Bill Frisell on studying with Dale Bruning: "I don't know if I'd really be playing now if it wasn't for him"

In this week's feature on Dale Bruning, the Longmont-based jazz guitarist talks about his five years of teaching Bill Frisell, who has since gone on to be one of the world's finest guitarists, both in the jazz realm and beyond. We caught up with Frisell, who is performing with Bruning and bassist Michael Moore this weekend at Dazzle, to talk about his experience studying with Bruning in the late '60s and early '70s and how Bruning gave Frisell, who had been studying clarinet at East High School and at University of Northern Colorado, the confidence to seriously pursue the guitar.

Westword: You studied with Dale for about four and a half or five years, right?

Bill Frisell: Yeah. It was at very crucial time in my life. I don't know if I'd really be playing now if it wasn't for him. I can't overstate the importance of him in my life. This was when I was in high school, so it was like 1967 when I heard Wes Montgomery for the first time. It was like a revelation. When I think of that time I'd seen the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show and really got fired up about playing the guitar. One thing leads to another and I hear Wes Montgomery and it was around that time that I really thought that I really had to find a real teacher, someone who can really show me how to do this thing.

I wish I could remember his name... There was another guitar player in Denver at the time and I had asked him for lessons and he said, "I don't really teach, but you should call Dale." So it was like 1968 or something and I called up Dale and he changed my life.

Would you say there's still stuff you learned from him back then that you still use today?

Definitely. He just sort of opened the door on this gigantic world of music that I really knew nothing about. Even in the first couple lessons he would ask me, "Have you ever heard of Charlie Parker or Sonny Rollins?" I didn't know who any of those people were when I met him. So he was really the door for all that. The things that he talked about really laid out the framework for what I do now. It's so exciting to playing with him. He just sent me the music -- the lead sheets and the music he wants to do on the gig -- and I see his handwriting again. Doing this gig is like getting a free lesson now. It's amazing.

Around the time you were studying with Dale you were also studying clarinet, right?

Right. I played that in the school band. He kind of helped me. Prior to that, the guitar was more for fun, and I played by ear and played with my friends. I didn't even read on the guitar. It was like a completely different part of my brain whereas with the clarinet I read music, and it was the more "serious" instrument. He really helped me bridge that gap. He helped me find a way to bring what I learned in all those years of that formal study at school and apply it to the guitar. So that was a huge thing too.

Would you say Dale was instrumental on you putting more focus on the guitar?

Yeah. He also just gave me confidence. I knew I wanted to do it, but that was sort of the beginning of me really thinking about it in a really serious way. That all happened with him. He gave me a way to believe in it. It was like this was real music. And also that I could maybe do it. Right when I was getting out of high school, or maybe when it was after high school, when I was really thinking about moving to Boston and all this stuff, I remember my parents were kind of concerned, like, "Oh my god, what is our son doing?" So we had this meeting over at Dale's house with me and my parents and Dale. They just wanted to talk to him and get his take on if I was really imagining things. It was so cool.

He said, "I really think Bill could, if he really tries hard. He's going to be able to really play." In addition to all the basic music stuff, so much of it with music is the encouragement. When you have someone that believes in you. I feel so lucky that way. With my parents and with him, all along the way have been... When you get discouraged there's always been someone in my corner that will kind of lift me out of it and keep me going. That's so important. He could have said, "Well, I don't know. He sounds okay." He could have said something else and maybe my parents would have said, "You have to go get a job" or something. I don't know. And then I never would have done it. I wouldn't have believed in myself. Who knows what would have happened.

You were studying with Dale while you were going to UNC, right?

Yeah. I would drive down there every week from Greeley until I left. I went to Boston for a little for a little while, and then I came back to Colorado again and I studied with him some more. He introduced me to Jim Hall. I went to New York and I studied with Jim Hall and then I came back to Colorado and studied with Dale even more. Then by that time, he even started to ask me to play on some of his gigs and stuff. We played at the Denver Folklore Center and some little gigs around town. That was really thrilling for me to actually play with him.

He's so super humble about what he does. I can't believe that when I'm talking to you, we're talking about forty years ago or something. It's crazy. And it's still, like I said when I saw that music, I feel like I've got plenty to learn from him. Every time I get with him there's some chord or something will happen like, "How did you do that?"

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Jon Solomon writes about music and nightlife for Westword, where he's been the Clubs Editor since 2006.
Contact: Jon Solomon

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