Dave Frishberg, a jazz songwriter and St. Paul native whose sardonic wit as a lyricist and melodic cleverness as a composer placed him in the top echelon of his craft, died Wednesday in Portland, Ore. He was 88.
His wife, April Magnusson, confirmed the death.
Frishberg, who also played piano and sang, was an anomaly, if not an anachronism, in American popular music: an accomplished, unregenerate jazz pianist who managed to outrun the eras of rock, soul, disco, punk and hip-hop by writing hyperliterate songs that harked back to Hoagy Carmichael and Johnny Mercer, by way of Stephen Sondheim.
His songwriting wit was for grown-ups, yet he reached his widest audience with sharpshooting ditties for kids as a regular musical contributor to ABC's long-running Saturday morning television show "Schoolhouse Rock!"
Merely being aware of Frishberg and his songs conveyed an in-the-know sophistication. He poked fun at this self-congratulatory hipness in his lyrics for "I'm Hip," a classic of clueless with-it-ness that he wrote to a melody by his fellow jazz songwriter Bob Dorough:
See, I'm hip. I'm no square. I'm alert, I'm awake, I'm aware. I am always on the scene. Making the rounds, digging the sounds. I read People magazine. 'Cuz I'm hip.
Frishberg's original lyric for "I'm Hip," written in 1966, was "I read Playboy magazine," but he later changed it.
His niche in the niche-songwriting world of the cabaret smart set (when such a breed still existed) was lofty. Superb saloon singers came to be identified with the Frishberg tunes they sang. One of those singers was Blossom Dearie, whose rendition of his "Peel Me a Grape" was, in Frishberg's view, definitive.
Still, no one quite sang a Frishberg song like Frishberg, with his thin, reedy voice and compellingly constricted vocal range. Frishberg's performance of his acerbic paean to "My Attorney Bernie" was unsurpassed, particularly his laconic crooning of the song's refrain:
Bernie tells me what to do. Bernie lays it on the line. Bernie says we sue, we sue. Bernie says we sign, we sign.
Frishberg's songwriting gift extended well beyond the satirical jab. He composed beautiful ballads, and he was an elegant nostalgist who wrote longingly (though also knowingly) about the mists of time and loss. There was the bittersweet Frishberg of "Do You Miss New York?"; the aching Frishberg of "Sweet Kentucky Ham" and the ingeniously eloquent Frishberg of "Van Lingle Mungo," a touching wisp of a ballad constructed solely from the strung-together names of long-ago major league baseball players.
David Lee Frishberg was born March 23, 1933, in St. Paul, the youngest of three sons of Harry and Sarah (Cohen) Frishberg. His father, who owned a clothing store, was an émigré from Poland; his mother was a native-born Minnesotan.
After graduating from St. Paul Central High School, Frishberg briefly attended Stanford University before returning home to enroll at the University of Minnesota. He flirted with majoring in psychology before gravitating to journalism and securing his degree in 1955.
He served two years in the Air Force as a recruiter, to fulfill his ROTC obligations, and then, in 1957, was hired by the New York radio station WNEW to write advertising scripts and other material for its disc jockeys and announcers. He quickly forsook WNEW to write catalog copy for RCA Victor Records, then finally stepped out as a working solo pianist with a late-night slot at the Duplex cabaret in Greenwich Village.