Don Friedman was born May 4, 1935, in San Francisco. His parents loved classical music and they owned a piano. Under their guidance, Don started playing at age four. He began lessons at five with a private teacher named Katherine Swint. Though he had no exposure to jazz at this time Don taught himself to improvise.
When he was 15, his family moved to the San Fernando Valley in Greater Los Angeles. Two years later he began to head regularly for the Hollywood Palladium to hear the bands of Les Brown, Stan Kenton and Billy May. That fueled his love for jazz. Kenton soloists Lee Konitz, Conte Condoli, and Frank Rossolino inspired Don as he transformed his focus from classical music to jazz.
Don studied jazz at Los Angeles City College and also on his own by playing along with records of Charlie Parker, Sonny Rollins and Miles Davis. By the mid 1950s L.A. was the capital of West Coast Jazz and Don was becoming part of it as he worked around town with groups that included Shorty Rogers, Chet Baker, Ornette Coleman, and Scott LaFaro.
At the same time, he displayed his hard bop credentials by gigging with Dexter Gordon. He made his first records as a sideman with trumpeters Hank DeMano and Jack Millman. In 1956 Buddy DeFranco hired him for a tour that included gigs at New York’s Birdland and Basin Street.
The DeFranco tour was a turning point, and the experience convinced Don in 1958 to leave California for New York. He thrived in Manhattan’s great and diverse jazz scene of that time. He played with most of the major players and his reputation began to build as a pianist who was going places.