Interview with Don Friedman

Don Friedman talks to 441 about working on My Favorite Things, Waltz For Debby, and more...

Where were you born? San Francisco, California.

How did you get started as a musician?
My parents had a piano at home. One time, when my father was fooling around on the piano when I was about 4 years old, I was able to copy and play back what he did. My parents saw that I had musical ability and they got me a piano teacher. I studied classical piano for about 10 years. I then got interested in jazz. The first live jazz music I heard was big bands performing at the Hollywood Palladium. My family had moved to Southern California by then. The first recorded jazz I heard was a Dave Brubeck Octet record, before he got together with Paul Desmond.

Tell us about your fateful Buddy DeFranco tour in 1956.
I auditioned for Buddy DeFranco in Los Angeles at the Musicians Union and got the gig on the spot. The first gig was in New York City. We were a 5-piece band: piano, bass, drums, guitar and Buddy (on clarinet). Four of us had to drive from California to New York. We met up with the guitar player in New York since he lived there. We played at the original Basin Street in New York City as well as at Birdland, Café Bohemia, and Smalls in Harlem. We toured the Eastern States and Canada. We toured for 9-months, playing in each city for a week. That was how it was done back then. It was my first on-the-road experience and I met many musicians along the way.

How did you end up moving to New York?
After seeing Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Sonny Rollins perform at a club called Jazz City in California, I knew then that I wanted to go to New York because that was where everything was happening. This was even before the (Buddy DeFranco) tour. While I was on the tour, I established connections with many musicians. After the tour, I played with Chet Baker. When I moved to New York, I had a friend on York Avenue that I stayed with. I got gigs right off the bat. I worked with Teddy Kotick around the New York area. I played at The Five Spot with Donny Byrd and the Pepper Adams Group. I also played solo piano at clubs.

Tell us about your first record. How did that come about?
My first recording was on Riverside Records released in 1961. I was friends with bassist Chuck Israels and drummer Joe Hunt and they suggested to producer Orrin Keepnews to hear me play. At the time, he was looking for original music to record. Lucky for me, I happened to be studying composition then and I had written a piano suite. I quickly rearranged the piece for a jazz trio and we ended up recording it. The title of the album was A Day in the City.

You have played with many musicians throughout your career including Herbie Mann and Elvin Jones. Their passing away were great losses. Do you have some fond memories of them you would like to share with us?
Yes, I played with both of them. I worked with Herbie Mann for quite a while. I auditioned for him and was hired on the spot. The story goes like this: I was playing at a club called Junior’s. Herbie was playing at Birdland, which was right down the street from Junior’s. Attila Zoller, a good friend of mine, was playing with Herbie. Atilla came over to Junior’s to hear me play and let me know that Herbie needed a piano player. I walked over and sat in with Herbie and was hired! We ended up touring together in Japan. This was around 1964. After that, I worked with him at The Village Gate and toured with him all over the U.S.

I played with Elvin a few times. We were in a gig together with singer Dick Haymes. Dick was a singer not unlike Frank Sinatra. He hired Elvin, bassist Scott LaFaro and me as the rhythm section. Elvin was fantastic. People think of him as a bombastic drummer, but he was very versatile and great in any situation. He could play quietly with a beautiful sound. We played together again with trumpet player Harry “Sweets” Edison. Harry played everything with a mute so everyone had to play soft. Elvin played quietly and beautifully. Elvin and I played together also with Donald Byrd and Pepper Adams.

What did you enjoy most about recording the album Waltz for Debby?
I enjoyed playing with George Mraz and Lewis Nash. Doing a record is motivation for me to write new music. I like the process of learning the material and playing it. We did not rehearse too much together. George and Lewis are both pros. I did the arrangement for the album. “35 W. 4th Street” is my favorite track on that album.

Tell us about your experiences recording My Favorite Things.
It was very similar to doing Waltz for Debby. I had a chance to learn new material. I have never played “My Favorite Things” – I did not know it. So, I made it my own and re-harmonized it. George came over and rehearsed a little at my home. There was a minimum amount of rehearsing. George and Lewis are great players and could just size up the musical situation and play their parts beautifully.

Was there anything unique about the specific performances of each song selected for the album? Is there a favorite track of yours on the album?
I like “It Could Happen to You”, “Easy to Love” and “Never Let Me Go.” When you are in the midst of recording tracks, it is really hard to step back and see how a song turned out because you get so involved with the process. You really realize what you did and how you played much later. You get a more objective view once you have done it let it settle for a week.

“Schmooze Blooze”, “Half and Half” and “Summer’s End” are your original compositions. Who’s influences do you find in your compositions?
I see a lot of Wayne Shorter’s, Monk’s and Chick Corea’s tunes. I like Bill Evans. I am influenced by many artists since I’ve played a lot of jazz player’s music. Sometimes, I have preconceived ideas about what I’m looking for. For example, in “Schmooze Blooze”, I was going for a funky groove rather than being sophisticated. In “35 W. 4th Street”, I was delving into harmonic & melodic possibilities; trying to do something different in the harmonic & melodic lines.

Do you have a source of inspiration?
Many things inspire me. As I said before, I need some motivation to write. I cannot just sit down and compose for the sake of composing. If there is a record date or if I have a group I am writing for, it makes the process easier.

What are some future projects in the works that you are excited about?
I am excited about going to Germany at the end of this month. I will be playing at the Salzau Jazz Festival – a jazz festival held at the northern tip of the Baltic. I will be playing with bassist Martin Wind and drummer Terri Lyne Carrington. I will be appearing at the Kitano shortly. I am scheduled to play at The Jazz Standard. I will be playing at Riles Jazz Club in Boston later in the year. Next year, I will be participating again in the Hundred Fingers Tour in Japan. We will also do a Trio tour there.

You have an upcoming album you recorded with John Patitucci and Omar Hakim. Given the chance, which are some musicians, you would love to play or record with that you haven’t before?
Yes, that was a great experience. Let’s see. I’ve played with A LOT of musicians. I have not played with Dave Holland. It would be great to play with him.

Tell us about teaching at New York University.
I am still teaching there, have been for at least 25 years. I teach undergraduate & graduate courses. The students are not all music majors.

Did you find teaching rewarding?
It really depends on the student. If they are really interested in learning, it is a very rewarding experience. In what way does being an educator help you with your recording / performing career and vice versa? It helps a lot. When I first started teaching, I did not know how I did a lot of things. Students kept asking how I did this and how I did that. I play a lot by ear. I realized that I had to understand and verbalize what I was doing. I did a lot of reading and looked at things from an intellectual perspective. By knowing these things helped me with the playing. The best way to play is by intuition. Having knowledge adds to it.

Finally, do you have any advice to jazz pianists / musicians who are starting their careers?
Practice a lot. Listen a lot. Play with as many different musicians as you can. Phil woods said that if you want be a jazz musician, you really have to stick with it.