"When I’m looking back I’m actually trying to find some kind of a key to go forward."
An Interview with Guitarist Bill Frisell
Bill Frisell is a tall, quiet man who seems to live his life in amazement. What was most surprising when we first met was how humbled he appeared to be in my presence. Frisell is perhaps the leading American jazz guitarist of his generation, having put out dozens of albums since the early 1980s featuring collaborations with everyone from John Zorn to Elvis Costello. And still, when we talked music, at the mention of a new name Bill’s response was always the same: to sit in thought for a moment, and then light up and say, “Wow.” Often it was just that: ”Wow.” A simple recognition, a marker of respect, and no need to explain further.
For this conversation, I met Bill in his temporary studio at the Vermont Studio Center. His guitar lay in the corner and sheets of white manuscript paper hung neatly on the walls. The room was spartan, monkish, and totally unlike the music he makes, which he describes as coming from the same place as the monsters and sci-fi vehicles he drew as a kid. With my friend Alex Lewis, I’ve been interviewing jazz musicians about how knowledge and value are created and communicated through their work for a project called Expandable Sound. And as I talked with Bill, I began to see further into his inspirations—dreams, images, memories, fantasies, reflections—held together like a mosaic. Bill would stop short suddenly, under a spell, lost in wonder. We’d sit quietly for a beat, and I’d secretly hope for him to pick up the guitar, knowing it was those moments that led Bill to music.
I. IT WAS ALL HAPPENING SO FAST
THE BELIEVER: Maybe you can start with how you found the guitar.
BILL FRISELL: I was born in 1951, and I remember so clearly the evening that my father brought a television home for the first time. I was three or four. It was a big deal to get a television, and I watched cartoons and became addicted, and every day I’d watch the Mickey Mouse Club—this group of kids with their Mouseketeer ear hats on—and at the end of every show the leader, an older guy named Jimmy, would gather all the kids around and play guitar and they’d sing. And I just remember being so fascinated by the thing that he was playing. I mean, it had Mickey Mouse painted on the front of it, but it was just this beautiful, strange object. And it had this power to bring these people together. After whatever happened during that day, this guy comes in with this thing and they all just sort of chill out and get together. So I took a cardboard box and cut it into the shape of a guitar and put rubber bands on it and pretended I had a guitar.
I’ve found a photo from even earlier than that—I was with my grandfather, I must have been two, three years old, and I was holding a ukulele.
The guitar was so much a part of the popular culture; this was when rock n’ roll was being born. A few years later I got interested in cars, and I’m thinking about hot rods and rocket ships and the future and then there’s a Fender guitar—you’re seeing them all around.
There was surf music too. I mean, I was living in Denver, Colorado, and I guess all over the country people were getting interested in surfing. I was buying surf magazines and hot rod magazines and science fiction. Popular Mechanics would tell you how to build a flying car. Somehow the guitar just fit into all this crazy stuff.
BLVR: So when you found the guitar, it had a futuristic element?
BF: Yeah. There was this feeling in the air: we’re gonna go to outer space and the future is going to be really great. That still has an impact on the way I think about music. At the time, there was this big optimism. That got derailed, I think, when Kennedy got killed and Vietnam started picking up steam. And this was all happening as my awareness was getting larger.
BLVR: How old were you?
BF: I was twelve when Kennedy was killed. It’s incredible to think that three months after Kennedy died The Beatles were on the Ed Sullivan show. What happened in 1964 blows my mind: Cassius Clay, Sonny Liston, Martin Luther King, Jr., the Civil Rights Act, The Beatles, A Love Supreme. It seemed like so much stuff was compressed into a short amount of time.
Now when I think of a decade, it’s not the same. Look at what Miles Davis did between 1959 and 1969. From Kind of Blue to Bitches Brew. I saw the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan show and just a couple years later I saw Jimi Hendrix, live, in the gymnasium at a Colorado Women’s College. A couple years after that I saw Miles Davis play. It was all happening so fast.
BLVR: How did you go from The Beatles to Jimi Hendrix?
BF: It was a natural progression. Part of it was my age. I mean, I’m twelve when The Beatles are on, and then a month later I’m thirteen: a teenager, like man, I gotta get an electric guitar. Everybody wanted to get an electric guitar. The music has been about these connections. That’s the whole deal.
A lot of what I do is try to figure out where I come from and where the music comes from. The more I find out about what the people I loved were listening to, it’s like this infinite forest; you just climb around….