My Dear Departed Past
by Dave Frishberg
Backbeat Books (2017) (www.backbeatbooks.com)
224 pages; $27.99 hardcover
As a flexible swing-oriented pianist who became a famous lyricist and composer of insightful and often humorous songs, many of which he sang, Dave Frishberg has carved out his own unique niche in jazz history. His recent memoir, My Dear Departed Past (a perfect name for an autobiography), lives up to expectations.
Frishberg, who caught the tail-end of an era when swing and classic bop greats could be bumped into on New York City streets, has a very strong memory of the period and, not too surprisingly, is a skilled storyteller. The first half of his book traces his life from his early days in Minnesota through his two years in the Air Force and his mostly joyful days as a sideman in New York. While he has few kind words about Anita O’Day or Benny Goodman’s personality, his writing about Al Cohn, Zoot Sims, Bud Freeman, Ben Webster, Bob Dorough, and Gene Krupa pay tribute to their humanity, wit, and musical abilities. Frishberg remembers a brief scene with Ava Gardner and a sad but fascinating incident with Judy Garland. Aaron Copland, Scatman Crothers, Bob Dylan, Malcolm X (who was a baseball fan), Johnny Mercer, and Hoagy Carmichael are among those who make appearances in his memoirs.
Frishberg remembers how at one eccentric club, the avant-garde pianist Cecil Taylor almost played backup for Tiny Tim! Another particularly memorable story involves his one disastrous and hilarious attempt to be a strolling accordionist; he could barely lift the instrument.
In the latter part of the book, Dave Frishberg (who spent time in Los Angeles before permanently settling in Portland) tells inside stories about the music business, his oddest jobs as a studio musician, and the tales behind such famous songs including “I’m Hip,” “Peel Me A Grape,” and “I’m Just A Bill.”
One could imagine this 224-page book being twice as long without dropping in quality and interest for Frishberg never gets around to talking about such associates as Jimmy Rushing, Bobby Hackett, Pee Wee Russell, Herb Alpert, the Manhattan Transfer, Richie Kamuca, Jack Sheldon, Susannah McCorkle, and Rebecca Kilgore, or about the album that he did with Bob Dorough, Who’s On First. But while one may wish for a volume two someday, My Dear Departed Past (which has no slow moments) is highly recommended and available from Backbeat Books (www.backbeatbooks.com). It is a delight.
To finish this review, here is most of a particularly memorable paragraph:
“During the summer of 1959 in New York, a lashing rainstorm began suddenly while I was walking on the East Side. I ducked into the nearest doorway, which happened to be a side entrance to the FAO Schwarz toy emporium. There I huddled with two other men who were taking refuge. I glanced at the short elderly man next to me and my heart began to pound—Igor Stravinsky. Next to Igor was a tall, younger man whom I subsequently identified from a photograph. It was Robert Craft, Stravinsky’s collaborator and biographer…I thought of mentioning ‘The Firebird’ or maybe whistling a snatch of ‘Petrouchka’…
Finally I spoke up and said, ‘Excuse me.’ Stravinsky and Craft turned to me, but I found myself unable to speak. I didn’t want to sink into mere gushing, and I became embarrassed. ‘I’d better go inside,’ I said, and briskly entered the store. There I stumbled and nearly ran into a customer who was engaged in animated conversation with a salesperson across the counter. I recognized him at once. It was Pat Boone. ‘I beg your pardon,’ I said, and continued on into the stuffed animal department where I was able to collect my thoughts. ‘You gotta be on your toes in this burg,’ I told myself.”
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