From Downbeat Magazine (2003)



Dave Liebman is a straight-shooter, who specializes in a straight horn: the soprano saxophone. Formerly (and still, occasionally) a tenor player, too, Liebman has had a formidable career over the past four decades, as a rocker and loft session instigator, a sideman to Elvin Jones and Miles Davis, co-leader with Pee Wee Ellis of the short-lived fusion project the Ellis-Liebman Band, leader of the worldly and free Lookout Farm (with Frank Tusa, Richie Beirach, Jeff Williams and sometimes Badal Roy), Quest with Beirach and Billy Hart and numerous bands including the likes of Billy Hart and John Scofield.

Today, Lieb is an internationally respected educator, a sought-after soloist, the man behind projects spanning themes from opera, bossa nova, immortal and emerging composers, and his own writings — for intensely lyrical ensembles with pianist Marc Copland, and his ten-year-old group featuring guitarist Vic Juris and bassist Tony Marino. Liebman opened up about many topics during an hour-long public interview at the International Association for Jazz Education conference in Toronto in January, 2003 — here are the most illuminating excerpts.

Howard Mandel: Tell me about what you’ve done at the conference, and what a jazz musician in 2003 has to contend with in a four day period.

Dave Liebman: I’m here to help my wife, who distributes European music publications, in her booth. Caris Music. Also I’ve had a meeting with the International Association of Schools of Jazz, an organization that I set up in the late ’80s consisting of about 40 schools in as many countries. I was the featured soloist with Scott Guinell’s big band from Detroit, which I didn’t previously know. Scott was interested in having me as a soloist, sent me a CD which sounded really good .We met 30 minutes before the gig and I soloed on a few tunes. I had a performance with The Sax Section — Gary Smulyan on baritone, Don Braden on tenor and alto, Mike Smith on alto, Ernie Watts on tenor, and myself, all of us endorsers of Keilworth saxophones with the rhythm section of Matt Wilson, Bill Mays and John Goldsby. Last night I played at a local club, the Rex, with two guys I hesitate to call former students since they are so bad whom I originally met at the Banff Institute in the ’80s, when I was teaching there-Mike Murley, saxophonist, and Jim Vivien on bass. They live in Toronto. Ian Froman was our drummer.

I’ve enjoyed it all. A big band, five saxophones, and a two-sax, bass and drums combo — each situation brought out different things in my playing. And the IASJ is an important component of what I do, because I think we’re accomplishing something in the real world by networking all these students and teachers at our yearly meetings.

HM: When you were a young musician, did you realize you’d have to pursue so many activities?

DL: I never thought I would be playing jazz. I was born and raised in New York, so I was exposed to it, but when I started getting serious about it at around 20 years old, I didn’t think about earning a living. It wasn’t a dream, it wasn’t a reality, it wasn’t something to think about. That I’d have to function as a businessman, lawyer reading contracts, tax accountant, travel agent, p.r. and play the music, lead bands and make phone calls never crossed my mind.

When I was nine, my parents had me take piano lessons. But I liked the saxophone which was prominent in ’50s rock and roll that I dug. I started taking lessons at a neighborhood school where you played in combos, and they helped you get a gig in the Catskill mountain which is a hotel region 100 miles north of New York City. By the time I was 13 I’d spent my first summer away, playing. We played “gb” or general business gigs: weddings, bar mitzvahs, parties and so forth. At 14 I was playing under the guise of making extra money for when I would supposedly go on to medical school, which in truth I wanted to do. I had polio when I was young and was always around doctors. I wanted to be an orthopedic surgeon. For me, when the doctor came into the room in his white coat, he was God handing down the next decision.

I had no idea then what jazz was. When I first saw improvising, somebody playing with no music in front of them, eyes closed, I said, “What is this?” This was the time of Dave Brubeck’s “Take 5,” “Desafinado.”…. 1960, ’61. Soon enough I went to Birdland and had my epiphany seeing Coltrane. I enrolled in New York University to study American history because I didn’t want to teach music or something like that. When I was 20 years old I decided I wasn’t going to do any more club dates, but just try to get as good as I could. When I graduated, I moved in a loft and entered the scene. Dave Holland and Chick Corea eventually lived in the same building and we were able to rehearse there, blow all night playing mostly free jazz.

It’s different now. There are models, schools, a plan you can follow to guide you. Then there was nothing. The older musicians were sarcastic or friendly, helpful or not, depending on their personality and moods, but there was little formal instruction. Lennie Tristano was the only real jazz teacher in the New York area. Hall Overton used to give classes at the New School once a week. He’d hand out a Monk lead sheet which was like gold because there was no jazz “real book.” That’s how we did it. We never knew it would get so formalized.

HM: What was your epiphany?

DL: After the older guys in the dance band took me to Birdland the first time to see Count Basie and Gerry Mulligan during Christmas week when we were off school I took a date there, the lead flutist in the school band where I was lead clarinetist, to hear the Bill Evans trio and the John Coltrane Quintet. I didn’t know anything about either band, but I read Down Beat, so I knew Coltrane’s name and that he played soprano.

It was like any Saturday night in any club anywhere, noisy and full of distractions. We were underage, so we sat in the peanut gallery, the last row. Bill Evans’ trio was playing like they were in someone’s living room, with their heads down, nobody paying any attention to them. Then Coltrane came on. They started playing and it was like a storm. Julie said, “Do you know that tune?” I said, “Yeah, it’s from ‘Sound of Music.'” Then I said, “No, it can’t be, they’d never play something like that. This is jazz!” Of course it was “My Favorite Things.”

The guy, Coltrane, playing soprano and tenor sounded like he was missing notes. I’d been playing for three years, so therefore I was a great expert(sarcastic laugh), and I knew if you go above high F and you don’t make it, you get a certain sound like you’re missing notes. The other saxophonist — who was Eric Dolphy — was extremely harmonically advanced, but had a more familiar rhythmic basis. His intervals were unusual, but his time flow was familiar. I said, “Oh, that guy’s great! The other guy, what’s the story?” But I also said, “Whatever this is, I must come back.”

And that’s how I started with Coltrane. After that, every time he was in a club in New York, I’d go Friday and Saturday night, from the beginning until the end. I must have seen him 30 or 40 times before he died.

HM: So he hooked you.

DL: It was everything: the mystery, Birdland, it was dark, it was sexy. You know when you’re young how you watch the guys come to the bandstand, how they take their horns out: Do they wet the reed? How do they warm up? Do they play a C scale? Do they play a long tone? You’re studying all this because you’re aspiring. Well, these guys went on the bandstand with their eyes closed… they didn’t talk to each other…they started and it was a storm. Two hour sets, one tune for an hour and a half. You’re sitting there, realizing the song is still going on with the same intensity never letting up. And the language! I didn’t know the language and I still don’t all the way, but it swung its shirt off — that was incontestable and compelling. I thought: “That can’t be the same instrument I have at home. There’s no way that can be the same instrument.” It was remarkable. Yeah, I was hooked.

HM: Did hearing Coltrane encourage your intensity?

DL: Intensity, well that’s my personality. But musically, I just didn’t see any other way it would be worth it. I don’t mean it has to be loud, or fast, or bombastic — that’s stylistic. But if you don’t go into the middle of the storm, there’s no reason to do it.

It wasn’t only Coltrane. McCoy Tyner, Elvin Jones, and Jimmy Garrison, they were also in it. Committed, no show, no pretense, no words, nothing: just get up and play. EVERY NIGHT!!. It was simple but complex. It was spiritual, but it was universal. It was everything. And as I learned more musically, it was more sophisticated than I ever imagined.

HM: Did seeing Coltrane heighten the distinction between the entertainment aspect of club dates, and playing jazz as an art form?

DL: Absolutely. At club dates, I was getting to the point where I wanted to blow the place up. These poor people were coming to a bar mitzvah and I resented them for having a good time to some corny music. Of course, that music was functional — as background for social affairs, weddings, events that are serious on a personal level. But I felt music is for elucidation, growth of the spirit and mind. The two forms have nothing to do with each other.

HM: What is the entertainment aspect of your music today?

DL: The way I like to see it, the audience is there to see you do your trip. Your trip is to be completely committed to the music, with intensity. Again, it doesn’t mean loud and fast necessarily — it could be slow, there could be a lot of space between notes. But you’re committed. My ideal audience comes to enjoy and watch that trip, non-judgmentally. Not “I like it” or “I don’t like it,” but: “This is a guy who does this; this is his job. He’s an expert at this, and that’s why I’m paying my money to come to see it so I go with him on it.” As far as I’m concerned, that’s what the audience is there for. That’s the so-called entertainment, pure and simple. Okay, you might say: “Hello, my name’s Dave, this is my drummer;” you’re on time, you don’t look like a pig. But beyond that, if you’re doing something to be “entertaining,” I’ve got a problem with it.

And I must say, being with Miles Davis didn’t help my attitude in this respect or being with Elvin Jones either. For both those guys, on the bandstand, it was business — and the business was with the other musicians, not the entertainment of the audience. It’s not condescending but I think the audience is lucky to be in front of skilled musicians who spend all their lives exploring how to communicate with each other in a particular language.

HM: Weren’t you in a rock band for a while?

DL: I was in Ten Wheel Drive, with Genya Raven. That was my first gig. It was a sophisticated rock band and I was the main soloist. I played intensely all the time…with my knees on the ground — even when I was 14 I played like that. I had to learn to cool, to temper my fire and refine it.
Some people have to worry about getting that which isn’t easy. I always tell a student, “Play more, and we’ll cut it down.” But if it ain’t there, it’s gonna be hard to get the seasoning in after the pot is closed. In my case, I had to learn control, personally and in a lot of ways.

HM: What did you learn from Lennie Tristano?

DL: Lennie was already a professional teacher. He had a system: Sing along with Lester Young, play off the melody, not the chords which at least with me he never discussed — and learn scales. For piano players, voicings. The lessons were between ten and twelve minutes long. You were in, you were out. Next guy came in. Not very intimate to say the least!!

What Lennie showed me, besides “Lester Leaps In” with Basie and Sinatra stuff to sing along with, was that you could study this stuff. This was the ’60s. Jazz education was very sporadic in the United States, and didn’t exist on the East Coast, except for Berklee. The idea that you could study this music was not on the table. The older guys would say, “You gotta live, kid.” But Lennie had it together. You could at least do what he said. You didn’t just do it by trial and error, waiting for the light to come to you. There was a proactive thing to be done… there was something to study.

When you go to teachers, if you can get one thing from them, something you can remember years later — though you’ll never realize it right then — that’s the deal. If you walk out with one new big effect and a couple or minor points, it’s more than successful. Guys complain about a teacher, “He didn’t show me everything.” Of course he didn’t show you everything. You couldn’t absorb everything. If you got one point — how to hold your lip, how to hear, how to think, how to feel, how to look at a chord — you learned a lot. In Lenny’s case, I got the fact that jazz could be attacked as an organized body of study.

HM: Was playing with Miles a learning experience for you — or a shock wave experience?

DL: It was everything. It was the big time…major gigs, on the road with Miles Davis. It was him affecting me personally for better or worse. Of course the musical aspect: I became a bandleader shortly after working with Elvin and Miles, and I remembered from their examples: “This is how you do that” — ways of playing, how to handle a situation. I really listened and watched everything Miles did. I saw how he thought about music. Not which chord, which scale, but how he dipped in and out. I was coming out of Coltrane: notes, notes, a lot of notes. Here was a guy who stopped, played rhythmically, left an amazing amount of space even in this rock and roll, one-chord vamp thing we were doing. It was the complete opposite for me and it affected my playing dramatically.

HM: Was your first band, Lookout Farm, somewhat in reaction to Miles’ experimental period? I remember its calm, meditative aspects.

DL: True, but we also went crazy. We played late Trane stuff and then vamps like Miles. Our generation was really the first that made a practice of listening to Bartok, to Jimi Hendrix, to late Trane in the same eight hours; my personal interests were in several different areas and Lookout Farm was an expression of my eclecticism up to that time. A little Miles, a little Coltrane, a little bebop, a little Indian music — because I could see that music was deep. I came to the tablas through Miles and the recording of “My Goals Beyond” with John McLaughlin where I met Badal Roy.

HM: Do you think maturation helped you to focus?

DL: You get older, you get better. You learn to control yourself. You also learn what you do best. Do what you do best instead of what you think you do, or what you think you should do, or what you wish you could do. You get to a point of “What do I do?” and you go into the shed with that. Then there is the outside world stuff. As William Blake wrote, you can see the world in a grain of sand. If you do that, and you really do it, it’s the same as if you were to do a lot of things, because you’ve gone deep inside. That’s the maturation process.

I don’t think there’s anything magical about it. You’ve got to live. You’ve got to stay around. You’ve got to keep interested and keep doing it. But it sort of takes care of itself in the end. You have to be aware and conscious of it, look at others who did it, read about people who did, be around the right influences, people who are like that. But if you put yourself in the right position, it will take care of itself.

HM: Even what you do today, though, ranges quite broadly.

DL: Working with Marc Copland, revisiting late Coltrane, I just did Puccini arias, I did Jobim’s music, my compositions on Water with Pat Metheny, yeah. But I feel the common bond is yourself and how you play. If you want to eat Chinese food tonight and French food tomorrow night, it’s the same stomach that has to handle it. In the end it is you that is the common bond. The material you use can be whatever you want, as long as it is commensurate with what you’re trying to play. You adapt material and make it your own. I did West Side Story spending six months on it. I learned a lot and loved the process. I worked with the score first, then with Gil Goldstein. For Puccini, the same thing. To me, it doesn’t matter what the material is, as long as it’s high class and you do it with seriousness, bringing all the training you have up to that time.

In my case, it’s no secret I like harmony a lot and it’s an important part of my style. To me, sitting and figuring out what the exact right notes should be to make that chord just right, that’s worthwhile time.

HM: What extra-musical activities do you enjoy?

DL: Sitting in the sun, man, relaxing. And I have a young daughter, so I enjoy family time. I love seeing a good movie, reading. But I don’t have time for hobbies.

I really do feel a commitment to the education thing, I must say. I was getting adrift in the early ’80s, with personal things, health things, and musically — I felt like I’d already been around the world. I’d been a bandleader, I’d played with Miles, I had awards, and I was only 35 years old. I’m looking at the Jimmy Heaths of the world, saying “How do they keep themselves interested?” I looked into the Peace Corp, and I thought about law school even taking the LSATs. But through my first teaching experiences with Jamey Aebersold and then in Banff with Dave Holland, I started seeing a purpose above the music.

Because the music wasn’t enough. Unless you’re Mozart, Bach, Beethoven, Louis Armstrong, Bird and a couple others in jazz — unless you came on the planet with a unique and one of a kind gift, and develop it and don’t waste it — the best thing is to do something that helps other people more directly. It seemed to me I could be most effective in using the music as a vehicle to inspire young people to understand its depth, value and beauty, all the positive things we know about it that would make them a better person.

Now, after 20 years of doing it — like last night, playing with a former student, having an amazing time and seeing the rewarding smile on his face makes it worth it. It’s very personal. But to do something for the betterment of the world, whether on a big or small level is very important. If I can make a kid feel better about doing something, so that instead of having a gun in his hand, he’ll have a saxophone — I say “Go for it!”