Bill Frisell Returns to East High School, Site of His First Jazz Guitar Performance

Bill Frisell explores the music of his Denver childhood on his latest album.
Bill Frisell explores the music of his Denver childhood on his latest album.
Monica Frisell

The first time Bill Frisell played a jazz tune on guitar in public was at a talent show during his junior year at East High School, in 1967. He wasn't even the featured performer; the school's band director, Vincent Tagliavore, asked him to learn Wes Montgomery's "Bumpin' on Sunset" to accompany some girls who were doing a dance routine to the song. Tagliavore thought it would be a lot cooler if they played live rather than having the girls dance to the record. And so began the career of one of the planet's most well-regarded jazz guitarists. Frisell hadn't even listened to much jazz before that performance. He grew up listening to surf music, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, "and then blues -- and by the time I got there, it was James Brown and the Temptations, all mixed together," he says. "This was before Jimi Hendrix and all that. So ['Bumpin' on Sunset'] was like an atomic explosion in my brain that led me, really, into the world of jazz."

See also: Denver-Bred Ron Miles and Bill Frisell Are Among the Greatest Collaborators in Jazz

He'd explore that world plenty in the decades that followed, but his newest album, Guitar in the Space Age!, is a tribute to his pre-jazz interests. It features music from the '50s and '60s, the stuff that got him interested in playing guitar in the first place -- and he'll be playing music from the album on that same stage at East High School on Wednesday, January 21, more than 45 years after his first public performance.

Frisell's fascination with the guitar was sparked by watching Jimmie Dodd, leader of the Mouseketeers on The Mickey Mouse Club. He was four years old when he built his first guitar out of a piece of cardboard, with rubber bands for strings. Television continued to provide inspiration as he watched shows featuring cowboys playing instruments around the campfire.

"I think maybe by the time I was in fifth grade, I got a transistor radio, and I would just sleep with that under my pillow at night -- just for the sound of the music," Frisell says.

He remembers that surf music, which he started hearing during his time at Teller Elementary, was the first music that really got him fired up, so it's fitting that Guitar in the Space Age! includes a faithful rendition of "Pipeline" (made popular by the Ventures) and the Astronauts' "Baja" -- two of the first songs he learned -- as well as the Beach Boys' "Surfer Girl," the first 45 he bought, in 1963. "I started seeing these album covers, especially a lot of those really early surf records," he recalls. "The covers would be these amazing pictures of the guitars."

That was a dynamic era in modern history, with the threat of nuclear war looming and the space race capturing imaginations. Frisell recalls his fourth-grade teacher flipping out about the Cuban Missile Crisis, duck-and-cover drills at school, and friends of his parents' who'd made fallout shelters in their basements.

"You were thinking about the idea of going to outer space: 'Wow! The future! This amazing stuff is going to be happening! We're all going to be flying around in flying saucers!'" he says. "Everything's just getting better and better -- there's optimism. And then at the same time, we're about to blow each other up."

A few years later, with the Vietnam War still raging, Frisell discovered the Denver Folklore Center, where he first heard Frank Zappa's Freak Out album, got turned on to Chicago bluesman Paul Butterfield and heard "Messin' With the Kid," made famous by Buddy Guy and Junior Wells. The song gets a rowdy instrumental rendition on Guitar in the Space Age!.

Frisell says that other songs on the album, like Merle Travis's "Cannonball Rag," Jimmy Bryant's "Bryant's Boogie" and Speedy West's "Reflections From the Moon," are more like tributes to those artists than reinterpretations. Still others, like the Tornados' 1962 instrumental "Telstar," appear because they are part of his musical memory.

In 1966, the same year Frisell started at East, he bought his first electric guitar, a Fender Mustang, with money he earned from a paper route. That was also when he saw his first live concert (Herman's Hermits) and started his first band, called the Weeds. The next year, he got to see Buffalo Springfield in a small club on East Colfax Avenue.

When Tagliavore hipped Frisell to "Bumpin' on Sunset," Frisell says, it was reminiscent of some of the popular music he'd heard. "But then it was just...it was like a window into this whole other world of stuff," he says. "I could hear what was going on because it was coming from blues and soul music and all that."

His interpretation must have contained some hint of the genius to come, because the talent-show performance was a rousing success. Frisell delved more into jazz, riding his bike from his house at Eighth Avenue and Cook Street to the Woolworth in Cherry Creek, where he could get Riverside and Blue Note records for less than a dollar -- stuff like Sam Rivers, Yusef Lateef and his first Wes Montgomery record. He found that studying his collection led him to new artists.

"I'd just get [records] because I'd recognize one name, and then there'd be another name," he says. "There's Ron Carter, and you see Herbie Hancock and then you see Tony Williams, and then you'd see -- who knows what -- Lee Morgan and Grant Green.

"It was like wildfire, just spreading. That was what also made me really get that there was something going on with that music. I couldn't understand it, really, but I wanted to know what it was."  

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The summer after Frisell first heard "Bumpin' on Sunset," in July of 1968, his father took him to see a traveling version of the Newport Jazz Festival at Red Rocks. The song's composer, Montgomery, was slated to be on the bill, but he died from a heart attack a month before the festival. Still, Frisell got to see Cannonball Adderley, Dionne Warwick, the Gary Burton Quartet with guitarist Larry Coryell, and Thelonious Monk.

Monk would eventually be a major influence on Frisell, but that first time, he could barely process the legendary pianist's performance. "It was like I couldn't even comprehend anything," Frisell says. "I thought it was cool, [but] I remember the audience was booing him for some reason, and I couldn't figure out why. To me it sounded really good. I've always wondered if he didn't play long enough, or if there was something weird going on."

That same year, Frisell saw saxophonist Charles Lloyd with drummer Paul Motian at the now-defunct Denver Auditorium Theatre. Both would collaborate with him in the future. "I'm in high school, and I'm hearing that stuff for the first time," remembers Frisell, "and then thirteen or fourteen years later I'm actually playing with Paul. Then lately, I've been getting to play with Charles Lloyd. It's like some kind of dream or something."

During his senior year at East, Frisell began studying with Dale Bruning. "I don't know if I'd really be playing now if it wasn't for him," Frisell told Westword in 2012. "I can't overstate the importance of him in my life."

Over the next five years or so, Bruning turned Frisell on to the music of Charlie Parker, Sonny Rollins, Jim Hall and Bill Evans. The former teacher and student performed together for a tribute to Hall at Dazzle last September -- the same weekend as Frisell's 45th high-school reunion, which reminded him that music was the only thing he could relate to back then.

"That was how I sort of could fit in," Frisell says. "I wasn't, like, an athlete; I wasn't cool. I was too shy to even really get a girlfriend or anything. I was kind of this loser guy, but I loved to play. Pretty much my whole life has been playing the guitar. That's it."

Bill Frisell: Guitar in the Space Age. 7:30 p.m., Wednesday, January 21, East High School, 1600 City Park Esplanade, $20-$28.

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