Jazz pianist, singer and songwriter Dave Frishberg, the author of such witty ditties as “I’m Hip,” “Peel Me a Grape” and “My Attorney Bernie,” rejects the notion that Jews are overrepresented among great, white American jazz players — as they are among, say, Nobel Prize winners. “I don’t know if you can just brush aside the Italians,” Frishberg said dryly last week in a telephone interview from his home in Portland, Ore. “I never thought about Jewish representation in roles; I don’t know why that would be.”
As a former sideman for Zoot Sims and Al Cohn, Ben Webster, Gene Krupa and more, the 76-year-old Frishberg is practically a one-man history of American jazz. He grew up in St. Paul, Minn., and recognized Kansas City’s contribution to the form early on.
He visits Feb. 27 for the first time in 30 years as part of the Folly Jazz Series. (See below for details.)
“My older brother had all these records — Jay McShann and Count Basie, Jimmy Rushing,” Frishberg said. “I knew all that stuff as a kid, and I guess it just stuck with me. …
“I eventually got to play with a lot of people — Ben Webster and Gus Johnson and other people — from Kansas City. And I remember Jo Jones! … I guess mainly it was Lester Young. I loved him so much, and from listening to him, I got familiar with all the music surrounding him.”
Although his own style wound up a bit more cerebral, Frishberg said Basie and McShann “were very influential” on his playing.
“More recently, I have crossed paths with two wonderful Kansas City musicians,” Frishberg said. “One is the guy I consider best drummer in the world, Todd Strait, who lives in Portland now. The other was when I was playing the Regency Hotel’s Feinstein Room, and in walks Marilyn Maye, a name that I used to see around a lot. She was kind of legendary.”
Frishberg respects what a great set of pipes can do with one of his songs. They have been recorded by such jazz greats as Mel Torme, Rosemary Clooney and Blossom Dearie.
Today, Frishberg sings and performs his own material as a solo act. It started in the late 1960s or early ’70s, he said, when he was living in New York.
“I had been there 10 or 12 years as a pianist, writing all that time,” Frishberg said, “But I never really thought about singing, except to make demos of my songs. At that time, I made a record album (including vocals), but I had still never faced an audience in the face. I never really intended to sing in front of people. But Carl Jefferson at Concord (Records) made an album of mine, and he invited me to bring the band on the album up to play at the Concord Jazz Festival. It was the first time I ever faced a crowd. … One of the most daunting things was that I was the opening act for Bing Crosby. It was a crushing responsibility and also the thrill of my life to be in that position. I was struck by the fact that I was well received. Then I began to include singing tracks in some of my albums.”
It progressed to the point where Frishberg plays and records almost exclusively as a solo act.
“When I do my own songs, it’s always by myself,” he said. “It’s just easier for me that way. I don’t have to rehearse with a band. It’s all special material. There are no standards in it, so nobody can fake my show. They’ve got to be reading it. And it never sounded good till the gig was over. So I thought, well, I can handle this myself. It leaves me more flexible. I can make instant decisions without having to worry about anyone else.”
Finally, Frishberg said, “The songs are better served that way. None of them depend on beat or groove. They are mostly personal addresses to the people, not rhythm-section music. There is a certain starkness to it that works in my favor.”
Folly Theater Development Director Steve Irwin called the venerable downtown hall “the perfect venue to showcase the multi-faceted musical genius of Dave Frishberg. … He’s done it all in his career … and did I mention he’s one of the best cabaret entertainers in the business?”
Irwin joked that if Frishberg’s career had been as a thespian, “I would describe him as one of those great character actors you love seeing, and who always gives a great performance — but you don’t know his name! On Feb. 27 at the Folly you can have the total Frishberg experience. You won’t be disappointed!”
Frishberg might even play his best-known song, although it’s not one primarily associated with jazz, but, rather, children’s educational television. Frishberg is the author of “Just a Bill,” perhaps the best-known song from the 1970s ABC animated television series, “Schoohouse Rock!” It was one of a handful of songs he wrote for the series, Frishberg said. It tells how proposals become laws in the American system of government.
And while humor is clearly a tool in Frishberg’s entertainment arsenal, it’s not all he wants to be known for.
“I don’t think of my songs as funny,” he said. “Maybe half of them are. I write in different moods and with different things in mind than getting laughs. My favorite songs are the ones that don’t get the laughs, but seem to touch people. …
“When I was a kid, my ambition was to be a cartoonist; even a political cartoonist. I thought that was great to make these one-panel statements with a drawing, and I find that same kind of thing creeping into my song writing. I think of my songs as cartoons; and maybe not funny, but a three-panel strip. The characters are caricatures, almost … It’s the character that sings the song about his attorney Bernie. So the song is not about Bernie, but the guy who’s singing it. I take that approach. I like to write for characters.”
Frishberg at the Folly
The Folly Jazz Series presents “An Evening with Dave Frishberg” at 8 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 27, at the Folly, 300 W. 12th St. There will be a pre-show talk at 7 p.m. Tickets range from $15 to $30. To charge by phone, call the Folly, (816) 474-4444 or Ticketmaster, (800) 745-3000. Or visit follytheater.com or ticketmaster.com.