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 Wednesday, 01 October 2014
Getting Some Fun Out of Life and Music: Back in St. Paul With David Frishberg PDF Print
Written by Andrea Canter, Contributing Editor   
Monday, 13 March 2006
“I want to be young, I want to have fun,
I want to be a sideman."

–David Frishberg, “I Want to be a Sideman”
He may prefer to be just a “sideman” but Grammy-nominated pianist/singer/songwriter David Frishberg has attracted a near-cult-like following over his multi-faceted career. Originally working in the shadow of jazz legends like Ben Webster and Gene Krupa, Frishberg the pianist morphed into Frishberg the songwriter, gaining fame with such gems as “Peel Me a Grape,” “Blizzard of Lies,” “My Attorney Bernie,” and, of course, “I Want to be a Sideman.” A native of St. Paul, Minnesota, Frishberg moved to New York in the late 1950s, later to LA, and has been a Portland, OR resident for the past two decades.

I had the very pleasant opportunity to meet and talk with David Frishberg when he returned to the Twin Cities recently to record with one of our home-town contemporary jazz stars, vocalist Connie Evingson. Between takes, Connie, David, and the band (multi-reedist Dave Karr, bassist Gordy Johnson, and drummer Phil Hey) discussed downbeats and tempos, rubatos and bridges. During a lunch break the conversation between the Daves offered a small glimpse into the Twin Cities jazz scene of the early 50s, and I was able to pull Frishberg aside for some additional storytelling.

Early Years in Music
David Frishberg spent his childhood in St. Paul where he worried his parents with his interest in music. He recalled  (in an interview with Tim DuRoche) that “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" (Rifftides, January 2006). But as a student at St. Paul Central High School, he was already jamming with other young musicians: “My first band experience was with the Bob Oches Combo—Oches on trumpet, Tom Tjornhom on trombone, Paul Finley on tenor sax, King Jobson on drums, Bob Jensen from Minneapolis Roosevelt High on bass. We rehearsed at Bob Oches’s house near Macalester.”

Frishberg notes that he “started my real professional music career while at the University of Minnesota.” During college, David jammed with other up-and-coming professional musicians—Jack Coan (trumpet), Ted Hughart (bass), Dave Karr (saxes), “best buddy” Dick Thompson (bassist from Macalester), drummer Shelly Goldfus, Dave Kuain, Dick Zemlin,Norman Nelson, Ray Kamischke, and Don Ellis. At this point, Frishberg only played piano. “It never entered my mind to sing.”

The local music venues of the early 1950s included the Hoopdeedoo Club at 15th and Nicollet, where David recalls the Sunday night jazz jams where he met a lot of area musicians—Bob Davis, Bill Crea, Russ Moore, and Bill Blakkestead (“his family owned a drum shop”). Just before graduating from the U of M in 1954, Frishberg played a real gig for a few weeks at the Key Club. “It was on Washington Avenue near the campus. The band included Mel Lifman and Hensley Hall on trumpet. It was a big thrill to really play at a jazz club and not just sit in.”

From Minnesota to New York
Following graduation, Frishberg enlisted in the Air Force for two years, moving to New York City after his discharge in 1957. His first gig in the Big Apple was a day job. “You had to be a New York resident to get a union card, so I worked as a copy writer” for a radio station and later for RCA, writing copy for their catalogs. Once his residency was established, David left day work “for good” to become a fulltime musician, in 1958. He initially performed solo and as an accompanist for singers in the Village. Georgia Gould Lyle, who still lives in the Twin Cities, remembers catching one of David’s early gigs at Page Three “in Greenwich Village on Seventh Avenue South, near the Vanguard. We said we were friends of the piano player and the maitre d' seated us right beneath the stage. After our eyes became accustomed to the proverbial gloom, we saw it was a gay bar, and one of the acts was the yet undiscovered Tiny Tim. David pounded the keys with that great smile, oblivious to anything but the joy of being a working musician.”

For a while, Frishberg worked for Kai Winding’s 4-trombone band, then spent a year with Carmen McRae before he became “a regular player at New York jazz venues, including Eddie Condon’s club.” He did more solo gigs and then joined Gene Krupa’s Quartet for three years and made his first recording with Bud Freeman. Then, “I was with Ben Webster for a year when he came to live in New York from the West Coast, before he moved to Europe.”

Frishberg notes that his favorite position, though, was with Al Cohn and Zoot Sims. “We played at the Half Note in New York. Jimmy Rushing was our singer—he’d join us on weekends. The love and feeling of that band and the music we played, the cast of characters we had, was fabulous.”

Singing and Songwriting on the West Coast
Frishberg issued the popular Oklahoma Toad on CTI in 1968, and shortly thereafter moved to Los Angeles to work as a television studio musician; for a while he was employed by Herb Alpert, a gig he once described as “the most fun I'd had. I got a solo spot and played some of my Jelly Roll Morton stuff." He was also recording for Concord, issuing such gems as Getting Some Fun Out of Life in 1977. But until about 1980, it had never occurred to Dave to sing “for real”, although he had already had some success with songwriting. (His baseball-themed “Van Lingle Mungo” was a surprise hit in the late 60s.) But in LA, he was writing jingles and songs, including “Listen Here” which he wrote for a Mary Tyler Moore  Variety Show. “I had just gotten into songwriting and I started to sing—I needed to make demos. I got good feedback from the audience and decided it might be fun to do it for real.” The economic realities of the music business also pushed Frishberg more and more into songwriting and singing his own material. “A lot of music jobs had disappeared. Fortunately I could turn left and find another channel. My life changed—I was writing for me, not just for others. I had a new life—I was no longer just a sideman.”

In 1986, David moved again, this time to Portland, OR where he still makes his home. “I could live anywhere now, I didn’t need to be in New York or LA. I had a couple children and wanted to live in a better environment than LA.” He admits that if it wasn’t for the cold winters, he would have considered a move back to the Twin Cities. Today, David is refocusing on the piano, and describes his tastes as “older forms of jazz, the jazz of another era—what I played in New York.” He listens to his collection on a revolving basis. “I bring up tapes and records from the basement. Sometimes I listen to nothing but Duke Ellington. And also I listen to singers—Peggy Lee, Billie Holiday, Fred Astaire.”

Influences and Confluences
Looking back, David identifies three individuals who most influenced him personally and musically—Al Cohn, Jimmy Rowles, and Dave Karr. He also cites pianists whose style made the biggest impression—Teddy Wilson, Mel Powell, and Nat Cole. “Also I was a big fan of Tatum and others—Errol Garner and the boppers, Al Haig, and Bud Powell.” But it was particularly Jimmy Rowles whom he admired. “I was already in the Twin Cities Big League, but then I heard a Jimmy Rowles record. Something about the way he played and touched the piano changed me. I wanted to play with and learn from him. I listened to him play on the Woody Herman Small Band sides, and on Peggy Lee’s "Black Coffee" on a 10-inch LP from Decca. It showed me how brilliant and elegant an accompanist could be. Rowles had everything.” Of old bandmate Dave Karr, Frishberg says, “Dave Karr is one of the most profound influences on my music—his excellence and musicality. I’ve learned a lot and was inspired by him. He was the most proficient musician I had met at the time.”

In fact, it was the presence of Dave Karr that convinced Frishberg to come to Minneapolis and record with Connie Evingson. “I met Connie [a few years ago] when she interviewed me for her show on KBEM [radio]. Then she sent me a couple of her CDs. About three months ago she called me and said she wanted to make a CD of my songs, and she asked if I could be on it. Then she told me that Dave Karr would be on it—that sealed it and I said ‘count me in!’”

Lunch break was over. The musicians huddled and decided they had what they needed. Now it was up to Steve Wiese and the team at Creation Audio to take the 14 tracks and do their magic. And just maybe the finished recording will lure David Frishberg back to the Twin Cities to celebrate its release. After all, Dave Karr will be on hand to swap stories about their early years in the Twin Cities’ “Big Leagues.” And it would be a great opportunity to just be a sideman again.


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