Chicagoan Johnny Frigo is widely regarded as the greatest living swing violinist--but for most of his career the double bass was his main ax, and for much of it jazz was merely one of many pursuits. As a child on the south side during the Depression, he learned the rudiments of violin from the son of the local rag collector, but when he got to junior high he picked up the tuba so he could join the marching band, and in high school at Fenger Academy he took up the bigger fiddle.
In 1942 he won his first big showbiz gig--a short stint in Chico Marx's touring dance orchestra, which also featured a young Mel Torme. He joined the coast guard during World War II, playing bass in his unit's jazz band, and when he got out he went almost immediately to Jimmy Dorsey's orchestra. While Dorsey was on vacation in 1947, Frigo formed the Soft Winds with guitarist Herb Ellis and pianist Lou Carter; they held down a steady gig in Buffalo and wrote the future jazz standards "Detour Ahead" and "I Told Ya I Love Ya Now Get Out."
In 1950 Frigo returned to Chicago, where he was recruited to do jingle work and quickly became the city's first-call bassist for commercial recording sessions. When he picked up the violin in earnest again, it was to lead the Sage Riders on the weekly WLS country music program National Barn Dance. Meanwhile, he started a bass and piano duo with jazz pianist Dick Marx, cutting albums for Brunswick and Coral and recording with singer Lucy Reed. In 1957 he made a violin record for Mercury, but not until the late 1980s, when he was in his 70s, did he begin to build a reputation for playing jazz on the instrument.
The latest chapter in Frigo's confounding career starts with a studio gig he accepted decades ago. Between 1965 and 1972, he was hired to record ten albums of covers and original material for choreographer and dance instructor Gus Giordano, founder of the Evanston dance center. Giordano was looking for more rhythmically intense music for his jazz-dance students than was commercially available: "Every once in a while something like 'The Man With the Golden Arm' or 'Peter Gunn' would come along," he says. "But everybody was using the same records, so the choreography wasn't interesting." For his contributions, Frigo concocted a strange mix of funk, Latin accents, lounge textures, psychedelic flourishes, and jazz-tinged solos.
Giordano's quest gradually turned into a cottage industry: by the late 70s he had released more than 50 albums on his own label, Orion. They were aimed narrowly at dance instructors and students, so he pressed only 500 copies of most of them; as jazz dance evolved along with the music, they became relics. Some ended up in thrift stores and at garage sales, where they were snatched up by dance DJs. In 1996 one Frigo track, a cover of the Dennis Coffey tune "Scorpio," turned up on a compilation called Trippin': The Groove Merchant Compilation, released by Bay Area rare-groove specialists Luv n' Haight.
Joe Bryl, a veteran acid-jazz DJ and manager of the Funky Buddha Lounge, first encountered one of Frigo's Orion releases in the basement of an antique store in southwest suburban Lemont in the early 90s. Bryl would frequently take chances on vinyl oddities for 50 cents or a buck, but the Orion titles intrigued him for personal reasons: he'd been friends with Giordano's son Marc since the early 80s, when Marc worked at Bookseller's Row on Lincoln and Bryl DJed around the corner at Club 950 on Wrightwood. "I would play [the records] at gigs, and I told Marc that he and his father should pursue this stuff and present them to somebody," says Bryl. Marc found spare copies of some of Frigo's Orion records in Gus's garage and took them to Dusty Groove, where a few of the titles sold for as much as $150.
For a short time Bryl and Dusty Groove owner Rick Wojcik considered releasing the music themselves, but eventually Bryl decided to approach Luv n' Haight and its parent company, Ubiquity. Around the same time a young record collector and DJ from Nashville named Eothen Alapatt (aka DJ Egon)--now the manager of Stones Throw, the LA hip-hop label owned by Peanut Butter Wolf--also approached Ubiquity about the project. By early 2000 all three parties were collaborating on Collected Works, a compilation of 14 of the best tracks from Frigo's Orion records.
"Somebody called me from Nashville and he asked me if I was the guy that did things for Gus Giordano," says Frigo. "He told me he wanted to do something with them. I couldn't figure out what he could do with them, but I told him OK. I had forgotten all about those things. Every once in a while when I'd go through my records I'd see them, but I could hardly remember them. I hardly heard the playback, because we were always moving on to the next session. I never heard the music after I recorded it."
Frigo claims he never gave the project another thought until he was invited to a record-release party at the Funky Buddha Lounge last month. "They asked me to sign some CDs. I had no idea what they were talking about," he says. "When I walked into the Funky Buddha the music was blasting so frigging loud, and there's all these guys dancing in the dark with these girls. It's so different than the scene I'm used to. Everybody's coming in there and saying, 'Oh, Mr. Frigo, we love your music,' all of these gorgeous little girls. I'm thinking, 'What the hell are they talking about?' I was talking to somebody and I said, 'Jesus, how can they stand this music? It's splitting my ears open, the bass is so loud.' They told me it was my CD.
"I said, 'C'mon. If that's my CD then you must've got some other rhythm players to come in and enhance it and do all of this wild funky stuff. Did I play bass that well?'"
Though he says he is pleasantly surprised by the new interest in this work, he's not planning on doing anything more like it. "When you're a studio player, you wear lots of hats," he says. "That's a hat I wore." Frigo's new fans will get a chance to hear him play swing when he makes one of his infrequent appearances at the Green Mill on Saturday, March 2.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Marty Perez.