Not Singing Too Much

A vocal performance by the pianist and songwriter Dave Frishberg is more like a series of witty asides

THE pianist and singer Dave Frishberg once introduced his song "The Dear Departed Past" by explaining that it was written from the point of view of "a guy very much like myself, very much hung up on the old ways and the old days -- pathologically hung up, I guess -- [who] also happens to be, like myself, a sports-trivia enthusiast." In the lyrics Frishberg wonders, "Can one feel a real nostalgia for a time and place one never even knew?" For the sixty-four-year-old Frishberg, who writes both words and music, the answer is yes. Many of his lyrics satirize contemporary foibles, including the propensity of many successful people to take themselves much too seriously ("I'm impressed with my attorney Bernie," begins a Frishberg song that marvels at the aplomb of a fellow who is quite impressed with himself). But in one song Frishberg offers cautionary advice to the dissolute cornetist Bix Beiderbecke, who died of infirmities brought on by alcoholism in 1931, two years before Frishberg's birth; in another he raises a cheer for the dead-ball-era pitcher Christy Mathewson, who hung up his glove in 1916.

A throwback to the days when jazz instrumentalists who wrote music were songwriters rather than composers, Frishberg is also something of a throwback as a pianist, without being a musical revivalist. Although his ambition as a teenager in St. Paul, Minnesota, was to go to New York or Los Angeles and become a bebop pianist, his formative influences included such blues and boogie-woogie men as Jay McShann, Pete Johnson, and Albert Ammons. And despite cracking one of modern jazz's many inner circles by becoming the pianist in a quintet under the joint leadership of the tenor saxophonists Al Cohn and Zoot Sims in 1963, several years after arriving in New York, Frishberg also found himself in demand among swing musicians -- if for no other reason than that he was one of a handful of younger pianists familiar with their repertoire.

A typical Frishberg vocal is a series of witty asides, delivered in a small, reedy tenor at once tenacious and unassuming -- not a singer's voice, as Frishberg would be the first to admit, but that of a songwriter and pianist overcoming his inhibitions and giving a lyric his best shot. As a singer, he is the very definition of an acquired taste. He took up singing nearly thirty years ago, because the Paul Ankas and Steve Lawrences for whom he imagined he was writing hits refused to give him a nibble. Blossom Dearie, also a songwriter, a pianist, and a conversational singer, was the first to recognize the potential of Frishberg's songs. In recent years his tunes have been performed by many jazz and cabaret singers, including Rosemary Clooney, who dedicated Frishberg's road-weary lament "Sweet Kentucky Ham" to President Bill Clinton when she sang it at a jazz festival on the White House lawn in 1993. Frishberg affectionately refers to most of the others who have recorded his songs (and, by extension, to himself) as "cult" singers -- "'cult' being an accounting term, I guess."

He says that when he listens to other singers performing his songs, he sometimes thinks, "I wish they wouldn't sing so much." This is a wish unlikely ever to be made about Frishberg. An arranger hoping to orchestrate one of his songs once accused him of singing in too "confidential" a key. "Singers like to hear their voices," Frishberg says, "and they get caught up in the sounds they're making, bending notes and all of that. But because I'm usually writing for myself, I very seldom write anything that's vocally challenging. A lot of them I like to deliver out of tempo, as conversation. And when I hear them stretched out into long, songy lines . . . it works, I guess, but I get impatient, because I want people to be able to concentrate on the words. Somebody once asked me if I wanted to submit some songs to a certain singer, a big Broadway star, and I answered, without trying to be funny, that I didn't think I had anything that loud."

ONE of Frishberg's most recorded songs is a ballad called "Heart's Desire," for which he wrote only the lyrics. (The melody, which has a musing quality that makes it ideal for a pianist, is by Alan Broadbent, a former Woody Herman sideman and arranger who is now the pianist in Charlie Haden's Quartet West.) The song that has earned Frishberg the most in royalties over the years, however, is one that neither he nor any of his usual interpreters has ever recorded. Written in 1974 on assignment for the Saturday-morning TV series Schoolhouse Rock, and still in the show's rotation, sung by Frishberg's friend Jack Sheldon, "I'm Just a Bill" follows a bill through Congress on its way to becoming a piece of legislation. In addition to easing some of Frishberg's financial anxieties, the ditty has made him a hero to his sons, Harry and Max, twelve and ten.

"In my kids' world, my credential is that I wrote 'I'm Just a Bill,"' Frishberg said when I called on him at home in the hills of Portland, Oregon, last year. The song has given his sons, who live not far away with their mother, Frishberg's ex-wife, something to boast about to their schoolmates. According to Frishberg, even his boys' teachers are impressed. This could be because Frishberg's song is one of only a few from the series that fulfill their educational mission (Strunk and White themselves might have had trouble following Bob Dorough's "Busy Prepositions" and "Conjunction Junction"), though a likelier explanation is that plenty of today's younger teachers grew up with it. It's their musical comfort food -- the song that their contemporary Winona Ryder in effect pigs out on after breaking up with her boyfriend in the pandering 1994 movie Reality Bites.

Presented by

Francis Davis

"If I go to a concert and I'm supposed to be reviewing it, and I'm taking notes, I sometimes wind up jotting down as much about the audience as I do about the performers," Francis Davis recently told The Atlantic in an online interview. "I'm interested in what music means to people: what does it signify to them?" A contributing editor to The Atlantic since 1992, Davis's interest in the social and intellectual significance of jazz, musical theater, pop, and blues has brought a unique depth to his career as a music critic and historian.

Davis's writing career began to take form in the scripts he wrote for a Philadelphia public-radio show (which he also produced and hosted) that specialized in playing out-of-print jazz. When his scripts evolved into more sophisticated jazz criticism, he started submitting them for publication and became a staff writer at a small New Jersey newspaper. Since his first article for The Atlantic, "The Loss of Count Basie" (August 1984), he has authored seven books: In the Moment (1986), Outcats (1990), The History of the Blues: The Roots, the Music, the People From Charley Patton to Robert Cray (1995), Bebop and Nothingness: Jazz and Pop at the End of the Century (1996), Like Young (2001), Afterglow: A Last Conversation with Pauline Kael (2002), and Jazz and Its Discontents: A Francis Davis Reader (2004)

Davis writes for a variety of publications, including The Village Voice, The Philadelphia Inquirer, and Stereo Review. A 1994 Pew Fellow in the Arts, he teaches a course in jazz, blues, and folklore at the University of Pennsylvania and is currently working on a biography of John Coltrane and a history of jazz.

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