Johnny Frigo may well be one of the violin world’s best kept secrets. Content to ride out the jazz age as a self-taught bass player, he let his first instrument, the fiddle, spend most of its time in its case until the accidental launch of a second musical career at age seventy-two. Now well into his eighties and hailed as one of the world’s greatest jazz violinists, Johnny continues to perform and record on the violin, write poetry, and paint. A documentary about his life called “The World on His String: The Life of Johnny Frigo” has just been completed, as well as a book of his poems and artwork entitled When My Fiddle’s in the Case.
These days, most of Johnny Frigo’s appearances are near his home- town of Chicago or at large jazz festivals, so I was thrilled when producer Pat Philips brought him to the intimate Regattabar in Cambridge, Massachusetts, for a series of concerts pairing him with the French Gypsy guitarist Dorado Schmitt. Although he had never played with this group before, Johnny deftly led the band through a number of his impromptu arrangements, calling out instructions as necessary and charming the audience with his deadpan humor. At one point he peered into his violin’s f-holes and tried to read the label. “I can’t believe it! Stra... Stra... Stratocaster!” He noted that the last time he had been to Boston, he was dating Miss America. He modestly dismissed the audience applause, confessing “It wasn’t that big a deal. There were only thirteen states!”
Kidding aside, once he launched into a tune, it was easy to see why jazz critics have lavished such praise. His violin playing is charming and witty, never leaving the melody too far behind, yet full of surprises. His improvisations have a logic and expressiveness that make them sound almost like on-the-fly orchestral arrangements. Taking advantage of the full dynamic range of the instrument from delicate muted bow strokes to bold runs high up the fingerboard, Johnny’s solos captivated his audience like a great story teller.
It was no surprise, then, to discover that even without his violin, Johnny Frigo is a great story teller. And with such a fascinating story to tell, I didn’t have to do much in the course of this interview except sit back and listen, occasionally reminding him where we were chronologically when we’d drift off on some interesting tangent.
Frigo: People wonder how I started playing violin. Born on the south side of Chicago on December 27th, 1916, so that makes me almost eighty-eight years old now. My folks were very poor, super poor. So all the kids after school would do things like go through the alleys looking for junk so they could sell it to the ragman who came by every Saturday on a horse and wagon. I would sell this stuff to the ragman and he eventually got to know my mother, because she would sell him newspapers and things. He got talking to her and he talked her into my taking violin lessons with his son. I was seven years old then. He told her that his son was becoming a violin teacher and he had a small violin. She said, “I have no money for violin lessons.” And he said, “Well, they’re only twenty-five cents a lesson.” So all the weekly going through the alleys looking for junk, with those twenty-five cents, I paid for violin lessons. So I studied with him, played scales. I remember the two books were Kreutzer excercises and one other one. That’s all I knew. Then he moved away from the neighborhood, so I’d get on the streetcar. And the shaking of the streetcar would make me sick, so every Saturday I’d throw up reaching my violin lesson, because of the bumpy street car ride. So I finally gave up for that reason and also that my mother could ill afford the twenty-five cents a lesson. At that point, I was eleven years old and that’s the last lesson in music I ever took in my life. So I was all self-taught after that.
In grammar school, they had no orchestra, so I couldn’t play the violin in grammar school. Then when I went to junior high school, they also had no orchestra. But they had a little ten-piece military band. The only instrument they had that no one else wanted to play was a tuba, so because there was nothing else for me there, I picked up the tuba. I came home with swollen lips. Then I wasn’t satisfied with that and I bought a fourteen dollar trumpet and started practicing trumpet. And still practiced on the violin a little bit.
What sort of music were you playing then?
On violin, I was still playing scales. The first song I ever learned was “Long, Long Ago.” I figured in high school, they were gonna have an orchestra, so when I went into high school -- they still didn’t have an orchestra! They only had a band. So I had to play tuba again. I said, “I don’t want to just play tuba.” An old Italian fellow had an old string bass with three gut strings on it, and the high G string was tied in a knot. So without studying, I’m just slapping away on the bass. Little did I know at that point that it would be the instrument on which I would make 95% of my living for the next thirty-five years, never having taken a lesson.
That was 1934. Soon after that, I joined a little band -- Vic Abbs and the Four Californians. We would sing these songs that I arranged for the trumpet. At that point, we were playing at a place called the Glass Hat in Chicago in the Congress Hotel, and we were on radio, on KYW. Then I played with a band by the name of Al Diehm. I was playing bass and when we played a rumba, I would get a maraca, cut the handle off, put rubber bands around it, play the bass and shake it. And I would know how to keep a nice tempo so the maraca would actually have a good beat, like um-chica-chi-chi um-chica-chi-chi. And if it was a faster thing, I would tighten the rubber band so it wouldn’t flop around too much.
In those days, the piano player had a glass for “feed the kitty”; they put coins in for tips. But they’d see me singing sometimes, so they’d put a coin through the f-holes of my bass. Then I’d have to bring it home and my two brothers would have to hold it up and shake it. This one time somebody stuffed a bill in there. I happened to bring it up, “Who was that that put a bill in it? It was hard to get out.” He said, “That was Al Capone.”
After that I started playing with different groups. We played on the Rival Dog Food Program, the Drake Hotel. When the (Chicago) Cubs were really winning the pennant in their glory days, the minute the ball game was over, we’d be there in the Drake Hotel lobby. We’d be on the air every day singing and playing.
Then in 1942, Chico Marx of the Marx Brothers -- I don’t know how he heard that I played bass -- but I joined his band. Between movies, he had a run of being on stage in different parts of the country. He heard that I played fiddle so in one of the theaters, he said, “Bringa da violin down and play a song with me on da violin.” It started off as complete not knowing what we were gonna do, but little by little it worked into a routine. I remember he’d say, “Do you know Gypsy Love Song?” I said, “I think I know the chords but I don’t know the verse.” I said, “You play the verse and I’ll noodle around on fiddle.” He said, “Okay, you noodle on the fiddle and I’ll spaghetti on the piano.” You know, stupid stuff! So we ended up having a routine between Chico and myself. And then, right out of high school came the singer Mel Torme. He joined the band. So when we played at the Blackhawk Restaurant in Chicago, we were on the radio every night and I sang with the quartet.
[For the rest of this article, purchase the Fall 2005 issue of Fiddler Magazine!]
[Peter Anick, author of Mel Bay's "Old Time Fiddling Across America," plays fiddle with the Massachusetts bluegrass band Wide Open Spaces.]