Interview: Don Friedman (Part 1)


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Pianist Don Friedman arrived on the New York scene just as Bill Evans was making his mark as a solo player. Both were classically trained, both had similar sounds, and both played and recorded with bassist Scott LaFaro. But where Bill was Euro-centric, influenced primarily by George Russell and relatively conservative in his approach, Don was more experimental and had more Bud Powell and Red Garland in his attack. While Don's style and sound was close to Evans', he favored free jazz, which regularly surfaced in his compositions and improvisation.

I've long loved Don's playing because his style is sensitive, swinging and inhibition-free. A few weeks ago I was reminded of just how superb Don was and is when a new CD arrived: Scott LaFaro: Pieces of Jade. The CD from Resonance Records includes five tracks from 1961 featuring Don, bassist LaFaro and drummer Pete LaRoca, as well as an original composition Don recorded in 1985 called Memories for Scotty. For too long now Don has remained off the main jazz radar screen, which needs to change.

In Part 1 of my two-part conversation with Don, 74, the legendary pianist talks about his early years on the West Coast, touring with Buddy DeFranco at age 21, why he moved to New York, rooming with LaFaro, how LaFaro's Gloria's Step got its name, and why LaFaro's contribution to trio jazz remains significant:

JazzWax: You were born in San Francisco. Did you grow up there?
Don Friedman: No. When I was 15 years old 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 [laughs].

JW: Did you continue taking lessons in Los Angeles?
DF: Actually, I stopped playing the piano. I had had one teacher for 10 years, from the time I was four years old, in San Francisco. She was special. When we moved, she recommended someone, but I didn't like that person.

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 this guy who wanted to be a bass player, and he turned me on to this teenage big band. I became the band's piano player. 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 [pictured] 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 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 in the L.A. studios 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 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 years old in 1956, I was touring with clarinetist Buddy DeFranco [pictured].

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.

JW: Why?
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 played Basin Street and Caf Bohemia with Buddy. When I arrived, I worked with bassist Teddy Kotick, who had a steady gig in 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 bassist Scott LaFaro.
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 death 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 bass player?
DF: In my opinion, Scotty has never gotten 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 bass player. [Pictured from left: Scott LaFaro, Bill Evans and Paul Motian]

JW: You recorded just five tracks with Scott in 1961. Do you recall the date?
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.

Tomorrow, Don talks about how his style differs from Bill Evans', insights on the LaFaro-Evans relationship, recording A Day in the City, reflections on producer Orrin Keepnews, recording free jazz with guitarist Attila Zoller, and his favorite Don Friedman album.

JazzWax tracks: The newly released Pieces of Jade features five tracks recorded by Don, LaFaro and Pete LaRoca in 1961. They 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.

A solo work by Don called Memories for Scotty from 1985 also is on this CD. The rest of the CD features a plodding rehearsal by Bill Evans and Scott LaFaro of My Foolish Heart (1960) and an insightful 1966 interview with Evans by George Klabin.

You'll find Pieces of Jade as an iTunes download. Or it's on CD here.

Don's four albums for Riverside Records between 1961 and 1964 also are excellent. They are A Day in the City, Circle Waltz, Flashback and Dreams and Explorations. If you're new to Don, start with Circle Waltz (1962), with bassist Chuck Israels and drummer Pete LaRoca. A Day in the City is a fascinating exploration of straight up jazz and free jazz. It's a classic, and a long-time favorite of mine.

Dreams and Explorations with guitarist Attila Zoller is largely free jazz, but a form that even traditional jazz listeners will find appealing. There are three standards here that have enormous energy, with Don exhibiting his powerful Euro-bop technique. The standards are Israel, Darn That Dream and You Stepped Out of Dream.

Circle Waltz is available on CD here. A Day in the City is available as a download or on CD here. Dreams and Explorations is available as a download or on CD here. Flashback is available as a download or on CD here.

JazzWax pages: University of North Texas Press has just published Jade Visions: The Life and Music of Scott LaFaro, by Helene LaFaro Fernandez, LaFaro's sister. You'll find it here.

JazzWax clips: Go here and listen to Don with tenor saxophonist Tom Butts, bassist Todd Coolman and drummer Frank Ferreri in 2001 playing Star Eyes. Don is playing a Casio of some kind. Dig him swing this standard inside-out during his solo!

And here's Don with alto saxophonist Charles McPherson playing Everything Happens to Me in 2001...

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This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
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