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American Composer: The Wit & Wisdom of Dave Frishberg

Roseanna Vitro’s interview with the noted pianist, singer and songwriter

Dave Frishberg

My introduction to Dave Frishberg came in the late ’70s when I first heard Irene Kral and Alan Broadbent’s recording of “You Are There,” with lyrics by Dave Frishberg and music by Johnny Mandel. Soon thereafter, I had the opportunity to meet and spend time with Dave in New York. I was quite taken by him; he was a superior musician and poet. The title track on my first album was “Listen Here,” one of his most beautiful ballads. I became a lifelong fan, recording more of his works on subsequent records.

Dave Frishberg’s talent runs deep. He enjoys a singular place among vocal pianists. We can only say this about a handful of jazz’s greats; Nat Cole, Shirley Horn, and Diana Krall come to mind. Frishberg’s uniqueness draws from the marriage of his literary and musical interests. In spirit, he stands close to Hoagy Carmichael, crafting characters and narratives that breathe. He is a winning story teller, a humanist in a zoot suit.

Musicians who love the art of songwriting know Dave’s celebrated songs, like “My Attorney Bernie,” “Blizzard of Lies” and “Van Lingo Mungo,” in which he playfully satirizes social stereotypes and convention. But he also wears his heart on his sleeve, as in the ballads “Our Love Rolls On,” “Sweet Kentucky Ham” and “Hearts Desire.” When he wants to, he transcends novelty with poignancy. In all cases, he proves himself a keen observer of the human condition.

Dave began his career as an instrumentalist. He grew into an accompanist, supporting the likes of Carmen McRae, among others, which ultimately lead to accompanying himself. Listen for those piano figures under and around his vocals and how he uses the piano to reinforce the power of his songs.

I was delighted to spend time with Dave for this interview. He revealed much about himself and his approach to songwriting. I was reminded of how I felt when we first spoke 35 years ago, thrilled to be in the presence of a master.

Roseanna Vitro: I’m excited to turn my attention to singer / songwriters who’ve made an impact on today’s vocal repertoire. Dave Frishberg, you’ve created an amazing book of songs for the past thirty years that will live on, long after we’re gone.

Dave Frishberg: I think of them as “Songs for Adults.” That’s the only way I’ve ever tried to classify them. I never could write for kids. That’s where the market is, of course.

RV: I read in a New Yorker interview from years ago that you look at songs as “pieces of art,” not just vehicles for improvisation. That statement stood out to me. Often when I hear an instrumental jazz tune, it’s a few melodic patterns for soloists to improvise over.” So let’s start at the beginning: when did you first become interested in music?

DF: When I was a child. I was a natural piano player before I took any lessons. When my parents finally persuaded me to go take lessons, I was turned off by the teacher. I was about ten years old, going to this teacher in St. Paul. She had me playing a Mozart piece. I could learn quickly, and this was a simple piece suitable for children to play. I changed it. I went to the teacher and said, “Look what I did with this song! I turned it into a conga rhythm.” It worked with that melody, and I thought it was kinda good. She was outraged and said, “You don’t do that to music.” I knew right then that I didn’t belong with that. I didn’t really want to hear that from anybody. I thought it was nonsense, and I didn’t want to do it anymore and I wasn’t interested in classical music. I didn’t turn back to the piano again till I was about fourteen. I really spent a lot of time at the piano by myself figuring it out and playing the blues and boogie-woogie.

RV: Yes I hear the boogie-woogie and blues, underlying in your playing.

DF: Well, the blues underlies jazz as a whole, I think. I really got interested in listening to jazz. My brother Mort had a wonderful jazz collection (he’s seven years older than I), and he was moving out of the house about the time I was getting into the piano.

He showed me how to play the blues, how it was constructed. So I understood those principles of the I chord and the V chord. Mort was a pianist. Both older brothers played popular piano. They could play dominant sevenths, although they didn’t know that was what they were called. I could play the blues in any key, but I never ventured into the black keys a lot. I wanted to play just like Albert Ammons and Pete Johnson was the guy that I really thought was great. I didn’t start getting into other repertoire until I was well into high school. My brothers’ record collections with Duke Ellington and Benny Goodman were big influences.

RV: Did your parents encourage your interest in music?

DF: My parents were bewildered. When they heard me start to play bebop, they really thought I’d gone crazy. My Dad always impressed on me that music was a great thing to do for a hobby, but you gotta do something else to make a living. I subscribed to that in kind of a passive way. I knew I could play and I knew that’s what I wanted to do. I was most interested in classic jazz. I read Mezz Mezzrow’s book, Really the Blues. It was a book from the 1940s about the romance of being a jazz musician. When I met Marian McPartland decades later, she said that was the book that caught her attention and got her interested in jazz when she was living in England before she came over here.

RV: Was there a specific teacher who inspired your growing musicianship?

DF: I worked part time at the Columbia distribution center in those days. I met a guy Jimmy Mulcrone, a pianist who was working with me packaging records. At that time you could walk in to the department store and record an acetate record. I had a few of these I’d recorded playing boogie-woogie piano with my brother Mort singing like Joe Turner. I played our records for Jimmy and he said, “You can play, but I could show you some stuff.” I began to go to his house in northeast Minneapolis on Saturdays, a long streetcar ride for me. He taught me music theory in my middle teens, assigning me pop songs to learn. I caught on quickly and it all made sense to me, almost immediately. Then, he taught me how bebop musicians manipulated harmony. That’s what got me interested in contemporary jazz. That’s when I decided I wanted to be a bebopper. That’s when I began playing with other musicians.

RV: It’s good to remember the moments and people that changed our lives. Who were you listening to at that juncture of enlightenment?

DF: Up to that point, I liked Jelly Roll Morton, Teddy Wilson, Mel Powell, Art Tatum. I liked the two-fisted piano players. They were big stars. Nat Cole hit me hard; I was listening to his piano playing.

RV: Oh yes, Nat was such a big influence in so many ways. The pianist / singer, Ray Sullenger, who nurtured my knowledge in Houston years back, sang in the Nat Cole / Mel Torme tradition. I always admired their understated brilliance.

DF: Jimmy Mulcrone also introduced me to Bud Powell and Al Haig’s playing. I started playing with cats in high school ensembles and knew it was what I really wanted to do. We had combos and I started playing gigs. Usually the leader was a kid my age and would provide the arrangements. We copied songs off bebop records and made simple arrangements of pop songs.

RV: What was the music of the day in your high school years?

DF: Well, first it was the King Cole Trio, then he started calling himself Nat King Cole. It was the pop music of the day. On the radio in Minneapolis there was really good jazz programming two or three times a week. I got to hear Charlie Ventura and Jackie and Roy. I saw Charlie Parker play on the University of Minnesota campus and it knocked me out. He was big giant. I was knocked out by the music he invented, but I didn’t want to play like “Bird.” A bass player, Dick Thompson and I saw him again two years later in Europe. We were asked to play on an ocean liner. It didn’t pay anything, which thrilled my folks. We hitchhiked to New York to get on the cruise. It was safe in those days, not fraught with danger like it is now. We had eight weeks off in Europe before we played the return to New York. It was so much fun. The whole trip was great experience for about eight of us guys from the Twin Cities.

RV: You’re such a powerful lyricist. Who are your favorite lyricists?

DF: Frank Loesser comes to mind right away. That was the first time I was struck with the craftsmanship of that world of people who wrote songs. Up until then, it was about learning tunes so that you could solo over them. Once that dawned on me, I began to admire all the lyric writers from that era: Johnny Mercer, West Side Story’s Stephen Sondheim, Cole Porter, all the Tin Pan Alley literature.

I started to play rehearsals having to deal with singers and their songs. I learned about harmony and music theory from the world of pop songs. It was the literature we were playing. A singer pops in at the university and I’d be playing in the band. It was like being thrown into water and learning how to swim, except the stakes weren’t that high. I learned to appreciate the craftsmanship of songwriting then.

When I moved to New York, I’d been accompanying singers for a couple of years when I married a singer in 1960. Jimmy Rowles was the big influence on me by virtue of his recordings with Woody Herman’s Band. It was a revelation. I didn’t know the piano could be played in that fluent way. His way of addressing the piano was really appealing to me.

RV: When you first started playing with singers, how was that different for you as a pianist who’d been playing primarily with instrumentalists?

DF: God knows! It seemed natural to me, the concept of accompaniment. I look back and what I had to learn all those years was to shut up and stop treating my accompaniment as if it were the main focus.

RV: Piano and rhythm section players are not necessarily instructed on how to play with singers in today’s jazz programs. Vocal musicians, such as yourself, Shirley Horn, Dena DeRose, and one of your heroes, Jimmy Rowles, are the examples of how to do it. When I hear you sing your lyrics, your piano playing always enhances the picture you’re creating.

DF: I’m really glad to hear you say that. One thing really knocked me when I was in Los Angeles and already an experienced accompanist, was my first experience with Carmen McRae. Carmen was my first experience as a sustained accompanist. I spent over a year playing with her. It was interesting, and what was touchy for me was that she was such a wonderful piano player. I thought she played so beautifully behind herself. There was that added dimension to the whole thing. I really admired her musicianship as well as her singing.

RV: Do you feel playing for Carmen was a pivotal turning point in your career?

DF: Absolutely, I loved the whole process of it. It was a growth moment. For other reasons, after a year I was glad to get out of there. It was a great experience. I was playing in a trio. There was a lot of emotion between the two of us. She was going through tough times. One of the most interesting and helpful things about playing with a singer was, when I was in LA., I got a call to play with Peggy Lee. She was a hero of mine and Jimmy Rowles recommended me. I had to do a rehearsal with her. She said, “Just play whatever you want. But, while I’m singing, just stay below middle C.” I never forgot that. It was very friendly, and informative, and immensely helpful. She wanted me to stay in that register while she was singing. It didn’t mean that I couldn’t do anything decorative while she wasn’t singing.

RV: Thanks for sharing your Peggy Lee tip. It’s this kind of insight that could help young firebrand pianists who are not experienced in the art of playing with a singer.

I’d like to move on to your favorite composers. Can you name a handful of your favorites, just off the top of your head?

DF: Leonard Bernstein, Frank Loesser, George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Harold Arlen. Irving Berlin is unbelievable. He’s written so many songs characterized by writing in such a beautiful, really simple and direct way. It’s so great to work with his harmonies.

RV: What about contemporary composers?

DF: I don’t listen to today’s music. I don’t know what it sounds like. I know that The Bergmans (Alan and Marilyn) are great. I’ve met them and become acquainted with them both in New York and LA.

RV: When you’re writing a song, as in lyrics, melody and chord changes, do you have a set plan? Do you write lyrics first or the melody?

DF: It depends on the song. I’ve done it both ways. One of the hardest things for me to do is to figure out what to write about. It’s helpful to me if I have a character or a situation in mind. Or someone can tell me they need something and it has to be about something, that really helps me. I don’t have a lot of ideas for songs whirling around in my head.

My most recent songs, I composed and finished here in Portland. It was an interesting opportunity to write, because the characters were the writers at the round table of “The Algonquin”. It wasn’t a musical, but my participation was to have a few songs in it. For the most part, it was dialogue; these are the great writers, the Literati. It was a festival of new plays in Portland. It was great fun for me to write for Alexander Woollcott and Dorothy Parker and the other great characters. That’s the last time I recall being really inspired. I recorded a few of them. It’s my most recent recording. There were two songs, “Excuse Me for Living,” and “Will You Die?” which was for Dorothy Parker. I recorded it with Jessica Molasky.

RV: Do you have any favorite books on composition you’d like to recommend?

DF: There’s a book I’ve had for fifty years on composition that I still refer to when I need to write for a particular horn and the answers are all there. It’s The Professional Arranger Composer by Russell Garcia. It’s been my reference for years.

RV: Have you ever taught composition or lyric writing?

DF: No.

RV: What was your inspiration for your lyrics to the marvelous Alan Broadbent composition, “Hearts Desire”? Your lyrics can be interpreted as a father teaching his child or as a teacher teaching a student about the music business.

DF: Alan Broadbent wrote the melody and he played it for me and asked if I would write the lyrics. He wrote out a lead sheet. He called it “Hearts Desire.” I welcomed that.

When I went to LA., I wrote songs for “The Funny Side.” I wrote on assignment, and each week was the funny side of journalism, food, etc. My job was to write music for the cast. They would do a musical number on each subject. Those kinds of situations are almost necessary for me.

RV: Is there a story behind your wonderful lyrics for Johnny Mandel’s classic, “You Are There”?

DF: I recall writing a whole different set of lyrics to that song before it became, “You Are There.” Mandel came over and I played it for him and as I was singing it to him, I stopped and said, “It’s not very good… I’m going to take it in another direction”. I waited for his comment, and he said, “Well, you know, I think you’re right.” That was 1977 and the original title was “Maybe Next Time.” I’m glad I kept with it and came up with the final version.

RV: Do you think of yourself as cynical? I’m thinking of your lyrics to “My Attorney Bernie,” “A Blizzard of Lies,” and “The Wheelers and Dealers”. These songs certainly speak to the pain in life and the music business.

DF: I don’t think of my self as being cynical. Cynical to me is not a compliment. “My Attorney Bernie” expresses despair, which is different from being cynical. That’s a subject that’s dealt with in pop music as well as opera and Brazilian music shamelessly. “My Attorney Bernie” was written for my lawyer friend who was having an anniversary with the firm. He wanted me to fly me out to perform for this event. So I wrote it to sing to the room full of lawyers. It was comedy. With “Blizzard of Lies,” I was angry about something, maybe Richard Nixon. With “Wheelers and Dealers,” I was mad, too. It’s out of that same bag. The music has a certain drama to it that makes it sound salty. It might be cynical, but it’s a song of despair and regret, and it’s such a pity.

I was listening to Brazilian music at one point. I bought about six Elis Regina albums and listened to them over and over. I didn’t know what it meant. Reading the liner notes, I learned they were talking about matters of ethics, politics-not only just the world of love and relationships-serious stuff. And that’s all I listened to for a couple of years. That music is full of drama.

RV: That’s why you are endeared to artists who want to sing your songs. I wanted to ask you about “The Underdog” too. Was there a certain situation going on when you wrote it? It’s so sad, but you end on a happy thought.

DF: It’s a song of hope. And if you are the person singing those lyrics, those are your feelings. I think that’s what the audience gets, and that it’s positive. Al Cohn wrote “Ah-Moore” and he was married to Marilyn Moore, a singer, and he named it after her. I played with Al in the Sixties in New York. I’d played it instrumentally many times and worked on the lyrics for years. Finally, I came up with something to say and I changed the melody from those first six quarter notes Al had written. I went to Al, after I’d written it and apologized for changing things. Fortunately, he liked it.

RV: There are so many of your songs and lyrics I love. Rosie Clooney’s version of “Sweet Kentucky Ham” really speaks to our lives on the road.

DF: Yes, and missing my person at home.

RV: I have so many more questions for you, but we’ve been going for ninety minutes and I know I must give your ears a rest. Please, let’s do this again someday. Is there anything you’d like to say in closing or advice to all of the singers and instrumentalists who are your fans?

DF: All I can think of is musical advice. Here’s a piece of advice given to me personally by Frank Loesser. He was discussing my songs with me in the early Sixties. I didn’t have anything recorded and I knew some people who were connected to him. He wanted to meet me after hearing some demos I made. We had a meeting in his office in New York. He discussed the craft of songwriting. He was pointing to a certain song and said, “You’ve got to take a rest. This is very colorful language, and you’ve got to let the listener digest what you just said. You can’t just keep on rolling. They’re going to lose confidence in you. They will become lost. You’re going to lose their attention.”

He told me that when you’re writing a song, you are writing for people to listen to it. It has to be approached from that point of view. You have to keep them for 32 bars with your words and music. He could do that. He advised me to strive to keep control of the listener, and not let them get hung up in the colorful language. Put some rests in there before you begin again. Keep them involved in what you’re saying. You mustn’t let the listener’s attention wander. Very practical advice.


For more information about Dave Frishberg, complete listing of his songs and albums, visit his website.

I have many more questions for Dave regarding his work with Bob Dorough and Susannah McCorkle. Till the next time, thank you so much.

Thank you to Elizabeth Tomboulian for editing my first draft and Jeffrey Levenson for advice and edits on our intro and Paul Wickliffe’s final eye. Originally Published