University of Minnesota Alumni Association


He Was Hip

Jazz great David Frishberg, who died last year, got his start at the U of M in the 1950s, later rubbing shoulders with some of the biggest names in music. And in the mid-’70s, he entertained newer generations with the tunes he wrote for ABC’s Schoolhouse Rock.

It was the era of the silent generation, so called, on U.S. college campuses: The early 1950s was an age of conformity in which boats for the most part went unrocked.

The U of M was no exception—though at Scott Hall, otherwise known as the Music Building, revolution was in the air.

Photo credit: Minnesota Historical Society

A clique of student musicians had clued in to a new jazz style that drifted over from Minton’s Playhouse, the Three Deuces, and other Harlem-style clubs. This new sound was played at the Club Carnival and Vic’s in Minneapolis and the Flame Jazz Club in St. Paul. It was bebop, and it begat a small hep-cat contingent of young players on campus who knew about tag endings and coda signs.

Most of these enthusiasts were under 21 and had to loiter outside the hot clubs when jazz stars rolled into town. They listened to the music that leaked out and hoped to get a glimpse of Earl Hines or Louis Armstrong and maybe have a chat with their heroes. A few students even had side gigs in the clubs and got to sit in with the big-time players, though they often had to scamper back to their dorms to make curfew and prep for class the next morning.

After enrolling at the U of M in the spring of 1951—following two unhappy semesters at Stanford—freshman Dave Frishberg (B.A. ’55) became part of the scene. He was a bit of a piano prodigy, having played professionally while in high school in St. Paul. He was back home in Minnesota but had lost none of his determination to make it big in a wider world.

Frishberg, who died in November at 88, would do just that. He left a remarkable legacy as a composer and performer, played with international superstars, and rubbed shoulders with some of the greatest musicians of all time.

And his adventures began with a creative life rooted at the University of Minnesota.

The U of M years

During his time in Minnesota, Frishberg began with purist ambitions to become a jazz instrumentalist. Born in 1933, he was part of a generation of American enthusiasts who came under the spell of Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, and their brethren. He began taking piano lessons in elementary school but resisted formal studies. Frishberg planned to study psychology at Stanford, but lost interest in the subject. At the U of M, he was shopping around for a new major.

In his 2017 autobiography, My Dear Departed Past, Frishberg wrote: “I was mainly concerned with staying out of the draft for the Korean War and hanging around Scott Hall, where all the music students were. In order to be a music major, you had to be an instrumentalist, and I, an ‘ear’ pianist with no classical repertoire, could not present the required senior recital.” He did, though, enroll in all the music courses he was eligible for, which included theory, music history, and other non-piano classes.

Outside of class, he played jam session concerts at the student union with other young players on campus, including the acclaimed saxophonist Dave Karr, who had recently arrived from New York City and had also enrolled at the U of M.

“He was a year or two older than us, maybe 22 or 23, and had some professional experience with name bands,” Frishberg remembered in his book.

On Sunday afternoons, the jazz players and their friends, wives, and girlfriends would jam at the Hoop-de-Doo, on lower Nicollet in Minneapolis.

Two music students, Bob Crea and Bob Kunin, both sax players, worked in the local jazz clubs, and through them Frishberg and Karr had an in. They met and played with such notables as Conte Candoli, Charlie Ventura, and Lou Levy. Meanwhile, Frishberg’s friend Don Specht was playing piano with the house quartet at the Flame, a St. Paul nightclub at 457 Wabasha.

“We’d hang around to say hello to him on intermissions, and we got to hear and see some of the big acts: Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Charlie Ventura’s band with Jackie Cain and Roy Kral and Johnny Hodges’s band with Lawrence Brown and Sonny Greer.” 

It was extraordinary, but it was extracurricular, and there was serious academic business to tend to.

At one point, Frishberg had a memorable brush with the U of M music department’s distinguished composer and choral director, James Aliferis, which led to an encounter with an even more imposing figure: Aaron Copland, then as now considered the “dean of American composers.”

One of the nation’s most acclaimed music professors, Aliferis had been a student in 1941 with Leonard Bernstein in Serge Koussevitzky’s first conducting class at the Berkshire Music Center. From 1946 to 1958, Aliferis taught at the U of M and was the permanent guest conductor of the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra. He was also the author of the Aliferis Music Achievement Tests, the country’s only standardized college-level musicianship examinations.

Eager to learn how to write for various instruments, Frishberg enrolled in Aliferis’s Introduction to Orchestration class.

“I was distressed when I found out that we wouldn’t hear our orchestrations played,” he wrote in his autobiography. “We handed in our scores, and Dr. Aliferis would examine them on paper … and inform us that certain doublings or registers would not sound good when played. I said, ‘It would be great if we could hear what we’ve written.’” 

“Of course,” Aliferis replied, “but composers and arrangers don’t have that luxury.”

For his first assignment, Frishberg orchestrated a jazz piece called “Four and One Moore” by Al Cohn, who he would later play with in New York. He arranged it for five saxophones. Aliferis handed it back marked “F.”

“Saxophones?” the professor said. “We’re not writing for a dance band here.”

Frishberg then rummaged through piano folios of contemporary composers and hit upon Bela Bartok’s Mikrokosmos.

“I just mechanically wrote down the notes and found there were six voices to be assigned,” Frishberg remembered in his book. “I arbitrarily decided to make them two trumpets, two trombones, and two French horns.”

The freshman submitted the score and when he returned to class a few days later, Aliferis announced, “Mr. Frishberg has handed in one of the most extraordinary pieces of work I’ve seen this year.” He said it would be performed the following week by Minneapolis Symphony musicians, and he marked it A+.

Aliferis would also pull Frishberg aside after his piece was played the following week and introduce him to the man who was standing with him. It was Copland. The great man was scheduled to speak that afternoon at the Student Hour in Scott Hall, a regal visit reported on January 27, 1953, in the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

Copland told Frishberg: “I love your Bartok transcription.”

“After all that,” Frishberg wrote, “I found myself a few days later back in Aliferis’s class, still clueless about orchestration. I still hadn’t any idea what I was doing. That might have been when I decided to try the School of Journalism.”

Frishberg’s widow, April Magnusson, believes Frishberg’s U of M journalism major helped make him a successful songwriter. 

“He was a great editor,” she says now from her home in Portland. “He was always tinkering with songs once he was finished with them. He never really finished with them because he was always trying to make it better.”

Dave and April were together for 30 years. Although they lived in Oregon, Frishberg frequently returned to Minnesota to see friends and perform. One winter in the late 1990s, he returned to campus to play a benefit for the University Libraries organized by Anne Phillips, a library board member and wife of one of Frishberg’s closest college friends, Felix Phillips (B.S. ’56, J.D. ’56), a Minneapolis attorney and renowned jazz aficionado.

In his last years, Magnusson says her husband suffered from dementia, but as his condition worsened, he never forgot his home.

“He would say ‘I really want to go home to Minnesota,’” she says. “I had to tell him over and over again about Covid and that we couldn’t travel. But he would say, ‘I want to go back.’”

Who Was Dave Frishberg?

To jazz fans, a legend.

Following his U of M graduation and a stint in the Air Force, Dave Frishberg was a stalwart in many of New York’s iconic clubs and studios during the Big Apple’s bebop heyday, burnishing a reputation as one of the city’s outstanding young jazz pianists. Early on, Judy Garland turned up in a club where Frishberg was playing and took the mike for a couple of songs. Afterward, she asked the musical youngster to be her musical director. He declined.

By the early 1960s, Frishberg began to stretch out artistically, establishing himself as a composer, lyricist, and singer with a faithful following in both jazz and cabaret circles. Throughout a long career, four of his albums would win Grammy nominations for best jazz vocal. A New York Times reviewer once described him as “the Stephen Sondheim of jazz songwriting.”

His tunes, including the cult classics “Peel Me A Grape,” “I’m Hip,” “My Attorney Bernie,” and “Heart’s Desire,” are still widely performed and have been recorded by Mel Torme, Rosemary Clooney, Michael Feinstein, Diana Krall, Bette Midler, Tony Bennett, and others. Times critic Stephen Holden wrote: “Few contemporary writers have produced as many songs that have been embraced by nightclub cognoscenti.”

Frishberg’s songs also were a staple on ABC’s Schoolhouse Rock series, including “Seven-Fifty Once a Week,” “Walkin’ On Wall Street” and the iconic “I’m Just A Bill,” which follows a bill through Congress on its way to becoming legislation. Oldtime baseball fans also fell for his achingly beautiful 1969 recording “Van Lingle Mungo,” which celebrates players from the game’s golden age.

Frishberg would appear on The Tonight Show, CBS Sunday Morning, and public radio’s A Prairie Home Companion and Fresh Air, and he became a fixture on cabaret stages and in concert halls around the world.

Rick Johnson is a freelance writer based in Farmington Hills, Michigan.

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