Saturday, December 11, 2021


 © Copyright ® Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.


By Joe Lang

Joe Lang is one of my Jazz buddies and he has a particular affinity for vocal Jazz. You may recall his earlier piece on Frank Sinatra on these pages which you can locate by going here.

The recent passing of pianist, composer and vocalist Dave Frishberg prompted this essay by Joe which he has kindly allowed us to post as a blog feature. 

Dave was a rare talent who had the ability to write lyrics to his composed melodies. Combining them required immense patience.

Musicians with sensibilities like Dave are a thing of the past as is the socio-cultural environment that helped create them.

But it’s nice to have in memoriam articles like this one by Joe that helps explain why artists like Dave Frishberg were so special.

© Copyright ® Joe Lang: copyright protected; all rights reserved, used with the author’s permission.

“Upon hearing about the passing of Dave Frishberg, I felt two emotions, sadness that he was no longer with us, but relief that he no longer had to live with the dementia that plagued the last years of his life.

Frishberg was a giant talent.  He was one of our best songwriters, whether he was writing words and music or words only, was an exceptional jazz pianist and an engaging vocalist who, despite a limited range and less than classic voice, was able to put over a lyric with the best of them, especially when singing, his own material.

I first encountered Frishberg as one of the house pianists at the original Half Note in the 1960s.  He played with the featured performers like Ben Webster, Roy Eldridge and Al Cohn and Zoot Sims.  He also backed Anita O’Day, who could be a difficult lady to accompany, and caused Frishberg much agita.

Although he started writing songs during the same period, it was not until Blossom Dearie began to sing his lyrics to Bob Dorough’s melody on “I’m Hip” that he began to be recognized for his songwriting.  Dearie also added Dave’s “Peel Me a Grape,” a song originally written as special material for Fran Jeffries, and first recorded by O’Day, to her repertoire.

It was in 1970 that Frishberg recorded his first vocal album, Oklahoma Toad, one that was mostly forgettable except for the inclusion of what became one of his most popular songs, “Van Lingle Mungo,” one of the many tunes by him that reflected his love for baseball.

In the mid-1970s, he recorded a few albums for Concord Jazz that were mostly older jazz tunes.  It was the release of Live at Vine Street on the Fantasy label in 1984 that he turned his attention to his own songs, and those beyond the folks who caught him in club performances started to become familiar with his superlative songwriting talent.

In subsequent years, he recorded extensively, primarily as a vocalist, performing many of his wonderful songs, as well as many standards and jazz tunes.  From 1993 on, he recorded primarily for Arbors Records, several of the albums being duo efforts with Rebecca Kilgore with whom he worked frequently in Portland, Oregon where both resided.  One exception was a Blue Note duo album with Bob Dorough titled Who’s on First? that was recorded in 2000.

His catalog of songs is impressive.  In addition to those previously mentioned, he produced such gems as “My Attorney Bernie,” “Dear Bix,” “Sweet Kentucky Ham,” “El Cajon,” “Zoot Walks In,” “Wheelers and Dealers,” “Let’s Eat Home,” “I Want to Be a Sideman,” “Dodger Blue,” “Another Song About Paris,” “Do You Miss New York,” “Marilyn Monroe'' and “You Are There,” the last of which has a haunting melody by Johnny Mandel.  One of his most clever songs, “Foodophobia,” was one that he never recorded, but fortunately it was included on an early album by Susannah McCorkle, The People That You Never Get to Love.  He also wrote songs for the Schoolhouse Rock television series, with “I’m Just a Bill,” probably his best-known creation.

I was privileged to see him in clubs many times, including Gulliver’s in Lincoln Park, the Village West, Michael’s Pub with Blossom Dearie, and the Oak Room at the Algonquin Hotel with Jessica Molaskey.  

When I went to Gulliver’s to see him, he was speaking with the owner, Amos Kaune, inside the entrance.  I had brought along four mix tapes that I had made of lesser-known songs by a variety of great but mostly lesser-known singers that I thought Amos would like to play as background music between sets.  Dave took a look at them and asked how he could obtain copies of them.  I just told him to give me his address and I would mail copies to him.  A few days after I had mailed them to him, I received a couple of tapes back from him of one of his favorite singers, Elis Regina, the great Brazilian singer.  A nice gesture of thanks from a nice man.  By the way, he was so wonderful to see that evening that I returned the next evening with my then teenaged older son who also dug him the most.

The last of these mentioned gigs resulted in Frishberg’s last recording, At the Algonquin.  As part of the program, Frishberg sang two songs about Dorothy Parker, “Will You Die?” and “Excuse Me for Living,” written for a Portland theater group production about the Algonquin Round Table.  Frishberg is at his sardonic best on these songs, and it would be interesting to hear the rest of the material written for that show.

One other Frishberg sighting is worth a mention.  In 1979, there was a celebration of Hoagy Carmichael’s 80th birthday at Carnegie Hall at which I was lucky enough to have the seat next to Carmichael.  One of the performers was Frishberg, and Carmichael, who was not familiar with him, leaned over to ask me who he was.  Well, after Frishberg sang and played “The Old Music Master,” “Baltimore Oriole,” “Memphis in June” and “Old Man Harlem,” Carmichael knew who he was and responded to Frishberg’s performance with great enthusiasm.

I first heard about Frishberg’s difficulties [with his health] a while ago.  Recently I was speaking to Judi Marie Canterino who was married to Mike, the gentleman who was responsible for turning the Half Note into one of New York City’s premier jazz clubs.  I mentioned Dave to her and she said that she was going to call him.  When we spoke a few weeks later, she told me that she had called, spoke to his wife, and after some hesitation she agreed to put Dave on the phone with a caution that he probably would not know who Judi Marie was.  When Judi Marie said hello to him and identified herself, he responded with “I loved the Half Note.”  That was the extent of their conversation, but when Dave’s wife took back the phone, she told Judi Marie that it was the first time in quite a while that he responded to anyone in that kind of coherent manner.  It certainly provided a poignant moment for Judi Marie, and I choked up a bit when she related it to me.

Over the years, I find myself drawn back to Frishberg’s songs continuously.  His lyrics are full of wit, passion, tenderness, irony, nostalgia and creative genius, and his music is original and instantly appealing.  Whether they are done so winningly by him or others like Pinky Winters and Ronny Whyte, or Carol Fredette and Connie Evingson, both of whom devoted albums to his songs, his songs continue to sparkle like the gems that they are.  

Dave, you may be gone, but your legacy will forever bring smiles to those who listen to your songs.  R.I.P.”

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