Don Friedman, a jazz pianist with enormous sensitivity and avant-garde curiosity who shared an introspective style similar to Bill Evans but tended to be more experimental and jagged with shades of Bud Powell in the trio and solo formats, died June 30. He was 81.
Don grew up in San Francisco and studied formally starting at age 4. He moved to Los Angeles with his family when he was 15, fully expecting to become a classical pianist. But the following year, after being exposed to big bands at the Hollywood Palladium in 1951, he fell in love with jazz. His earliest gigs in Hollywood were with West Coast jazz musicians such as Chet Baker and Shorty Rogers. His sensitive side developed as a sideman on recordings by trumpeters Jack Millman and Hank DeMano. Clarinetist Buddy DeFranco hired Don for a tour in 1956 that included runs in New York. Two years later, Don relocated to the city, where he teamed up with bassist Scott LaFaro. His earliest leadership albums were for Riverside. As jazz opportunities dried up in the 1960s, Don began teaching at New York University and gigged routinely in the city as recently as last year.
In 2009, I interviewed Don and posted in two installments. Here's my complete interview combined:
JazzWax: You were born in San Francisco. Did you grow up there?
Don Friedman: I was born there, but when I was 15, my family moved to Southern California. Around 1950, my father decided to go into business with his brother-in-law. They opened a grocery in Hollywood. What I loved most about the move down there was the weather.
JW: Did you continue taking piano lessons in Los Angeles?
DF: Actually, I stopped taking lessons. In San Francisco, I had one teacher for my first 10 years on the instrument, from the time I was 4. She was special. When we moved, she recommended someone, but I didn’t like that teacher.
JW: How did you become fond of jazz?
DF: Both of my parents adored classical music, so that's all I had listened to and played. But in Los Angeles, I met a guy who wanted to be a bassist, and he turned me on to this teenage big band. I became the band's pianist. The band featured a brother and sister whose father was a drummer and wrote note-for-note arrangements of famous big band charts.
JW: What did the girl and boy play?
DF: The girl played the clarinet and the boy played trumpet. One tune was Artie Shaw’s Frenesi, and she’d play Shaw’s solo exactly as it was on the record. In Van Nuys, there was a place called The Dry Nightclub. It was a club that showcased teenage bands. We’d play there on the weekends. That was my first exposure to jazz.
JW: This would be the early 1950s. Did you listen to West Coast jazz then?
DF: Yes. I also started to go to the Hollywood Palladium where I heard all the great bands. The one that impressed me most was Stan Kenton’s orchestra, with Conte Candoli, Shorty Rogers and Frank Rosolino. In fact, I first saw bassist Scott LaFaro when he came through the Palladium with Buddy Morrow’s band.
JW: When did you first actually meet LaFaro?
DF: We met up at [alto saxophonist] Herb Geller’s house. Herb was a mainstay on the jazz scene in L.A. then and had a nice home with his wife Lorraine in the Hollywood Hills. Guys were always going up there to play, like Scott, alto saxophonist Joe Maini, trumpeter Jack Sheldon and others. Around this time, I started going to Los Angeles City College to study music, but I got disgusted and quit.
JW: Your parents didn’t mind?
DF: My parents left me alone when I was 16 or 17 years old. I was an only child, and they were plenty controlling up until then [laughs].
JW: Did you know what you wanted to do, career-wise, by then? DF: Yes, I was going to be a jazz pianist. I began taking lessons from Sam Sacks, who had taught Hampton Hawes. He taught me chord changes. I also began learning a great deal from records. I had a good ear.
JW: Meaning you could hear something once and play it?
DF: Pretty much. I had studied piano for 10 years and was fairly talented as a classical player. I could always improvise but I couldn’t do it in the jazz sense. When I learned the basics, jazz improvisation came easy to me. Considering I had never even heard jazz or knew anything about pop music until I was 16 or 17, I was a quick study. By the time I was 21 in 1956, I was touring with clarinetist Buddy DeFranco.
JW: What was the West Coast jazz scene like when you were playing with artists like Chet Baker, Buddy Collette and others?
DF: The scene was one of the reasons I moved to New York in 1958.
DF: The scene was too laid back. There was no intensity. In New York there were always guys getting together and going to lofts to play. In Los Angeles, guys would say, “I can’t make the rehearsal or gig today. I’m going to the beach or the pool.” Even now, when I go out there, you sense it’s more laid back. I think it was partly the car culture. Everyone was spread out. In New York, there was always a greater sense of urgency.
JW: When did you move to New York?
DF: When I first came to New York in 1956 with Buddy DeFranco, we were in New York for quite a few months. Then I went back to California in 1957. But later that year I realized I had to move to New York. I had already met a lot of musicians when I had played Basin Street and Café Bohemia with Buddy. When I arrived in New York, I worked with bassist Teddy Kotick, who had a steady gig on Staten Island. My big break came a few years later, when I was signed to Riverside Records in 1961.
JW: After you arrived in New York in 1957, you shared an apartment with LaFaro.
DF: Yes. Actually, it was my apartment. The guys I had roomed with had moved out. It was on 80th St. and York Ave. Rent was only $18 a month then [laughs]. Scotty was there only for a few months. He soon moved down to the Lower East Side with Gloria, his girlfriend. They never married. Gloria was a lovely girl and a dancer. She and Scotty remained together until his fatal car accident in early July 1961.
JW: LaFaro’s Gloria’s Step was named for her, yes?
DF: Yes, but the song's name originated because he knew the sound of Gloria's footsteps when she came up the stairs to their apartment, not because she was a dancer.
JW: Is LaFaro justifiably praised as a revolutionary bassist?
DF: In my opinion, Scotty has never received as much credit as he should have. He developed his own way of playing. He practiced 12 hours a day. I never saw anyone work as hard. He didn’t go to a music conservatory to learn correct fingering.
JW: Did he take lessons?
DF: He took some lessons in bowing while growing up in Geneva, N.Y., and studied the clarinet and sax. When he practiced the bass, he used a clarinet book. He developed incredible chops. He was the fastest player I had ever heard. With Bill [Evans] and Paul Motian, he was a solo instrument. They were really the first working trio that got into this with a bassist. [Photo above, from left, Scott LaFaro, Bill Evans and Paul Motian, on a break at the Village Vanguard in June 1961]
JW: You recorded just five tracks with Scott in 1961. Do you recall the session?
DF: I don’t. I remember that the three of us—me, Scott and Pete LaRoca—were in a recording studio. I don’t know why. Maybe rehearsing. At any rate, the engineer who was there was the engineer who was at Riverside Records at the time. He liked what we were playing and said, “Why don’t you guys play and I’ll record you.” So we did.
JW: You recorded with LaFaro at the same time as Bill Evans.
DF: Scotty and I used to play together even when he was playing with Bill. He’d sit down at my piano in my apartment and try to write something. When he and Gloria lived on the Lower East Side, we’d hang out. We also worked together with singer Dick Haymes at a club called The Living Room on the East Side. Then we went out on the road with Haymes.
JW: Did you and Evans ever meet?
DF: I used to go to the Village Vanguard to hear Bill, Scotty and Paul [Motian]. Bill was a nice guy, very quiet. We didn’t have a lot to say, though. One night I subbed for him. His trio was playing at the Jazz Gallery in the East Village. Scott called me to come in and sub because Bill had gotten sick a couple of nights.
JW: What did you think of Evans?
DF: I admired his playing. He had a great harmonic sense and his voicings were beautiful. But his right-hand lines weren’t that interesting to me.
JW: How is your right hand different?
DF: I stretch the notes. Bill played more within the chords. I find he’s more conservative and I take more chances. But I always loved his chordal stuff. I tried to copy what he was doing there and include it in some of my playing. In fact, I changed some of my playing in my left hand when I first heard him.
JW: How so?
DF: When I started playing, I listened to Bud Powell (above). He had a root-oriented left hand, using a lot of inversions when voicing chords. Bill was doing things that were completely different, building drama rather than just keeping time.
JW: As someone who has worked with many bassists, what’s your take on LaFaro?
DF: Scotty was able to relate to what I was doing. Many bass players did not listen as carefully as he did. Jazz is ear music—more than any other form. You have to hear what the other players are doing. In most cases you don’t have written notes to play. You just have sounds. If you’re a classical musician, you’re playing notes that were written for you. Of course, you have to listen. But with jazz, you have to hear what you and what other guys are doing. Your ears have to be wide open. I felt that Scott had those kinds of ears, more so than most other bassists.
JW: Do you know anything about LaFaro’s auto accident in upstate New York on July 6, 1961?
DF: Nothing more than what has been written. But having driven many times with Scotty, I know that he liked to put the pedal to the metal. He was young and liked speed, and there were no seat belts back in those days. He had gone to a party up in Geneva, N.Y., and lost control of the car and crashed, killing himself and a friend who was in the car with him. So sad. [Photo above of Scott LaFaro's car following his fatal accident]
JW: What was Evans’s bond with LaFaro?
DF: Bill was tremendously impressed with Scotty. Bill tended to have a depressed personality. Scotty was the total opposite. He was so full of joie de vivre. He lived life to the hilt. He was Mr. Positive about everything. Scott also knew how to take control of a situation. Since he was a positive person, he had a strong personality. I think Bill felt emotionally dependent on him.
JW: Was LaFaro blunt with Evans?
DF: Scotty had no fear or hesitation to tell Bill that he was a jerk for getting hooked on drugs. They had a lot of fights about that.
JW: Do you miss LaFaro?
DF: When I think about Scotty disappearing so early, it’s a terrible tragedy. It’s all so long ago. What I wish is that Scott were around today so we could play together now. I feel I’ve come a long way in 50 years. Or I’d like to think so [laughs].
JW: How did your first Riverside album, A Day in the City, come about?
DF: I was studying composition around that time. I wanted to learn to compose. One of the class assignments was to write a theme and variations on a folk song. So I did. I composed a piece for piano. Around the same time, I was friends with bassist Chuck Israels and drummer Joe Hunt. We used to get together at my apartment to jam. Joe was recording with George Russell at the time and knew producer Orrin Keepnews at Riverside. Joe told Orrin about me. Orrin was looking for a pianist with original material.
JW: How was Orrin to work with?
DF: Orrin knew his stuff, but I never felt completely comfortable around him. He wasn’t very encouraging and never really made me feel qualified to be there. But in all fairness, it was probably my own insecurity. Back then, if I didn’t get complete confirmation of my abilities, I felt uncomfortable. He also was a brusque guy, which could be tough. We did make four albums together, and all received high praise from Down Beat. My relationship with Riverside fizzled when the label started to go under in the mid-1960s.
JW: You recorded free jazz with guitarist Attila Zoller starting in 1964, yes?
DF: Zoller was a close friend of mine. We had first met in 1959. We started playing together with Herbie Mann. We started experimenting with free jazz and soon recorded Dreams and Explorations in 1964 for Riverside.
JW: Where did your interest in free jazz come from?
DF: I was very interested in free playing when I studied composition in contemporary classical music. I loved the atonal sounds that I had heard. In free jazz, you can emulate those sounds. You can’t do that when playing chord changes. With free jazz, you don’t have to worry about the key or a steady beat. That’s what drew me to it.
JW: But from the listener’s standpoint, that can sound a little self-centered.
DF: That’s probably true [laughs]. But so is jazz in general for people who don’t know anything about the music. Some free jazz is fascinating, but I’ve heard plenty that’s total garbage.
JW: How would one tell the difference?
DF: [Laughs] Very funny. That’s a good question. If you hear jazz musicians who have a background in traditional jazz play free jazz, you’ll hear that they approach it in a different way. You can hear the difference, just as you can see the difference between someone just throwing paint at a canvas and Jackson Pollock, for example. Someone who has studied can’t help but deliver form, content and composition, even in free jazz. Today, I find much of free jazz to be solely percussive.
JW: Looking back, how do you view free jazz now?
DF: It still has a lot of value. The problem for me now is that I don’t have someone I can work with in the free-jazz space. I could get into it again if I had the right person. Attila was really into that. The way we performed the music was free, but we wrote pieces and improvised off of them. We played off of each other.
JW: What’s your favorite Don Friedman album?
DF: Probably Waltz for Marilyn. I love how it came together.
JW: Looking back on your career, anything you’d do different?
DF: I don’t know. I’ve been tremendously fortunate. I’ve had great experiences and met all kinds of people. I’ve always done something that I love to do, which is play piano and jazz. At this point in my life, in the last several years, I think I’ve been the best I’ve ever been.
JazzWax tracks: My favorite Don Friedman albums are A Day in the City, Circle Waltz, Flashback, Days of Wine and Roses and Waltz for Marilyn. The first three are musts. If you want to hear Don with Scott LaFaro, download LaFaro's Pieces of Jade (Resonance) here. The five tracks they recorded together with drummer Pete LaRoca are I Hear a Rhapsody, Don's Sacre Bleu (take 1), Green Dolphin Street,Sacre Bleu (take 2) and Woody 'n' You. These tracks are absolutely superb, with Green Dolphin Street a complete knockout.