Don Friedman, a great jazz pianist


On my annual visits to New York City, I always attend a concert. I’ve heard, to name a few : doo wop vocal groups the Jive Five, the Cleftones, and Kenny Vance and the Planotones ; ’60s hit makers Darlene Love, the Rascals, and Vanilla Fudge ; legendary guitarist Les Paul ; and jazz greats, including the Dizzy Gillespie All Star Big Band (with alto saxophonist Jimmy Heath), pianist Cedar Walton (with drummer Jimmy Cobb), and pianist Randy Weston.

The concert I chose in August 2014 was billed as Charlie Parker Birthday Celebration, held, appropriately at Birdland, a club named for Parker’s nickname, and the band was listed as Jeremy Pelt (trumpet), Vincent Herring (sax), Don Friedman (piano), Lonnie Plaxico (bass), and Victor Lewis (drums). I’d heard and been impressed with Jeremy Pelt at the Montreal Jazz Festival and, though I was unfamiliar with the other names, I knew it would be worthwhile. It was more than that : a glorious night of spectacular music played by masters of their art ! Each player was amazing, but I was most captivated by Don Friedman’s piano playing – his touch, technique, confidence, vitality, and a seemingly endless flow of creative ideas. To introduce a solo piece that was composed by Lennie Tristano in memory of Charlie Parker, Friedman spoke of how, as a young man in Los Angeles, he and the entire jazz community mourned on hearing of Parker’s death in 1955.

After the set, I spoke with Friedman and found him to be gracious, dignified, and very present. I asked if had made records and his reply was “lots.” [In researching later, I learned that his first recording as a leader came out in 1961, and of his first four albums, three of them were awarded 5 stars in downbeat magazine and the other one got 4 stars. A complete discography is here.] I had many other questions and he kindly gave me his email. The number 35 was part of the address, so I asked “is that your birth year ?” With a twinkle in his eye he replied, “yes, but I usually tell people it’s my age.” “That’s the same year that Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis were born in.” “Well, that’s good company.”

The interview was done by email in September and October 2014.

Craig Morrison : What music did you hear in the home when you were young ?

Don Friedman : Classical music was the only music I heard at home until I was a teenager.

CM : Was your family musical or encouraging ?

DF : My father had studied opera and when he discovered that I had an ear for music, he got the idea that I could become a concert pianist. I was taken to a local piano teacher (we lived in San Bruno at the time) and when she discovered I had perfect pitch, the deal was sealed : I would become a concert pianist. We moved to San Francisco soon after that and I studied ten years with a prominent piano teacher in SF. After moving to Los Angeles at 15 with my parents I became discouraged because of the constant pressure that was put on me to practice. I finally gave it up altogether and stopped playing for about a year, until some friends introduced me to jazz.

CM : What made you want to play music ?

DF : Even as young as four years I could imitate music that I heard either on the radio or on the piano we had. My father could play a little.

CM : Who were your earliest inspirations ?

DF : All the great classical pianists of the day : Rubenstein, Horowitz, Schnabel, etc.

CM : How did you hear them – on radio, records, or live ?

DF : I first heard them only on the radio, but when I studied in San Francisco my teacher’s husband was the publicity director of the San Francisco Symphony and he provided tickets for every concert for me and my mother.

CM : Did you have a mentor figure that helped or opened doors ?

DF : When I first heard jazz I used to listen to big bands and I wanted to play in one and actually did play in a teenage dance band, but I didn’t really know what was going on until I found a teacher in L.A. who also taught Hampton Hawes. He opened some doors for me by teaching me some basic jazz theory which then allowed me to understand more fully what I was hearing. By that time I was listening and playing along with records by Charlie Parker and Sonny Rollins and Bud Powell. Then when I heard the Miles Davis group live with Coltrane, Red Garland, Paul Chambers and Philly Joe Jones it completely blew my mind and I knew then that I would have to get to New York.

at left, one of Don’s favorites of his early albums, with Chuck Israels (bass) and Pete La Roca (drums)

CM : Can you describe your playing style and how it has evolved ? click here for a youtube clip of Don Friedman performing

DF : I started out trying to play like Bud Powell and after moving to New York I was influenced by all the great piano players here like Tommy Flannigan and Wynton Kelly. Another big influence on my playing style was Bill Evans. His trio with Scott LaFaro and Paul Motian were playing in a way where there was a lot of interplay between the three of them and especially between the piano and bass. I liked that approach very much, so I went from being a bebop player, which I can still be when needed, to a more post bop interplay kind of player. In between those styles I also became involved in free jazz which I also enjoy doing because in that style I can call upon my classical background. Of course, whatever facility I have is directly related to all the classical training I had and to this day I still practice classical music.

CM : When you were on the West Coast, how was the difference in jazz style perceived among West Coast and East Coast players ?

DF : I was one of the musicians in Los Angeles that thought the leading jazz players at that time were located in New York. I think generally that it was understood that West Coast players were not influencing the direction of jazz. Although there were many great players in L.A., they didn’t have that intense competitive feeling that exited and still exits in New York, and that’s probably what drove musicians here in NY to be so great.

CM : Have you recorded the Lennie Tristano piece you played solo ? I hear lots of blues influence in your playing style, correct ?

DF : I haven’t recorded the Tristano piece, in fact I just learned it for the Birdland gig. I have many influences in my playing and for that piece in particular I certainly did draw upon my blues experience.

CM : Tell me more about that blues experience ?

DF : I never really listened to the great blues players but I just have a feeling for it and I did listen as I mentioned before to a lot of Charlie Parker and he always played with a strong blues feel. I also worked for several years with Clark Terry who is also great jazz artist who can really play the blues.

at right : Don’s favorite of his recent albums, with Martin Wind (bass), Joe Labarbera (drums) and a string quartet

CM : On your website, you mention that you were inspired by big bands and also name some of the musicians you worked with. Please tell me more.

DH : I loved the big bands of Les Brown, Billy May, and Stan Kenton, but it was the Kenton band, with Lee Konitz, Conte Condole, and Frank Rosolino that really inspired me to learn more about jazz.

One of my first gigs in L.A. was with Shorty Rogers and that’s when I first met Jimmy Giuffre. At that time, I had a lot to learn from every experience. Playing with Chet Baker was really great for me. On one of the weeks we played in S.F. at the Blackhawk and Philly Joe Jones was Chet’s drummer then, which was very exciting for me because I had heard him with Miles and I thought he was an amazing drummer. Playing with Ornette Coleman was a totally different kind of experience. Ornette was playing free, without chord changes and no regular form. He and Don Cherry would play these wonderful heads and then the improv was free. Being the piano player meant really using your ears.

Scott LaFaro became one of my very good friends and was a fantastic bass player. We roomed together for a brief time in N.Y. and worked with the singer Dick Haymes. Scotty’s only recording as a leader is with Pete La Roca and myself. For someone who tragically died at such an early age, he had an incredibly productive few years, most notably his work with Bill Evans. I was fortunate to have heard them play many times.

CM : Tell me more about some of the musicians you played with, such as Dexter Gordon, Jimmy Giuffre, Elvin Jones, and Clark Terry.

DF : I can’t remember how I met [saxophonist] Dexter Gordon but I was very young and he hired me to play a gig with his quintet. The venue was in Seattle so we drove from L.A. to Seattle. I don’t remember much about the gig ; it was for a week and I think we played mostly standard tunes. Besides being a great player, Dexter was also a great guy. What amazed me was that I didn’t see him after that for maybe 40 years and one night at Bradley’s in New York I was there and Dexter walked in. When he saw me he immediately recognized me and gave me a big hug as though we were the best of friends.

I first played with [clarinetist, saxophonist] Jimmy Giuffre with the Shorty Rogers Quintet in L.A. and reconnected with him in New York in the ’60s. At that time Jimmy was doing experimental jazz (free jazz). We used to rehearse at his studio. At first the bass player was Gary Peacock, but later it was Barre Phillips and it was that trio that we toured in Europe, and also played in California at Shelly’s Manne Hole.

I first encountered [drummer] Elvin Jones on one of the first gigs I had in New York. It was with [trumpeter] "Sweets" Edison at the Blue Angel, owned by Max Gordon who later owned the Village Vanguard. Because of "Sweets" playing style, Elvin never picked up the sticks that whole week, and later when we worked together for [vocalist] Dick Haymes, the same was true : no sticks. Elvin was an incredible brushes player. Later on when I subbed in [trumpeter] Donald Byrd’s Quintet with [baritone saxophonist] Pepper Adams, I got to feel the full effect of Elvin’s powerful drumming.

I also met [trumpeter] Clark Terry in the ’60s. I was in the house rhythm section of a small club in New Jersey and we had different guest soloists each weekend, and after Clark played there he started to hire me for some of his gigs. I played many dates with Clark at that time. Over the years I played with Clark in many different small bands, including one with [trombonist] Bob Brookmeyer. Finally in the ’90s I became the regular pianist in his quintet. We did several European tours and made a few CD’s together. Clark was truly one of the great jazz trumpet players, and over the years we became great friends.

Don Friedman played on trumpeter Booker Little’s Out Front album, with Eric Dolphy (alto saxophone, bass clarinet, flute), Julian Priester (trombone), Art Davis (bass on three tracks), Ron Carter (bass on four tracks), and Max Roach (drums, timpani, vibraphone).

CM : How about Booker Little and Eric Dolphy ?

DF : Booker Little was probably one of the most talented and accomplished young musicians that I ever knew. He was definitely going to be recognized as the next great trumpeter after Clifford Brown. I personally felt he was as good as anyone I ever heard, and his compositions and arrangements were equally great. My impression of Booker as a person was that he was kind and gentle, but he was also firm about what he wanted when we rehearsed his music.

Eric also was a brilliant player. He amazed me at how far out he could take his playing while always knowing exactly where he was. I didn’t know him that well as a person. He seemed like a cool guy but maybe a little bit stern about his beliefs.

Don Friedman died June 30, 2016, aged 81. His obituary in the New York Times is here.

comments or questions ? email me

comments from readers :

Many thanks for the Friedman interview. The youtube clip you posted has him performing with Brian Blade, whom I’ve seen often with Daniel Lanois. You’re right, Friedman does not lack ideas ! Glad you saw him where you did ; ain’t that the best place in the world to see great jazz music ? - SM, Montreal

Très bon article, rempli de rencontres intéressantes. Je découvre aussi un pianiste singulier. - FL, Montreal

Beautiful interview...good questions...thoughtful responses. It was most informative. It provided me with some directions to pursue. Don has always been one of my favorite players. The recordings with Booker Little are timelessly beautiful. Thanks for the interview. - CE, Montreal

Lecture très inspirante, M. Friedman has been around quite a bit, talk about name dropping...! Je le connais par l’enregistrement de Booker Little, c’est vrai que l’influence blues n’est pas super présente chez lui mais il me semblait imaginatif et audacieux. Merci pour ce beau partage. - JN, Montreal

is an ethnomusicologist, teacher, author, and musician
based in Montreal, Quebec, Canada
7 Nights Music Communications, 2006