Remembering Don Friedman (1935-2016)

I'm heartbroken to hear of the passing of one of the greatest people I've ever known, legendary pianist Don Friedman.

I was lucky enough to study piano with Don all four of my undergraduate years at NYU; for the following five years, Don and I met for lunch nearly every Wednesday or Thursday at Veselka in the East Village or at Soup N Burger on Broadway at Astor Place.

When Don and I first met, he was in his early 70s and, as we got to know each other better, I started to pick up on just how special he was as a human being: I'd never met a person his age (not even taking into account his "legendary" status) who was so kind and calm, not bitter or egotistic in the least, and more than anything, just seemed so happy and fulfilled.

At that period in my life (an 18 year old college freshman), I wasn't sure if I was going to pursue music full-time, but I remember often thinking to myself, "If making music my life's pursuit can make me feel like that when I'm older, that's what I want to do." Just by being who he is, I learned that true success is internal; I've never met anyone who seemed as content as Don.

Our lunches were always a highlight of my week and something that I looked forward to; Don was great, fun and easy company - we always had a good time making jokes with the waiters and waitresses (you'd be surprised how complicated an order for plain toast could become, and nothing was funnier than watching the cashier at Soup N Burger try to hit on Don). He was always full of wise, helpful advice whenever I needed it, and each lunch was, for me, like walking into the greatest possible story-telling session.

He told me about seeing Rachmaninoff perform live as a child; he told me about playing opposite Thelonious Monk, Charles Mingus and Ornette Coleman at the Five Spot. Monk, he said, always carried around a battery powered fan; he would place it on the piano and leave it on during his set, picking it up only when he stood up to dance to saxophonist Charlie Rouse's solos and during his set breaks, which he would spend outside the club, leaning on a car, with the fan blowing in his face. He played opposite Mingus during a very avant-garde leaning period in both of their careers, and succeeded in out-"out"-ing Mingus, who said to Don mid-song, "What are you trying to do? Make it look like I play Rock N' Roll?" He played solo piano opposite Ornette during Ornette's first appearances in New York - those historically important ones at the Five Spot - and remembered seeing Leonard Bernstein there, listening to Ornette. He told me about going to a strip club with his buddy Scott Lafaro one night when Lenny Bruce was the show's host; when one of the strippers Bruce introduced didn't show, Bruce closed the curtains, disappeared behind them and reappered a few moments later fully naked. He told me about his diner experiences with Lenny Bruce; Bruce liked to walk around hiding a packet of butter under his palms and go around shaking people's hands. Once, when browsing through a "Real Book" together, we came across "Gloria's Step", to which Don casually replied, "Scotty [Lafaro] wrote this at my apartment." He told me about a tour with saxophonist Joe Maini; when they discovered that former Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev was staying closeby at an adjacent hotel, Maini went out on the balcony one night and jokingly serenaded Kruschev with "Russian Lullaby". He told me about touring with vocalist Dick Haymes; the trio backing Haymes on that tour (or at least until the IRS came after Haymes one night for owing a huge amount in back taxes) was Don, Lafaro and Elvin Jones. He told me about weekend jam sessions in California with Ornette, Don Cherry and Billy Higgins back before they all moved to New York.

I could go on and on. Don's stories were truly amazing and always left me a in state of awe/disbelief as we parted ways after lunch. He was always willing to discuss whatever/whomever I wanted to, and I truly appreciated his honesty about each subject; when I asked him if it was tricky comping for Eric Dolphy, he told me that it was.

The photo below was taken on April 14th, on what happened to be our last lunch date and the last time I saw Don. We hadn't taken a photo together in all 9 of those years that we knew each other, and as I was preparing for my move to Atlanta, we decided to take a photo that day. We still had 3 more lunches planned before my move, but as it turned out, Don had to cancel the following week's, as he was already in the hospital. It's hard to believe that just barely two months later, he's gone. He looks so healthy in this photo, and he was kicking butt on the tennis court just a couple months prior.

While listening to the tribute show to Don on Pulin4Jazz yesterday afternoon (before Don passed), I was reminded of a conversation I had with Chick Corea a few years back about how much Don's music - especially his playing on Booker Little's "Out Front" - meant to him. I decided to reach out to Chick, and sent him an email telling him about Don's sickness, including Don's phone number in case he wanted to give him a call. As soon as I found out that Don had passed, I wrote Chick again, telling him how sorry I was that I had been a little too late writing.

I awoke to this beautiful message from Mr. Corea:

"Hi Joe

Just got back from my gig to the sad news about Don leaving us.
Thanks for trying to put me in touch. 
Don and I didn't spend a whole lot of time together but the times we did get together, there was always a deep mutual admiration and friendship between us.
Since Don's work with Booker Little, I have tuned my ear to his playing and loved and been inspired by everything I've heard.
Please accept my condolences and send them to Don's loved ones.
His spiritual warmth and musical creativity has made a definite positive impact upon the music world and will remain a positive force in our culture as we go forward.


It's hard to believe that Don's gone, but as I sit here reflecting on Don and the amazing music and stories he shared with me, it's obvious that his life was very full and well-lived. As sad as it is, I feel so lucky that I knew him and that every time I think of Don from now on, I'll feel a little better inside. Rest in peace!