Interview with Dave Liebman
Taken by Eric Nemeyer
Transcribed by Greg Laxer
JI: Dave, why don’t we just start out by talking about your development. How did you get into playing saxophone?
DL: I started on piano at the insistence of my parents before I could choose an instrument of my choice, assuming I was going to play music, as a hobby, as a child. In those days, everybody had a piano in the home. So I took a couple years of classical piano from about age 9 or 10. But I always wanted to play saxophone-I loved rock ‘n’ roll. My first music was early rock ‘n’ roll, ‘50s stuff- Bill Haley, Duane Eddy and things like that. Tenor sax was quite prevalent in early rock ‘n’ roll as you know. It was coming out of rhythm and blues. So that was what I wanted to do. It had nothing to do with jazz; I never heard any jazz. Eventually we found a teacher in a little neighborhood school run by a family in my neighborhood in Brooklyn. On Saturdays I went to my saxophone lessons, had piano with the father and with the son a combo workshop on how to play in a little band-and they actually helped you get a job in the Catskill Mountain resort area near New York. I was 13 years old my first summer I worked in the Catskills for $15 a week. Throughout high school I did the dance band, shows, proms, whatever, so it was an important part of my life in general. Through that, I met other musicians–a couple turned me on to jazz. And, really, that’s how it started. And that time, this is 1960, ‘you heard “Girl From Ipanema,” “Take Five,” Horace Silver, Herbie Mann Live At The Village Gate playing “Comin’ Home Baby,” you know–that kind of stuff that seeped through to those that were interested in it. Symphony Sid was on the radio, and so forth. Then I went to this club, the first time I went to Birdland, and I saw Mulligan, and Count Basie-a Christmas show…
JI: You go there by yourself?
DL: I went with older guys from the dance band in high school since we were underage we sat in the back, called the Peanut Gallery. You ordered a cola which was a dollar–amazing, because it was a nickel down the street where I lived in Brooklyn.
DL: And you had the girls walking around with the cigarette things, looking like, you know…I never saw anything like that in Brooklyn. But then I started going by myself and friend. Finally I saw Coltrane-and that was, of course, the epiphany.
JI: When did you see him?
DL: I was 15. It was 1961, and it was right around the time he was recording Live At The Village Vanguard-“Chasin’ The Trane” and all those tracks. The first time was amazing. I would say that was the pivotal event in my entire life, as far as what I do; not necessarily personally-that’s obvious-but as far as this world we’re in and why we’re here. Because seeing that happening in front of you, the way that quartet played, with Elvin [Jones] and [Jimmy] Garrison and McCoy [Tyner], the way they addressed the issue of playing, the persona, the vibe…everything about it, at that age for me an effect I’m still living with.
JI: When you saw them, it wasn’t just the music.
DL: It was everything.
JI: …there was a spirit about it.
DL: Well, first of all it was the atmosphere-it was jazz. I was coming from Brooklyn, going to Manhattan. It was, you know, romantic, dark.-all black guys. It was a different deal-coming from where we were, which was the complete opposite. My parents were great and there was a lot of music around, it wasn’t that. The thing was…the intensity of how they played, which is barely captured on the recordings we all know now and see a little on video–but we’re talking times ten, because they took tunes to an hour, an hour-and-a-half sometimes. I was talking to somebody about this yesterday. No pretense at all. Nobody announced a word. They didn’t say a word to each other. I watched every little move as soon as they walked out into the club as you do when you’re a young guy. You watch how they get the reed out. Do they talk to one another? How do they stand at the bar? What do they do? You just saw four guys just get up there-sometimes not even all four of them at the same time-and just start playing.
JI: Then the stage presence you observed was totally about the music…
DL: No “show.”
JI: …they’d get blown out of the water today, because some marketing people would have mistakenly said that they don’t have the “right” talk, look, or whatever.
DL: No, forget about that [then], no way. And ALL THIS in the middle of a club which was not necessarily a music place… I mean, Birdland at two o’clock in the morning…I don’t think music was the only thing happening at Birdland at 52nd and Broadway. The kind of characters that were hanging out there from the little I could see, from being a young kid looking over at the bar didn’t look like the people I saw at home. And nonetheless, the cats would play. I mean, sometimes there was nobody there. But it was amazing-the intensity. And the seemingly-I don’t know how to put this, Eric-the “everydayness” of it. Not to say ordinary, not ordinary in any normal sense of the word, but in the sense of, like: “This is what we do. I get up in the morning and I go to work, and I come home. It’s my job; I do the best I can on my job.” That’s the way it was. No big deal…no lights, no smoke bombs, none of this “hype stuff” like This is the great John Coltrane. It was just unbelievable. And people would be screaming in their seats, rising up. I mean you could see people getting up off the tables, hands in the air like a revival meeting, like pictures you see of a Baptist Church or something like that. It was unbelievable because of the intensity of it-especially Elvin and Coltrane, the way they would go at it. And you’re talking about clubs that aren’t large, like 60, 80 people- the Half-Note, the Village Vanguard, Birdland. I guess if I hadn’t played saxophone, and I hadn’t been a jazz musician, maybe it wouldn’t be the same. But it almost was away from the fact that it was jazz; because I had no idea what they were doing-I still don’t know what they were doing. I know a little more. It was just something about the intensity and the conviction, and what seemed to me to be complete sincerity with no pretense and no bullshit. I never saw anything like that and I still haven’t seen anything else like that. So, it was an image to me of the way I’d like to be, let’s put it that way.
JI: When did your first live jazz performance occur?
DL: Well, I was playing with my friends…
JI: You were playing in the Catskills!
DL: My first music friend was a piano player . Mike Garson. We started a little band, and we played…I said.. “You don’t play the melody with me? You comp. Oh comp? What’s comp?” I knew a little bit because of the neighborhood school I was telling you about, Bromley Studios. With that band we did little things in schools and then when I went to university…I went to NYU and majored in American History. I would do a concert up there once a year. I met [drummer] Bob Moses who would became very pivotal in my life, because he was already into it at 15, 16 years old.
JI: Is he from Brooklyn, too?
DL: He’s from Manhattan.. He was playing drums at a party of a girlfriend. I had my horn with me and we just got into it. We pretty much ruined this girl’s party, because we played [Thelonious Monk’s] “Well You Needn’t” for an hour-and-a-half, you know?
DL: But, he was already exposed and he became my guide into the world about who to listen to-everything from Ravi Shankar to James Brown, to obviously Mingus and Coltrane. He was my first “cat.” It’s funny, because I just worked with him last week-we did a duo at the Knitting Factory which was nice; I hadn’t played with him in a couple of years. So, I started hanging out, getting involved. I went to college, but I was living two lives–at night, I’d go downtown and I’d be hanging out seeing Coltrane, trying to play and going to the lofts. I met Hank Mobley in the lofts-I’d see Cecil [Taylor]. You know, I was trying to live that kind of life. The third year of school I went to Europe. My parents gave me a thousand bucks and said “Go to Europe, just go, and here’s a book, Europe On $5 A Day and come back by the time school starts”-it was very hip. And I went! I took my horn. I had [phone] numbers and I met guys… Dave Holland, John Surman-who were young and unknown at that time. This was before Dave was with Miles. I started to see that I really had to put some time into developing and working. In those days, there was no school and there was no real course of study.
JI: This is around 1967?
DL: Yes. There was Berklee and a few schools, but there certainly wasn’t anything you could go to. I studied with Lennie Tristano which was an experience in itself, but it didn’t do much for me at that point. I studied with Charles Lloyd. I kind of hung out with Charles Lloyd. But the point was there was no real, prescribed way to do this. So we’re kind of hit and miss in the dark, trial and error. As far as transcribing, or not to transcribe-I didn’t even know what transcription was. I mean, I didn’t know anything. I had a saxophone teacher, but he wasn’t a jazz teacher–Joe Allard. Finally I went to him taking lessons at Carnegie Hall studios. He was a master teacher for the instrument, but it wasn’t about jazz, although he was open to jazz. S, I really didn’t have my shit together and I was fishing. But I knew that I had to put some time in. I could see the writing on the wall at 20 years old, 21 years old. I’m going to finish school and I’m going to give myself six months, nine months; I’m going to go away so I got a house in the country and I did my work.
JI: In the Catskills?
DL: Yeah, in Kingston, right around Woodstock. It was in essence the last time I really sat down and did serious practicing I’m sorry to say, as far as every day, 8 to 10 hours. I saw what I had to do and did what I did Then I returned to New York and by that time, I had already been playing as I mentioned what you’d call club date, since I was 13 making money. My parents always encouraged me. They thought I was going to grow up to be a doctor which I was interested in and wanted to do, but eventually that dissipated into music teacher, which dissipated into jazz musician [chuckles]. It was a way of making a living, and I was doing that. But by the time I got to 20, 21, I realized that I don’t want to have anything to do with that world anymore. So I taught in the school system in New York as a substitute teacher.
DL: No. You were a substitute; you went in every day, or as many days as you wanted to…
JI: You mean, anything?
DL: Anything from kindergarten to 12th grade and anywhere in the city. Your number was on a list and they’d call you at 7:00 AM and say: “Come to Queens, we need you today.” So I did it enough-two days a week-just to live, because I was on my own at that point. My parents were helping me, but they weren’t supporting me. I found my first loft in New York and I decided to really give this a shot; not knowing and not thinking how-like what I see now with students that you sit down and kind of have an idea, like you can get a record contract and you can work at something… you can have a gig. I mean, you wouldn’t even think like that in those days. This was not a career move, you know? I just wanted to play. I just wanted to be good at it.
JI: That’s the kind of attitude that everyone got into.
DL: I never thought about making a living in jazz or playing with Miles Davis. I mean, this was out of the question. If anybody had said it to me, I’d have said: “I don’t know what you’re talking about. I’ll do this and see what happens. And maybe I’ll have to be a music teacher.” Of course, was the last thing in my head-but I’ll probably end up doing that, I guess. I went on and on and eventually things went my way. I’d support myself from teaching. My loft was a center. In the same building were Chick Corea and Dave Holland. We had a little association of musicians that I was the head of which is another story (Free Life Communication). The point is we did a lot of playing and eventually when I got my break with Elvin and Miles, that’s when things started getting more tangible. But this was a period when you really didn’t know where things were heading in the real world, just the music.
JI: What happened when you went to Kingston…you went away for 6 months, you were trying to get some stuff together. Did you follow some routine?
DL: I had a routine. By then, I knew what to do. I knew I had to transcribe.
JI: You were transcribing, you were maybe practicing scales, chords, patterns, what we all usually go through…
DL: Yes, in a much less organized way than I give it now. [chuckles] I have a much better way of presenting it to students now than how I got it. We all were all in the dark at that time. There were no methods and no systems so you sort of just did what you did. But transcribing was certainly a big part of it because somebody hipped me to it and said, you know, you have to know what the hell’s going on, and there’s no other way except to be able to do it, and imitate it exactly. You have to be able to play like the masters before. Nowadays I have a whole method. What it’s about in the end is the feel. In order to get what we can consider at least an authentic jazz feel-something close to the feeling of good eighth-notes, you’ve got to be able to learn from somebody who can do it. You know, you don’t get born or put on the planet playing good eighth-notes.
DL: …unless you’re Mozart, or Bird, who had a lot of talent who even worked too. He was doing eleven hours. Now maybe he didn’t sit down and transcribe with a tape recorder at half-speed, but he’d certainly listened to Lester Young and Benny Carter trying to play like them for a time. We all have to do that at some point which was clear to me.
JI: A friend of mine studied with a music teacher who told him: “Everyone’s your teacher, and no one’s your teacher.” The lesson was, you’ve got to teach yourself…
DL: You have to learn how to learn. If you learn how to learn, you’re good for the rest of your life.
JI: Discuss your lessons with Lennie Tristano.
DL: I wasn’t ready. In those days, there were no jazz teachers. There was Lennie Tristano, and there was John Mehegan, who was famous because of his books; and there was Hall Overton.
JI: He arranged Monk’s compositions for big band.
DL: He taught at the New School. He wasn’t a teacher–you just went there once a week…anybody could go to. There was no organized jazz teaching. But Lennie Tristano was famous already by that time as a teacher primarily because of his star students, Lee Konitz and Warne Marsh. We know how heavy that music was and what a genius Tristano was. I didn’t know that at the time. I went to him because Tristano was supposed to be a jazz teacher. I didn’t know who he was. I know now that he had a ten-year course. From what I understand, Warne went through the whole ten years. Lee did not. And it was a real system. It was based on ear training (transcription), scale stuff, playing melodies. I’ll tell you what the lesson consisted of, although I wasn’t ready for it. If there’s anything I got out of it, it’s that this is some serious business.
He was dead serious and also a cold fish. He couldn’t care less who you were. You paid him your 15 bucks whether you came or not-which was another thing I’d never heard of. The lesson took ten minutes. I had to travel three hours back and forth for the lesson by subway into Manhattan to Jamaica, Queens, and then by bus and train back. It was way, way too much for me, but it made me realize-jazz, you know, this is not just hit and miss. I went for one year, a whole year-I went every Sunday. The lesson was: play a melody, no chords, you don’t know the chords, or he didn’t address the issue at least with me at that point…metronome on two and four, play a tune. “Pennies from Heaven,” or “All of Me,” you know, the tunes he played-and you improvised off of the melody. What you hear off of the melody. I don’t know how well I could do that now without knowing the chords, you know what I’m saying’? That was number one.
DL: Number two. Scales; I don’t remember which, but I guess he had a progression of them. Also with two and four on the metronome up and down the whole horn. The most important thing was transcription…I didn’t even get up to that. I got as far as singing with Lester Young and Count Basie on ”Lester Leaps In,” “Tickletoe” and then Billie-Lady Day, Sinatra’s record “Come Fly With Me.” I think he worked his way up to Bird. I don’t know where it went after that. With piano players I would hear the lesson where he would recite numbers which were voicings. He’d go: “2, 3, flat 6th, 7, plus 9; 2, 3, plus 4, flat 6th, natural 9.” With drummers, it was metronome. I mean, he was a real stickler on the metronome. And his drummers and bass players-you know from his records, they don’t do anything but keep time. There’s no interaction. He insisted on perfect time. That’s all he cared about.
The upshot was that, one Saturday night I saw Coltrane and then I went for a lesson on Sunday-bleary-eyed and all that-because the night before by the time I got home it’s two, three in the morning, and there I was on the train the next day. He was blind and he walked around looking a little like Frankenstein. I mean, he had a look that would scare the shit out of you, man!
DL: He’d walk around the pad, kind of touching… there was no furniture in the house, and it was dark. The house was on a dead end street, 191st and Hillside Avenue, in Jamaica, Queens-you took a bus to the corner and you walked to this house which was the last on the street. A gigantic looking old house with trees over it-looked like The House of Usher from a Vincent Price movie!
JI: [hearty laughter]
DL: It was dark. Somebody would always answer the door-he had a whole cult thing. It was weird, that’s all I can tell you.
It was never like, “Hey, Dave. How ya doin’?” I don’t know if he even knew who I was. Anyhow, I said “I saw Coltrane last night,” or something like that. And he said [laughs]…he completely went into it. He said: “They ain’t playin’ shit. And Elvin hasn’t played good since he came to New York. That’s not music…” And he went into a tirade, or so it seemed which crushed me…just crushed my whole thing. After just telling him how I felt…and this was my teacher, the great Lennie Tristano…here’s kind of this god-image, killing my idol…
I was like, “Oh, God…” I was crestfallen. And, you know, after that I just couldn’t…[chuckling] I just couldn’t take lessons with him anymore. He slaughtered me, you know?
For him, Bud Powell and Bird were more or less the deal. There was nothing better. And there was nothing since then that was of any interest to him. You know, when you hear Lennie, the tapes, the records, especially solo… it’s amazing. There’s a track from 1952 where he sounds like Cecil Taylor. He was such an advanced musician…plus, he was bitter. He felt he’d been overlooked–which he was. And maybe this was worse–because of the blindness–and that everybody else was getting a piece of the pie and he didn’t. And I think he was a very frustrated guy which I can understand it now, of course, in retrospect…doing what I do now and being more mature.
The first day I walked in there–which is a joke, but it’s true–he said: “Play a scale from the bottom of the horn.” So I go and I can’t get a low Bb out without sounding like Mt. Vesuvius blew! You know, some technical stuff that I didn’t have together. He said: “You go home and practice that scale, and don’t come back until you can do that.” He was right, he was 100% right. How could I dare go in there, and not be able to play from the bottom of my horn?
JI: And that lasted ten minutes?
DL: Oh, you were out of there in 10-12 minutes.
JI: What were your studies with Charles Lloyd like?
DL: I became his “go-to guy.” This is an incredible story. I drove to Newport and I saw Trane…so it’d have been ‘66, then. I drove Keith [Jarrett], Jack [DeJohnette] and Cecil (McBee) up to Newport from New York…with my girlfriend, the first love of my life for the July 4th weekend away. Charles asked: “Would you help me out and drive the guys up?” I said “Sure, I’d love to.” They had no idea–they still don’t; I mean I say it now and they look at me with no memory of course. I picked them up, each of them-one was on 80th Street, one in the East Village and drove them right to Newport, right to the cars waiting in line. They said: “We gotta get out. We gotta play!” And they walked; they had to play in an hour.
It was ‘66, and Coltrane played. That’s part of a video that’s out on Coltrane. At that gig he played completely free, in the middle of the afternoon, which is another story. Anyway, [Bob] Moses was my friend, and I asked: “Who can I go to who can show me the Trane stuff?” He said: “The guy who sounds most like Coltrane is Charles Lloyd. He’s playing with Cannonball.” Okay, boom. I went to the Half-Note where he was playing with Cannonball. He sounded just like dearly Trane. I went up to him after the break and said: “Do you teach?” He said: “No.” Then he looked at me and said: “But you can come over tomorrow.” So, I went. He lived right across from where the Blue Note is now, over by…West 4th Street in the Village.
He was the epitome of the jazz musician. He had a great pad, a beautiful chick, and he was very hip! Plus, he was already–not that I’d known–getting into the crossover thing, that was about to happen for him. Right after Cannonball-that was his time. He liked me and we established a rapport. I spent all Sundays over there; all afternoon. I can’t say that he taught me…he certainly didn’t teach you like Lennie did. He didn’t teach me in the standard sense of the word. But, it was like: “Well, play something for me.” And he would talk to me. But, see, he dissuaded me [chuckles]…he was completely counter, in a way. Charles was a very intelligent guy-he had been I think a schoolteacher. He said: “You play better than I did when I was your age.” “Your generation is better,” which is what all generations say about the new one. “You don’t have to worry about what happened in the past.” I said: “But, what do you mean? What about, like, ‘Oleo’ with Miles and Trane?” “You mean like this?” And then he goes and plays the sol, in front of me. And I said: “Yeah! That, that!” And he said: “Nah, you don’t need that.” “What do you mean, I don’t need that?” Of course, I didn’t say that, but in my mind, I’m saying that to myself. So in a sense as I was so impressionable, he led me to believe-erroneously-that I should be myself, THEN!! That rap. You know, the rap that you get from kids once in a while: “Well, why should I slavishly imitate somebody else? Jazz is about being yourself…”
JI: It’s an illusion.
DL: Yeah, I mean, it’s true, but only at the right time. Of course, I didn’t go any further with it, so I just took his word for it. So in a way he completely dissuaded me from doing any work in bebop at that point. Now, this is before this practice period in upstate New York I spoke about earlier. . So he made me think, “Oh, it’s cool, just keep playing the shit you are playing even if you don’t know what you are doing”–because I was into free jazz, “Ascension,” [by Coltrane] you know-do that! But, my main thing with him was that I was around him and I saw him play all the time. He had Tony Williams [on drums] at that time, Ron Carter, on guitar Gabor Szabo, even at times he had Herbie…I mean, he was like… a star.
JI: This was when he was already popular?
DL: Just starting to become who he was. Discovery-the first record, and the live Russian record and of course Forest Flower from Montreux which was a giant hit and put Keith on the map in a sense. So, he was rising and rising.
JI: Sounds exciting…
DL: It was great. It would be like a guy hanging with me…coming over in the afternoon and just hanging with me. And he was very giving at that time, too. He was a real great guy, you know.
JI: Have you been in touch with him?
DL: I talked to him one time. He plays with Bobo Stenson, who I play with quite a bit in Europe and sometimes Billy Hart…So, through Bobo one time I called and spoke on the phone and we had a nice conversation, but I haven’t seen him in nearly 40 years.
JI: With all these different labels you’ve recorded on, what kinds of experiences and insights have these provided for you about the business?
DL: I’ve been up, down, in and out…mostly down after the up. I’ve started and ended more record companies, probably, than anybody. It’s very complex with recording. You need to record-at least I do with my kind of personality-to finish a chapter of something. You need to compartmentalize what you’ve done and put kind of a bow and ribbon on it, for that time being.
JI: It’s a documentary of your…
DL: …Documentation-that’s the word. You need to document your shit. At least, somebody like me does, because I move pretty quickly in a lot of different ways. So, I’m a fanatic in finding ways to record [chuckling]. Therefore I’ve had to deal with all kinds of people with different tastes. So, recording for Red Records–the guy only wants that side of me. He can hardly speak English, but he told me: “There are two Dave Liebmans, and I don’t like one, but I like the other.” I said “Okay, I’ll give you the other.” I’ve only recorded standards for Red. Another guy: “Do whatever you want!”
So, you have to learn how to deal with people-and this is the game anyway in life. How do you deal with someone who’s putting money down on you? We’re not talking giant money, but it is money; could be anywhere from five, to ten, to twenty thousand dollars. And they’re not going to make it back on Dave Liebman probably which unfortunately is the truth. Rarely will they make it back. I can count the records that I’ve made money on one hand. And I’ve made 70-80 records as a leader.
The point is that I’m not a “selling artist” and never have been. Not that I haven’t wanted to or haven’t tried because I do try to be accessible….for example you have the Jobim record by my group there. I do the best I can to balance with more esoteric music.
Number two: you’ve got to be extremely professional, honest and good at what you do. See…why I’m able to do all this is because guys respect me. They may like the way I play or not. I guess obviously they do. But they respect my professionalism, the way I deal in the studio-because I can make the fastest good record in life! [chuckles] I mean, I am fast. I’m organized, I know what I’m doing and I know how to work in the studio. Guys trust me and know I’m not going to waste their money.
Now, on the other hand by doing so much, I may have damaged myself in the sales sense. Because the fact that I play in so many different idioms and styles, and on so many labels means that there’s three records out for example at the same time on different labels. Now, Tower Records has enough trouble selling one. So, then one of the labels says: “You know, you’re ruining it by having another record come out at the same time.” “Hey, I don’t have any control in this! You’re right. It’s not any good for me, either, but what am I going to do? You want to give me an exclusive for three years?” “No.” “Okay, so what do you expect?” So, this is touchy and I don’t like it much but that is my situation and compared to others I cannot complain.
They need to categorize music for marketing which I understand. “Dave Liebman–he is the…repertoire man”; “Dave Liebman–he’s the…Coltrane disciple”; “Dave Liebman–he’s Mr. Free Jazz, Mr. New York Loft Jazz,” and blah, blah, blah. I can dig it. The problem is that when you have five identities [laughing]…they have a problem with you. And you end up diluting your ability to sell in their eyes. And they’re right. Now, I feel that my value is that I do a lot of things; Chick Corea gets away with it, Herbie Hancock got away with it, but of course…they’re established, so it’s different. My problem is I have never been–outside of a nice blip in the ‘70s after Miles, Lookout Farm, and so forth, when I had my time in the sun–outside of that, for 25 years, I have never sold enough that I could say: “Hey, man, I did this and I did that and I’m going to do such and such next…and you have to go along with me.” You know, I’m hard to categorize, and that’s a tough one for them especially if they lack a creative instinct themselves on how to market someone like me. That’s the way it is. So I need to always go out and find-as you can see from the two or three records we have sitting around here-I need to find guys who like that part of me and are willing to record because they love it artistically. And I’m lucky enough to have been able to do that.
JI: And that’s fine…
DL: It is fine, in the artistic sense. I do pretty much what I want to do.
DL: I am very project oriented. If I know my next project I do my research into it and do whatever I have to do. It gives me a real center. I love recording. It is my favorite thing in the music world. Playing live is great. But it’s gone, it’s over–it’s a great night. And in the end nobody gives a shit. With recording, you listen to the tape back and it is also over but even if it’s five people that hear it, or five million people–you still look at it the same way. This music is on disc forever. And therefore you put all your energy and expertise and experience–in my case, a lot of experience–in being able to make it the best possible thing you can in the allotted time and under the allotted circumstances. I love that pressure… I love it. So, to me–I need to record just to keep my “Jones” going [chuckles].
I made one mistake. My first deal was at ECM…now, you know, that’s a helluva start. ECM wasn’t quite what it is now, in 1974 but still…..
JI: You recorded Lookout Farm…with Richie Beirach and…
DL: …the first band I had after those years with Miles and Elvin. [ECM label chief] Manfred Eicher came up to me with Elvin in ‘72 or ‘73, and said “I like you very much; you should record for me.” Nothing happened. Next year, I was with Miles, and he came up to me again and said “Well, we have to record.” And I said “Okay, I’m putting a band together and I expect to be leaving Miles in a year.” Lookout Farm was the most different record he ever did, then, and still is one of the most different records he ever did-you know, like fusion-ish with a lot of rhythm, And the next one, Drum Ode was really different with all these drummers together…but, we had a “scene,” because he’s [Manfred Eicher] the way he is and I am the way I am. He’s a real control freak. He wants what he wants-from the sound to the kind of music. And if he doesn’t get what he wants, he’s very upset and even has been known to cancel sessions with the musicians there already.
JI: Gary Burton and Chick Corea, all these guys…..they have to play exactly what he wants, the way he wants?
DL: I can’t be sure what went on but Manfred is tough in that way. But, he’s great. I have to give him credit cause he did an amazing thing. ECM is an identifiable label and it put European jazz on the map. In 1974, I was young and hot-headed just coming off of Miles, which made me even a little worse than I am now…[chuckles] you know, I was arrogant.
Drum Ode, you know, was a real drummer’s record. We did it in New York…you know, he never did records in New York. We did both Lookout Farm and Drum Ode in New York. He’s sitting in there, and there’s like a bunch of drummers doing what drummers do when they hang out. The session is fun…those were rock ‘n’ roll days, and. our hair’s down to our back. Well he flipped out. He couldn’t take it; he couldn’t take the whole deal. He came up to me and his face was livid….he said: “I can’t stand it! My sessions are like laboratories–I don’t even allow the wives in there!”
JI: …[chuckling] “like laboratories”?
DL: …yeah, so, and: “Well, Chick Corea and Gary Burton are like that…” I said: “Well, they’re not me, man, and that’s the way it goes. And you have to get with it! This is drumming. What do you expect to do, lock ‘em in a room?”
DL: …but, the truth is, he never really had a saxophone player like me again. Garbarek is his only real saxophone player. And that’s a really European thing. Artistically, I probably really could have dealt with him.
JI: I love Keith Jarrett’s music and from what I have learned, he is very particular. Eicher and he would have to clash.
DL: I have heard that they have. But it’s the clash of giant egos, who also, though, are aiming for excellence and they learned how to accommodate each other. Keith ends up doing it on his own, anyway, and…I don’t know if they see each other. And look–Keith is a gold mine, so please, he’s [Eicher’s] not dumb [chuckles]. The Koln concert was a bestseller and put ECM on the map.
If there was any career move [laughing] that I made that I’m not proud of, it may have been alienating Manfred Eicher. That’s the way it goes.
JI: You and Gene Perla played in Elvin Jones’ group and then he started his own record label.
DL: Gene is a self-starter kind of guy, very entrepreneurial; and he decided in the days when not many did to begin PM Records. My record Open Sky was the first release. I think it was a 50/50 deal…it was one of these real mensch deals…not the normal shit. He was trying to do it right. Anyway, that was my first record as a quasi leader because Open Sky was my relationship with Moses and Frank Tusa, who was the bass player. It was a cooperative relationship and included free bop and free jazz, but with a form, still time…it’s not totally free. It’s coming out of Sonny Rollins, Ornette, and of course, Coltrane Then we also did some the ethnic stuff. .It really was a collection of our influences up until that time and still probably my most natural way of playing.
JI: Talk about your playing with Richie Beirach.
DL: We started our relationship in the late ‘60s. I met him at a jam session at Queens College with Frank Tusa whom I had known a bit from the Catskill resort places. Then when I got my loft they were regulars there.
You know, I was with Elvin, then with Miles. Richie was still, I think, in Manhattan School of Music. I think Frank was driving a cab. They were playing gigs, but not really much. I could see…well, when I got with Miles, I realized this is really serious and I would have to organize music at some point.. I mean, Elvin was really serious, ‘cuz it was Elvin from Coltrane.
JI: Here you are seven years later, playing with this guy you saw at Birdland…
DL: Yes, that was unbelievable. But then, you see, when you’re with Miles, it puts another “zam” on it, because…first of all, you can’t do anything after Miles except go on your own. You’re expected to. In those days, it was like that. And you were in the tradition of Wayne and Trane…
I knew that after Miles I had to go out on my own. Also, I started to feel the confidence to do it. Because when you were with Miles, he made you start to think: I could be that. I could have music and have a band. Because I was a quick learner I could see what he [Davis] could do, what leading a band was about. I watched him and really studied it. I figured I could do this.
JI: You joined around when?
DL: I was with Miles from January ’73 through mid’74. So I knew already mid’73 already, that after Miles I’m going to do something. And I’m recording on ECM around this time; this all came together. I said, okay; I said: “Richie and Frank, let’s do it. Let’s get a drummer.” (We found Jeff Williams.) My relationship with Richie went from then until 1991 through Quest, the duo, and a lot of stuff. In the mid-/late-‘70s he was with [guitarist John] Abercrombie, and I had this band out in San Francisco with Pee Wee Ellis. After that I came back to New York and had a band using John Scofield.
The thing with Richie was for me, as a horn player, you need the serious lieutenant to back you up. You need the chord. And Richie was my guide through advanced harmony. I had learned bebop harmony up to a certain degree, and of course to some extent Trane. But with Richie, he really got into the classical thing and he really made a study of 20th Century music. He sat down and he figured out: I’m not going to be Herbie, I’m not gonna be McCoy, and I’m not gonna be Keith or Chick because these guys are still alive and there’s no room. He realized what he could do is the classical thing and he’d incorporate that more than they did. So he really delved into Schoenberg and that genre. Because of that his music is so heavily harmonic. It was through him that I learned so much. And knowing piano, being decent at the keyboard, it was really perfect for me. We’d sit at the piano and figure things out. We had a wonderful, learning and a very, very close personal relationship. He was “my main man,” you know…we were like brothers. It went on for years and we were business partners in a way–because Quest (the 80s band) was really me and him, though I took care of the business more. He was the most important peer in my life as far as learning from and making music with. We did 35 to 40 recordings together. It was a great 25-year period which reached its natural end. That’s part of my life. He’s a master musician and a real artist, in the sense that he really knew what to go after in himself–which is the key. Because after you do all your work, now what? Where are you going to go? You’ve got to find a way to deal with yourself in the midst of everybody else-musically, artistically-and find the core of who you are.
JI: Did Miles Davis provide any instruction or direction for you upon joining his group? Billy Cobham described the first time he went to Miles’ house to rehearse. He said he went upstairs, and sitting in this room are Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock [Liebman starts to chuckle]…you know, all his heroes…and nobody’s saying anything. They’re just waiting for Miles to come upstairs.
DL: Perfect, perfect. That’s exactly right. Well, Miles, you know…he didn’t say much. There were two rehearsals, maybe; one was at Paul’s Mall, where we played for a week.
JI: And the repertoire?
DL: There were these vamps, which are now kind of getting cataloged by names. Originally, there were no names and for the most part just little two-part melodies. But they were things we did every night; the same things, over and over again. And they came from the recording sessions, usually. He would call you up and say we’re going in at ten in the morning….you knew he’d been up for days. Out of these recording sessions would come something that would be used live, maybe one out of five things…something like that.
It was very disorganized. There was not a lot of direction. He pointed and you played. I don’t know how the music took place, I have to tell you. He played slow and I played fast. It was exactly like Bird and him, and Trane and him, and Wayne and him. You know, the saxophone is fast and wild and he just played slow, which he was a legend at executing. I don’t know if he knew what he was doing in that period. He was not in the greatest of health, as we all know, because he went into his retirement…
JI: For about five years…
DL: Retirement…it was more like dying. There wasn’t a lot going on. I don’t know if it was a great period. Now, if we had talked five years ago, this would be the end of the musical conversation concerning Miles and myself. But now, because of these re-releases, and Columbia boxing them, there’s a lot of interest in the ‘70s Miles. The rap and hip hop guys are using it–there’s a lot of stuff in there that’s getting used now. I did a little tour with guys and they played the music exactly in Holland. They transcribed it, used the same pedals for the other instruments and so on.. They sounded more like Miles’ men than when I was with him. In general, it was a very amorphous, pretty loosely put together thing. It was Miles playing in the midst of the vamps…that’s what it was about with the little frills being me and some guitar, congas or something like that. I can’t say it was the highest level quality of music that I’ve ever seen in my life, but…
It wasn’t even that popular. I mean, people were definitely baffled. It wasn’t like the audiences went wild. It was usually polite applause. I mean, the music wasn’t even Bitches Brew…this was some pretty wild shit he had going in the ‘72 to ‘74 area. In a lot ways, it wasn’t his most successful music, commercially. I don’t know what he was fishing for then. And he wouldn’t give up anything. See, in the older days, Herbie could write, Wayne wrote. Red Garland really put together all those sessions [in the 1950s]-Dig, and Cookin’… and Relaxin’… [with the Miles Davis Quintet]. He came in with the tunes, he did the stuff. Both Gil and Bill Evans had input. He didn’t let anybody do any input in those years. This was the Miles Davis show. I think he suffered because he didn’t enlist the aid of anybody else, including myself.
JI: …who could have contributed fresh ideas and expanded…
DL: Whatever…By this time it was his thing and he did it the way he wanted to.
JI: He was more accessible when he came back…
DL: Well, he gave up a lot of his control to a various number of people…Marcus Miller, then the keyboard players and so on. But in this particular period, from ‘72, ‘73 to ‘75, it was Miles Davis’ game all the way and he was not looking for anybody to help. He was also pretty crazy in those days; I mean, he was more “out of it” than even other times in his life. So that could’ve had something to do with it. You know, a lot of pain, so you got pain killers…his leg, and his hip were no good. He was in bad shape. But of course, in the end, if you’re standing next to a guy like that…I don’t care what it is, you’re going to get something strong out of it. Because, as a player, you know, he’s ridiculous. He’d play in any key he wanted to. And, the little things he did say to me from time to time were valuable. We had a very good relationship; it was good right until he died. I was one of the guys that stayed on his “good list,” you know, and we talked music once in a while, But, just hearing him play every night, and watching how he lead the band, on the stage–regardless of this disorganized rap I’m giving you–the way he did it live, in the moment, was a lesson that you’ll never get from anybody else. And I never saw that before. I had played with Elvin, I played with Chick Corea, but I never played with a horn player the stature of that, who had that experience and who could command that kind of power on the stage, in the band. So, watching him every night and seeing how he operated was the greatest lesson of all for me. It enabled me, as I said before, to see that you could organize music…and I could see what I could do; I could see the way to do it.
It wasn’t just a dream now. It wasn’t that hard for me to discern what you had to do. The strongest thing of his was organizing; he was a real director. I always said, the other great thing Miles could’ve done would’ve been like a Coppola kind of guy–if he’d been a director of movies or plays…he was the kind of cat who could see the scenery and say: ”You move over here; put the camera over here; put the set like this, and now you walk on like that…” He was an absolute producer. He could see it all, and if he had had a bigger stage, he would’ve been even more influential I think.
When he came back in the ‘80s I was around it. What happened was he called me. He said… [chuckles, imitates raspy Davis voice]; he said: “Who you got?” I knew it was him right away, he didn’t say hello or nothing…”Who you got?” I said: “Are you ready to come back?” He said, “Yes. Who you got?” I said I got a kid lives around the street. He said: “What does he play like?” “He plays like me and Steve [Grossman].” He says: “Tell him to call me.” So I call Bill Evans and he flips out. “Yes, Bill Evans [the saxophonist]-your life is about to change, my friend. He says he wants you up there, you have to call him now–but come over here, first, cause I have to talk to you. [chuckling] Let me give you a little bit…a couple of tips.” Now, Bill started chauffeuring him around, driving the Ferrari and hanging with him. He started going to all the clubs. He came and heard my band-that band I had with Scofield. At that time, it was Kenny Kirkland [on piano], [bassist Ron] McClure and [drummer Adam] Nussbaum. Bill brought him to Seventh Avenue South, the club owned by the Brecker Brothers. He stood right next to Scofield. Then we go in the car afterward and we hung out with them all night. I said: “You like the guitar player?” He said [raspy voice, very quietly]: “Nah, I don’t like him.” I said he would be with him soon!! He was going around to the clubs. And just getting back into life. I mean, he had been like dead. I’m telling you, this cat was gone. I saw him in the hospital–he was 100 pounds.
JI: Now, was that from his hip injury, or…?
DL: Yeah…he had walking pneumonia for years and he was drug-dependent. He really didn’t come out of the house. But then, by ‘80, he got better. Bill [Evans] was very influential, in the sense that he was very positive. Bill’s a really open, very nice guy. You know, no show, no nothing… he’s just what he is. And he liked Bill, and Bill really helped him back…to hang with, to be with, and help him get the band together…That was how it all came together. So for him, that was a renaissance. And let’s face it, the last ten years of his life-it was great. He had a great time. He was the king, he was Miles the Great, and he was a legend. He was cool. He was completely different in the ‘80s. In the ‘70s, you couldn’t talk to him! In the ‘80s, he’s giving interviews…on TV!
I got this interview with him, in Baltimore on this local morning talk show. The young black guy and girl interviewers had no real idea who he [Davis] is. Miles comes out with his can, and he’s dressed like a king, you know. He comes on; at first, he lets ‘em really know they know nothing…but cool, very polite. Very smart.
JI: Of course.
DL: In 20 minutes, by the end, they were in love with him! And I saw him do that to nurses in the hospital. He could take anybody, and make them like him. He was extremely charming when he wanted to be. He did it to the aunt of my girlfriend, who didn’t talk to anybody. I brought him up to Greenwich, Connecticut to “dry out.”
It was just classic. He said [raspy voice]: “That ol’ battle axe, I got her in line.” [both laugh] He was great in a lot of ways. The thing about Miles is, he was so smart. And I love that kind of intelligence… he was quick… a fast study and very perceptive. He used it, you know, negatively a lot of the time, because he could see your weak point and he’d get right to it. But on the other hand, he was so smart and so aware, I mean his antennae were like this–nothing passed him. And that’s the way he was as a musician.
He found his thing and he knew it early and learned how to use it, right in front of Dizzy and Bird, and all those guys. He learned how to take out of them what he could, use it, and enlarge it, to use anything around him that he could to his benefit.
JI: Well…don’t you think that’s the way, if you’re going to develop your own individuality…
JI: …that’s the way you do it.
DL: That’s the way you do it. And you know, you take no prisoners….you don’t leave roses and daisies in the path, either. You know, [chuckling] it’s a burnt path, usually.
JI: Let’s talk a little bit about your influences.
DL: Well…John [Coltrane] and Sonny [Rollins] are the two main saxophone influences while Joe [Henderson] and Wayne are the other direct saxophone cats. These are all absolutely separate parts of the tree.
Sound…Sonny’s sound…different kind of mouthpiece, different set-up: big, robust, low register, dark, you know, real full…Trane had that metallic sound, which at that time when he first came out, was really kind of revolutionary. Trane’s sound was very alto-ish, which…maybe that’s the reason, because he was an alto player originally…high register sounding. So, that was first of all: two different approaches to sound. Second of all, the way they played. Sonny…it’s thematic, it’s very spontaneous, real bebop-oriented rhythms with over-the-bar kind of rhythms. Trane…I mean like a train, down the track, coming at you, man, he’s coming right at you! And that’s the way he was; to the point and hitting the point, over and over again. Very different approaches. Even the intensity have differences-Sonny’s more-or-less sense of humor, his almost parodying of things…even the tunes he chose. I mean, I couldn’t hear Coltrane playing “I’m An Old Cowhand,” not really…
JI: Right, or… “How Are Things In Glocca Mora”…
DL: …or “The Sheik Of Araby,” not really. But, then Sonny Rollins will take these things and they become classics. So, those are the two different trees of saxophone, coming out of bebop. Now, under them in influence would be the other two-Joe Henderson and Wayne [Shorter], because they were the major voices of the ‘60s. I call Wayne “the improviser as composer”…a composer who’s improvising. Wayne plays like he writes-themes and variations, little bits, little things…turn ‘em around, upside down, juxtapose…it’s classical almost. Joe on the other hand has a marked Sonny Rollins thing–it’s bebop, but extremely advanced bebop, rhythmically and saxophonically speaking as well as harmonically. I mean he’s swingin’, straight-ahead, it’s basically “inside,” but it’s a killer…killer.
Then of course, coming from the other instruments…McCoy [Tyner]-a heavy influence, because of being with Trane, and the fourth voicings with a melodic pentatonic approach and extensive chromaticism. It was a sound that I learned to love and became most familiar with. Of course, alongside that is [pianist] Bill Evans-the other side. They’re two branches of the same tree–because Bill, coming from the different seconds and third based voicings, that “impressionism” and certain kind of touch… triplet feel… very understated….the re-harmonizations, etc. And then, I would have to put above, maybe, all the cats-except Trane-I have to put [drummer] Elvin [Jones]. The way he plays the drums-that’s the way jazz is supposed to sound.
JI: I think that regardless what instrument one plays, it’s a good idea to learn to play the drums, to develop coordination, rhythm, independence among limbs, and so on.
JI: …and if you’re ever going to be any kind of improviser, it’s the rhythmic thing that drives it, not the melody or the harmony. It’s the rhythm…
DL: Yes, yes. The rhythm is the main thing in jazz. And Elvin is the way…if there is a way a jazz drummer should sound, if there is one…that’s it! I’m sorry, but for me, that’s it. The way it feels and sounds–there’s nothing like that. He’s like an ocean…he is the ocean. Whether he was with Trane, or on Wayne’s records, on Sonny Rollins’ records, it doesn’t matter.
I always wanted…that deep, deep feel in the swing, behind the beat, with the triplets across the drums using the tom-toms and low register. Now I know more about it and can play enough drums to be able to do it. And then of course, Miles-the way Miles played, and the way he was able to get those various rhythm sections to react. This was something you never heard anyone else do and you still don’t. He was amazingly opposite of everybody else, who played everything non stop. Instead, he played nothing, and achieved it. And my favorite all-time record, of all music, is Sketches of Spain-for all music in the world, ever. For me, that is the record I’ll go to the grave with, because it surpasses the concept of style and idiom…absolute universality which is the supreme accomplishment in art. I don’t know what it is-it’s classical, it’s jazz, it’s folk. You see the picture. And I love music that evokes images; for me, that’s the best-programmatic music in a sense and I love it!
DL: And then, of course, Herbie, Chick…and the “free” guys-you know, Albert Ayler and Archie Shepp. Chick was one of my most important influences. To me, he was like an older brother. We lived in the same building together and I was with him quite a bit. Then I did a tour with him in ‘77 around the world. By that time, he was a different person. In ‘69, ‘70, ‘71 we were baking bread together, because we were all “macrobiotics.” He got me even into scientology for a minute, when he started. He was a real “heavy” cat, man. His scope was so big…I mean, from Charles Ives to Bud Powell.
JI: When you were playing together, was he showing you stuff…”Look, try this out…”?
DL: No, no…
JI: …or, “Check this voicing…” or…
DL: No, not like I had with Richie. Chick was not a peer. He was already with Miles when I met him. Or…when he moved into the loft, he was just about to join Miles. He was just getting divorced and so forth. But he was not a peer. He was way ahead, no question about it. He’d play the piano, then he’d play drums with me…then Dave [Holland] would play. I was like a little kid, in a way. It was great, you know. 1969 and ‘70, those were great years. They’d come back from a gig with Miles. That was when I first met Miles. One time he even came to the loft to eat with all of us. It was a very exciting period, because they were finding out every night, stuff. They would be back from playing…they just played the Village Gate or something, and I was sitting up waiting to check it out.
JI: Waiting to debrief them?
DL: Yeah. I have the greatest respect for Chick. Even though I haven’t seen him in years, once in a while I bump into him. Sometimes we have e-mails together. He’s an extraordinary human being. He’s done a lot of good and treats everybody with the same respect. That’s the other thing about him: he’s very good with anybody. Everybody has good stories with him, you know what I mean? They come up to him…”Yes, well, let me hear your music…” He’s open, he’s very cool. I mean, there are things I don’t like about the music and so forth, and the Scientology…which is ridiculous…but, in the end I know what he really is, and he’s a very positive person.
DL: A force for good. Remember that in those days guys didn’t talk so much, about music, you know…
JI: It was unspoken. Nobody told you how to play-and if you asked questions, nobody would give you any definitive answers!
DL: You got it. That’s right. Cats wouldn’t give it away. It wasn’t in the air to talk, and to tell the truth a lot of them probably couldn’t talk about it. They just weren’t in the habit of describing music.
This is a thing from the ‘70s, and definitely from the ‘80s. So when you say: “What was it like when you were with somebody?”…it was like-what’s next? Of course, drugs were a big part of it in those days. But you didn’t really do: “Sit down-here’s a voicing.” I was lucky I had Richie to do that with; I had more than most…that I had somebody to actually sit and do “nuts and bolts” with.
JI: And, if you asked: “Well, what can I do to be better?”…forget it. “Go figure it out.”
DL: “Go live, kid. Go out on the street.” Now, we give more…we give too much. So, it’s gone the other way, now. Now we tell them everything.
JI: Everything’s methodized. So, now…I think one of the problems is, you have everybody in school-they’ve got the method down: “Okay, this is how I become Trane.” But, one of the problems for me, with that, is: okay, here are the notes, here are the sounds to become Trane…what you’re missing is-he was reading books on philosophy, psychology, spirituality, exposing himself to this thought…all contributing to molding the energy behind the music, and what drove it.
DL: It’s life. You can’t teach life. And that’s what those guys were into. They were into life. And, you know, that was the art form, too. I think the art form at that point, still in the ‘60s, was in a state of discovery, as we know…because it was an amazing decade, when you think about it. When you think of the development from [Miles Davis’ 1959 album] Kind of Blue to [the group Wayne Shorter and Joe Zawinul created] Weather Report–let’s just use that as a wide thing. That’s a hell of a lot of stuff which went on in those ten years-free jazz, Bill Evans, Horace Silver, the funk movement came back, [Miles Davis’] Bitches Brew, [Coltrane’s] Ascension. So, in a way, it wasn’t yet the time to describe what was taking place.
DL: That happens after. And that’s why the Marsalis phenomenon which was the right timing. Because 20 years later, yes; 30 years, yes…now it can be described to some degree. Then it is time in our modern society to describe things that went down.
You throw the Beatles and Jimi Hendrix into the mix and you really go crazy. Also Ravi Shankar and all those cats finally who were being heard. In the ‘60s….the same day I would listen to Bartok, Jimi Hendrix, Trane and Bill Evans…in the same six-hour period. That’s what we became; my generation became that. That’s why I have all these tastes of music that I like to play in, because those were the influences that I love.
And because of that, guys didn’t want to talk…they couldn’t talk about it yet-it was still happening.
JI: You couldn’t define it, because everyone was too much into the forest to see the trees.
DL: Exactly, exactly. So, the short of it is: cats didn’t talk. Usually, what you did is…”Oh, what have you got to get high on?” [chuckles]
JI: Why don’t you talk a little bit about your association with Elvin? That was a fruitful period for you.
DL: Well, I knew him from around the time I’d been playing with Pete LaRoca, who was the first “heavy” mentor type I played with in 1969.
JI: Of course, Pete LaRoca’s now an attorney…
DL: Yes, and my attorney for some matters in the past. Sometimes we still play. Elvin knew I played with Pete. But basically, Gene Perla got the gig on bass which was a big thing in our little jazz community because it was really the first time one of us was with the real deal.
JI: First line…
DL: Yeah with Elvin for sure. Gene said: “I’m gonna get you, and [Steve] Grossman on this gig. Sure enough–one night the phone rings, he says: “We’re at Slug’s, it’s 11:30 at night…Elvin wants to hear you now, right now.” So, okay, I took a cab. I was at 19th Street and took a cab down to Slug’s, East 3rd and [Avenue] B, walking into this God-forsaken place.
JI: …where Lee Morgan got shot in February 1972.
DL: Yes. Elvin looks at me and goes: [imitating gravelly voice] “Are you ready?” That’s all he says, right away; he’s standing at the bar, with [saxophonist] Joe Farrell, by the way. “Are you ready?” And I say: “I don’t know, yeah, sure, right, whatever…” “Get your horn out!” And Joe stays at the bar–’cause Joe’s in the group. “Go up?” “Ya gotta play!” We played “Softly As In A Morning Sunrise,” “Yesterdays,” “A Night In Tunisia”-three tunes. Joe Farrell standing at the bar. I don’t know what’s going on. There’s like eight people in the club maybe. Elvin says: “I’m recording next week at Rudy’s [Rudy Van Gelder’s studio]. You know where that is?” “Errr…yeah, I know where it is.” He says: “You be there at 10 o’clock in the morning, next Thursday. You gonna be on my record. Um-umm.” You know, like that. So, that’s the first date which was the record Genesis with my first recorded original called “Slumber” on it. That’s how I started with him. I didn’t join the band then. Six months later, he called me from Chicago.
And, that was a two-and-a-half-year period, and, uh…
JI: That was in 1970?
DL: That was in ‘70. It was a dream come true…to be with the guy who actually made me want to play,
When you meet him, he’s an amazing cat: he’s a real spirit, warm and open, so smart, so wise…he’s been around the block. And, you know, he had problems…he could be crazy, too, and “go off,” but he was just great with us. He loved me, he loved Steve and Gene…it was just like a family.
JI: Was it trio?
DL: Well, it was trio first; sometimes it was Frank Foster, sometimes George Coleman, sometimes Clifford Jordan, and a few other guys with me and Elvin…Jan Hammer was in there for a minute on piano.
JI: What was your relationship with them?
DL: No relationship. I mean, they weren’t the most giving cats.
JI: So, they got to the gig, and that was it.
DL: Frank Foster…Frank Foster was very nice. He was always a very positive guy, and he’s a sweetheart, and he played his ass off. Clifford Jordan was a little bit negative; you know, “White guys…” type thing…
But I must say, what I learned…of course, hearing them playing on the same tune was interesting. It was my first “heavy” stuff. What I really saw was that you are your generation. Because Elvin’s music was modal outside of a couple of standards with 2-5-1 progressions.
DL: These cats don’t play on modal tunes at the same level they do on changes, my friend. They see a B minor, they start thinking: C sharp minor, F sharp seventh to B. They’re looking at 2-5-1. They turn everything into a melodic minor scale. In other words, .I could see the generation gap. It was the first time I could really see that you are what you heard in your formative years. You can learn something else, and get pretty good at it, maybe, but you are basically what you came up with and what you heard. That’s what you’re natural with.
Bebop to me is not natural. I am not a natural bebopper. I’m passable, I’m cool. I do what I can do. But modal? You want to play in E minor…I’m good for the next year, alright? These cats-Joe Farrell to a lesser degree, because he was a little more modern-as soon as they saw B minor, they’d start playing licks. It made me feel good and bad-because it made me realize I’ll never do that bebop thing like them but on the other hand………
JI: When I interviewed Frank Foster, he was talking about his style, and he said: “Well, I like playing, like, Coltrane’s ‘sheets of sound.’”
DL: You know, he was one of the more modern sounding guys. But even when he played it would consist of a lot of fourths or diminished patterns. Fourths became the interval of the modern to these cats. You know, that Oliver Nelson book was a big thing…
JI: Oliver Nelson’s Patterns For Saxophone
DL: That book was a very influential book, because the guy wrote out diminished patterns, which you can sort of get from Trane, anyway…
JI: Of course, in that book the chords were not included.
DL: Right, but you heard it. And of course Slominsky’s Theasaurus book was known to the knowledgeable, but in a way it all kind of came down to these little kind of digital fingering patterns.
JI: Without giving any descriptions, though, about how to apply it…
DL: Exactly. So, in a certain respect, when guys would play “modern,” they’d. [chuckling] go to these things. I mean, I’m not laughing at it, but it’s not what I try to study and play. I mean, that was a patterned way of doing it.
JI: Instead of playing more spontaneous…
DL: It would be like me playing, if I see 2-5-1, I’m going to play one of those Bird [demonstrates licks vocally], and think I’m “doing it,” you know what I mean? And that’s not it-that’s just the surface. So if you play a lot of fourths and pentatonic stuff and think you’re playing “A Love Supreme”…well, you’re not!
DL: So, that’s what I started seeing. I was all of 23 or 24 years old. But for me to even dare think like this was, like, blasphemy. With my students now for example….these cats, these 18-22 year-old cats in my combo at Manhattan School of Music yesterday….they go to metric modulation without even thinking about it on “Stella By Starlight”. I’m still dealing with how to do three over four. These cats are going, like [demonstrates vocally very up-tempo section] and I’m going, like “Where’s ‘one’?” [both chuckle]. You know why? It’s in the air. It’s in Black Codes From the Underground before Wynton “went off,” and Steve Coleman and all so on. So, that is exactly what I’m talking about: you are your generation. And you are naturally drawn to what you heard the most. Your home base is what you probably got somewhere between the ages of 14 and 18 years old. And if you know that about yourself, you’ll probably save [yourself] a lot of trouble[laughs heartily] I think!
JI: It’s always good to go away from your home…
DL: Yes, but you have to know what your home is. It’s a source of confidence, a way of you being able to be secure.
You need to do many things now and probably not even through music. To be an artist, in this kind of art, you must place survival near the top of things. It used to be easier to say: “You can get by, you can get by, you can get by…”
So, I tell the cats: “You know what, man? Maybe you shouldn’t even study music” or “Maybe you should get another thing going…do computers. Please, don’t do this unless you are very serious. Don’t spend $30,000 a year for school. Do something of a little more value.” I mean, I’m getting a little bit “dark” on it, in a way [sighs] I think enough’s enough already with what’s going on in colleges.
The situation is tough and I think this country is worse. But I see that in Europe they have a very different attitude, because of state support; they don’t think like we do. They don’t have to which is good and bad. They don’t have to worry about making a living that much…I mean, they do, but not like we do. Here, when you are 22 years old you’re out on your own; there, you can stay in school for 12 years if you want, hanging around.
It’s a little different but I must say to paint a positive picture instead of being negative about it, .the good thing going on in jazz education is the diversity of influences that are starting to really take root, which are inevitable. I see this through my organization that I founded, the International Association of Schools of Jazz which has membership worldwide from nearly 40 countries. These kids are all between 20 and 25 years old. It’s happening, and the trend is not bebop, my friend. I don’t care about the Marsalis view…they don’t even give a shit who he is, and they don’t know Ken Burns….they couldn’t care less. They are doing their thing. There’s a lot of good stuff happening, very creative music…influences, world influences, the classical thing—cause Europe is less tied to what’s been going on here.
They have a different tradition. I know, because I play with the best of them, man, and let me tell you: what they do is exceptional, special, and in a general, blanket statement-more creative than what’s happening here. The typical Western European thing that you will hear, from typical cats, compared to what you will hear from typical cats in this country, is night and day as far as creativity and individuality goes. Now, if you want to talk about playing “Cherokee” in twelve keys, I don’t think so. Now, that may be true. They can do something, but they don’t do that. But what they do, man, is…
JI: It’s different…
DL: Yeah…they’re bringing in the influences. The only future jazz has, as far as I’m concerned, is this world influence, of other cultures, absorbing it, learning the basics of it, and incorporating it within whatever their thing is-and that is the lifeline of where jazz will be in the next 20 to 30 years. I don’t know after that, but that’s definitely what’s happening in the near future, and I see it first hand at these meetings that we’ve been doing for 12 years with the IASJ.
It is very heartening and very positive. I don’t know where they will work-that question is still not answered. Even government support in Europe is finally beginning to fade.
With the IAJS, we have membership which is 70% European-but I’m trying for, like, Borneo, you know what I mean? I think we will have all of that-Tunisia and the Philippines, etc. In other words, this is all going to keep going. “All Blues” may be “old” to us but it is new to some cat over there.
DL: And China–forget about it, when that gets on the map culturally. We’re really going to see this as the future of the business in the next century and lifeline of the music. This will bring it into present time stuff which means using jazz as a premise to incorporate the music from your particular culture in some kind of way. I am really very happy about this.
JI: You mentioned that when you got involved in jazz, it wasn’t to become a star. But, now everyone wants to be a star and the schools and organizations and contests are viewed and positioned as vehicles for that end. How does your organization fit in with this perspective?
DL: Well, let’s put it this way: First of all, I started it in ‘89 and it came out of my writing letters to people where I’d done clinics. In the ‘80s I did a lot of clinics-alone, with Quest, anything ranging from a day to a week. And I started seeing-there’s a lot of stuff going on. I was getting it first-hand…Denmark, Italy, France, etc. They may speak different languages, but C7 is C7. So, I thought: there should be some networking, especially in Europe. Basically, it was the European Community “vibe”…across the borders…they didn’t know each other. And I wanted to help them overcome that-put everyone in touch.
I was looking for something–and had been, and still am–on a little broader scale than just playing a good solo. And also, knowing I have confidence in my abilities to organize and to be in a position of leadership and so forth. I had done a lot of organizing things…anyway in the ‘80s, you know, I almost became a lawyer at one point and even got into law school.
I needed something on a bigger scale than just playing the Village Vanguard for the rest of my life. Because I had already gone up and down a couple of times and outside of the music itself….concerning the business, I could see a dead end. So, I figured: why not put this thing together and make a network?
And, with the emphasis would be more world-wide than the IAJE which of course existed already at that time for several decades and was not yet international as it is now. So from the letter writing beginning in ’87 I got a good response. In ‘89 I said: “Okay, anybody who means it–here’s where I’ll be on April 29th”. Fifteen countries showed up and sat at the table with me. I said: “Look, this is my idea, my plan; these are my dreams…” And I went right into a sort of “United Nations of schools.” By ‘90, ‘91 IAJE got wind of it and they asked: “What are you doing?” I said: “What I’m doing has nothing to do with you. And we’re not a threat to you, because my thing is about student-to-student interaction. The most important aspect of the organization is cross-cultural. In fact the wording of our mission statement refers to “cross-cultural communication via the vehicle of jazz.” The IAJE asked: “Why are you doing it?” And I just said, “Look, it’s a small thing, it’s personal. This is not going be like your meetings with booths selling saxophones and drums.
My meetings are about kid-on-kid. It’s eight kids together in a combo, from eight different countries-by the end of the week they put on a show and hopefully get to know and dig each other. You know, it’s the brotherhood stuff. So, anyhow, eventually the IAJE cooled down and now we are collaborating together, especially in the area of K-12 education in Europe particularly where it is much less developed than in the States.
The reason the IASJ worked was that I’m a musician with a credible amount of respect and I’m a good educator. And also I’m ecumenical because I have nothing at stake in this from the standpoint of pushing a school or anything like that. I was not at that time even affiliated with a university, though now I teach a graduate course in my chromatic approach at the Manhattan School of Music. I’m just trying to do a positive thing and use my force of personality along with my experience as a musician and any kind of respect or prestige I have to be a unifying force.
JI: It’s a purity of purpose…
DL: The way it works is the school joins. But, an individual can also join. Next year, the annual meeting is in Helsinki and after that Friburg, Germany and then New York. We’re lined up to the year 2010. Every June or July we have this one meeting and a newsletter. We had a wonderful magazine for a few years; that’s not happening anymore. It has been the most positive thing I’ve done in my life–besides having my daughter. And I also see that we will continue to grow and I can see, in ten years that I could have my little castle in southern France.
JI: [laughs] Castle!
DL: I want to have a center where we have ongoing clinics…the IAJS center. See, I have this real dream. My time is not yet; I probably have to wait ‘til age 65 which means being on the scene actively for another ten years, cause by then there’ll be nobody else left; I’m the last of a certain generation that was with the masters. I’m going to definitely outlive all the other cats, I’ll tell you that, because I’m going to survive. And then some cat will say to me: “Dave, you deserve a day in the sun. What do you want the most?”…Well, I want to be financially secure-which is not a big deal. I’m pretty good with that already. I would like to make my thing a reality. Give a million bucks, fund it and let me go-which is not a big deal. The Ford Foundation gives out a million bucks to put up a painting on a wall, you know what I mean? I do have hope for this. I’m not connected, I’m not sitting here like Marsalis up at the corporate headquarters type things, but I do feel that somewhere somebody’s going to say to me: “You deserve it. You’ve been doing a good thing-here you go.” So I believe this thing will continue to grow, because something positive will happen.
JI: What are the criteria for developing one’s own voice? Isn’t it much more than the notes and the music?
DL: It is. It’s actually quite deep and I touch upon this in my teaching with those that are already burning…in other words, guys who’ve gone through everything and reached a point where they are really looking for their own sound. There are some little key things here for which I have to give some credit to Richie Beirach because, you know, these are the kinds of things we used to discuss, among other things. There are several guidelines. First of all, you must have a burning desire to want to be who you are. It has got to be all-consuming; it can’t just be [tone of voice suggests frivolity] “Uh, I’d like to sound like myself today.” It has to absolutely be priority number one-to the point of frustration, because this is part of it.
JI: Well, it’s a lifelong frustration, ‘cause you never sound like…you’re always…
DL: Exactly. But at this first level, it’s has to be like [voice suggests frustration]: “I cannot play another note that sounds like so-and-so…” I mean, you have to be like that. This is a very strong ambition, and the will has to be there.
Number two, you have to begin to reject all influences and things you love-everything you love, that you love to sound like and that you even love to listen to. You have to start saying: “No, I cannot, I will not…I will not play that lick. It is under my fingers, my fingers will not…I’m not going to do it.” Now, how do you stop yourself? First of all, simple as it sounds you take your hands off the instrument while blowing. Second of all, go in thinking that way. In other words, I ask for awareness, and of thought, rather than just intuition. “But, I just want to play. I don’t know where I started, I just played…” No, no…realize where you started, man: “I’m not going to play that line that’s under my fingers, that I play half the time”. “But I don’t have anything else to play, Dave.” Good! Don’t play for a minute and you know what? Eventually you’ll fill the pot up with the water. Don’t worry about it. So, this is very important. You must reject your influences, you must reject what makes you sound good. See, it’s a very difficult process because it means that what you’re secure about and makes you sound great in a jam session, or whatever your latest thing is, that you do…Cats say, “What happened to you, man? You don’t sound good anymore.” They look at you askance and you have to say “Uh, I’m sorry; I’m going through this…” In other words, you have to go down before you can go up. You might even have to not play for a while. You have got to get rid of the dead weight, and the dead weight is everything you’ve learned up to that day. And that’s a toughie, that’s rough…
JI: …you’ve gone through periods when you haven’t played?
DL: Well, not ever not playing…I have to play to make a living but of course when I have been physically down which has occurred quite a bit cause of my leg. What I’m saying is it means you can’t go into situations, familiar situations, that bring out the normal responses. So if that means playing a certain kind of way, or playing with a certain kind of band, you’re have to somehow rule that out, or completely change the terms of which you do it…and if you go that far, probably you’re not going to do it anymore. So, this is a brave thing. This is fearlessness-you have to be fearless. And you have to really want it to be able to reject things that got comfortable. So, that’s first of all.
Now, a little more hands-on things like you have to start listening and absorbing influences other than those that you have been dealing with; and usually, number one, definitely outside of your instrument-absolutely. Because the instrument is the greatest trap of all: it’s the instrumental trap of “I’m great at my instrument! I’ve spent all this time…” You’re too great at your instrument! Get off your instrument! We have to stop the dead wood. Your fingers are going places you don’t even know, because you’re so good at it now. We need to stop. So, stop listening to anybody on the damn saxophone, right now. Forget about it, number one. Number two, we probably should stop listening to jazz. You must go elsewhere outside music, to the other art forms, to philosophy, religion, education. I don’t care what it is. You must find something that gets a hold of you and makes you interested in something else, and then you have to learn how to graft from that, back to you. And grafting can be as simple as a trumpet style to guitar playing. Or, it could be the way that mountain out the window appears as we speak and inspiring a new depth of color in my tone. I mean, this is where imagination has to come in.
There are two things: imagination and then creativity. Creativity in this respect means taking that imagined thought, whatever it is. Then, somehow you say “Back to the instrument.” And when you get back to your instrument you have to write, play, compose. Usually I ask for writing-a couple of exercises that capture that thing. Or, something on your horn that you don’t do, that you heard yourself play on tape. That’s the other thing you do: you edit your own playing. Forget about transcribing anybody else; I want you to transcribe what you just played. You just played three choruses of the blues. Give me that in transcription. Now, let’s look at this transcription on paper. What’s in there that’s not Sonny Rollins, and not Coltrane, and not Wayne Shorter, and not Joe Henderson? And you don’t know what it is, but it’s more you than anybody else. “Well, that right over there-the way I played that high D. You know what? Give me 50 exercises on that slide and put it in 12 keys, etc. In other words, we have to isolate what’s different-what’s you, what’s not somebody else. We have to isolate it and we have to expand it. And we do it compositionally, by maybe writing 20 tunes like that, if it’s a compositional thing. If it’s a saxophone thing, can you do it on any other notes besides high D? Can you do it on a high E? Can you do that slide on a low G? Can we do something that takes that and exaggerates it, blows it way out of proportion, in order to give you a start on something that is a thought which came from you. Practice that, and you will be on your way-and it’ll take care of itself. See, because breaking through the door is the big thing-breaking the door of “How can I be individual, when all this great stuff is going on? And I can do all this stuff by now…How can I now find myself?” Once you break the door open, the crack opens, the light comes in and you are on your way.
And by the way, after that, you don’t ever have to see me or any teacher again, except to have a cup of coffee, because you’re now on your own path. You’re on your way, you’re cool. But it means strong ambition, imagining what it could be, taking what you do play already and finding in it what’s you. And making that into an exercise, and from an exercise into a piece, and from a piece into a study, and from a study into 20 pages, and then you’re on your way. And that’s the way, mechanically, besides all the other stuff…spiritual freedom and enlightenment of sorts, etc. We all thought that way with drugs-it opened up your mind, it made you see stuff. But, the LSD wasn’t going to help you commit to the saxophone.
So somewhere along the line, you have to commit yourself to the work, to fulfill the dream, the vision. First you have the vision, then you do the work.
JI: And that’s what you assimilate, just intuitively, by doing it…
DL: If you happen to have a little bit of a spark–and I believe everybody does…you owe it to yourself to try. And after five years, the little you learned about yourself will be a lot, and one way or the other, you’re better off. Now, if you end up being “the newest voice on the soprano saxophone” or on the “flutophone”–God bless you, you’ve found something. And if you don’t, what’s worse? What’s so bad? You found out a little more about yourself, and you’re a bad motherf—er, anyway!
JI: Right…And it comes from–what’s that saying? – “The impeded stream sings.”
DL: [laughing] Yes, yes, yes, yes!!
JI: If you haven’t had any challenges or problems in life, you’re not going to develop that voice.
DL: And this rap, this whole thing-how does one find individuality, or go about discovering it, is rarely discussed; because most people put their hands up in the air and say: “I don’t know. I don’t know how I, or he, or Picasso did it. I don’t know. I read his journals but I don’t know. Vincent van Gogh-read “Letters to Theo”, you see how he did it.” That was a great book. It doesn’t do it for you, but it just gives you some inspiration first of all.
JI: The first thing.
DL: Yeah, yeah. And all of us who put in years learning what was before–getting up to a level of proficiency, of craftsmanship-owe it I believe to ourselves to try to evolve to artistry, because artistry is certainly above craftsmanship. Craftsmanship is assumed in artistry, but artistry is not assumed in craftsmanship. If you’re a great craftsman, it doesn’t mean you’re artistic, just a great craftsman.
JI: Well, we have many craftsmen right among our own ranks in music.
DL: Many craftsmen…who for whatever reason, maybe fear or no one ever pulling their coattail…whatever….have never gone past craftsmanship and tried to be individual. They have settled for the mundane, they’ve settled for being good and sounding okay, getting compliments, finding a little slot. I’m not judging them but I’m just saying that if they had just been pushed that way, they would have found much more about themselves and the world would be better off for it, I think. You must push!!
JI: A lot of musical situations-Broadway pit bands, for example-have excellent players-many of who do not improvise. They’re fine musicians-craftsmen. But it’s different than exploring creativity.
DL: Yeah, yeah. And a lot of people stop short when they don’t have to which is my point. You owe it to yourself after doing all this work to go that extra mile to see if it’s possible. If you don’t, you’re cheating yourself and maybe the world. Maybe it’s something that could be of value.
Of course, obviously, you can’t judge for anybody else, but we do…so…and definitely as a teacher, of course, you have to. I have to impart certain kinds of standards for my students and I’m very strong about this, because I say: “Look, you don’t just say the music’s good or bad. That’s not enough for me. Personally, I don’t care if it’s good or bad. I want you to tell me what you just heard.” I had this saxophone master class and everybody played. “Describe your sound.” A guy said “Big.” I said: “Big sound. Big like a big house? What do you mean, big?” “Um, wide.” “Okay, wide. Wide like a wide room?” I mean, come on, you’re talkin’ music. If we were brain surgeons, would we talk about the brain like that and go in with a scalpel saying: “Oh, I think it’s okay. It’s close–it’s over here.” I don’t think so. Okay, music is not brain surgery and I’m not going to exaggerate, but don’t you think that musicians should be able to talk specifically? “Yes, we do.” Okay, therefore when you listen to somebody play, how do you judge whether it’s quality or not? I’m not talking depth, ‘cause that’s another thing. That’s emotional and very personal.
JI: There are some parameters that we know as musicians…
DL: Musical parameters that make quality…
JI: …chords, notes that fit with the chord, or don’t fit with the chord…
DL: What is the intention? Did he fulfill the intention? Is the language within that intention suitable? Does he have knowledge of that language? If intonation was the thing, which 99% of the time it is–[chuckling] was it in tune most of the time? Was it in time, if time was part of it? Did it have good, smooth time, or was it kind of jerky time? You know, I just listened to a bunch of CDs cats gave me a couple days ago, a couple of guitar players down in Connecticut, matter of fact. I mean, the guy was okay, but his time was stiff [vocalizes to demonstrate]…it was terrible. It didn’t swing. I can’t listen to this. And he wants my opinion. What do I tell him? It’s not smooth. So, yes, parameters have to be maintained I feel, once you’ve been out there playing and you have some kind of aesthetic that you have adhered to-which is usually a result of those you’ve listened to and studied at first…then, maybe after years, you have certain standards. Those are standards with which you listen to music. And it is standards that address the issues, beyond category. I don’t care if it’s free jazz or fusion, I can still judge it. I don’t judge one based on the other, but there are certain requirements that are, first of all, universal and then there are those that are peculiar to that particular idiom. And I know enough about those idioms and you should after 20 years of playing music, to know enough about these various idioms, to have a judgment of what’s quality and what’s not. And if it isn’t, it isn’t. And don’t let anybody tell you it is-no critic, no goddamn musician. He can say everything he wants and you know it’s not-and if he wants to know, you will prove to him that it’s not: “Give me the tape. I will show you why it’s not.” Obviously we don’t need to go that far to make the point I hope.
JI: Then we would be musical scientists…
DL: Exactly, but you know, we could go that far. And you should, at least have the ability to. This is why I say you should be able to, in theory–not that you ever likely will–but in theory you should be able to say: “You know what? It wasn’t good, and I’ll tell you why. Give me the tape.”
I mean, it’s cold-hearted if you have to do that. But, you wouldn’t accept less if a cat is driving you in a bus and the brakes don’t work! [both laugh] You know what I’m saying?
JI: What criteria do you have for selecting musicians for your own group?
DL: First thing I look for is that the bass and drums have a relationship together. I’m a horn player–they are my lifeline. I need “the bottom.” So, if I like a drummer or I like a bass player, I always say, “Who do you enjoy playing with?” If it’s ever possible, I go there…and anywhere close to that. Because the unity between bass and drums which is inexplicable but has to be. There’s nothing like it. You can’t explain why that beat is right or not right with the bass player. If it’s not there, you suffer. And they can be real great musicians, playing extremely creatively together but have no rapport.
And of course, obviously, before this it’s attitude. You know, a good attitude, respectful, all the obvious things of a good work ethic. The most important thing musically is a good and expressive sound on the instrument as well as not only one way of playing, but five to twenty to a thousand ways of saying “gray,” or “yes,” or “happy” or whatever; and for sure, good time. They must have good time which means swinging eighth notes. I’m very specific. Even if we don’t play any eighth notes and I may not need you to do that, depending upon the style, it is always implied in this music called jazz. You have to have a good boo-ba-dooba-dooba.
DL: That’s jazz. Now, if we were playing rock ‘n’ roll, if we were playing Indian music, if we were playing [this or that], then there are different criteria. But jazz is about a good dotted eighth feel or triplet feel, or whichever way you want to talk about it. If it’s not there, go home, do some homework…or don’t play jazz with me, that’s all. And again I’m not necessarily saying that we will play much “walking” time. We play one walking tune a set, maybe, in my band now. But man, that tune better be right, that’s all. Everything else is predicated on your understanding of where the jazz rhythm is at. I don’t really give a shit if you’re not that good at harmony. Because if you have a good ear, you will be fine and learn it eventually. But time? Nothing you can do about that.
JI: If it doesn’t feel right, forget it.
DL: Exactly. So, those are the important criteria. Also there is the unknown, something intangible for me, because I play pretty intensely…a lot of fire, lot of energy. They’ve got to keep up. I mean, I play strong because I saw Trane. And myself still, next to him, is nothing…but, I like the fire to be hot. I like to play very soft and very pretty, but I like to play very intense, also. I like both in a set, both on a record, and you should be able to come up to it, and if you can’t…well. See, I feel like the “fire thing” is this: you can always tone down a cat that’s too loud or intense, but you cannot get him to play louder if it’s not there. I’ve had this with drummers all the time, because I’m a big cat with drummers…they dig me. You know why they love me? Because I give them giant green lights!! They say, “Am I too loud?” I say “Man, don’t worry about it!” You can always come down, and you will. But if it ain’t there, I can never light that fire for you. So, to me, energy’s a very important part of what I look for in a musician. Raw, you know, power, strength.
JI: That’s it! The energy!
JI: What was the big band project you recently did?
DL: Well, that was a project that I just did in a six-month period which you saw at the IAJE Convention in New York. I don’t write myself for big band. It’s not something I’d probably ever do. I’m amazed that anybody can do it. I don’t know how you can think about the choices, when you have five times five times five. I don’t know what to do with fifteen horns. I would just be flipping out because of all the possibilities. And then everybody says, “Oh, it’s just three voices, man…” Excuse me but I think it’s more than that.
To me, it’s amazingly complicated. So I have the greatest respect for anybody who does it, from Count Basie’s arrangers up to Maria [Schneider], or [Jim] McNeely, or whomever. I’ve done several big band records and played often with university bands. If I meet an arranger I encourage him to take my tunes and do it. I send out 3 or 4 little cassettes with the melodies only. I don’t tell them the titles of the tunes. Do what you want. Call me up if you have any questions about the harmony, or anything. So, over the years, I’ve gathered 20 to 30 charts of my originals. They cover my whole career; from the ‘70s right up ‘til now. So, this was an opportunity in the last few months to do it. So these are my tunes, arranged by all different people. I have a great time. It’s one of the great feelings, really for a horn player, to stand in front of 18 cats and have that force. It must be what a quarterback feels like. I’ve never played in a section that much. I was not a Mel Lewis-Thad Jones type guy in New York coming up……I never did that stuff. I’m not the kind to sit there and really just blend in. I never did it.
JI: What opportunities did you have to do studio work?
DL: My whole studio thing came down to, basically, one time, on the telephone, which I passed. It was with Joe Farrell when I started with Elvin, and taking his [Farrell’s] place slowly. One night, he called me. He said: “Can you do a double?” which meant can you substitute for me? He was in this big band, tuxedo stuff, top class-because Joe was the top studio cat. He was like what Brecker was in the early ‘70s, what Steve Gadd was on drums. He was the man. And he was asking me to sub for him.
JI: You were a strong reader?
DL: I could do it. I had done the Catskills and played shows. But I didn’t want to do it. I hated to do it. I used to get rebellious and angry, which is ridiculous. Why am I angry? They hired me, and I’m getting pissed off at them!! So, anyhow, the cat says “Do you want do a double?” And I remember saying: “Hold on.” And I was talking to this lady I was with, and I said: “I know if I say yes to this, it will open up that whole door, because then you’re on the list, and you go up the ranks, and that will go to this and this and this. If I say no I’ll never get called again. Because there are a lot of guys on that list. Everybody wants to be just the guy for the best gigs, you know, the best calls in New York. And she said, “Well, you don’t want to do it, right?” I said no. “Then tell him no.” You know, simple as that. So I said no, and that was [laughing] my last chance to be a studio musician. So I blew it before I even had it. The studio scene of course disappeared, but in the ‘70s it was still quite alive. I have to say that I think it has hurt some guys who did it a lot. I think it takes something out of you that you never get back. To “be somebody else” for eight bars-no good! No way. Playing a part in an orchestra, reading a part, you know, you’re part of the team, that’s alright. But to get up there and be the soloist–and that’s what this was about usually–to get up there and do eight bars like so-and-so-whomever is “the sound of the day” is harmful for me. They say: “Come on, it’s only eight bars.” And you’re getting double, triple scale. But no way because you give up a little bit of yourself, a little bit of yourself, a little bit of yourself…and suddenly there’s nothing left. Then you go out and try to recover yourself, because the work dried up, or because you had enough of this jive shit…And you think you can recover that part of yourself? You’re dreaming. You gave up something at a time in your life when you’re not going to get it back. So, to me, I was glad I didn’t do it, I was so glad I said no. And I survived. And what it did for me was teaching. Teaching became in a sense my studio [work].
I had to teach. The studio thing was how guys made a living. It was the way you could afford to play for $20 a night.
The ‘70s cats all did studio work. I knew that by the early ‘80s, I had my time in the sun and things will pretty much be like this for the rest of my life, as far as making a living and like that. It’s going to be what it is and not go up much, therefore I have to figure something out. So, the teaching thing started. It was by accident, through Jamey Aebersold. I never taught and didn’t even know who Jamey Aebersold was. I did a clinic for him and I could see I was pretty good at it because I could talk and explain. Things followed. Every musician who’s not a star has to find a way to make a living.
Doing studio work…you don’t have a chance to even warm up, you don’t have a chance to relax, you don’t have a chance to make mistakes. You have to always put your best foot forward and always sound good. But it’s not your music that you’re making this giant effort for. You have to play what works above all in the studio, so taking chances is not on the agenda. It’s the worst thing for creativity!
JI: When I first started, I was big into big band. I started out on drums, and you know as a drummer, big bands can be big fun…
DL: [whistles] Big fun for a drummer, big fun…
JI: Big band playing provided a great opportunity to learn how to read music and work with other players…But, it does not afford significant opportunity to develop your improvising skills. It’s not very much about jazz.
DL: It’s about teamwork and it’s about school funding, something that has a lot of parental involvement.
JI: Right. And it has a way of involving…
DL: It gets the parents involved.
JI: Right. You can’t do much with a quartet, but get 20 kids involved in a big band and you’ve got…
DL: Like a team and you get money for the uniforms. It’s politics.
JI: That’s right!
DL: But it’s not the game we play.
JI: Could you talk about how you compose? We all go through it differently…perhaps developing ideas from one’s own playing, after hearing the tape back. Horace Silver said he keeps a pad by his bed, so when he hears things in the middle of the night, he can capture it.
DL: [chuckling] I wish I could do that. I write purely for me, to challenge myself. I mean, I’ve never written a tune intending it to be popular .I wish people would play it, but it’s not going to happen. Most tunes-not every tune, and I’ve written a couple hundred tunes-are a way for me to highlight a musical problem to solve when I’m under the pressure of real time improvising. The best thing about writing is it’s slowed down, so you’ve got a chance to solve the problem. And that little solving of the problem when you write is therefore more likely to solve that problem when it comes up while you’re blowing. This is all magnified, but it is the basic principle. So for me, I write to enable myself to be a better, more sophisticated, deeper musician. Making a decision between a C-natural and a C-sharp, with discretion, and judgment is something I should be able to do with the deliberation at the piano in real time, sitting here and having time to do it without hurrying the thought process. But on the bandstand, when you throw me a C-chord, I don’t know if it has a flat-nine or whatever and what am I going to play? I don’t have a chance to do that. The other thing is, of course, to be able to have material that challenges the guys. See, one of the things that I did learn from Miles-although not so much in that rock ‘n’ roll band-but what I got from Miles in the various other periods, was that it’s very important with a band to raise the bar-but not too high. I have done that, meaning over the top, and it’s been frustrating for guys. It requires balance between easy and challenging. Complacency kills the spirit.
The mechanics of writing for me are primarily at the piano…unless it is oriented toward the fusion thing, which I don’t do much anymore. Back then, I would sit at the drums and come up with a beat, do layering. In general I write a tune according to the instrumentation, or the idiom it’s will be in. Harmonically complex tunes…like for Richie and me, are he kind of tunes that are really meant for just piano and sax. Then there are the “free” trio tunes. That means no chord instruments and either two horns or just me. I do a little more of that now, using The Knitting Factory as a platform to use other cats. I did it with Jim Black and Mike Formanek last week; I had [guitarist John] Abercrombie one night.
JI: Just you and Abercrombie?
DL: Abercrombie and my bass player, Tony, Marino and a young drummer. Just one night, playing a couple of heads and mostly free blowing, you know? Linear writing–that’s bass-line and melody.
JI: And what do you give Abercrombie when you work?
DL: Give him the lead sheet-melody only.
JI: Just the lead…the melody sketch.
DL: Yeah. Just play…chords, no chords, any chords, whatever. Then of course there are the quartet things with changes, tunes that are real tunes, you know what I mean? They have melody as a premise or an harmonic thing as a premise. I can come into a session and hand them out tomorrow.
JI: What is the connection between music and spirituality? When I think of John Coltrane, who you’ve indicated was your inspiration, I think of how he immersed himself in learning-reading books on philosophy, psychology, religion, and so on. As with anyone with some depth, his music was a function of certainly his musical understanding, technique and creativity, bolstered heavily by the kinds of non-musical understanding we glean from reading and learning outside of music. It sounds to me, when I hear certain players who cite Coltrane as their primary influence, their complete consumption with the musical aspect of him-his notes and rhythms, tone, technique-surface elements. What they perhaps don’t see, and what does not come out in their music, is his unique energy-his soul and life experience. The music that came through him was a function of all the things that he read, experienced and that sort of thing, not just the sound and the notes….just as the music and unique energy we each have, that comes through any one of us is a function of the “behind-the-scenes”, non-musical elements of our own lives.
DL: The spiritual thing is “heavy,” but it’s also quite clear to me. There’s less talk about it now than there used to be, because it was, back in the ‘60s and ‘70s, important. I try not to make a big deal out of it unless asked but I feel very deeply. Some people might think I don’t even think about it. I don’t give it short shrift, but I try to put it in perspective. And it’s this: First of all, we’re all “there.” We all start out cool. That’s it. God put us here for that. There’s no question about it. We have the potential for good and evil. I believe that it’s your choice, what you do with it. That’s why there’s a Hitler, and that’s why there’s a Gandhi. You know what I mean? Because everybody had a mother–everybody came out of the womb. The thing about us-artists, and musicians in particular-is that we are so lucky and fortunate to have, as our work, as our everyday work-hopefully every day, an actual means to connect. Now, the guy who lays bricks can be a very spiritual person as a human being and be loving, caring, peace-giving. He’s even to be more extolled, because he’s risen above a more-or-less mundane existence. We are given the gift of connection to sound-unbelievable. And the talent, God-given talent, and whatever it is, the circumstances to do it and explore. You have to thank your parents that you could practice the damned piano, that you weren’t out there slinging mud, or being a farmer or something like that. All the circumstances…being born in the right place at the right time, economically having the chance to study piano and saxophone, and, you know, whatever we did to make us who we are. Whatever it was that we were given, before we even made any decisions-and you don’t make any real decisions until you’re 18 or 20 anyway, if then-we were given this chance to be really connected every time we touch the music.
So that means, it’s like God said: “Okay, you’re chosen. I’m choosing you among others to have a direct source-because sound is it. Sound is beyond category, it’s beyond description. The Sufis as well as other philosophies talk about it, the Om thing. There’s plenty of literature about sound and the connection to spirituality. Sound has no words, you can’t describe it. So, right away you’re in there. We’re given the gift and a vehicle to do that as well as a life that delves into it. Therefore, as soon as you play you’re spiritual as far as I’m concerned. You don’t have to make any pretense about it or get up there and wear white robes. You don’t have to get up there and chant or join Scientology, or join anything, because man, you are spiritual. So, now, what good is that to the world? If you’re good at what you do-meaning that you did your work, which we’ve been spending so much time talking about-and that you are sincere, then you’re not jiving. If you’re doing that, then you are benefiting the world through that link…with the grace of God that gave you the link to spirituality. And by your mere act of playing, you’re doing that-if you’re doing your job. Now, if you’re not doing your job, if you’re playing music that’s below the level of depth…you know, music to, like, go out and kill…wee!! But if you are a musician who knows better, and were given the chances to know better, that I was by having seen Coltrane-to basically put it out there-and you’re not doing that, then you are not carrying your ball, brother. And you are really shirking your responsibility which is not cool. You’re not only not living up to your spiritual thing but you are taking away from somebody else who could have done that and would have loved doing it, who might have given off to the world this positive vibe that you know about because you had access to it and were lucky to have had access to it. So, to me, spirituality is just natural. We all have it. We have been given a gift and have therefore more responsibility to do it. We can have an influence and a power, beyond a cat saying “Oh, what a great gig”… who goes home and forgets about it. But if you saw something on the order of Coltrane or whatever does it for you, then for the rest of my life, you’ll never forget that sound. Coltrane changed my life!! So anything from those two extremes, any way you look at it: the effect you’re having on people is somewhere between those two.
JI: People need to follow their own path, and be in touch with whatever spiritual force that is on the other side of that “curtain” that is inspiring them…the sounds…
DL: Exactly. That’s it. And that’s why I hate above all, I cannot stand religious pretensions in art…from a so-called movement or the Elmer Gantry-type vibe, or whatever.
JI: To me, spirituality and religion are two different things…
JI: Much religion is about dogma. There is a lot of preaching that you have to do this or you’ll go to Hell; and you have to pray in an assigned house of worship. But the Spirit, or Maker, or God is everywhere. So, why limit where you can be in touch with Him/Her?
DL: That’s it, that’s it. Some of the worst stuff has been done in the name of religion. But even the fact that you need to even call it something is already, like…”Is this an apple?” “I don’t know. It tastes good, man.” You know? Now, for the future I’d like to know it’s an apple, so I can order an apple. It’s like I’d like to know it’s a C-seventh chord because I can then order it and I can tell you about it.
JI: And we have a way of communicating…
DL: Exactly. But, most important it felt good and sounded good. Solid! Can’t I take that? Sure! So why do you have to name the thing, you dig? So that’s why I get a little bit crazy about it. To me, the music speaks for itself and if you’re in there, in that thing, you’ve been blessed. You’re so lucky, some more than others. Mozart, to me, in all the history of music, I would have to say Mozart was chosen…Bird, to a degree…Mozart had a direct line to The Brother…a direct line. There’s no question he was put here to do that, to be the man at that time, to be the direct conduit, in that society and that culture. And if you’re not Mozart, and you weren’t chosen like that, then you’re out there slugging away and doing the best you can do. You’re an example to others-if you’re positive. If you’re not positive, you’re a drag and you shouldn’t be doing it and you are really wasting everybody’s time. That’s my opinion, unless you’re Mozart. If you’re Mozart you can actually step on everybody and get away with it, because he had a purpose. But if a cat comes on having to think about it–he can’t be it. Mozart didn’t think about it at three years old–he was it. You know? I think that we artists should be cool [chuckling] about what our place is, because unless you’re that, a Mozart type cat, then you are just a mere mortal, period. Period!! We’re all the same in that respect.
JI: Thanks for doing this interview.
DL: My pleasure. As good as I knew it would be! I don’t envy the person who’s going to transcribe this!