A Ballad to Ballard

Jazz great Bill Frisell shows us around the Seattle neighborhood that brings him musical inspiration.

I WAS BORN IN Baltimore and grew up in Denver in a kind of Leave It to Beaver neighborhood where you rode your bike to school and had a paper route. Then I went to the Berklee College of Music in Boston, moved to Belgium for a year, started traveling for shows, and ended up living in New Jersey. The East Coast and Europe became my world.

After playing in New York for 10 years, with John Zorn, drummer Paul Motian, and my own bands, I was feeling tired and burned out. I was ready to slow down a bit. With all that music, there was constant, massive input. I felt like I needed the time and the space to discover my own music. When I got to Seattle, just the fact that there were houses and trees triggered nostalgia for my youth.

I’d visited Seattle for the first time in 1988 to play the Earshot Jazz Festival. I remember so clearly when I stepped off the plane out onto the jetway, I thought, what is that sweet smell? After a moment, I realized it was just the air, just oxygen. That was my very first impression of Seattle. Our best friends, musicians Wayne Horvitz and Robin Holcomb, whom we lived next to in Hoboken, had already moved here. My wife, Carole, and I house-sat for friends of theirs in the summer of 1989, and we thought, this is nice.

I’m not a hiker or mountain-climber guy, but the best thing for my mind is to walk. I travel so much that when I get home, I walk for hours and hours and hours. For me, the Ballard neighborhood is the perfect setup. When I want activity, I can walk into the center of Ballard, which has this great mix of cool new restaurants and cafés, like Bitterroot and Staple & Fancy, and old bars, like the Tractor Tavern. I can go to Bop Street Records, which has tons of vinyl and is run by this guy Dave, a real neighborhood character who has been there forever, or to Sonic Boom, a record store right across the street, where somebody who works there will say, “Have you heard this? Check it out.” And it’s an amazing free-improv thing from the ’60s by Ennio Morricone, who wrote all those great movie scores for Italian spaghetti westerns.

I like to browse the used-book shelves in Bauhaus Books and Coffee, which recently moved to Ballard from Seattle’s Capitol Hill. Or I stop by X-Ray Auto, where the owner, Matt, will be listening to Howlin’ Wolf or Muddy Waters on these big old speakers. He has vintage Volvos everywhere, just because he loves them. So do I. My wife surprised me with a 1967 station wagon from X-Ray as a gift.

I can also walk through quiet residential neighborhoods and parks and see hummingbirds, or go out across the Ballard Locks and watch eagles over the water. I can really space out. There’s something musical about it. That’s when melodies start happening in my head. It’s a good space for me. I’m not trying to get away from the music; I’m letting the music take root.

Photographs by Ian Allen. This appeared in the March/April 2014 issue.

A northern California native, I received my BA from UCLA and an MA in History from UC Berkeley. I’ve worked as a mountain resort handyman and cook, drugstore clerk, college instructor, child care provider, soda jerk, freelance writer (music, food, travel), music radio host (KPFA 94.1 FM Berkeley), and magazine editor--at Acoustic Guitar, Oakland and Alameda Magazines, and currently, AFAR.
From Our Partners
Sign up for our newsletter
Join more than a million of the world’s best travelers. Subscribe to the Daily Wander newsletter.
More From AFAR