April 12, 2022
Homegrown Music: A Conversation with Celebrated Guitarist, Bill Frisell
Tonight, Tuesday, April 12 at the Holiday Theater, MCA Denver welcomes to the stage The Bill Frisell Trio featuring guitarist Bill Frisell, bassist Thomas Morgan, and drummer Rudy Royston. Frisell is a Grammy award-winning guitarist and composer whose style spans different genres from jazz to folk. His range of talent and mastery of the guitar has made him one of the most recognized and celebrated artists of Americana music. Frisell is also a homegrown artist having grown up in Denver, CO where his passion for music began in his elementary school’s music education program. I had the pleasure of speaking with Bill to learn more about his inspiration and love for music and how his experience learning about music as a child influenced his passion and career as an artist.
Where did you go to high school? And did your high school years contribute to your pursuit of becoming a professional musician?
II went to East High School and graduated in 1969. I went to Gove Junior High—which I guess Gove doesn't even exist anymore—but started around then in the school music program in fourth grade. I was in love with music and thinking back on that kind of opportunity, it was important and incredible to have that outlet in school since music was the only thing that really made sense to me. It really formed where I'm at right now.
What was the first instrument that you played?
I actually played the clarinet in the concert band and orchestra and continued in college. I kept playing the clarinet, but in sixth or seventh grade, I started messing around with the guitar and discovered that was where my love was. The clarinet was more in line with the formal playing in band and orchestra, but with the guitar, this was where I would get together with my friends and we'd just play. And that's pretty much where I'm at right now. I get together with my friends and play! It was the summer before ninth grade that I had a paper route and I saved up my money and bought an electric guitar. And pretty much from that point on, guitar took over my whole life.
Was there an artist that you were listening to back in the day that kind of inspired you to want to practice or learn more about the guitar and then move over to the electric guitar?
Well, you know, it's just incredible when I think of what was happening at that time. Especially with popular music. Hearing The Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show…I think of it as like one of those moments of before and after. Before The Beatles were on The Ed Sullivan show, everybody was playing baseball or sports or something, and then after seeing them, everybody wanted to play the guitar. I swear it just changed the world, and that was a huge thing. Even before that, there was surf music and hot rods, and we're talking about sending rockets up into space, and all that kind of stuff. Everybody's imagination was just fired up and thinking about the future, it seemed like the guitar fit right into that somehow.
After high school, did you take your music studies into college, or did you just kind of start playing?
No, I went to Greeley for a couple of years and I was still playing the clarinet, but also playing guitar, and that's when I really made the decision to just concentrate solely on the guitar. Eventually, I went to Boston to the Berkeley School of Music and then moved to New York and just kept on going and going.
But I had a lot of teachers, like Dale Bruning, who I met in high school. He is a Denver-based guitarist and teacher who I still keep in touch with. Dale is an amazing musician and was just a massively influential person in my life. Prior to meeting Dale, I was just kind of playing with my friends, and the real formal training was coming from the clarinet and the guitar was like this other animal. He helped me sort of bring the whole thing together.
It feels like in school for you, the music education programs helped in shaping, developing, and recognizing your artistic practice. It does seem like music programs are disappearing from standard curricula and studies in schools. I like how you touched on this, how you see the importance of music and having that opportunity to expose yourself to playing and reading music, and how that kind of shapes some of your views and values.
That's what's so frustrating when music studies seem to be the first to be cut when school systems start cutting things out of a curriculum. Somehow, it's one of the first things to go. To me, it's just so important. I've been in it my whole life, and it has formed me. I think about what you do when you play music. It's all about being together with other people and harmonizing and you trying to find ways to work together. All the things that we use to describe music— harmony, rhythm, tension, release, listening—give me a framework of how to be with people and to be together.
I'm not really joking when I say this, but if everybody played the guitar, there'd probably be a lot fewer problems in the world. It sounds like I’m making light of it, but I'm not. I’m serious about that. I feel like it can provide more ways of expressing yourself by creating music, playing music, and finding a way to get those emotions, and thoughts out.