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Dave Frishberg

Songwriter and pianist Dave Frishberg was well known to jazz fans for his stylish, witty approach as a lyricist and a performer. He had a strong, graceful approach to the piano that made room for the influences of 1920s artists such as Fats Waller and Jelly Roll Morton while adding a modern sophistication, demonstrating his personal knack for delivering fun with a touch of class. As a lyricist, Frishberg's work was playfully literate, with a keen wit that made him a favorite of cabaret artists and jazz vocalists. He can be heard in his element on 1984's Live at Vine Street, a solo set dominated by his original material, though his first LP, 1970's Oklahoma Toad, was an adventurous effort to present his work in a contemporary jazz context, and 2001's The Starlit Hour was one of many collaborative efforts in his catalog, backing vocalist Rebecca Kilgore. Dave Frishberg was born in St. Paul, Minnesota on March 23, 1933. He was signed up for classic piano lessons as a boy, but while he liked the instrument, he didn't care for the repertoire and began exploring classic blues and boogie woogie piano styles, favoring Pete Johnson and Jay McShann. In his teens, he was good enough to join the house band at a St. Paul nightclub, the Flame, that played host to the likes of Art Tatum and Billie Holiday. After finishing high school, he enrolled at University of Minnesota, where he studied journalism. Following college and a hitch in the Air Force, he settled in New York City in 1957, hoping to make an impression in the Big Apple's jazz community. He landed a steady gig playing piano at a club in Greenwich Village known as the Duplex and earned a reputation as a first-class pianist; he was soon playing in combos with legends like Ben Webster, Zoot Sims, and Gene Krupa, and was also in demand as an accompanist for vocalists including Anita O'Day, Carmen McRae, and Irene Kral. As Frishberg spent more time working with vocalists, he became interested in the process of songwriting, combining melodies and choruses with his dryly funny lyrics on tunes like "I'm Hip," "My Attorney Bernie," "Peel Me a Grape," "I Want to Be a Sideman," and "Van Lingle Mungo" (the latter paying homage to his love of baseball, with the lyrics drawn from the names of obscure players of the past). By the end of the '60s, Frishberg was well established as a pianist and tunesmith, and in 1970 he cut his first album, Oklahoma Toad, for CTI Records, blending the vintage style that was his trademark with modern production and arrangements. With a résumé as a soloist and a sideman, Frishberg relocated to Los Angeles in 1971, where he found steady work as a studio pianist along with plenty of live gigs. His piano can be heard on albums by Herb Alpert, the Manhattan Transfer, Jimmy Rushing, Bud Freeman, and many more. In Los Angeles, he had greater opportunities to record, and 1974 saw the release of his second LP as a leader, Solo and Trio, for Seeds Records. He cut albums for a number of leading jazz labels, including Concord Jazz (1977's Getting Some Fun Out of Life, 1978's You're a Lucky Guy), Fantasy (1984's Live at Vine Street, 1986's Can't Take You Nowhere: Line 1986), Arbors Records (1992's Double Play, with Jim Goodwin; 1993's Quality Time, and 2003's Do You Miss New York), and Blue Note (2000's Who's on First, with Bob Dorough). He also cut sessions with a number of noted vocalists including Rebecca Kilgore (1997's Not a Care in the World) and Jessica Molaskey (2012's At the Algonquin). In 1973, Frishberg began what became one of his most popular projects, writing several songs for the Saturday morning cartoon feature Schoolhouse Rock, including "I'm Just a Bill," "Conjunction Junction," and "Elementary, My Dear." In 1986, he relocated to Portland, Oregon and continued to write and perform, making frequent appearances on the popular public radio series A Prairie Home Companion and performing at nightspots and jazz festivals across the country. He also wrote a musical play, Quality Time, that debuted at the Milwaukee Repertory Theater in 1996. Dave Frishberg died on November 17, 2021 in Portland, Oregon after a lengthy illness. He was 88 years of age.
© Mark Deming /TiVo


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