Common Traits of Jazz Musicians-transcribed from lecture given to jazz appreciation course

David Liebman

Jazz Masters Seminar IV – Opening Lecture

February 3, 2003 – Spring 2003


Editor’s Note: Following is a transcript of a lecture given on Feb. 3, 2003 by Dave Liebman to open the 2003 ESU Jazz Masters Seminar. Developed and taught by ESU Professor Patrick Dorian, the list of speakers in that spring semester also included Phil Woods, Bob Dorough, Bill Goodwin, Steve Gilmore, Mark Murphy, Terrell Stafford, Kim Parker and 10 other respected professionals from the Pocono jazz community who will share their story with the students. In his talk, Dave challenges the students to take notice of the skills and personal traits that have made each speaker successful, characteristics they should work hard to adapt for themselves to achieve success in their chosen walk of life.   


Liebman note: I have taken the liberty to put sub headings throughout the text because each part of the lecture is devoted to one particular aspect that the students should notice in the people who will be speaking to them. Hopefully they can transfer these concepts to their own endeavors, whatever that might be, present or future.


Patrick Dorian: Welcome to Jazz Masters Seminar IV. We’re so pleased and proud to present the fourth edition of our Jazz Masters Seminar. David Liebman is our opening and closing speaker this semester, as in the past. He’s a wonderful speaker. He always makes me feel like I’m at a lecture at Harvard because of his intellectualism but yet the personal approach he gives us is entertaining and enlightening. Please welcome David Liebman.

Audience: [applause]

David Liebman: Thank you very much. It’s nice to see some old friends and some new faces. I’d like to thank Pat for organizing this seminar again, Dr. Dillman and the University for supporting Pat’s efforts, and in advance to the speakers for putting in the effort to talk to you about their lives.

My function here is to give you an overview of what to expect and listen for when you hear these folks speak concerning musical and personal matters that occurred in their lives. But the overall point of these talks if to give you insight into your own present and future development. This is an evolving class and things will change as the weeks go on from your perspective. Along the way you will learn some things about music and jazz itself which should be of interest.



I’d like to begin with something from the book you’re using as a text [David Liebman – Self-Portrait of a Jazz Artist: Musical Thoughts and Realities, Advance Music, 1996], which I certainly feel honored about. For me, at the time I wrote it originally in the ‘80s and rewrote in the ‘90s, it was a summary of how I feel about what we, as jazz musicians do both generally and musically. The first question I dealt with was: “What is an artist?” [Liebman reads from the text] …

“An artist is a person who spends his or her life trying to be in touch with their inner self and attempts to communicate these perceptions to the world through a chosen art form. One’s works of art are a mirror of personal thoughts and feelings which are reflected for all to see and consider. A body of work over a period of time is in a way similar to an autobiography, for the artist’s entire being is revealed. What an artist experiences and feels are hopefully shared by all people on one level or another; this is what is meant by universality. All human beings have the potential to experience similar feelings somewhere within themselves at one time or another during their existence. Art acts as a catalyst to remind and help clarify these feelings. There are some artists who qualify primarily as technicians and craftsmen. This means they possess works which may appeal to a portion of the audience, but behind the façade there is an emptiness and lack of depth. The true artist has considered the meaning of his work as well as the technical aspects and attempts to portray this to others. This gives great art depth, relevance and timelessness which are not usually observed in the popular art of a given period. Art should be both entertaining and educational: edutainment. In this way art is not just transitional but eternal.

            “In sum individuality of expression revealed in a creative and instructive form is the general axiom for an artist. His or her constant search for beauty, truth and knowledge should be an example for all to be inspired by. The creation of art itself is representative of the ultimate act of individual freedom and is an expression of this basic human need which no political or cultural taboo can stifle.”



The people you will be meeting in these weeks are folks who have devoted their lives to a particular style of music which is more or less a hundred years old and has waxed and waned in popularity. It had its time of being the popular music of America in the 1930s and then as it evolved artistically it went through an esoteric period. Now jazz is experiencing another era of respect and interest.

When I look at a person who makes the decision to pursue a jazz life I have to consider that they have something in their character that separates them from the pack. Love of music is of course one thing. More specifically, this music has an inherent power that is unmistakable to those who play and listen to it.  As with any great art, it takes education to appreciate it fully. You don’t just listen casually and get it right away. I know that once someone starts to understand jazz, whether it’s because they grew up with it, or they found it through parents/friends, or they were introduced to it at a time in their life when it makes a big impression on them, as was my case with hearing John Coltrane as a teenager….they will be hooked on it because this is a music for life and not a passing fad. The nice thing about it is that like all great art, the more you know and appreciate what it is, the deeper the music becomes and the more you enjoy it. There’s no end to the jazz trip….it goes on and on.

Though I am certainly not an expert in pop music whenever the era, I have to trust that anybody who makes music and produces something that communicates is being honest about what they do. However, I can’t help but note that when the rewards are so high in magnitude as it is in the pop world, this has to figure into the equation of why people pursue that path. Jazz musicians on the other hand are aware that they are not going to get rich playing this music. The commitment and sacrifices one makes to go into this profession are daunting. To see somebody who is dedicated to something that is materially rewarding speaks about a certain quality in that person(s) to be admired. This will be something to notice about all the guests you’re going to hear and the people that you enjoy on records because when you see somebody that’s been doing this for 20, 30, 40, 50 years, it’s a remarkable achievement in that respect.



Pat’s course outline advises students in their papers to: “Discuss the artistic growth of these performers throughout their careers.” What you’re going to see in your guests is a wide age range. You have one speaker, bassist Evan Gregor, who is 20 years old and has gone through the informal jazz education system available here in the Pocono area studying with people like Phil Woods, my wife Caris Visentin for ear training and participated in the jazz activities we have going, many instigated by your teacher, Pat Dorian. Evan is now is attending the largest jazz music school in the world, Berklee College of Music in Boston. So, you’ll have from him up to “senior citizens” Bob Dorough and Phil Woods meaning you’re going to be exposed to a 50 to 60 year span of history.

I don’t know how many of these presenters will get into this but I think what’s interesting in an active artist of several decades is that they have most likely gone through different periods of artistic growth and interests. In painting, Picasso was known for his red period, his guitar collages, bullfighters, etc. He was involved in a certain kind of style for an intense (in his case) period and then would move on. We have many examples of this in jazz, especially Miles Davis whose career traversed several major stylistic changes. As musicians, we all go through this process in one way or another, maybe several times. What’s interesting is to see how somebody evolves and changes direction and interests throughout a multi-decade period of participation.

In my case I was very interested in that element of music known as harmony, particularly the sounds of the famous 20th century classical composers like Bartok and Schoenberg. After 10 years of pursuing that subject I became more interested in the rhythmical aspect, especially ethnic rhythms, exotic instruments and drums from other parts of the world. There was another period of exploring flutes from various cultures. This is something you will notice in at least some of the speakers….that they have been interested in different facets of music over the years, embracing change and discovery.



This is something that’s obvious but shouldn’t be taken for granted… intense curiosity is part and parcel of being an artist. The desire to know what is “behind the veil” and studying what others don’t even notice is ubiquitous among artists. Something interests them…..they pursue the mastery of that subject. I would hope that any young person would see this trait as a model for whatever field (s)he may end up in. Curiosity followed by serious study gives one enormous depth and inspiration to keep going ahead. One is even willing to enter an area as a novice, even after mastering something else in order to understand it. To be able to say: “Well, I’ve done this and I’ve gone that far in this particular area and have nothing more to prove. I feel confident enough to be interested in something I am not necessarily that proficientt in which may necessitate starting at a lower level than I am used to.” This shows a trait about artists in general, which is their flexibility, humility, openness and natural curiosity.

This is not unique to being an artist. It is part of being a human being, like the first person who picked up a stick and made fire. Every invention in the world is due to someone’s curiosity followed by hard work. It’s not something to be taken for granted because it’s easy to fall asleep on the job of life and let things pass thinking you’ve experienced everything and have nothing more to learn. To be selective about what interests you, to seriously delve into it, to explore and possibly master the subject is a remarkable achievement. You are going to see in some of the speakers evidence of this penchant for constant change, of accepting the new, of not being afraid with a willingness to forge ahead.


Another point Pat makes in his course outline to look for is as he phrases it: “What made these artists successful?”  We cannot deny that in life there is a certain amount of “lady luck” and of being in the right time and place fortuitously. For me, the chance to play with Miles Davis for a period in the 1970s is an example of good timing. I can even give you the specific moment when I was in the right place at the right moment. On the other hand you can’t assume that timing is completely serendipity. If you desire something enough, you help to create the conditions that will make opportunities more likely to occur. There needs to be a combination of effort and desire in order to create the circumstances where so-called “luck” can happen. There is a cliché that really is true to some extent: “Things happen for a reason.”  There are people who believe that nothing is coincidence and everything happens according to a plan of some sort. The bottom line is you create your own circumstances to at least some degree and in the biographies you will hear from the speakers, you will notice that.



Another trait that is clearly exhibited in all artists – though it may not appear that way in some cases is a very good sense of organization. We all know the stereotype image of the artist…scatter-brained, forgetful, not punctual, etc. With rare exception I have found that beneath the surface of a person who appears to be a little scattered is a very high intellect coupled with disciplined behavior, at least in what truly interests them. They may not be able to keep their business affairs in order, or their abode, or personal life.  But when it comes to the particular thing that they do, their instrument, the style of music they play, their performance, they’re extremely organized. If you would ask them to describe in detail how they operate, depending upon the individual and the timing of your request, they would probably deliver the equivalent of a thesis from top to bottom in absolute order, logical and step-by-step, because they know what they’re doing when it comes down to it.

That is a very important aspect of being successful in anything… be well organized in your thinking and use of your time, especially in the culture we live in now. I know for myself, having extra time is a gift if I can find it. This is especially true for young people who are just getting their act together. With so many things happening, free time is not that plentiful, though of course attention should be given to “down time” for necessary mental and emotional rest. It is crucial to be disciplined with the available hours you have to accomplish what you want effectively.

Being in school sometimes can make you think that this is the way it’s going to be forever. The truth is that when you get out of school it gets much more difficult, because you have been basically living a schedule given to you since you were six or seven years old. That is September to June with a 9 to 5 hour spread more or less for 30-35 weeks a year. Given that college is quite different than grade school, there still is a schedule imposed from on high. You know what the expectations are and what you are responsible for. Whether you took care of business or not is another story. But you knew you had to give a paper….you knew you had to be somewhere at a certain time, etc. You had to get your degree.

Then you enter the real world. This is something I make a point of telling my students who are about to finish college. “If you think you have no time to practice now, wait till you get out in the real world because then it gets much more complicated and you’ll really be aware of the little time you have to do what you want.” So, getting focused and being able to zero in on something is a very important skill to get under your belt as soon as possible so it stays with you for life. One thing in common to all the musicians you will meet is their economical use of time, most certainly when they were learning their art.




Another point in the course outline: “How did their education, formal or otherwise, contribute to their success?” It’s going to be very interesting to notice this in the coming speakers. I can tell you from knowing some of these folks personally that the training that made them who they are ranges from what we call “street” education to full academia and everything in between. “Street” in the musical sense means picking up things by ear, observing what is happening in a given musical situation and having the ability to ask specific questions, hoping to be rewarded with meaningful answers. On the other hand you will meet some university educated folks who definitely went through the system and have a degree and were formally trained.

What’s interesting in an art form is that the training is as varied as the individuals who are present. In my judgment, it really doesn’t matter where you get the information as long as you obtain it somehow and find a way to balance the various ways of learning. For some people, learning by books, being in a class, having to be responsible for written work is beneficial. For others that scenario doesn’t work. It’s better for them to learn by first hand experience.

In the end, to learn this music you need a combination of all learning methods….. aural, written, intellectual, instinctual. Each one offers another perspective, different from the other. The people you will meet are very experienced and have been out there in the real world.  But they are also artists who sat and studied in a very academic way, learning the facts, plain and simple. Education in a field like this is about balancing all these methods. I think that in most walks of life, the same is true. Everyone builds their own path with different twists and turns but with a certain amount of overlapping.


Another course point: “Discuss how finances and making a living affected careers.” You’re going to hear a lot about this for sure!!  I’m hoping that everybody will share the various steps along the way and the obstacles they faced to be who they are as they worked towards establishing themselves. Financially, as I said in the beginning, once you choose this way of life you have accepted that “making a living” may be as good as it gets which is fine. You must accept that. Being happy on a day to day level, satisfying yourself emotionally is worth more than any money and your guests here are proof of that.

I’ll tell you a little story of mine in this regard. In the early seventies when I came up, jazz was beginning to be mixed with pop music. The style was called fusion for lack of a better description. There were some people making great fortunes at the time as the music was more accessible than the jazz of the day. I cannot tell you that I wasn’t tempted and actually did get into this field for a minute. I had to work through that period towards realizing that money wasn’t the point.

I think a lot of the invited guests will really give you some nuts and bolts ways of how they’ve made a living in this music. One thing you will notice: most of these people have done several different things in the field, if not out of the field. There are probably a few folks you will meet who may have worked on the docks or something like that….real physical labor. In the jazz field we have to wear a variety of “hats” meaning jobs. The image of the great star soloist standing in the spotlight may shine bright when one begins a career. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this. We have to have a dream. For me, it was the image of being a great soloist with the best band in the world like my idol John Coltrane or Miles Davis (which incredibly DID happen). But the necessity of making a living as well as my interest in other aspects of life made me see that I had to develop in more than one way. Once again, flexibility and the ability to switch gears looms large as you will note in the artists coming here.

You’re going to see a wide range of endeavors in these folks that may or may not have embodied their musical talents as they would’ve liked, at least for a period of time. In the jazz world, since teaching has become so widespread, more and more musicians find themselves doing more educating than playing. This is a reality and folks have to adjust accordingly. For myself, I’ve had to branch out writing articles and books as well as teach to compliment my playing activities.

What you’re going to see here during the ESU Jazz Masters Seminar would never have happened 20, 30 years ago with rare exception, at least not in jazz. The famous Charles Eliot Norton lectures in the fifties were presented at Harvard with artists discussing their work but that was an exception and did not include jazz musicians. So, education is an important part of the M.O. you will here about from the speakers. Pianist Phil Markowitz teaches with me at the Manhattan School of Music; Terrell Stafford, a wonderful trumpet player, is at Temple University; Bill Goodwin teaches at William Paterson College and so on.



As a touring musician, we travel a lot and do what we call one-nighters. In our world that means that I may go anywhere joining a group from that country or a combination of countries for one night. In my case a lot of my work is done in Europe which most of the time means landing in a city, going through all the logistics of where to stay and eat, discussing the music, possibly running through it or not at all and then performing. Because of that you have to be very stylistically adaptable these days.

The training that the modern musician is getting, for example Evan Gregor who is at Berklee is quite varied as a result of today’s requirements. The jazz education system makes  students realize that they have to be flexible. You can’t get up anymore and say: “I’m only going to play one way.” It doesn’t work except for a very few who can command enough notoriety to pull it off. In these days the modern musician and even those from my generation have to be very musically adaptable.



I always make the following point to musicians I have taught after all the basics are accomplished at a certain minimum but high level of expertise. “Now we’re going to talk about what it is that is going to make you who you are.” In other words, after you acquire all these skills, what do you really want to impart to the world?  Let’s say you have a lot of the tools together, implying you understand the language and you’re technically adept, meaning you have the craft pretty well taken care of, as I spoke about in the opening quote from my book. Most importantl, you know what came before musically which you can duplicate up to a certain degree. Now you have to consider: “Who am I? What do I have to say to anybody? Is what I play of such compelling interest that someone should pay for it, listen to me, buy my recordings, hire me and so forth?”

One of the things I emphasize is that it’s important to be aware of what’s going on around you. By that I mean certainly on a physical level in your immediate and in the world at large. Also, awareness needs to be on a variety of levels. What is going on in the news that is affecting people? Economically, what are people experiencing? What is your spiritual and philosophical view about things? These questions and more are what determine your profile, your persona. On a practical level, being aware of the world around you offers insight as to who you are playing for. I think this is a crucial part of the artistic process, and true in all walks of life. You are a product of your time and you need to be aware of the context in which you are operating.

The image of the “ivory tower” where an artist locks themselves up in a room and practices towards perfecting their skills is not relevant any more, if it ever was. Acknowledging the outside world and reflecting upon it, I believe, makes your message more pertinent to whoever you are addressing, in whatever line of work you are involved in. With your coming guests, note the degrees of awareness they exhibit in their talks about life in general, of course some will be more verbal than others in this regard.



“Is national or international recognition important to the artist and why?”  We’ve talked about recognition and rewards. Certainly, it’s nice to be well-known. It doesn’t hurt obviously. Seeking recognition should not be exaggerated when pursuing a goal. Excellence has its own rewards. Fame may or may not occur, but it should not be the motivating factor that drives a person, because it is ephemeral, disappearing as fast as it comes.

“How has their music been received by the public, along with or as opposed to the critics?”  I think that most people who are world-class performers will tell you that they don’t really listen to what is said about them. On the other hand, from my standpoint, I’ve had criticism that has been educational because it revealed how I was being perceived, at least by this or that particular writer. This view point can be important because sometimes it is very difficult to see beyond one’s own personal horizons. There was a period when I took criticism personally. But taking into consideration who is doing the talking (another discussion unto itself concerning the legitimacy of so-called experts) I like to see what they think I’m doing since I usually have a good idea of what I’m after. This matter of criticism will be different across the board with your guests, but I think it’s pertinent to your life in general.

Part of the dues when you get up in front of the public and declare: “Listen to me” whether it be a speaker or a performer or someone presenting a new idea, is the ability to take criticism. Somebody along the line will say, “I don’t really think this guy’s got it. I don’t think he or she is credible. I don’t think he’s sincere, blah-blah-blah,” and down the list of disapproving comments. Most of these artists will tell you that no matter what the comments are, they had to persevere.Thick skin is a necessity and you will hear about it in these weeks.



Following right along after the subject of criticism is the matter of self confidence. You will see a large degree of that trait in every speaker here. At some point, possibly at a younger stage, it may have been arrogance. But you know, I, we, have put a lot of time into this. I know what I’m doing and am aware. You may not like it, but you can’t minimize it. A healthy dose of self confidence keeps you going. If you’re a performer, you’ve got to have a certain amount of “moxie” to get up there…..a sizable ego. You can’t get up there and say: “Listen to me … listen to what I have to say” without feeling that you have something of real value to offer. That kind of confidence is part and parcel of being an artist. It’s earned…it’s not a gift….and it takes time to acquire. It’s not something that you in get in one day….more like years.



One more point about the people you will be meeting, if I may generalize a bit. Jazz musicians are just about the nicest folks around. I mean it. I think the reason I can make such a general statement is because of the music itself. The tradition, the masters before us, the beauty and the magnificence of the music is humbling.

I know you will feel what I am referring to in various degrees from your coming guests. They truly are nice people, warm, usually introspective, relatively low key and more often than not very private until they get to know you. There’s a feeling of camaraderie, of commonality among jazz musicians. Of course, there’s competitiveness: this guy got the gig that you would’ve like; he was chosen for the festival over you, etc. There’s got to be some of that, of course. On the other hand, there’s a feeling that we’re all in this together. We’re all trying to play the best we can, to be true to the music and bring it to the world. In a way there is a missionary spirit in jazz towards sharing its beauty.

So, by and large you’re going to see a really nice group of people who don’t have one evil thought in their mind. It’s true that we all have stories in this music of aberrant behavior and strange happenings, which is true of any walk of life. But once again to reiterate, if you are into this music, there is automatically a kind of screening process, no matter what part of the business you are in. The music takes care of that.

Enjoy these fantastic people who will through their art and life, help you discover yourselves.

Thank you for your attention.