Don Friedman has been my piano teacher for the past three years at NYU. He truly is someone that I look up to - not only musically, but very much personally. He seems truly happy, truly fulfilled, something I long for some day.
Don and I have spent many hours discussing the musicians he's known and played with. He was Scott Lafaro's roommate; flipping through my "Real Book" one day, we came across the tune, "Gloria's Step."
"Oh yeah," Don said. "He wrote that at my apartment."
Among the many crazy stories Don has told me, one conversation truly stuck out.
Our conversation began discussing Charles Mingus. Don told me about the time he played opposite Mingus at The Five Spot, which he said was on St. Mark’s Place between 3rd and 2nd avenues. He said that Mingus’ group was known to be the “out” group. However, Don’s group turned out to be playing more “out” than Mingus’. During Don’s set, Mingus walked over to Don and said, “What are you trying to do? You’re making it look like I play Rock N’ Roll!”
Don then said that he invited a guest trumpeter on the stage –a man who had long, flowing blonde hair. The man played “out” trumpet, and Mingus looked at Don and said, “Who do you think he is? Jesus Christ?”
Reminiscing about the Five Spot, he told me about its’ owners, two Italian brothers who knew nothing about Jazz. They booked Monk and Johnny Griffin (or someone like that) when they first opened and the place was packed. That’s when it started.
Don asked me if I knew that Ornette Coleman’s first NYC gig was at The Five Spot. Being a historically important gig that I have read much about, I said I knew. Don then revealed some crazy news: Don was actually playing opposite Ornette on that gig (solo piano). He said that many famous people –including Leonard Bernstein- came out to see Ornette.
Don told me he used to play with Ornette back in California – Don, Ornette, Don Cherry, and Billy Higgins. Also, a saxophone player with whom Don compared Sonny Rollins named John Handy.
We began talking about Ornette and his crazy interviews, how it's hard to understand almost anything he says. Don told me that Ornette is totally “out.” However, he isn’t crazy. He is a very nice guy who can hold a normal conversation. "He isn’t crazy," Don said..."like Monk,"
Don told me that he is a good friend with Eddie Henderson, a trumpeter who is also a psychologist. When Eddie was a student resident, Monk’s wife had Monk committed to the same hospital in which Eddie worked. Knowing that he was a jazz musician and black, Henderson was assigned to work with Monk. Not remembering specific stories, Don told me that Eddie told him that Monk said some crazy, scary things. He said that Monk was a schizophrenic, and while he had times when he seemed nice and happy, he was crazy.
Elaborating on his point, Don said that he played opposite Monk’s group for a week or so at the old Jazz Gallery, which was one or two blocks up from the Five Spot, between 2nd and 3rd avenues as well (With the success of the Five Spot, the brothers opened this new club). He said that the musicians had a lot of interaction. There was the usual backstage talk with one another, the “usual bullshit” (to quote Don). However, he said that Monk never spoke a word. Never. He said that Monk would walk around with his battery-powered fan (it was a summer gig). He’d place it next to the piano and leave it on while he played. When he would finish soloing (and Charlie Rouse would start), he’d stand up, grab the fan, go behind the wing of the grand piano and dance. After the gig, he’d go outside, lean on his car, and let the fan blow in his face.