Irish Times (2015)

by Cormac Larkin

“As far as I’m concerned,” says Dave Liebman in a New York accent straight out of a gangster movie, “when you’ve got that horn in your mouth and you’re playing with three or four other folks, everyone burning and on the same page…that means the magical voodoo shit is happening and for those five minutes, you’re king of the world (Le Roi du Monde!)  It’s better than sex, better than any kind of power.”

Liebman’s jazz epiphany came at an early age. Born in Brooklyn in 1946, he was only 15 when he saw saxophonist John Coltrane play live, and it was an experience that continues to inspire him to this day. “It was February of 1962 at the original Birdland club near 52nd Street in the Apple ” says Liebman, showing no trace of impatience with a story he has told a thousand times before. “I had been playing saxophone about three years and didn’t really know much about jazz, and of course when you walked into the club, I had never seen anything like it…..the girls with the cigarette tray round their neck, the once again lady photographers with those giant flash bulbs, trying to sell you a picture of you and your lady, and then at the back you had what they called the peanut gallery which was ten or twelve seats reserved for those of us who were under age.” When Coltrane took the stage and began to play My Favorite Things, life changed for the man known to his fellow musicians as ‘Lieb’.“

The main thing that I remember thinking was that this cannot be the same instrument that I have under my bed in Brooklyn. It was compelling and honest. I had never seen anything like it, certainly not by age 15. “ Actually,” he adds laughing, “I still have not seen anything like it, at age 70! It made me realise that there is more to life than meets the eye. I was a very meat and potatoes kind of guy, but Coltrane was incredibly energetic, passionate, and right to the point, and if you were sat basically a hundred feet away from it, you’d have to be brain dead not to get the point!”

The seed planted that night would lead the young Jewish kid from Brooklyn to the very heart of the New York jazz scene, to touring and recording with Coltrane’s legendary drummer Elvin Jones, and eventually, to filling his idol’s shoes as saxophonist in trumpeter Miles Davis’ group. But those starry heights were still undreamt of when, in the late 1960s, having dutifully graduated from New York University with a degree in American History, Liebman  became part of the burgeoning loft scene in downtown Manhattan. It was a hot house from which was to emerge a new generation of jazz musicians.“We were really cutting our teeth” he says. “Musically, we were playing mostly free jazz, at least in my milieu with Mike and Randy Brecker, Lenny White, Bob Moses. We loved Ascension, Coltrane’s crazy, chaotic, amazing free jazz record from ‘66, and that’s how we were playing, for hours and hours. We had a little fuel and ammunition obviously,” he confides, “and that’s the way it was. You could go down to Chinatown at three in the morning, have a little soup and rice, then go back to the loft, sleep for a few hours and  get up and go again.” Not coincidentally, the loft on West 19th Street was also home to two members of the Miles Davis group which was in the process of turning acoustic jazz on its head. “I was on the third floor, and Dave Holland was below me, then Chick [Corea] moved into the first floor. We were doing macrobiotics, doing all kinds of ‘things,’ doing yoga, etc. It was our laboratory. Actually, Miles came over for dinner one night, and you know, they cooked macrobiotic rice for him, and I was there, so I had met Miles before I played with him.”

It was also during this period that the young saxophonist discovered another talent, for making things happen. Realising that they needed to get out of the loft and play in public, Liebman and a group of contemporaries, that included many of the music’s future stars, founded an organization called Free Life Communication. “And I said, ‘Look, I’m good at this, I’ll take care of business.” It’s a phrase that any musician who has studied with the saxophonist  knows well. “Yeh”, he admits with a wry smile, “that’s what I do. You got to make phone calls, and you’ve got to unite people under a cause. And you know, the truth is that by the late ‘80s, when I started the International Association of Schools of Jazz, of which Newpark is a founding member, that’s me doing the same thing”. Indeed, bringing people together and teaching them how to play jazz has arguably been as important as performing for Dave Liebman. As he enters his eighth decade, the diminutive New Yorkerwith the big heart is in demand around the world, not only as a performer but also as a teacher and a mentor with a unique ability to articulate the artistic experience. “Teaching is an art form in itself,” he says. “You’re handing somebody the keys to the kingdom. Whether they like it, take it, or do it, that’s another matter. This message is not for everybody. The love of music, a lot of people have. The love of jazz”, he adds ruefully, “fewer have, but still some people like it. If he were to hang up his soprano saxophone tomorrow, Liebman’s place as one of the greats of the post-Coltrane era is secure, and he has a wall full of accolades to prove it. But alongside the vaguely menacing New York machismo and the obvious charisma of a born leader, there is a modesty and a generosity of spirit in Liebman that keeps him going. And half a century after that fateful night at Birdland, he still seems genuinely amazed that he rose to fill the shoes of his idol. “Look, I can’t tell you how much luck I’ve had. I mean, I’m good but I’m not that good. I don’t know how this happened to me. I still pinch myself daily. If I think about it, that I was in those shoes, I still can’t really believe it.”