MARTIN SCHRAM: Remembering jazz great Johnny Frigo

Scripps Howard News ServiceJuly 10, 2007 

Around the table, at the restaurant adjacent to Denver's Paramount Theatre, the late-night-dinner conversation was all about the making of the hot new jazz sensation, which we had just seen happen on the stage next door.

We were talking about a tall, slim, shy guy, a virtual unknown who had just taken over a star-filled jazz fest and made the ornate landmark theater on the rim of the Rockies jump like an after-hours joint in Harlem.

Actually, not all of us were talking -- the Washington pundit who enjoys jazz was, for once, just listening, which made sense because the others were jazz legends all: Trumpeter Harry "Sweets" Edison, bassist Ray Brown and pianist Monty Alexander, a generation younger but already a jazz superstar (and, for truth-in-packaging purposes, my friend). "They wouldn't let him off the stage," Sweets laughed, prompting Monty to tweak the trumpeter: "This must be the first time all you horn players ever got out-blown by a guy with no horn -- just a violin and a bow."

They were talking about Johnny Frigo on that night in the late 1980s. And we are talking about him today because this remarkable jazz violinist died on July 4. You might be thinking Frigo's death marked the end of a too-brief career, a mere 20 years as a jazz headliner. But this is not another weepy tale about a talented-but-troubled jazz artist dying too young. Because Frigo died in his hometown of Chicago at the age of 90. He was survived by his singer-actress wife, Brittney Browne, a son and three grandchildren. A Web site says he has a recording gig set for Holland later this year and a couple of jazz festivals on tap as well.

It was a treat to have been there the night the septuagenarian's career took off -- at the theater and later in the restaurant. Denver jazz impresario Dick Gibson, who organized the glittering event featuring maybe a dozen jazz stars, liked keeping things under tight control. And, frankly, he was not thrilled when pianist Alexander invited this little-known Chicago violinist with a long fringe of white hair to sit in. (Frigo was no jazz neophyte. He'd been a jazz bassist in the 1940s and wrote or co-wrote several songs, including the jazz standard "Detour Ahead," but then spent three decades as a studio bass player in Chicago. He also wrote jingles and poetry, painted in pastels and had a violin that for decades he rarely used. "I'd open up the case every few weeks and see if the strings were still on it," he liked to say.)

Monty had just met him when Frigo, after making money as a strolling violinist at Chicago's Conrad Hilton, strolled across the street to a jazz club and sat in for two numbers with Monty, Ray and guitarist Herb Ellis.

Next stop: Denver. When Monty announced his guest artist, Frigo had strolled shyly on, stopping short of the spotlight. Moments later, his violin was tearing the place apart and the spotlight found him. "I think I play more in a horn-like style," Frigo once told jazz writer Leonard Feather. "I like to dig in powerfully and create moods with my violin." The rest of the night, no matter what group Gibson sent onstage, the audience called for Frigo, too.

During our dinner, Frigo entered and saw us, but shyly went to the bar alone -- until Sweets, Ray and Monty waved him over. "You tore the place up," said Sweets. "You need to be getting around. I'm getting you an agent."

Monty mentioned an upcoming gig in Texas -- and Frigo's star was launched. Later, Frigo talked about that Denver night, or more aptly, the morning after. "Well, the next day the headline in the newspaper read 'Jazz Violinist, 71, Melts Hearts of Crowd at Paramount,'" he said. "I was so embarrassed. Here I was sharing a show with these giants I've heard about all my life ... and I was the one who got the attention. I called all those guys the next day and apologized profusely."

He did club dates and CDs with my tablemates and landed on NBC's "Tonight Show." When Johnny Carson asked why he'd waited so long to become famous, Frigo replied: "Because there won't be enough time left for me to become a has-been."

In life as in jazz, Johnny Frigo's timing was just right.

Martin Schram writes political analysis for Scripps Howard News Service. E-mail him at martin.schram@gmail.com.

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