Dave Liebman Interview with Dave Schroeder
April 8, 2011
DS: What first attracted you to music, and then to jazz?
DL: When I grew in Brooklyn, it was quite common to have a piano in the living room along with a TV (only a few channels-more in New York than elsewhere), a radio and maybe a phonograph. Everything was centered around the living room. So it was almost required to take music lessons in a way. I was totally enamored by the tenor saxophone from listening to rock and roll. There was Elvis with the guitar but there was also tunes like Tequila, Walkin’ With Mr. Lee, Honky Tonk, etc., where the tenor was the main soloing instrument even up-staging the guitar which grew more to prominence in the ‘60s with the Beatles. The tenor especially was a kind of a left over vestige from the antecedents of rock…..rhythm and blues.
DS: Artists like King Curtis?
DL: Yes, Boots Randolph’s Yakety Sax, Sam The Man Taylor, Junior Walker, etc. You’d hear an eight-bar solo on a tune like Tequila by the Champs, or In the Still of the Night by the Five Satins. Guitarist Duane Eddy always had a great saxophone player in his band. Of course, the most classic recording of the period was Rock Around the Clock by Bill Haley and Comets. The sax player was definitely coming out of rhythm and blues, with a smattering of bebop. His last name was Italian, but I knew him as as Rudy. Yeah, I loved rock and roll, especially the sound of the tenor.
DS: What did you parents think about your studying music?
DL: My parents said, “We’ll make a deal with you; you have to study the piano for at least two years before you can move to another instrument.” I didn’t understand why, of course, but I did take lessons with a neighborhood teacher in Brooklyn. Then when I reached age twelve, I said “OK, let’s go, you made a deal, I want the chips brought in.” Then I was told, “If you play saxophone, you were expected to begin on clarinet, because for some reason it was assumed you were going to double, play both. I don’t know where that came from, but right away I was cast as a doubling musician at twelve years old. Therefore, I had to play clarinet first which is more difficult than saxophone, the assumption being I would get to tenor eventually. Finally, after a year of suffering on clarinet, I finally got around to the tenor at age thirteen. I remember because at my bar mitzvah I played I’m in the Mood for Love.
DS: When you played I’m in the Mood for Love, were you familiar with James Moody’s version?
DL: I didn’t even know the word jazz. Eventually, I befriended a piano player named Mike Garson and formed my first band with him. We called it the Impromptu Quartet and played club dates from the time I was thirteen until I entered college. I played somewhere most weekends in the city and the Catskill Mountain so-called Borscht belt every summer. By the time I was fifteen, I had three tuxedos and thought I was king of the world. I was in the musician’s union…entry being a C scale, a little bit of a melody…in this case if I recall, the Lady Is A Tramp and my Mom coughed up $120. Anyway I felt like a real big shot. It was great in a way, but there was no jazz education at the time and very little information available. The first book I found was Clifford Brown’s transcription of Freedom Jazz Suite; that included a transcription of Clifford’s solos. I thought, “ My god, what is this?” Eventually, I discovered Downbeat Magazine and began to learn more, but the real event for me was going to the clubs. The first time that happened, I was fifteen, and all the older guys in high school jazz band, (back then, we called it a dance band,) asked me, “Would you like to go to Birdland?” I said, “What’s Birdland?” “Oh, it’s a jazz club, blah blah blah.” My parents said ok since I’d be with all the guys, so we went during Christmas vacation and saw Count Basie and Gerry Mulligan. First of all, the club itself physically was a culture shock….the way it looked, the clientele. It was a dollar for a Coca-Cola, which was five cents in Brooklyn, and then there was that little guy, Pee-Wee Marquette, the master of ceremonies that you hear on the record, Live at the Jazz Corner of the World with Art Blakey, “Now ladies and Gentlemen…” that guy, little Pee-Wee Marquette. This was like, “Wow,” it was another world. I mean, living in Brooklyn, you might as well have been from Nebraska. This was an awakening of life in many ways. Of course when you first hear something live five feet in front of you, it’s going to have an effect on you. Just seeing those guys play their instrument, let alone playing the instrument you play. Actually, the real epiphany that changed my life happened a few months later when I took my girlfriend to Birdland to see the Bill Evans Trio and by complete accident, the other act was the John Coltrane Quintet. I certainly didn’t know it that night, but that was the beginning for me; my path started from there.
DS: Did you know who Coltrane was at the time?
DL: The only thing I knew from Downbeat was that he played soprano saxophone, and because nobody played soprano, that was very odd to me since I didn’t even know what a soprano saxophone was.
DS: What year was that?
DL: It was February of ’62, because it’s annotated in the Coltrane book. I know the exact week I was there. It was the Classic Quartet with Eric Dolphy. It was a little bit after the Live at the Vanguard recording that was fall of ’61. For those who are familiar with Coltrane, they know the period he was in, Impressions, India, Softly as in a Morning Sunrise and so forth. I couldn’t believe he played the same instrument that I had at home. I remember thinking, “That’s not a saxophone, that’s something else, but it can’t be the same horn I have?” We were sitting in the back of the club because at Birdland, underage kids sat in what was called the Peanut Gallery; the last row of tables reserved for kids. It was actually very nice of them since you could stay all night for that one-dollar Coke. I couldn’t believe the music and thought Coltrane was practicing, because it sounded like he was missing notes. Now the other saxophone player, Eric Dolphy, was much more logical, because he came from a different standpoint. Trane was already doing trills, tremolos, altissimo and harmonics, etc. That was it, and from then on, I saw him every time I could, and everyone else as well….Monk, Horace Silver, Ramsey Lewis, etc. In those days many of the clubs had a “double bill” so you heard two bands doing two sets a night each. If it wasn’t for what I saw that night, I don’t think I would have pursued music like I have. It might be just good luck when you have an epiphany…. a life changing revelation….but then you have to do something about it to make it happen. What appealed to me I guess was the obvious skill, because as a young person you’re attracted to speed and agility, which is obvious, but there was a seriousness in the nature of those guys, the way they played and their demeanor. It just turned me on that someone could be so serious about music. That was really the beginning of the story for me.
DS: What if Coltrane wouldn’t have been playing that night?
DL: I was certainly getting interested in jazz. That means everything as I said live in the city, but nothing struck me like Coltrane. Nothing ever struck me in that way before in my life. The significance of seeing Coltrane live, for me was that I was there to witness it and feel it. It made a big impression; he was really in another space that went beyond the music. I felt that, if somebody can do that, if that’s what art is about, that’s worth putting your life into. I made that decision at fifteen years old apparently without even realizing it.
DS: This was serendipitous. How did you move forward from there?
DL: Luck has a lot to do with things in your life, but also when you’re young, you have to create your own luck. It’s your parents and what has happened to you as a child that shapes you but you don’t start making decisions until you’re into your teens. I had to make a decision pretty soon as I approached college age, because my whole life I had figured I would be a surgeon….in fact an orthopedic surgeon. I grew up with Polio and a lot of time in hospitals. Broken legs and operations were my routine, and of course, when you’re a kid, you don’t think about it, you just go through it and do it. But doctors, for me, were the “Cats,” and I wanted to be a doctor because they were seemingly highly respected. I wanted to do something useful and inspirational. Slowly, my plans went from doctor to music teacher to jazz musician. Much to the consternation of my parents, the music teacher thing was a compromise, because I said, “Ok, I can play music on the weekend,” because the music teachers in my high school would say, “Oh yeah, I play on the weekend…make some money, blah, blah, blah.” That was the model, so I went to NYU and got a degree in American history, which I really dug, because there was no “jazz” education available at the time in colleges in the New York area. And I knew enough to realize that if I was at all interested in jazz, I had to be around the Apple!! I actually started with my first major in music at Queens College. The first day they gage out a required listening list which you would be tested on each semester. It went from Palestrina to Stockhausen, like if you would give a freshman jazz student a list from Jelly Roll to Steve Coleman and everything in between. I didn’t know anything about that music and didn’t want to spend the next several years catching up because I wanted to focus on jazz, so I switched to American history. At the time, I was living two lives…..in the Bronx because the campus for the liberal arts wing I was enrolled in was located in University Heights, but I was downtown every night to check out music. My first real music associate was drummer Bob Moses who was already living in a loft at sixteen-years old, so as I started finding out what was going on, slowly my plan morphed into, “I’m going to get through school to get my degree because that was expected in my family, but I’m definitely going to give the jazz thing a shot after that.”
By 1968, I was making a living as a per diem substitute teacher in New York City, got a loft and starting building a scene for myself. I knew I didn’t want to play any more club dates, dance music or any of that corny shit; it wasn’t going to happen anymore. I’m giving jazz a shot and was only going to play what I wanted and continue to get better. In those days as mentioned, we still had a lack of a formal jazz education approach and few of the older guys on the scene would talk about what they played. You would get up the nerve to ask someone who was playing and at the bar near you a question and they would say: “Go get me a drink.” I felt fortunate to even got that tidbit because music was not talked about then, as it is now; at least, this music. You didn’t go to them and say, “C7, up a half-whole scale??” They didn’t learn like that; they played by ear and by experience. We called it, “Learning from the street” as compared to learning from the academy, the way it is now. We had no way to really learn about improvisation except by talking with friends and so on. We needed a situation where you could work things out and that helped to create the New York loft scene. At the time, downtown Manhattan including Chelsea, Soho, the Bowery and the Lower East Side were industrial areas. New York was the center of the textile industry worldwide. The businesses along Seventh Avenue were called the Schmata trade because most of them were Jewish. There were big spaces that formally housed textile factories which were vacated by 5pm….perfect for musicians because we’d started playing around that time and continue throughout the night and on weekends, holidays. Lofts were very affordable. You didn’t need five guys splitting the cost like now; you could rent a space on your own. I had my first loft on 138 West 19th Street and the door was open for sessions all day and night because I knew that the only way to get better was to play a lot. We needed that incubation period because there were no jazz schools, so we made one on our own.
DS: What was your desired goal at that point, to practice, to get better, to build a community, to envision yourself playing around the world?
DL: The goal wasn’t to play with Miles Davis. If you’d said to me in ‘68 or ’69 that I’d play with Miles, I’d say, “What, are you, crazy?” We didn’t think like that. First of all, jazz in the late ‘60s was not in good shape. This was the complete ascendance of rock and roll with Woodstock, Jimi Hendrix, etc. That whole scene was at its height. Jazz in a sense had been out gunned so to say. It wasn’t like you thought to yourself, “I think I’ll be a jazz musician.” We’d say, “I’ll drive a taxi or I’ll teach, ec.” I was teaching kids twice a week as a substitute teacher, and never thought, “I’m going to be a jazz musician.” What it was though, was a community, just like there is everywhere at any time in history. It was a small community of about thirty or forty people, who were starting to work jazz gigs, starting to hang, but bartending or whatever we could do. We had kind of a commune because we needed each other. Playing in the lofts was great, but we needed to get out and play for the public, so I founded a grassroots organization called Free Life Communication. I was twenty-two years old by then and in charge of the organization. We put on three hundred concerts in one year with guys like the Brecker Brothers, Chick Corea, Dave Holland, Lenny White and many more, some who have disappeared from the scene, but were there in the late ‘60s. I even applied for a 501C non-profit status and received funding from the New York State Council of the Arts. There was a community and a need to play. Slowly some of us started getting jazz gigs. If I recall correctly the first of the clique to get a gig were Mike and Randy Brecker with Horace Silver. That was cool, but when Gene Perla got the gig with Elvin Jomes, this was a big thing within our community, because Elvin was the top of the line. I mean, “A white bass player for Elvin Jones? Come on!!” Gene was a little older than me and he had already played with Sarah Vaughn and so forth, but, eventually my buddy Steve Grossman went with Miles and I went with Elvin, then we switched gigs….another story which we might get into. Bob Moses and Larry Coryell started working with Roland Kirk or Gary Burton and so on. We were a small group of people, who knew each other and developed together.
DS: Was there anything like this going on in other parts of the country? L.A.?
DL: I can’t talk about L.A., but the AACM preceded us in Chicago during the ‘60s. They had a political aspect to their music because they were black guys trying to unite; that was a little different from us. We just wanted to play for people. When you’re young, you take things into your own hands. We just figured, nobody’s doing it so we’ve got to do it, that’s what we did.
DS: What was the music scene like at that time?
DL: In the ‘60s, New York City and the country when through an intense political, racial and cultural change period. There was the whole hippie thing, which we were a part of, because that was my age group. At the same time in a listening hang we might hear the Beatles, Coltrane, Bartok, and Ravi Shankar. We were exposed to all idioms of music. Not that we were the first people to ever do this, but by the ‘60s, you could get Folkways Record, or UNESCO recordings from the field. Someone would hand you a tape of a Bulgarian girls choir, things like that were being passed around all the time. We were being exposed to everything.
DS: What about free jazz?
DL: There were two things that really propelled new directions in jazz, the first being the free jazz movement that officially started in the late ‘50s with Cecil Taylor and Ornette Coleman. But it really took root when Coltrane gave his approval, so to say; “If the boss says yes, that’s it.” Then for awhile it became the lingua franca, you know what I mean? In a sense, when Coltrane started featuring guys like Archie Shepp, Pharaoh Sanders, Alice Coltrane and Rashied Ali, he was sanctioned the whole free movement. By the mid to late ’60s, free jazz was a powerful force in New York. Of course it never really became commercially viable. The thing about the free jazz movement…. it was not really listener friendly. If you want to turn an audience off, get five saxophone players playing at the same time without written music. I’m not talking about a saxophone quartet, I’m talking about cats just getting up and hitting. That’s what they were doing then and when we came in, that’s what we played in the lofts too. I don’t remember anyone even calling a tune or marking a tempo, until we slowly started to recognize music like for example something like Speak No Evil, Sorcerer or Nefertiti. We were completely enamored by Coltrane’s Ascension and that was the thing I wanted to do. I wasn’t interested in Horace Silver or Miles at the time, but was really interested in what I was hearing in the free jazz movement. As I mentioned, by the late ‘60s, free jazz started to lose its steam, especially when Trane died in1967. Then, as if the play was written beforehand, Miles records Bitches Brew and In a Silent Way. Suddenly we are thinking: “We can have a backbeat too and it’s ok to stay on E7 forever…. it’s ok to have an electric bass and it’s ok not to walk, etc.” This opened up a whole new area, and that’s when I got my first job with the band, Ten Wheel Drive.
DS: Jazz/rock horn bands were the next big thing?
DL: Randy Brecker was for a minute with Blood, Sweat, and Tears for example. We found a way of working in those groups that was acceptable enough aesthetically speaking. After all our heroes were Miles and Trane….Trane was gone…Miles was incorporating pop shit. Let me put it this way, if you said, “Are you going to play in the show band at the Waldorf,” I wouldn’t have done that. But Ten Wheel Drive had a pronounced jazz influence. It was new and interesting….we got to solo and it was the first time I played soprano, baritone and flute.
This was a real movement; Tower of Power, Chicago and a lot of bands like that. Some were more famous than others, and this opened up a whole new thing. You could get a gig as a horn player, and it was starting to look like it was even going to sell. That was the beginning of the ’70s so there was free jazz dovetailing with the beginning of fusion. Of course, the height of the fusion period was in the mid ‘70’s with Chick Corea, John McLaughlin and Weather Report. There were groups before that like the Fourth Way, or the Free Spirits with Bob Moses and Larry Coryell. When Herbie Hancock came out with Chameleon in the early ‘70s, he had a gigantic hit with that song, and then George Benson recorded This Masquerade. Artistically, Herbie was really hip and he created some slick stuff, but when George Benson sang This Masquerade, that was the beginning of a watering down of the music. As New York musicians, we were all being pulled in a variety of ways. It was a very intense period, musically….. Sly and the Family Stone, James Brown, the Ohio Players, Earth, Wind, and Fire and so on. These were great bands and you couldn’t say, “That’s not jazz.” Some of it was high level and it swung in its way. It was a great period to be able to choose a style to play because at the beginning there was nothing at that point assured of success. That came later with CTI Records, smooth jazz, etc. You’d say, “I like that, I’d like to try this, I’d like to do that.” That was a good thing during that period in New York.
DS: Talk about your next phase of playing with Elvin and Miles.
DL: That’s what I’d call graduate and post-graduate school. I was very lucky, but I was also on line. It wasn’t like I was just picked out of nowhere, but there is a little bit of that being in the right place at the right time.
DS: What does that mean to be on line?
DL: You’re next.
DS: Does that mean you’re on the scene and people recognize you?
DL: You’re learning and you’re getting better. You’re not jiving, you mean it and everybody knows you mean it. When the gig opens up, you or your best friend will get it because you’re at the right place for it. In those days, because the jazz community was so small, guys knew you by face, if not by name. I saw Elvin play about a lot of times because I was always at the bar watching him play. There was a familiarity; because there weren’t hundreds of saxophone players, there were maybe ten or twenty. You were kind of “on line” with a bunch of other guys. Let’s face it; there was competition and who’s going to get the gig? Elvin only had two saxophone players, not five, and once you got the gig you weren’t leaving it, because in those days bands stayed together. You were expected to be with that group for a couple of years. You’re with a leader and you’ve basically signed on the bottom line. When I got the gig with Miles, he literally came to the Village Vanguard and said, “Join my band.” I owed everything to Elvin so I said, “You gotta talk to Elvin. He’s my daddy. He’s the boss.” Miles said, “I’ll talk to him,” and he called me back a few hours later and said, “It’s ok.” Miles and Elvin bartered for me. With Elvin we mostly worked in clubs, playing three sets every night, but with Miles, we played mostly concerts. We’d go out for a month, then have a month off, that kind of stuff.
DS: What did you learn from the leaders you worked with.
DL: What I got from Elvin, Miles, and Pete La Roca who was my first real mentor in ’69, was when you’d get on the bandstand, it is total business. I had no idea about the serious nature of it. I thought it was fun, but you had to totally take care of business and the intensity of attention that you needed to come up with to get to that level was a real awakening to me. Nobody else ever did that to me. There was no other experience in my life that focused such attention in me, not school, not my parents, not even my fucked up leg. I was up there with them and they’re looking at me: “You have to come up to this now, and there’s no fooling around.” After the bandstand, we can joke around, whatever you want, but the bandstand; that was serious business.
DS: Did those guys ever comment on your playing?
DL: I learned that if they didn’t say anything, then you were cool. I was waiting for someone to say, “Here’s a gold star,” but that never happened. If they don’t tell you not to come back the next night, you’re good. Pete La Roca said, “Don’t expect me to tell you that you’re good. You’re here and that’s enough.” During my first six months with Miles, I had no idea what I was playing, but he never said a word to me, about what to do. We talked about other things, but we never spoke about music. Elvin was a much more open personality, a friendly kind of guy. He was the warmest man but he also never really said anything about music. You had to find your own way and you had to trust your instincts because they trusted that you had instincts in the first place. What it came down to was you were basically on your own, and it was a guessing game, but as long as they didn’t fire you, you must have been doing all right.
DS: The concept of not discussing the music reminds me of the story about Lester Young playing at Birdland. He had a sub in the band, and after the set, the sub approaches Lester and say’s, “Lester, when was the last time we played?” Lester said, ‘Tonight.”
DL: Look, it was a lifestyle that those guys lived. It’s a different story for us; our generation came in at a different place. We were middle class; we weren’t from the street. We had education for the most part and had choices in life. Those guys played music and that’s what they did. It’s a different story when that’s all you got and there’s nothing else. It was a whole different set of mores and conduct. I could have been a doctor, but do you think Lester Young could have been a doctor as far as racism goes? You get the point!!
DS: When we hear music today, there is often a nod back to earlier genres, but when you were playing in the ’70’s, the music was still evolving.
DL: It was a great period.
DS: And you were expecting audiences to come along with you, right?
DL: It’s true that the ’60s and ’70s were an intense musical period. For better or worse, there was a lot going on. It was the beginning of world music and fusion with the whole R&B thing having an effect on everything. World music developed with groups like Oregon. They had tablas in the band and so did my group Lookout Farm. It was unheard of at that time but with Miles, his new thing was Airto Moreira. When he had Airto playing percussion, I thought, “What’s that guy doing up there shaking a tambourine, what is this shit?” But it was kosher because Miles did it, and then suddenly he had a percussionist. You’re actually going to take a guy on the road with three suitcases of instruments to play a bell-tree once an hour. We all did it because there was a lot of experimentation and percussionists became part of that period. There was a lot going on, there were still guys playing Dixieland at clubs like Jimmy Ryan’s. There were guys still playing free jazz, and in Europe, there was a whole other scene developing. Particularly in the ’60s, I think jazz had gone as far as it could go in a certain way. I mean, after Trane, Cecil, Ornette and Miles’ quintet, how much more could you do in that genre? It had to burst and that means we had to look elsewhere and borrow from other genres, and that’s how fusion happened. “Ok, let’s have a percussionist, let’s have a rock beat. It’s ok, it’s not pure jazz, but it’s still jazz in its foundation.”
DS: My very first Dave Liebman record was Lighten Up Please. Right?
DL: Rock and roll!
DL: Pee Wee Ellis, the guy who wrote Mother Popcorn and I Feel Good with James Brown was my partner. We had the Ellis/Liebman Band in San Francisco for a year and attempted to try to bridge our styles. Pee Wee was coming out of a blues tradition along with bebop and R&B and I was coming from Coltrane and free jazz. In those days, there was still a music business so we had a record contract and management. I spent $100,000 of A&M’s money during that period. Everybody was saying, “Yeah, yeah, let’s have another hit.” It was a period with a lot of money floating around to be used for whatever, for better or worse. But, Lighten Up was a fusion band, my vision of it and a single from that record with Leon Thomas yodeling, sold 15,000 copies somehow because it had a backbeat. I’m sure that was the only reason.
DS: I heard that after Lee Morgan had a hit with Sidewinder, Blue Note Records wanted their other artists to record tunes with backbeats in the hope of landing more hits.
DL: Everybody was trying because if you get something happening, you try to repeat it. Trane was trying with My Favorite Things and Chim Chim Cheree.
DS: Can you discuss one of the classic records you’re associated with, Elvin Jones Live at the Lighthouse?
DL: Steve Grossman and I were among the first generation of post-Coltrane saxophonists. This period was pre-Michael Brecker and Bob Berg and there weren’t that many guys on the scene. We were there just before them. In another words, Coltrane was not our peer, he was not our contemporary and when he died, he became part of history. When somebody like Coltrane becomes part of history and lays something important down like Mozart or Bach, it’s the same deal. You take their material and distill it down, for better or worse. Remember, there were no materials available, no transcriptions and no doctoral dissertations. We learned it by ear, by guesswork, and of course we were playing with Elvin, so at least part of the formula was present every minute. The group was Steve Grossman, Gene Perla, Elvin Jones and me. First of all, having no piano or guitar meant we could play more open. By the time we recorded Live at the Lighthouse, we had been playing together two years and were tight. Elvin was killing it. Steve and I had a very good relationship, he was Trane to my Pharaoh, or he was Trane to my Eric Dolphy. That was why on that record, Steve and I were really spewing out non-stop lines without one breath or much space. I can’t say that is was the most aesthetically pleasing, but we were doing what we thought that language was about. It wasn’t like Steve and I sat down and talked about it, we really never did. It was just what we played. Elvin never said, “Play an F# pentatonic.” Later on as guys came to New York, they started to absorb what we played making that post-Coltrane style more commonplace. At the time it was relatively new because Trane had just died in ’67.
DS: There were many saxophonists who were devoted to Trane, some of them took the language from his sheets of sound, scales and modes, and others took on the more free aspects. While you explored both areas, I think people like Bob Berg and Brecker latched on to scales and modes, but what happened to those who saxophonists who just played free, not necessarily coping out the earlier Trane-based playing with Miles and Monk for example?
DL: Some of the avant-garde guys didn’t really continue their careers like Byard Lancaster, Giuseppe Logan and others. On the other hand Pharoah Sanders made a career out of one aspect of Trane and Archie Shepp now plays very conservatively. The truth is, that movement didn’t last. What lasted was Brecker, Berg, Grossman, Liebman, etc., because it we were taking that language and distilling it down into different contexts. It could work with a tabla player or with an electric bass for example….it just kind of fit at the time. The free stuff was really very special, and for those musicians into that, it became more like, a lifestyle, a belief. The whole vibe went beyond the music. At the time, their thing was localized on the Lower East Side, Sun Ra was in Philadelphia and AACM was in the south side of Chicago. There was a certain amount of free jazz in Eastern Europe because it represented political freedom for them. The German and Polish cats were very strong on the avant-garde. It had a life, but it was the kind of music that felt better to play than to listen to. I’m not trying to be judgmental, but I think most musicians have been on both sides and you felt great playing it. It was a communal thing with five or ten guys playing like that….what a great vibe. But when you’re sitting in the audience, it was rough. It had one thing about it, but music is more than one thing……it’s melody, harmony and rhythm. It’s juxtaposition, it’s storytelling, there’s up, there’s down, there’s dynamics, there’s shape, there’s a lot within a real musical statement, but the free thing kind of emphasized one or two things in excess to the exclusion of others. I think that’s why it wasn’t for most people in the end.
DS: Did Miles ever call you and say, “Why don’t you come back?”
DL: No, you don’t go back. You can never go home again. When you reached Miles Davis in those days, you knew there was a hierarchy. If you’re a sideman with Miles or Bill Evans or someone like that, everything else is down hill after that. You were expected to form your own band because it was the industry, the business, the promoters, the record people and your own sidemen, all expecting it. If you were with Miles Davis, you were supposed to become a leader. I created Lookout Farm and started my life, because I could see that I was on the map and there was nowhere else to go except down after playing with Miles. What else could you do? You reached the top of the line, especially in my case going from Elvin to Miles. This was a three or four-year period and a very intense mentorship.
DS: When you said, “Jazz is a lifestyle,” what did you mean and how has it changed?
DL: Musician’s lifestyles have changed over the years because musicians no longer learn by playing in a band, or play incessantly at clubs. Everyone now learns in school. School is the new club. Academia is where kids go to learn the music and they get it from soup to nuts. Of course, you’re not in the atmosphere of a club, in both a positive and negative way. It’s completely different and much more formalized now. It’s much more academic, and institutionalized. In my day, jazz was a lifestyle. Economics were much less intensive and you could live off of very little. You got up in the morning, you had a cup of coffee, and then you practiced and played all day. Guys would come over or you went to hear somebody play. All you did was talk about music or go hear it. We’d learned from each other. Of course there was a certain amount of drugs involved but that was a period. I needed guys to be able to say, “Did you hear what I heard? I didn’t hear anything. What did you hear?” It was a community and it was based on trying to get better in the music.
DS: There are lots of musicians on the scene now. What do you see for the future of jazz?
DL: The supply and demand is completely out of proportion. To tell you the truth, it’s very rough these days. They have learned a skill that is completely not marketable. It is of no real practical use, although it’s spiritual, and from a standpoint about learning about life and stuff like that, jazz has a lot of great lessons in it. I think it demonstrates the best of humanity. You learn a lot about life and about people. You learn to be perceptive, you learn to notice and you learn to communicate. You learn to be a leader when you need to be. It’s very good training in a lot of respects that other fields don’t necessarily include. But practically, it’s tough out there. The record business is over. The publishing business is done…. there are too may books and on and on. What’s going to happen? We don’t know yet because we’re in the middle of a transitional period.
DS: Can you offer any words of wisdom to anyone looking to pursue a creative life?
DL: The first thing is to find your masters; seek out the best. Then, develop your peer relationships and find those people who are on the same page with you. You have no time to waste because luck can strike at any time, good and bad. It was lucky that Elvin and Miles hired me, but I was on line and I created my own presence on line by being on the scene. I was really trying to do this. It was not a game and I wasn’t joking around. I didn’t really realize the ramifications at the time but I was trying hard. My point is that you must create your own luck. You must create things by your own circumstances. In the ’80s I was at a crossroads in my head….a kind of mid-life drama stage. After thinking about becoming a lawyer to help the world I finally decided that teaching was a viable way to give back to the community, and as well to do something to support me, help me with income, because playing wasn’t enough. It was something that I felt pure about, rather than being a studio musician or something I didn’t want to do. The epiphany happens when you least expect it because you won’t know when it happens. Suddenly you say, “You know what, man? That thing that happened, I’m actualizing now.” Some of it is pure luck and out of you control, like where you were born or who you were born to. But after a certain point you do take control and you make your own decisions. Where to live, who to study with and even what instrument do you want to play? You horn has to be like your left arm, that’s going to feel like you, because an instrument should feel like an extension of who and what you are. You don’t want to have to think about it in the end. My wrap on this epiphany thing is for everybody. It’s for artists for sure, but normal people have it too. It’s a matter of noticing and realizing it while being honest with yourself and just going step by step. There are no mistakes, all the stuff you hear, the glass is half-empty or half-full, all those clichés. They’re all really true.
DS: Dave Liebman, all I can say is, your teacher Joe Allard would be very proud of you.