterinos made all the musicians feel like part of the family.

Years later I reminded Sonny about the circumstances of my first visit, and how I actually felt uneasy about coming in. "You know," he said, "that was one of the very few times anything like that ever happened. I remember that guy. He was drunk and loud and making obscene remarks. I warned him several times, but he kept getting crazier and crazier, until finally I had to take him outside. He never came in after that."

During the decade of the sixties I shared with Ross Tompkins and Roger Kellaway the position of house pianist, playing in the rhythm section for Ben Webster, Roy Eldridge and Richie Kamuca, Bob Brookmeyer and Clark Terry, and dozens of other soloists who would appear there for a week or two at a time. But the major portion of my Half Note decade was spent with the Al Cohn-Zoot Sims quintet, the closest thing to a house band the Half Note ever had.

Al and Zoot might be there for three weeks in a row, and then a month later be back for three more weeks. Every Friday there was a live radio broadcast on WABC. I listen to the tapes sometimes: "From the Half Note on Hudson and Spring, this is Por-trits in Jazz, live in stereo with your host Alan Grant--tonight featuring the music of Al Cohn and Zoot Sims with the fabulous Jimmy Rushing. And now to get things started, what's it going to be, Al?" Then comes Al's wordless count-off, his heel banging on the stage floor, and the band sails off into Chasing the Blues or P Town or Chicken Tarragon. On one tape, Alan Grant says, "What's next, Al?", and then there is heard the unmistakable call of Al-the Waiter, placing his order from far across the room: "Son-neee! Two stingers!" Al-the-Waiter knew he was on the radio. Al-the-Waiter didn't miss a trick.

I never knew Al-the-Waiter's last name. He was a spindly little pinch-faced man, wound up tight, scurrying around in his raggedy tuxedo like a crazed magpie, chattering and jabbering to himself or anyone who would listen. Often, when he was the only waiter on duty, the place would fill up unexpectedly. Al-the-Waiter would spring into action at full vocal volume with his "world's greatest waiter" routine: "Your order, sir! Your drink, madam! Sorry to keep you waiting!" Now all eyes were on him, and Al-the-Waiter, giddy with power, would become an ecstatic whirlwind of obsequious service. "Young lady! Young lady! Young lady! Don't light that cigarette!" he would call and careen madly across the room, balancing a tray of dinners on one hand, and producing an instant flaming match with the other. "Beautiful ladies shouldn't light their own cigarette! Isn't that correct,sir! Isn't that correct, young lady! Son-neee! Meatball samwich!"

Once I was there when the terrible-tempered Mingus stopped in the middle of a bass solo and fixed Al-the Waiter with a malevolent glare that would have frozen a Doberman in its tracks. Al-the-Waiter was unfazed. "Mista Chollz Mingus!" he cried. "May I bring you something!" Mingus was speechless with rage. He stomped off the bandstand while the audience sat in uncomfortable silence. Al-the-Waiter called out, "Intro-mission! Intro-mission! Vinny, turn on the juke box!" A lot of the customers covered their mouths and laughed discreetly. Mingus was not amused. But with Sonny around, people usually curbed their violent impulses.

Informality -- and sometimes irreverence -- came naturally in the Half Note, which was by no means a fancy place. It was one large dingy room bisected by the bar, and decorated with album covers tacked up along the walls, and red checkered cloths on the tables. The album covers were selected, it seemed, at random, because they related to none of the musicians and none of the music that was heard at the Half Note. Instead there were Sinatra and Perry Como and Tijuana Brass, and assorted items jumbled together the way one might expect to find them at a rummage sale. I asked one night "Who picked the album covers?", and everybody shrugged. Cheech, who stood by the jukebox and smoked cigarettes, said, "Maybe they fell off a truck," and everybody laughed.

The music took place in the middle of the room, on a high narrow platform back of the bar, making a theater-in-the-round effect. Sonny and Mike poured drinks and punched the cash register directly beneath the musicians, and when the bar action quieted they would sometimes stand and look up at the players with big beaming smiles. They were real jazz fans.

On the bandstand, Al Cohn would drain the contents of a shot glass in one gulp, then, staring straight ahead, he would hold the glass with thumb and index finger at arms length, shoulder level, and let it drop. Sonny or Mike would whirl and pluck the glass cleanly out of the air with barely a glance upward. Mousey Alexander would "catch" the action with a cymbal crash. I never saw anybody miss. The customers told each other, "Now that's hip. That's class."

And they were right, of course. I felt the same way. Not because of the trick with the shot glass, even though that gesture did seem to express perfectly the casual unflappable worldliness that was Al Cohn's personal magic. No, it went deeper than that. When Al and Zoot played, the listeners got a message, and it was the same message I was getting where I sat at the piano. The very essence of musicality was in the air, and, player and listener alike, we all tingled with it.

The customers smiling at the Half Note tables may not have realized that they were responding to the same electric jolt--the jolt of beauty fused with excellence--that can galvanize a child's musical spirit and, in an instant, render him a musician for the rest of his days. But they knew something pure was going on up there on the bandstand. Even the plain-clothes detectives, wolfing their free meatball sandwiches in the kitchen, knew they were overhearing something special.

Zoot and Al were majestic in the way they commanded their horns, and they played rings around that music. They were locked into each other's playing like no other two musicians I ever heard. During their solos they were really composing as they played--they couldn't help it. They were compulsive composers, and it would be totally out of character for either of them to play reflexive licks, or to quote from nursery rhymes or corny pop songs, or to trivialize their music in any way. Jazz critics can probably point to certain "influences" in Al's playing, or Zoot's--Lester Young is the obvious point of departure. But the fire and the swing, and the way they swarmed over the changes and discovered ever fresher and more lyrical ways to navigate them resembles nothing else that came before or followed after. Al and Zoot evolved their own musical ethic, their own point of view about improvising, and the way I see it, their music represents the culmination of what Lester Young and Charlie Parker brought to the dance band musicians in the thirties and forties. Kansas City music, I would suggest, carried to its logical conclusion. Anyway, all such speculations aside, it was music for adults, played by would-be adults. It became my custom to drop in at the Half Note on my way home from other gigs. It normally remained open til 3:30 or 4:00 in the morning, and I could count on running into someone I knew. If not at the bar, then certainly in the basement.

The Half Note basement was the private domain of the musicians and their guests. The entrance to the "nether regions", as I used to call it, was in the back reaches of the dining room, and I can remember being amused by the puzzled faces of the diners as they watched us musicians troop by the tables in single file and disappear through a door hidden by shadows.

You had to stumble down several steps in the dark to reach the string that pulled the light switch. It was a bare bulb of course, maybe sixty watts, and it jutted from the stairway wall about half way down. Its rays shone down through the slats of the stairway, and illuminated just that area at the bottom of the stairs. Beyond that, farther into the dark uncharted areas of that gloomy place, I never ventured. Instead, we would all stand clustered at the foot of the stairs, sometimes as many as a dozen people, shouting, laughing, swapping stories and occasionally speaking of deep matters. But mostly laughing.

Mousey used to call it "my office", as in "I'd like a word with you in my office." He started a rumor that there were rats down there the size of cats, and the thought of that unnerved me to the extent that I would never head down the steps first, but would hang back until others had made sure that no rats were around. I was sure that rats were watching us from the darkness.

Among the steady customers, especially during the late closing hours, you could count on seeing the regular neighborhood "faces", like Big Dick the giant longshoreman, and his king-size girlfriend Loretta, who both towered over all of us, and Honest John Annen, a glum and silent man, who if he spoke at all, spoke in riddles or mysterious monosyllables. I can remember entire conversations with him, lasting several minutes, and often becoming quite heated, during which I understood not one sentence he spoke or one reference he made. I used to ponder over what he might mean, or what he could possibly be suggesting, until I finally realized that the guy was probably schizophrenic. It didn't hit me until years later.

Usually, the last customer out the door was Mister George. George was his first name, nobody asked his last, and he seemed to take a certain pleasure in hearing himself addressed as Mister George. He normally arrived after midnight, after his shift at the Christopher Street post office, and he always sat at the far end of the bar, opposite the kitchen doors, and opposite me, the piano bench being at that end of the stage. After a drink or two, Mister George's forehead would rest on the bar, and his arms would hang down at his sides. He would then stay in that position for the rest of the night, listening with intense concentration to the music, and when something especially worthwhile took place on the bandstand, he would signify his approval by making the "thumbs up" sign with both hands, while his forehead never left the bar.

Al Cohn wrote a piece for the quintet, and titled it Mister George, and when we premiered it at the Half Note, Mister George gave us extravagant thumbs-up signals all during the performance. He never admitted as much, but we could all tell that he was touched and made proud by Al's gesture. The musicians usually took generous intermissions, and I always felt that the listeners appreciated a chance to relax and enjoy conversation. Background music was provided by the juke box, stocked with the same records it contained when the place opened for business in the middle fifties. Often the jukebox would go unplayed, and the quiet was nice relief.

Things began to change in the middle sixties when the Half Note started to book two attractions at a time: Al and Zoot PLUS Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane PLUS Carmen McRae, Bob Brookmeyer and Clark Terry PLUS Anita O'Day, and so on. The regular customers began to stay away in droves. They were obviously disgruntled at paying a door charge. But more important, I felt, was the factor of wall-to-wall music. No time to talk and enjoy the meatballs. I've always felt that audiences get tense and feel irritated when they're subjected to music, even excellent music, without some time to sit and rest in quiet. I think a lot of people stopped hanging out at the Half Note and casually explained that it had become too expensive, and they probably believed it themselves. But I think the real reason was that they no longer enjoyed the experience. Too much high intensity music with no time for rest and conversation. Overkill.

The magic was gone. The place never felt the same after that, and I suspect the profits dwindled. So the Half Note moved into midtown, where they catered to an entirely different audience and presented a different cast of characters on the band stand. I heard that Al-the-Waiter died, and that they found about $75,000 in his mattress. Tip money for sure.

Anyway, by that time I had left for the West Coast, and I'm not sure what happened to the old place on Hudson Street. If they haven't demolished the building, there's probably still a lunch place there. After all, the kitchen is probably intact. I should visit the place next time I go to New York. If it's a restaurant, I'll order a meatball sandwich. Maybe when nobody's looking, I'll slip down to Mousey's office. Or maybe not. The rats are probably big as German Shepherds by now.
published 30.06.2005© 2005 jazz news :: home page

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