For Jazz Pianist Dave Frishberg, Music And Wit Go Hand In Hand

Jul 28, 2017
Originally published on August 1, 2017 1:10 pm
Copyright 2017 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, editor of the website TV Worth Watching, sitting in for Terry Gross. Jazz pianist and songwriter Dave Frishberg is best known as a composer of music and lyrics, not books. But he's written a new memoir called "My Dear Departed Past" that recounts his career in and around music. The jazz critic Mike Joyce once wrote that Dave Frishberg writes the kind of songs that Johnny Mercer and Woody Allen might have come up with had they ever collaborated. His playful jazzy songs include "Peel Me A Grape," "A Little Taste," "Can't Take You Nowhere" and "My Attorney Bernie."

TV viewers who watched "Schoolhouse Rock" as kids may still be able to sing along with "The Number Cruncher" and his classic explanatory ditty that couldn't be more topical, "I'm Just A Bill." Terry Gross spoke with Dave Frishberg on more than one occasion, asking him each time to sit at the piano. The first excerpt we're about to hear is from 1991. Let's begin by playing the title cut from "Quality Time," the album he released after his visit to Philadelphia and FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "QUALITY TIME")

DAVID FRISHBERG: (Singing) I'll be late getting home from the office, and so will you 'cause we both got a million calls to return and a million things to do. We're not seeing enough of each other because, truth be told, we're up to our ears in our careers, and we're putting our hearts on hold. So, darling, let me bring you up to speed. A little time together's what we need. Quality time - we both deserve a little quality time. I know a small hotel remote and quiet. If they decide to sell, my firm could buy it. Then we'd develop it and gentrify it. We're talking quality time. Quality time. We both have earned a little quality time. In the Bahamas, we can watch our stress go. We'll walk along the beach and dine al fresco. I'll take a power lunch with Robert Vesco. We're talking quality time. Come fly with me. Unwind. Kick back. Relax. I'll bring my laptop fax. You'll work on your new screenplay. I'll update my resume. Quality time. A little frolic and frivolity time. We'll take a seminar in self-hypnosis so we can learn to stop and smell the roses. We'll do a workshop on the grieving process. Learning to cry is no crime. We're talking quality time.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

TERRY GROSS, BYLINE: You know, you do something that Cole Porter used to do, which is, like, incorporate, like, proper nouns, you know? Like names of people from the period you're writing the song.

FRISHBERG: Oh, yeah. Right. Right.

GROSS: Oh, that's a really funny song. You've gotten in everything.

FRISHBERG: (Laughter) That's my job.

GROSS: (Laughter) You got your start as a pianist, as opposed to a songwriter-pianist and singer.

FRISHBERG: As a pianist, yes.

GROSS: You were a sideman with a lot of musicians. You were a house pianist at one of the New York clubs. What made you realize that, like, your ultimate calling was going to be writing songs as well as playing and singing those songs, too?

FRISHBERG: Well, as far as writing is concerned, I began to write soon after I got to New York and while I was a sideman, as you say. And I used to try to write so that other singers would be interested - or that - because I never dreamed of myself as being a singer. And I would write to make other recording artists - I don't even know who they were. But to get their interest, to see if maybe, you know - who could it be? Connie Francis or Paul Anka could sing such a thing, you know?

And it turned out that I was writing - I wrote terrible stuff. It wasn't very good because I didn't mean it. You know what I mean? I was kind of writing down to my song. And that doesn't make it. It was obvious that I wasn't really that kind of a writer, and I was just trying to write amateurishly. And so I stopped. And I began to just write what came naturally to me and ended up being probably the only one who sings it.

GROSS: What I like about composers singing their songs, you know, is that if you aren't, like, relying on a lot of technique, then there's something else in your voice.

FRISHBERG: Well, my main purpose is to make sure that the words are all understood.

GROSS: Well, I think composers like you have a way of kind of putting across a song and of putting a certain kind of, well, the right emotion, whether it's wit or sentiment. You know what I mean? Just kind of striking the right emotion in the way you're performing it.

FRISHBERG: Well, that could be. That could be. If there's any technique to what I do as far as accompanying myself, it might lie in the fact that, a lot of times, I sing to silence. I stop playing when I sing certain songs, especially up-tempo jazz things. And I leave open spaces for my voice to to execute the music. And then I hear other singers trying to do some of my up-tempo songs. And I wonder why it sounds cluttered, and I wonder why they sound - why they express difficulty.

That's a hard song, you know, to get those things out. Well, then I see, well, the reason I'm getting it out is because, instinctively, I stop playing behind myself at that moment and allow the words to happen. And, of course, that doesn't occur to them because someone else is playing the piano and it wouldn't occur to him, either, you know, or her.

GROSS: What's an example of a song where you lay out like that?

FRISHBERG: Well, for instance, a song like "Zoot Walks In," which is full of jazz articulation, you know? (Singing, playing piano) Jazz is a saxophone sound. Not every player's got his own sound.

Well, you see how much there was silence in back of me. And so other singers try to sing this, and they got a piano player playing. (Singing, playing piano) Jazz is a saxophone sound. You know what I mean?

GROSS: Exactly.

FRISHBERG: And they got all this stuff going on in back of him. Naturally, it sounds a little cluttered.

GROSS: You said something once to Whitney Balliett of The New Yorker about lyrics that I quite like - that good lyrics come up to the edge of (inaudible).

FRISHBERG: Well, it was one of those things I wish I had never said. It's utter nonsense. I have no idea what that means.

GROSS: Oh, I know what it means to me.

FRISHBERG: Well, I don't know. I guess I knew at the time what it meant to me, too. But I was horrified to see that you wrote it down and used it.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Well, I'm just here to, I guess, embarrass you with...

FRISHBERG: Well, I don't know what that means. But I do know that, I think, a better, more telling little aphorism was said by Frank Loesser...

GROSS: Yeah.

FRISHBERG: ...Who said that lyric writing is not literature, and it's not poetry. It's journalism. And I think that really says it.

BIANCULLI: That's Dave Frishberg visiting with Terry Gross in 1991. Four years later, he returned to FRESH AIR to speak with Terry again and once again sat down at the piano.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

GROSS: Now, when you started to play piano, what did you play?

FRISHBERG: Boogie-woogie, the blues. I was a blues player. When I was 12 or 13 years old, I was deep into Pete Johnson. He was my hero - Pete Johnson from Kansas City and Joe Turner. My brother Mort, the guy with the keychain - he used to sing like Joe Turner.

GROSS: Really?

FRISHBERG: Yeah. And so he and I would play the Joe Turner, Pete Johnson boogie-woogie records. And we would copy them. I would copy them off the record. And we would - that's how I began playing the blues. I could play in C, F and G, the blues.

GROSS: Well, I'd love to hear you play a piano solo.

FRISHBERG: OK.

GROSS: Tell us what you want to play and why you've chosen it.

FRISHBERG: I haven't chosen it. Let me think.

GROSS: OK. While you're thinking, I'll say I really love your piano playing. So when you perform on the show, I always like to get you to play something.

FRISHBERG: I mentioned Jay McShann. I love that Jay McShann band from Kansas City. I can play a couple of things that I remember from the Jay McShann band, which contained Charlie Parker, by the way - that band did. So "Jumpin' Blues," you know?

(Playing piano).

And then on "Confessin' The Blues," Walter Brown sang with Jay McShann.

(Playing piano).

I love McShann's playing, and I love Count Basie's playing and Pete Johnson's playing. I was hooked on the Kansas City jazz musicians.

GROSS: Did you ever get to see these guys play when you were young?

FRISHBERG: Well, I had an occasion to meet and play with Jay McShann and duets and stuff. That was really fun. I admired him so. And I did meet Count Basie under very odd circumstances once. I don't know if you want me to go into it. It was very strange. I was rehearsing the show for Mel Torme, who was going to arrive a few hours hence. And I was rehearsing the band. And when I got there to rehearse the band for Mel Torme - this was a very odd circumstance because I had nothing to do with Mel Torme at the time. It was one of those phone calls.

GROSS: (Laughter).

FRISHBERG: When I got there the band was Count Basie's band. I was rehearsing them. And Basie stepped aside, and I went to the piano and began to rehearse Count Basie's band in Mel Tormes opening number. I felt completely at a loss and - because I hadn't heard the music, either. So I said, well, this first one is called - it was called "Doggin' Around" or something like that. It was a Basie piece. So I said, is everybody ready. And Freddie Green was sitting there. And I said, Freddie, you don't have your music out. And he looked at me with this - just this cold look. And he says, I wrote this.

GROSS: (Laughter).

FRISHBERG: I rehearsed the band. And I said, well, that's fine. And Basie, from where he was sitting, said, what do you mean that's fine? That's terrible. Let me show you how it's supposed to sound. Those guys took me that day.

GROSS: Oh, God. So...

FRISHBERG: It was fun, though. It was funny actually.

GROSS: Did you feel in on the joke or insulted?

FRISHBERG: Not insulted, certainly. But it was good-natured. They weren't mean guys. And I knew several of the people in the band, including the meanest, Marshal Royal. And he was on my side.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: So how did you get to rehearse the band?

FRISHBERG: Somebody called me. Torme was going to be late. And whoever was going to rehearse was going to be late with him. And they needed somebody to rehearse the band. You know, this happened in Los Angeles years ago.

BIANCULLI: Jazz pianist and composer Dave Frishberg visiting with Terry Gross in 1995. We'll continue their conversation after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's return to Terry's 1995 interview with jazz pianist and composer Dave Frishberg. He's just written a memoir called "My Dear Departed Past." Here's another one of his most famous songs.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MY ATTORNEY BERNIE")

FRISHBERG: (Singing) I'm impressed with my attorney Bernie. I'm impressed with his influential friends. He's got very big connections, and I follow his directions. Bernie knows his way around. And so I always do what Bernie recommends. I am blessed with my attorney Bernie. I'm impressed with the way he runs the store. He's got Dodgers season boxes and an office full of foxes. It's amazing all the different things your average guy might need a lawyer for. Bernie tells me what to do. Bernie lays it on the line. Bernie says, we sue. We sue. Bernie says, we sign. We sign. I'm in touch with my attorney Bernie. In a clutch, he can speed right to the scene. And if I'm locked up in the jail with just one phone call for my bail, he said to call his club collect or deal directly with his answering machine. When I dine with my attorney Bernie, he buys wine from the rare, imported rack. That's because Bernie is a purist, not your polyester tourist. Bernie waves the glass around a while, then takes a sip and always sends it back. Bernie he tells me what to do. Bernie lays it on the line. Bernie says, we sue. We sue. Bernie says, we sign. We sign.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

GROSS: There's actually a book of sheet music of your songs. It's not like I could sit down and play the arrangements or anything. But I was looking through the book of sheet music. And in one of the songs, it says - where it should say, you know, like andante or moderate tempo or something, it says conversationally.

FRISHBERG: Oh.

GROSS: I thought, that's perfect. Yes, that song should - it's not the kind of notation you usually see in sheet music. But I thought, yes, that's exactly right.

FRISHBERG: Well it's not that uncommon, actually.

GROSS: Really?

FRISHBERG: I think a lot of - I think I've seen a lot of songs that have those kind of expressions - you know, forgetting the old Italian or German expressions. Conversationally makes a lot of sense.

GROSS: Yeah.

FRISHBERG: You know, I liked it. A lot of my songs sound so much better if they're sung conversationally. Like, I hear singers sing ballads of mine. And they hold those notes up because I know singers. They like to hear the sound of their voice. And they get caught up in how it feels and how good it feels to produce those tones. I think, a lot of times, it works against the song, holding notes out for a long time, you know? Sometimes, I wish - I want to tell them, when I say conversationally, I mean, you know, you just got to throw that away. That's an aside almost. Or that's a piece of discourse. It has nothing to do with holding a note out. But you can't tell that to a lot of singers. And you've got to just - I'm not complaining, but a lot of times when I hear singers do my songs, I wish they wouldn't sing so much.

GROSS: (Laughter).

FRISHBERG: You know what I mean?

GROSS: Yeah. I do know what you mean. The last time I saw you perform, it was in New York a couple of years ago. And you did a song called "Wallflower..."

FRISHBERG: "Wallflower Lonely..."

GROSS: Yeah. "Wallflower Lonely..."

TERRY GROSS AND DAVID FRISHBERG: "...Cornflower Blue."

FRISHBERG: Yeah.

GROSS: And it was a - I really liked this song a lot. And there was a very actually funny story...

FRISHBERG: Yeah.

GROSS: ...That went along with the song. And I'd love for you to tell the story...

FRISHBERG: OK.

GROSS: ...And play the song.

FRISHBERG: Well, you know, I tell the story about how - when I was first starting to write songs in New York. And I'm talking about - I had moved to New York, and this was the early '60s. In those days, it was customary for a songwriter to bring the songs directly to the publisher's office. And then you sit at the piano. And you sing the song and perform it for the publisher. And the publisher - if he likes it, then he has demo records made and so forth. That was the norm. (Laughter) I'll shorten this up. But, anyway, what happened was a guy asked me to write a cowboy song. And what he called - a cowboy song. Why don't you write a cowboy song? So I came back. And I wrote him. And I said, I think I've got a cowboy song. So this was it. This is what I wrote, you know?

(Singing, playing piano) I'm wallflower lonely, cornflower blue. You'll never know how sad I feel remembering you. I try to forget you. What good does it do? I'm wallflower lonely, cornflower blue. When we were together, it was sunflower weather. Today, only clouds are in view. Your love made me happy - more than I knew. But now I'm only wallflower lonely, cornflower blue.

So that was my little entry into the country songwriting business. So the guy says to me - the publisher says to me - he listens to this, and he says, you mind if I just give you a little tip on how to construct a song? I said, no. Please. Help me out. He says, play the bridge for me. I said, OK. (Singing, playing piano) When we were together, it was sunflower - he stopped. What's that chord on the word sunflower? I say, well, it's a B 7th. He said, that's where you lose them.

(LAUGHTER)

FRISHBERG: I said, what are you talking about? He says, that's not a cowboy chord.

GROSS: (Laughter) Well, did you have a witty retort?

FRISHBERG: No. Later on, I thought of a witty retort. And when I tell the story, I pretend like I really said it at the time. But I didn't think of it until years later. I should have said to him, you mean if I play a B 7th, you'll lose the audience? And he would say yes. And then I would say, I didn't know it was that easy.

(LAUGHTER)

FRISHBERG: But I didn't think of it at the time. As a matter of fact, I probably - in those days, I probably took him seriously and probably avoided B 7th for a few weeks.

GROSS: (Laughter).

BIANCULLI: Jazz pianist and composer Dave Frishberg visiting Terry Gross in 1995. His new memoir is called "My Dear Departed Past." He'll be back at the piano after a break. Also at the piano in another FRESH AIR interview, Ray Manzarek, who told Terry how, 50 years ago, he came up with the keyboard part for "Light My Fire." And film critic David Edelstein will review the new movie "Detroit." I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I'M HIP")

FRISHBERG: (Singing) I'm hip. I'm no square. I'm alert. I'm awake. I'm aware. I am always on the scene, making the rounds, digging the sounds. I buy People magazine 'cause I'm hip. Like dig, I'm in step. When it was hip to be hip, I was hip. I don't blow, but I'm a fan. Look at me swing. Ring a ding ding. I even call my girlfriend man 'cause I'm hip. And every Saturday night, with my suit buttoned tight and my suedes on, I'm getting my kicks digging arty French flicks with my shades on 'cause I'm too much. I'm a gas. I am anything but middle class. When I hang around the band, popping my thumbs, digging the drums, squares don't seem to understand.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, in for Terry Gross back with more of Terry's 1995 visit with jazz pianist and composer Dave Frishberg. He's just written a memoir called "My Dear Departed Past." When he spoke with Terry, sitting in front of a piano in our Philadelphia FRESH AIR studio, she asked him about what may be one of his most famous songs and one that's been in the news lately. It's "I'm Just A Bill," a catchy, explanatory song featured on the children's TV program "Schoolhouse Rock."

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

FRISHBERG: A lot of people know this song. And it shocks me because I never paid much attention to it. I don't watch kids' television.

GROSS: Well, you have to play it.

FRISHBERG: I will.

(Singing, playing piano) I'm just a bill. Yes, I'm only a bill. And I'm sitting here on Capitol Hill. Well, it's a long, long journey to the capital city. It's a long, long wait while you're waiting in committee. But I know I'll be a law someday. At least I hope and pray that I will, but today, I am still just a bill.

That was sung by Jack Sheldon in the original recording of that. Listen to this, Terry. A couple years ago in Portland, a friend of mine was in the hospital. I went to visit him, and he was sharing a room with somebody else. He must've been really sick because there was this big screen. I peeked behind the screen, and this guy was - this other patient was ghastly pale, and he had all kinds of tubes stuck in every orifice. It looked like he was on his way out.

So I was talking to my friend. And my friend says, well, what have you been doing? I said, well, I'm working for "Schoolhouse Rock" again. He says, oh. He says, gee, that thing you wrote years ago, "I'm Just A Bill" - I still hear that. And from behind the screen came the voice of this other patient. And he said, did you write "I'm Just A Bill?" And I said, yeah - I said to thin air, you know...

GROSS: (Laughter).

FRISHBERG: And then from behind the screen, he began to sing it. The dying man singing my song - (singing) I'm just a bill - oh, God, it was more than I could handle.

GROSS: (Laughter) How odd. What a strange experience.

FRISHBERG: Very odd. You know, you never know when - I kept saying, you're singing too much. Just do it conversationally.

GROSS: (Laughter). So there's a song I want to ask you to do that I think is a fairly recent song - although, I'm not sure - you've recorded on one of your recent records. It's called "Snowbound." And it strikes me as being a song that's almost out of character for you because it's not quite the type of character you usually write for. It's not...

FRISHBERG: Yeah. This is - I guess, you know, I don't even have a character in mind at all for this. The reason I wrote such a song is because a lot of singers have been coming to me. And they say, we'd like to sing your songs. But can you write something - we don't want ballads. We want something with a little beat to it. We've got enough ballads. But write something - several of them have said to me - that's not so weird that only you can sing it.

GROSS: (Laughter).

FRISHBERG: And I know exactly what they mean.

GROSS: They mean weird lyrically or melodically?

FRISHBERG: Well, yes - and also from the fact that the songs that I write are written for characters. And a lot of singers kind of sense that they're written for a character and are reluctant to play a character.

GROSS: Or they don't fit that character.

FRISHBERG: Or they don't fit the character. Or they prefer to play themselves. So they asked me, can't you write something - I guess they want a little something more neutral, I call it - you know, something more neutral. This is my entry into the neutral lanes.

(Singing, playing piano) The north winds blow. It's 12 below. Streets like ice - ain't in nice to be snowbound? - snowbound. No place to go, hip deep in snow. We're all right, tucked in tight 'cause we're snowbound. Yes, we're snowbound. The bad news is the weather man says more bad weather. Snowbound. The good news is that here we are socked in together. The clock has stopped. The corn has popped. What a storm. What a sight. We'll stay warm through the night 'cause we're snowbound, snowbound. Snowbound, snowbound.

And so forth. It fades off into the night.

GROSS: I love the song.

FRISHBERG: It's odd because I went to Scandinavia and played this last summer. And I met a guy there who's translated it into Norwegian.

GROSS: Oh, no (laughter).

FRISHBERG: And he sang it for me in Norwegian. And it's hip. I think I like it better in Norwegian.

GROSS: (Laughter). I particularly enjoy songs like that in the winter. It's really nice to have those, like, you know, snow anthems (laughter) when the weather gets really bad. So I'd like to close with another song. And I'd like you to close with another song, I mean (laughter) - a more correct way of putting it. Let me ask you to choose something. And feel free to play something new if you wanted to that I couldn't possibly request because I wouldn't know it yet - or one of your classics or anything you'd like. But I'm going to let you select it.

FRISHBERG: OK. Have I ever sung "You Are There" on this program?

GROSS: No.

FRISHBERG: I really like that one.

GROSS: Why don't you do that?

FRISHBERG: This is a song that's mine with the lyric only. The music was written by Johnny Mandel. And he submitted it to me or gave it to me. He had shown it to a bunch of other lyric writers, he told me later. And he said, would you like to take a crack at this. And he gave me this long melody that had no wrists in it. And it just went on and on. And I thought it was a very difficult assignment. And I wrote a lyric to it. And Mandel heard it. And he said, well, that doesn't quite make it. You can do better than that - in so many words. And so I had to go back and rewrite the whole thing, which made it doubly difficult - to try to do something again that you thought you'd finished. I ended up with a lyric that I was really proud of. It fit the odd metrical requirements. And it made sense, too.

(Singing, playing piano) In the evening, when the kettle's on for tea, an old, familiar feeling settles over me. And it's your face I see. And I believe that you are there. In a garden, when I stop to touch a rose and feel the petal soft and sweet against my nose, I smile, and I suppose that, somehow, maybe you are there. When I'm dreaming, and I find myself awake without a warning, and I rub my eyes and fantasize. And, all at once, I realize it's morning. And my fantasy is fading like a distant star at dawn. My dearest dream has gone. I sometimes think there's just one thing to do - pretend the dream was true and tell myself that you are there.

GROSS: That's a beautiful song.

FRISHBERG: I like it a lot. And I'm proud of the lyric. It was a tough one to write.

GROSS: Dave, it's always so wonderful to have you on FRESH AIR. I'm so glad you were able to come back and do the show again. And thank you so much.

FRISHBERG: Thanks, Terry.

BIANCULLI: Jazz pianist and composer Dave Frishberg visiting with Terry Gross in 1995. His new memoir is called "My Dear Departed Past." Coming up, Ray Manzarek, keyboard player for The Doors, remembers the genesis of "Light My Fire," which hit the charts 50 years ago this week. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.