Opera North Blog

My First Concert: Bill Frisell


My First Concert is a series of blogs that take some of the world's most renowned musicians and conductors back to their childhood, to recall the formative experiences that led them to a career in music. Next to share his story is legendary American guitarist Bill Frisell.

"I guess I was 9 years old when I started playing clarinet in my school music program, in the fall of 1960. All those programs are disintegrating now but back then it was completely normal to have the chance to take up an instrument in public school.

The clarinet was my first real instrument. I think my father thought it’d be a good choice for me, so when they went around asking which instrument each person would like to play, that’s what I put my hand up for. I started to play in my public school band, and very soon after that I joined the community marching band. The conductor of this band was very strict – military, almost – and insisted on doing everything by the book. But he was also an incredible teacher.

Every January in Denver they have this Stock Show, when they bring all the cattle and bulls to the arena for auction. They lead the cattle through the streets, and we were told that our band was going to march behind this parade. I was so excited about this, it was such a big deal. I practiced my clarinet every day, and the whole band practiced marching in a completely straight line, doing military-style turns, with this very strict conductor telling us that under no circumstances could we go out of step on the big day.

The day of the parade was really cold, and we only had these flimsy marching band uniforms to wear. This was in Denver, Colorado, right? At the foot of the Rocky Mountains, in January. It was so cold I couldn’t feel my fingers. I couldn’t push the keys down on my clarinet so I couldn’t even make a sound. I was mortified. And all the cattle had gone through before us, so we were basically marching through piles of cowshit, and all the time I’ve got the conductor’s instructions in mind, that we can’t go out of step, and I’m determined to do the right thing so I’m just pounding on through it.

So I got through that, and I kept practicing, but I never did like those parades. I think a lot of the music that I’ve made since has been founded on the joy of breaking that kind of rigidity apart. I’m still so grateful for what I learned from that conductor, though: the discipline of practicing, as well as my understanding of music theory – things that I still use every day.

"The first real concert that I went to on my own was the summer I got my first electric guitar – 1965. Herman’s Hermits came to Denver, to play at the University football stadium. Back then you could see so many of those bands on TV – the Beatles had been on the Ed Sullivan Show the year before – but it was so exciting to see a British band playing live, and the timing was just right for me.

So many of those British bands – The Beatles, The Kinks, The Rolling Stones – were just blowing our minds back then, and they were really the ones who first made us aware of our own blues and R&B heritage in the US. When I first saw Manfred Mann playing Got My Mojo Working, I didn’t know that it was a Muddy Waters song. Those first Rolling Stones records, you didn’t know where they were getting it from, it was just a sound they had. It was only later we learned that they got it from American music, and we went back and discovered the original records for ourselves."

Bill Frisell performs Music For Strings at the Howard Assembly Room on Saturday 4 November 2017.


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