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Culture & Religion

Bill Frisell’s Music Education: From Mickey Mouse to Miles Davis

When Bill Frisell was young, he says remembers watching the “Mickey Mouse Club” on his family’s new television. “The leader of the Mouseketeers was this guy named Jimmy and he’d play a guitar and I just thought that was really cool. At that time I made myself a pretend guitar out of a piece of cardboard and rubber bands and somehow I just stuck with that my whole life.”

In his Big Think interview, Frisell says that when he finally saved up enough money to buy his own electric guitar, he was immediately in a band. In those days, that’s how it worked: “If you owned the instrument then you were automatically in a band. You didn’t really have to play. My friend got an electric guitar and then within a couple of weeks, we were playing at parties on weekends,” he says.

We asked Frisell to recommend a playlist for someone looking to take a crash course in jazz. It proved a difficult assignment. Frisell explains that if you follow one person, it will lead to you all the other jazz greats. He remembers listening to a record where Ron Carter played bass. “So then I go, well I’m gonna get another jazz record. So I get a Kenny Burrell record and there’s Ron Carter’s playing bass on that one. And then I get a Miles Davis record and Ron Carter’s playing bass on that one. Then Ron plays with Miles Davis and Miles Davis played with John Coltrane and then John Coltrane played with Duke Ellington, and Duke Ellington played with Louis Armstrong.” Frisell says the world of jazz is like a forest with all the seeds coming down from a giant tree.

Frisell also has an interesting take on music education today. When he went to college, he says, there was no way to major in something like guitar. Instead, he studied clarinet and spent his free time at bars developing his guitar skills. Now everything’s changed, which is great; you can go to a place like Berklee and major in guitar. But Frisell still warns against spending your formative music years within the walls of a university: “You have to try to get as much as you can from as many different directions,” he says.


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