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Dave Frishberg, Jazz Songwriter and ‘Schoolhouse Rock’ Contributor, Dies

6 min read
https://www.nytimes.com/2021/11/17/arts/music/dave-frishberg-dead.html

Dave Frishberg, the jazz songwriter whose sardonic wit as a lyricist and melodic cleverness as a composer placed him in the top echelon of his craft, died on Wednesday in Portland, Ore. He was 88.

His wife, April Magnusson, confirmed the death.

Mr. Frishberg, who also played piano and sang, was an anomaly, if not an anachronism, in American popular music: an accomplished, unregenerate jazz pianist who managed to outrun the eras of rock, soul, disco, punk and hip-hop by writing hyper-literate songs that harked back to Hoagy Carmichael and Johnny Mercer, by way of Stephen Sondheim.

His songwriting wit was for grown-ups, yet he reached his widest audience with sharpshooting ditties for kids as a regular musical contributor to ABC-TV’s long-running Saturday morning animated show “Schoolhouse Rock!”

Merely being aware of Dave Frishberg and his songs conveyed an in-the-know sophistication. He poked fun at this self-congratulatory hipness in his lyrics for “I’m Hip,” a classic of clueless with-it-ness that he wrote to a melody by his fellow jazz songwriter Bob Dorough:

See, I’m hip. I’m no square.
I’m alert, I’m awake, I’m aware.
I am always on the scene.
Making the rounds, digging the sounds.
I read People magazine.
‘Cuz I’m hip.

Mr. Frishberg’s original lyric for “I’m Hip,” written in 1966, was “I read Playboy magazine,” but he later changed it.

People magazine never did get around to profiling him (though it did briefly review one of his albums in the 1980s). But his niche in the niche-songwriting world of the cabaret smart set (when such a breed still existed) was lofty. Superb saloon singers came to be identified with the Frishberg tunes they sang. One of those singers was Blossom Dearie, whose rendition of his “Peel Me a Grape” was, in Mr. Frishberg’s view, definitive.

Still, no one quite sang a Dave Frishberg song like Dave Frishberg, with his thin, reedy voice and compellingly constricted vocal range. Mr. Frishberg’s performance of his acerbic paean to “My Attorney Bernie” was unsurpassed, particularly his laconic crooning of the song’s refrain:

Bernie tells me what to do
Bernie lays it on the line
Bernie says we sue, we sue
Bernie says we sign, we sign.

Mr. Frishberg’s songwriting gift extended well beyond the satirical jab. He composed some beautiful ballads, and he was an elegant nostalgist who wrote longingly (though also knowingly) about the mists of time and loss. There was the bittersweet Frishberg of “Do You Miss New York?,” the aching Frishberg of “Sweet Kentucky Ham” and the ingeniously eloquent Frishberg of “Van Lingle Mungo,” a touching wisp of a ballad constructed solely from the strung-together names of long-ago major league baseball players.

David Lee Frishberg was born on March 23, 1933, in St. Paul, Minn., the youngest of three sons of Harry and Sarah (Cohen) Frishberg. His father, who owned a clothing store, was an émigré from Poland; his mother was a native-born Minnesotan.

He began sketching athletes from news photos when he was 7 and hoped to become a sports illustrator, but he also listened closely to music growing up and could sing the entire score of “The Mikado” and other Gilbert and Sullivan operettas. His brother Mort, a self-taught blues piano player, soon steered him toward jazz and blues records, and to the keyboard, where the teenage Mr. Frishberg replicated by ear the boogie-woogie styles of Pete Johnson and Meade Lux Lewis before discovering the modernist pianism of bebop.

“Jazz musicians were hip,” Mr. Frishberg wrote in his memoir, “My Dear Departed Past” (2017); “they were funny, they were sensitive, they were clannish, and they seemed to have the best girlfriends.”

After graduating from St. Paul Central High School, Mr. Frishberg briefly attended Stanford University before returning home to enroll at the University of Minnesota. Though he was already a semiregular on the local jazz scene, his sight reading skills were too poor for a formal music degree. Instead he flirted with majoring in psychology before gravitating to journalism and securing his degree in 1955.

He served two years in the Air Force as a recruiter, to fulfill his R.O.T.C. obligations, and then, in 1957, was hired by the New York radio station WNEW to write advertising scripts and other material for its disc jockeys and announcers. He quickly forsook WNEW to write catalog copy for RCA Victor Records, then finally stepped out as a working solo pianist with a late-night slot at the Duplex cabaret in Greenwich Village.

Mr. Frishberg became an in-demand sideman at jazz spots like Birdland and the Village Vanguard for jazz luminaries including the saxophonists Ben Webster, Al Cohn and Zoot Sims and the drummer Gene Krupa. He also accompanied an array of great singers, including Carmen McRae, Anita O’Day and, for one dizzying night while backing Ms. O’Day at the Half Note, a timid Judy Garland, who tremulously sat in and sang “Over the Rainbow,” then asked Mr. Frishberg to become her musical director. He demurred.

In the early 1960s, Mr. Frishberg began writing songs — “all kinds of songs,” as he recalled in “My Dear Departed Past.” When the singer Fran Jeffries asked if he could write her a bit of special material, something she could “slink around while singing,” he responded with “Peel Me a Grape”:

Peel me a grape
Crush me some ice
Skin me a peach, save the fuzz for my pillow
Start me a smoke
Talk to me nice
You gotta wine me
And dine me.

Written in 1962, “Peel Me a Grape” became Mr. Frishberg’s first published tune — though the publishing company that acquired it, Frank Music, owned by the illustrious Frank Loesser, did little with it. “As far as I knew, the song was a pretty confidential item,” Mr. Frishberg later wrote, “until Blossom Dearie’s version.” Still, it launched Mr. Frishberg as a songwriter.

“I’m Hip” followed in 1966, leading to a swelling portfolio of songs. The demos that he cut to teach singers his songs began to tickle the insular jazz recording industry’s ear. Finally, Mr. Frishberg went into the studio himself to record an album, consisting of his own compositions. The record was released in 1970 on the recently formed CTI label under the title “Oklahoma Toad.”

Mr. Frishberg decamped to Los Angeles in 1971, ostensibly to write material for “The Funny Side,” a new NBC variety show starring Gene Kelly. The show lasted only nine episodes, but work as a studio musician kept Mr. Frishberg afloat. He also began to perform his songs regularly in local clubs.

In 1975, Mr. Dorough invited him to contribute to “Schoolhouse Rock!,” for which Mr. Dorough was the musical director and one of the writers. Mr. Frishberg’s first contribution, in the show’s third season, was “I’m Just a Bill,” an explanatory swinger about the legislative process sung by the jazz trumpeter and vocalist Jack Sheldon. It brought him unexpected acclaim and long-lasting residuals for what he later ruefully acknowledged to be his “most well-known song.”

“The Dave Frishberg Songbook, Volume No. 1” garnered a 1982 Grammy Award nomination for best male jazz vocal performance. The next year, “The Dave Frishberg Songbook, Volume No. 2” did the same. In support of that album, Mr. Frishberg appeared on “The Tonight Show.” Two more Frishberg albums were nominated for Grammys, “Live at Vine Street” in 1985 and “Can’t Take You Nowhere” in 1987.

Mr. Frishberg’s marriage in 1959 to Stella Giammasi ended in divorce. He later married Cynthia Wagman.

In 1986, he, his wife and their year-old son, Harry, moved to Portland, fleeing the freeway traffic and what he once referred to as the “malignant environment” of Los Angeles. He lived on in Portland, more or less contentedly, for the rest of his life, producing a second son, Max; divorcing for a second time; and, in 2000, marrying Ms. Magnusson. In addition to her, he is survived by his sons.

In Portland, he collaborated regularly with the vocalist Rebecca Kilgore. As often as not, though, Mr. Frishberg reveled in playing solo piano in crowded hotel bars. When ill health overtook him late in life, he never stopped writing, just as he had mordantly predicted in 1981 in “My Swan Song”:

Once I popped them out like waffles
The good ones and the awfuls
A new one every day. But now
I find I’m uninspired, my wig’s no longer wired
I’ve nothing left to say. …
But I’ll say it anyway.

Alex Traub contributed reporting.

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