"When I’m looking back I’m actually trying to find some kind of a key to go forward."

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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.

—Jake Nussbaum 

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…. 

BLVR:

 You mention this image of the dense forest. Did you sense that you were perhaps on the edge of it, that you maybe wanted to reach beyond pop music? 

BF: Things just kept pulling me. I heard Wes Montgomery through my school band, in which I played clarinet. In the fall of ’67, these girls were doing a dance routine to “Bumpin’ on Sunset” for the school talent show, but they were using the recorded version. The band director thought it would be much cooler if we had live music, so he asked me if I could learn that song. He gave me this Wes Montgomery record and I was like, whoa, what is this?

That just cracked things open really wide. Ron Carter was playing bass on that record; I wanted to find out about jazz guitar, so I bought a Kenny Burrell record, and Ron Carter was playing bass on that, too, and that led me to a Miles Davis record. 

You could get these records at Walgreens and Woolworths. It was amazing: they had Blue Note and Riverside and Prestige cutouts for like 79 cents. I got a Lee Morgan record just because it was on Blue Note. It had Grant Greene on it. And there was a Sam Rivers record that is still one of my favorites. It’s with Ron Carter and Tony Williams. Fuchsia Swing Song. I think that was his first record for Blue Note. Then the connection thing starts going nuts because there’s Tony Williams, even before he played with Miles. So things just exploded.

BLVR: You kind of did that on your own, right? You look at the players and the albums and remember the names….

BF: Yeah. Just start pulling towards something. It happens slowly. That’s the thing, now, with the internet: if you punch in any of those names, within two seconds, bam, you’d have a million. Back then it was like, I’d get on a bus and I’d go to the record store and sit in there and look around or listen to people. I’d get one record and listen to it over and over. I wouldn’t listen to a thousand records. The absorption process was much slower. 

BLVR: This is kind of a tough question. What was it like to hear that kind of improvisation for the first time?

BF: Well it was so mysterious. I didn’t know what it was, and I couldn’t really follow it. But there was definitely a sound that drew me to it. Even when I heard Jimi Hendrix, I couldn’t process it at all. I mean, now I know he’s playing a guitar, but at the time there was so much mystery to it, a massive, huge sound enveloping me. And I wasn’t trying to analyze it. I was just getting the emotional feel for it. So many things would hit me at once, and they were unfamiliar, I didn’t have a reference point.

It’s easy to pinpoint the influences of a new band today. Back then, although they all had their influences, I was uneducated enough not to know the precedents. 

Also, there were such strong individual voices happening amongst all those people. So you didn’t mistake anybody for anybody else.  

BLVR: And that was connected to having improvisation be such a focal point, right?

BF: But that was the thing about guitar too. Even the very earliest stuff, like surf music or Chuck Berry, all had a distinct sound.

You’d learn the forms: if it’s twelve bar blues, you beat on this chord, you beat on that chord and then you go back. I had a friend who was playing more lead guitar, and I couldn’t figure out what that was, and he showed me a scale and just said, yeah, you kind of go up and down. Again, this was early on.

And that was so different from what was going on parallel to it: playing the clarinet in the school band, where everything was so formal. I’m still thankful I had that. Looking back, it was amazing that I had that experience, playing in orchestras and bands, reading music, counting, all that basic stuff. But when I played the guitar, everything went more by instinct. I didn’t read on the guitar, I just played along with records and played with my friends, so the whole thing, from the beginning, was the basis of improvisation. Even the most primitive stuff—we were always both changing it and not. You know, I never played it quite right.

BLVR: Did you find that knowledge of music to be more from your body than the clarinet? Was it more physical?

BF: I’m not sure if it’s my body. The clarinet was definitely in my head. It was like doing mathematics, looking at the notes and pushing the buttons. I guess body is a good way to say it; the guitar was definitely coming from further down than my brain. 

I was thinking of the guitar as a different part of my brain. The guitar allowed the creative impulse, rather than following the rules.

When I was really young I used to draw a lot: rocket ships, outer space stuff, dinosaurs, hot rods. I’d make up weird monsters. It was the same with guitar. Whatever made me want to do that is what was making me want to play guitar, which was different from the clarinet. 

II. A MODEL FOR WHAT COULD BE 

BLVR: You committed to guitar, right? You went to music school. Was that the next step? 

BF: After high school, I wasn’t quite sure what I was going to do. I applied to Eastman on the clarinet and they didn’t accept me as a performer; they accepted me as an education major, and I said no. I ended up staying in Colorado for a couple of years. The clarinet kept fading; I knew my heart wasn’t really in it. 

There was another important moment, when Gary Burton, the vibes player, came to town. I heard him for the first time after I discovered Wes Montgomery. Soon after that, Wes was scheduled to come and play in Colorado as part of the traveling Newport Jazz Festival. And he was the only name I knew on the program. My dad got us tickets and then Wes died just a few weeks before the concert. But we went anyway.

At the concert Monk was playing, so I got to see Monk—the only time I ever saw him. Dionne Warwick and Cannonball Adderley and Gary Burton were playing too. It was with Larry Coryell on guitar and Steve Swallow on bass and Bob Moses on drums; it was the summer of 1968. And it just obliterated me. This stuff blew my mind. 

That got me into Gary Burton. Then he came to perform at my college, and said, “If you’re going to play an instrument you have to put all your energy into that one thing.” It wasn’t long after that that I totally got rid of the clarinet.

BLVR: You abandoned it… then what? 

BF: I found a teacher in Denver. Dale Bruning; he’s still there playing. Amazing. He changed my whole life. He helped me take what I had learned in school with the orchestra and band and apply it to the guitar. And he was the one that really opened the door, because he had come from Philadelphia and studied with the same teachers that Coltrane had. And he was friends with Jim Hall. He just opened the thing totally wide.

Dale introduced me to Jim Hall and Johnny Smith, an unsung master guitarist that had kind of disappeared off the scene. I was able to take a few lessons with them. Then I went to Boston to go to Berklee and I just hated it. I went one semester and I wrote Jim Hall a letter and asked him if I could study with him. By this time my parents were living in South Orange, NJ and I moved in with them. It was the summer of 1969. I almost went to Woodstock but I didn’t. That was the first time I ever went to the Village Vanguard. To hear Gary Burton play.

BLVR: What was it about those teachers that you loved as opposed to situations of learning that you didn’t like? In this case Berklee, but maybe others too. 

BF: I went through all these ups and downs. I went there for a semester, quit, studied with Jim Hall, and then went back to Colorado and taught in a music store and practiced all the time. I didn’t really have any hope of getting a gig. But I knew that’s how my life was going to be and I didn’t care what happened. I just lived in this little tiny apartment and practiced.

But I’d had this experience with Jim and being in New York a little bit—the taste of what music was like there. A couple years later I went back to Berklee. And that time, well, I could do it. There were some incredible teachers. And I knew enough. I was older. I knew the ins and outs. I could zero in more on what I wanted to be doing.

But maybe the biggest thing about it was there were suddenly all these people that I could play with. Denver had been a very small circle. It broke me out; I could grasp it better the second time.

BLVR: It sounds like you had been assembling this community for yourself, jumping from one lily-pad to another through your education. But there had to have been a point when you suddenly felt like you were really in the pond and part of the bigger community.

BF: The community was always there. I’m talking about when I was in Denver and living alone. When I think of that, the music world, that community of people, I’d always felt that things there were cool somehow. The older guys would invite me up to sit in, stuff like that. 

This super dark stuff kept happening. Like Kennedy gets killed and Martin Luther King gets killed and then Robert Kennedy gets killed. 

I feel so lucky that my high school was right in the middle of Denver, which is one of those sort of segregated towns, with black and white and Hispanic neighborhoods. But the school I went to was right in the middle of the whole thing. I went to school with a lot of African-American guys (a bunch of the guys from Earth, Wind and Fire actually—I always brag about that!) From junior high into high school, I played with a lot of those guys.

During that time there was this horrible darkness in the world. But within the music world there was this feeling that we were coming out of it somehow. Like we were together. It wasn’t the same kind of optimism I was talking about in the 50s, but there was a feeling: I know that shit is messed up, but we’re moving through it.

BLVR: This was happening in the music community.

BF: For me the music community was always like a model for what could be. The way people would play together, just harmony and being—old guys and young guys, black guys and white guys. It was setting an example for what the rest of us could be. You know, nothing’s perfect but it came a lot closer.

 

III. THE KALEIDOSCOPE OF POSSIBILITY

BLVR: Maybe I’m skipping ahead a little bit here, but I would imagine that by the time you got to New York, you must have felt like you were in a whole universe of musicians?

BF: Yeah, it just keeps growing. I still play with people I met in Boston. The connection thing is outrageous. A few months after that Gary Burton and Monk concert I went to hear Charles Lloyd, and his band had Paul Motian playing drums and Keith Jarrett playing piano and Ron McClure playing bass. Not too many years later I played with Paul Motian, and ended up playing with him for thirty years! And last year I was doing gigs with Charles. It’s just incredible. I feel like I’ve been blessed.

BLVR: This idea of lineage and a progression happening through generations and through people and community is definitely specific in some ways to jazz in America. Players and bands are always shifting and reconnecting and changing and reforming. It’s not like a rock band like Led Zeppelin. They’ve just been Led Zeppelin for forty years at this point.

BF: Right away I started to figure that out. Every time I play with someone, not just a new person, but someone I’ve been with all along, that’s where I really learn. There’s so much stuff being passed around. That’s what’s awesome about it. It blows my mind that I can actually be with these people still—how did that happen? 

BLVR: That must have felt pretty vivid in New York because it was such a hub for great musicians. When were you there? 

BF: It was ‘69 when my parents moved to Jersey, so that’s when I first experienced those clubs. But when I actually moved there was ten years later in ‘79. I lived there for ten years. From ‘79 to ‘89. I knew I had to go there. I was always afraid to go. It seemed so intimidating.

But after being there for a little while, something else started happening. My parents had moved to North Carolina, and I started hearing music from down there. It had nothing to do with New York. I just started realizing there was other stuff outside of New York that was super heavy too.

BLVR: You definitely were part of the New York scene for a time—playing with Paul Motian, that’s a very New York thing to do. But there’s definitely a shift in your music when you started to go back out into—some call it Americana. Is that the word you would use?

BF: Well, yeah. Those names drive me crazy because they always shove out something else. It doesn’t really matter what you call it. I just started checking things out. It was always going on. I think because I made that record in Nashville, it was sort of an obvious “oh he’s doing this now.” But I had been doing it all along.

People kind of try to box you in. I recorded for ECM and I was an ECM guy. And then I played with John Zorn so I was a Downtown guy. But all these things were happening simultaneously.

BLVR:  What was bringing everything together for you? 

BF: The connections. And they only keep getting stronger and stronger. I keep thinking about this forest, or these branches, but the branches keep getting more and more powerful, the more you find out.

BLVR: You said that the electric guitar, when you first found it, had this sci-fi futuristic feeling. Your music absolutely has that element to it—you never seem to lose that electric sound. But you’re also reaching way back in time, exploring old sources.

BF: I was checking out Louis Armstrong a couple years ago. I was really thinking about him a lot. What blew my mind was how we sort of take it for granted, that sound is such a part of everything now, but what did it sound like when no one had heard him before? What did it sound like to be there? It was the most outrageously radical avant-garde insane thing, what he was doing. Like some kind of Martian crashing down through the ceiling!

But at the same time it was so beautiful and everyone could understand it. It was like a new giant flower that just appeared. When I’m looking back I’m actually trying to find some kind of a key to go forward.

But I don’t want to destroy. I’m not trying to destroy the history and make up a new one. I want to use it. And I want whatever it is I play to have a connection with some sort of beauty. There’s ugly beauty, too; it can be whatever it is, I just don’t want it to take away from the idea of people listening to it. I want people to grasp it, but then at the same time I want them to be like wow, what is this

BLVR: That combination of tradition and newness seems very specific to music that allows for improvisation or experimentation. But you’re a composer too. Can you feel yourself moving through that line of time even when you’re just composing?

BF: All this paper in here—I guess I’m trying to capture something. [New handwritten scores hang neatly on the walls of Bill’s studio]. But my hope with all this paper, if any of this ends up being played, is that it’s not fixed at all. I hope it’s a jumping-off point. When I play these things with my band, they stay in flux.

I’ve been lucky with the circle of people I’m playing with. We’ve played enough that there’s a language—we talk with each other when we play, so I can bring them notes. It’s not really dictated. I’m really counting on the surprise. I can write the stuff and play it myself and have something in my head, but the best feeling is when somebody else plays it and they’re hearing something other than what I’m hearing. 

I loved Sonny Rollins, and of course I try to copy. But I can’t know what Sonny Rollins was thinking about, so I sort of fantasize about it. Some of the stuff I want to steal from him is the thought process, not just the notes. It’s more why did he do this or why did he do that and why did he make this choice? 

A lot of it, I think, has to do with being honest with yourself and using what you know. Maybe it’s the music that he heard in a movie when he was a kid. And I find when I do that, it puts more weight on what I’m trying to say. If I really play something that’s part of my real experience, I can’t play something that’s part of Sonny Rollins’s. But I can learn something from how he processed his experience.

BLVR: There’s a reverence in this kind of music that you play, whatever you want to call it; it really defies a category. There’s a reverence that’s different from wanting to do exactly what past musicians did, but somehow loving what they did so much that you’re able to move into your own thing.

 

BF: Yeah that’s the hope, I think, that you learn. There are so many levels, even just the notes. It’s so much more than the notes, but you can try to learn them, and it’s incredible how one song or even one little phrase or just a few notes, if you really concentrate on it, can be a kaleidoscope of possibility.

BLVR: For this project we’re trying to think about how music is a bearer of knowledge, value, and emotion. To see how those things move along through time.

BF: We were talking about it being a model somehow. Just the way it works, music itself… there’s all this mystery in it. You can never figure it out. Whatever you do in it points to or opens more possibilities. Extraordinarily beautiful stuff.

I don’t know if model is the right word for it, but it’s the way we function as people, just the word harmony. You can have all these things going on simultaneously, but they’re supporting each other and making one another sound good. I like to think that people could actually do that, you know? Just in the way we deal with each other everyday.

I don’t know. You can never figure music out. But then you enter into it and it takes you there. 

BLVR: I know what you mean. It’s hard to talk about it. The language is hard to find. 

BF: It just doesn’t hurt anybody, that’s what’s amazing. Everything is in there, every kind of human emotion, from the darkest to the lightest. And it has power. Unbelievable power. But I’ve never heard of music doing anything to harm anybody. It’s a way of processing all that stuff without doing damage.

See more in this month’s music issue.

Jake Nussbaum is a musician and writer. He is currently an artist-in-residence at the Vermont Studio Center in Johnson, VT. 

Expandable Sound is a documentary project by Nussbaum and Alex Lewis, exploring the ways knowledge is produced and communicated through jazz and improvisational music.

Photograph by Monica Frisell