Don Friedman, Versatile Jazz Pianist, Dies at 81
By NATE CHINEN
Don Friedman, a versatile pianist who moved easily between the modern-jazz mainstream and the more volatile jazz avant-garde, died on June 30 at his home in the Bronx. He was 81.
The cause was pancreatic cancer, his wife, Marilyn, said.
Mr. Friedman had a crisp, fluid technique and an adventurous approach to harmony, which made him a desirable sideman over a career that lasted more than 60 years. He worked for decades with the trumpeter Clark Terry, a popular emblem of swinging ebullience, and also commingled with pioneers of free jazz like the alto saxophonist Ornette Coleman.
During the 1960s, when modern jazz was undergoing a seismic upheaval largely instigated by Coleman, Mr. Friedman darted back and forth across the supposed fault line. He played on albums by the trumpeter Booker Little, notably “Out Front,” a landmark of progressive postbop featuring Max Roach on drums and Eric Dolphy on alto saxophone, flute and bass clarinet. He also toured with the uncompromising reed player and composer Jimmy Giuffre.
But he also freelanced with jazz traditionalists like the cornetist Bobby Hackett and toured with a popular Latin-jazz group led by the flutist Herbie Mann. In 1964 he appeared on “Discovery!,” the debut album by the tenor saxophonist and flutist Charles Lloyd.
In an email, Mr. Lloyd praised Mr. Friedman as “a great sage of beauty and grace” with “a modern, lyrical style.”
Mr. Friedman was a prolific solo artist, if relatively unheralded except in Japan, where he had a substantial and loyal following. Several of his early albums received five-star reviews (the magazine’s highest honor) from DownBeat, which also anointed him a New Star in its annual critics’ poll. But the later name for that honor, Talent Deserving Wider Recognition, would be much more apt in describing Mr. Friedman’s career as a leader.
Donald Ernest Friedman was born on May 4, 1935, in San Francisco. His parents, both immigrants — his father, Edward, from Lithuania, and his mother, the former Alma Loew, from Germany — encouraged his interest in classical piano, which he began studying at age 4. When he was 15, his family moved to Los Angeles, where he discovered jazz and quickly began playing it, initially with a style derived from the bebop paragon Bud Powell.
Some of Mr. Friedman’s earliest work came with West Coast jazz stalwarts like the trumpeter Shorty Rogers and the saxophonist Buddy Collette. He first played in New York in 1956, with the clarinetist Buddy DeFranco, and moved there two years later. His debut album, released in 1961 on the Riverside label, was “A Day in the City,” featuring a suite inspired by his brief studies in composition at Los Angeles City College.
Mr. Friedman formed a close musical alliance with the Hungarian jazz guitarist Attila Zoller, featuring him on a pair of critically hailed albums influenced by free improvisation, “Dreams and Explorations” (1964) and “Metamorphosis” (1966).
In addition to his wife, Mr. Friedman is survived by a daughter, Lynn Friedman; a stepson, Rory Friedman; and three grandchildren. Three previous marriages ended in divorce.
In recent years Mr. Friedman worked mainly as a leader, in a crisply swinging style. Among his notable albums are “Piano Works VI: From A to Z,” a solo tribute to Mr. Zoller (2006), and “Waltz for Marilyn,” featuring the guitarist Peter Bernstein (2007). “Nite Lites,” his final trio album, was released last year.