Brooklyn-born saxophonist and flautist Dave Liebman is one of this year’s recipients of the NEA Jazz Master Award, which since 1982 is the highest honor the United States bestows upon living jazz musicians. Liebman is best known for his work with the legendary trumpeter Miles Davis, joining his band in 1973 for a 16-month stint and playing on two studio albums, the final ones that Davis would record for the rest of the decade, as well as several live bootleg concerts that are available.
I spoke with the artist about his thoughts on winning this award, his history in Japan, and his intriguing relationship with Miles.
How is one picked to be an NEA Jazz Master?
This is a very good question, which I hope to find out at the ceremony [laughs]…I think past inductees are a part of it—I have no idea. I can’t wait to know, assuming they will tell me the process.
Did you have to campaign for it?
Absolutely not; this was a phone call that came out of nowhere. I think my boss at the Manhattan School of Music, Justin DiCioccio, said he recommended [me], but the truth is, if you go to the site right now, you can put yourself in…the public is free to nominate anybody on the website. So that’s all I know about the process. How it goes from there to deciding [the inductees], I don’t really know, and I’m curious to find out.
You’ve played with Japanese artists and appeared on their albums since the early ’70s. How did that come about, and what were your impressions from visiting Japan through the years?
Of course, I had a lot of action in the ’70s and into the ’80s, but not so much in the last 10 to 15 years. First of all, the Japanese audience at that time was fantastic, and of course Miles Davis was a gigantic hero. The fact that I was with Miles put me right away into a special arena, and sure enough as soon as I got there I recorded. When I was on my first tour with Miles in Japan—it was the only time I went with Miles to Japan—I recorded my first record as a leader, because Stan Getz’s group was there and the rhythm section was ready to go (Jack DeJonette, RIchie Beirach, Dave Holland-called First Visit). I recorded with Abbey Lincoln also that week. In those days, when you went to Japan somehow you ended up with record dates. They were very, very enthusiastic, and business was good.
And then I had, of course, a long-term relationship with Terumasa Hino, the trumpet player, and drummer Motohiko, his brother who passed away a few years ago. I worked many times with the Hinos in Japan at a lot of festivals. Most notably there were two big concerts that I did in the ’80s—one for John Coltrane with Wayne Shorter and then in the ’90s with Michael Brecker, again for Trane ten years later. But as I said, not so much in the last ten to fifteen years. It was fascinating how deep the Japanese audience got into the music and how enthusiastic they were. But it seems to have faded, from what I understand. This generation is not as interested as before. So I can’t speak about the present jazz situation there, but I certainly enjoyed my visits.
Why do you think the Japanese had such an interest and enthusiasm for jazz?
I don’t know. I think they were fascinated by anything American, first of all. They probably loved Dolly Parton, or Sting, or whomever. I think they really liked Western culture. They were fairly prosperous during that period and when prosperity comes, people have more time to do leisure activities, enjoy culture and arts and so forth.
I think the Japanese temperament in general, the arts of Japan—everything from the sword stuff to the tea ceremony to the kimonos to the shakuhachi—they’re a really high class, sophisticated culture; that’s part of their being. And jazz, being as sophisticated as it is appealed to them. I think that’s part of what made them like it more than other cultures in Asia for example. I don’t see China—although we don’t know yet—embracing it the way Japan did, just from the difference of their M.O., the way they are as people. Japan is culturally kind of like the equivalent in Europe of the Germans, who are also very musically sophisticated and are really the best audience to play for as far as educated goes.
When was the last you played in Japan?
I think 2004 or ’05, we did a festival in Kyoto celebrating the history of the city; it was a special festival and I played with my regular working group of the last twenty years. I think that was the last time. You know, in general they just really appreciate art.
You recently toured Europe. Was there any one place where you received the biggest reception?
Germany is very enthusiastic, and Paris, of course—I play a lot there at the jazz club the Sunset. The audience in Croatia was incredible—we played in Zagreb, and we walked out and it was like a rock concert; they were cheering and screaming before we hit a note. That was a few weeks before my group’s tour. It was with the “Saxophone Summit” in November….Joe Lovano and Ravi Coltrane ….an amazing reaction. They love the music in Europe, and they still have funding from the government, which in the end is what it’s about—they are not entrepreneurial, concerned with how many seats are filled; they get a certain stipend, and most of these places are supported by government, city, local, or province money.
You have a degree in American history from NYU. How did that color your conversations with other musicians on the road or your overall take on jazz in the U.S.?
I think my interest in history, which I always had, what it gave to me was a kind of deeper understanding of how things work. History repeats itself, and when you know history you see the same things happen over and over again, like right now in our present time—to see how things move on end evolve and devolve, and so forth. Specifically about the music, the history of jazz is a part of American history; it’s an important part of the 20th century and has a whole history of its own.
I think that America had a special culture, a special place in the overall world continuum. It’s really the only place that I think jazz could have happened, at least in the history of the 20th century. It was the right time and the right place with city and urban environments mixing people from all over the world—you know….immigrants. It was and still is like a big bouillabaisse of people coming from all over, starting in New Orleans and working its way to Chicago and then New York. That was something unique to America which went along with the American spirit, whatever that may be. It’s different now, but jazz is certainly part of the history of the 20th century.
The first time you went to Japan, did this kind of background knowledge reflect the way you saw Japan?
I’ll be honest with you: the first time I went in 1973 was with Miles Davis, and when I landed there and looked at the way it was, I said, this is amazing, how could they have ever though that they could beat the United States in World War II? I underestimated [them]…after three weeks there, I understood very well how they work. It’s a very disciplined society and a very top-down kind of thing, things work and get done. On the stage, you don’t even have to move a microphone; everything’s done for you, perfectly well. They’re very correct and it’s quite impressive.
Everyone who goes to Japan says the same thing. At least, in those days….. how the trains worked, how good the food was, how clean everything was, how service was—you know, this is something that we’re not so used to in America, and we were always very impressed with the Japanese way of living on a day-to-day level. I made some very good friends there and enjoyed the people. They have a great sense of humor and love to have a good time; they love to drink their beer and saké, and smoke cigarettes and talk [laughs]. They’re a great culture, and I enjoyed my days there very much, especially in the ’70s and ’80s.
When you first went there, was there anything that Miles prepared you for?
Not really, but he was treated like a superstar, of course. The whole band was. In those days.You walked away with gifts, watches, tape recorders—they were very generous, and this wasn’t just when I was with Miles. When I went to Japan, the promoters and people who hosted with you were very generous, thoughtful and nice. It was great to go to Japan; you felt you were treated like an artist, treated with respect. And as I said, great food, great hotels…musicians were treated very well.
In the liner notes to the reissue of Dark Magus [a live Davis album recorded in 1974 and released three years later in Japan], you wrote, “For many of us the style we played with Miles was unique—we would never play that way again.” Can you give us some examples of that?
Keith Jarrett. Chick Corea. Wayne Shorter. Even Coltrane. We’d have to be a little more specific musically, and this is not the place for it, but almost to the man—you’ve probably got about 20 to 30 guys who played with Miles—a good percentage of them played a certain way with him that you never heard them do again. I’m not 100 percent accurate, but in general, he brought something out that he heard and wanted from you. He didn’t say much to me, and as I know with the other guys, he didn’t say much at all. It was just the way he saw your potential. Somehow, he had you playing like you never played before, and it most cases, not after [laughs].
He had a very high level of perception which of course he used both negatively and positively. Some stories about him are definitely true. But on the positive side, he could really see what your potential was, and I’m not going to say he mentored you….he didn’t do that…he wasn’t that kind of guy. But he put you in a situation where you sort of had to play a certain way. It’s hard to describe and I am generalizing of course but somehow he knew more than it appeared [laughs]. I mean, that’s why he was Miles Davis.
Do you know why Dark Magus that album originally released only in Japan?
I don’t know, but the Plugged Nickel was another one, from 1965, which only existed as a double record until it was finally put into the box [The Complete Live at the Plugged Nickel 1965, released in 1995]. It could be contractual, it could be that his live stuff wasn’t necessary, maybe Miles had other commitments; I really don’t know. But I’m glad these things finally came out.
Herbie Hancock also cut a lot records made especially for Japan.
Again, the Japanese were very supportive of your art—the way you wanted to do things. I mean, they had input and all that, but basically they let you do what you wanted. Once you had that respect and a certain kind of popularity or reputation, they were pretty cool musically although, they’re very biased toward standards…. the Great American Songbook. In one way they are actually quite conservative and they’re not free jazz fanatics and so on. But within a certain area you were pretty free as far as the actual playing was concerned.
Going back to the Dark Magus commentary, you mention that the end of the song “WiIi” was originally called “For Dave”—was Miles Davis referring to you?
We used to play it every night with me on flute….he would play the keyboard at the beginning of it. One night I said: “What do you call this?” I don’t know if he was being offhand or funny or what: “For Dave.” So when I recorded it later on, I just added a little bit and called it by that name.
Miles was known to name tracks after people whom he admired or worked with. Why did he name that one cut “Willie Nelson” [recorded in 1970]?
Miles’ manager [Mark Rothbaum] also managed Willie Nelson I believe.
What songs would you have most wanted to play with Miles, since your time with him was so experimental?
Well, I’m a jazz musician, and what I played with Miles was not really jazz. I mean, it was improvisation, but as you know, from Dark Magusor On the Corner, this is a certain stage of Miles’ evolution, where the backbeat was important. Call it rock or funk or whatever but it certainly wasn’t jazz, à la the quintet from ten years earlier or with Coltrane. So I must say that in that period when I was there, though I was so glad to be there, proud and very grateful to be chosen by Miles Davis to play with him, but I must say I had to tell myself once in a while, this would have been really great if it was ten years earlier iff I could have been Wayne Shorter [laughs]. Whether I could have been or couldn’t have been….well that’s another story…
But musically, I can’t say that during that time I was that knocked out by the music. Thirty years later when I rewrote [Dark Magus’ liner] notes, and when I did the notes to [Miles’ 1974 album] Get Up with It, I had a better appreciation of it than when I was playing the music. I would have liked to have been there for the second great quintet period in the ’60s or in Trane’s or whatever.
Any songs in particular you want to point to?
“Agitation,” “Paraphernalia,” that stuff they played with the band that had Chick Corea and Jack [DeJohnette]. There was great music there; Miles’ ’60s bands were just fantastic…they were the cutting edge of the stuff. I mean if you put that together with Coltrane it doesn’t go much further for me…. that’s it.
What did you think of the live albums Miles Davis later cut in Japan with his next group?
Agharta and Pangaea are more of what we were doing when I was with Miles—sound and color and so forth. And I can’t say I’m intimately familiar with those records. Let’s put it this way. From ’73 to ’75, except for Sonny Fortune taking my place, the band stayed pretty much the same except. These live records are all of a piece….Dark Magus, Pangaea, Agharta….itt’s all like one concert over and over again in the end, you know? That’s what he did and those records captured what his live gig was like. We played pretty much the same set every night.
Did Miles ever share with you the inspiration for certain song titles?
I don’t think he cared at all about song titles; I think it was after the fact. I would imagine that in some cases he didn’t even give them the song titles; he would just say, “Put what you want on it.” The thing about Miles….he was a very literal person—what you see is what you get. He wasn’t making song titles to suggest nirvana or anything like that, you know what I mean? He was a nuts and bolts kind of guy with a real work ethic when he was doing music, and titles to him, I don’t think, had any significance. Okay, he called something “Tutu” or “Malcolm” or something like that—whatever things that were obviously on the plate, but I don’t think he sat down and said, “Hmm, this tune reminds me of a sunset, so let’s call it ‘Sunset.’” He wasn’t like that…he’d say something off the top of his head. I can’t tell you that’s true, but that appears to have been the case.
As a jazz composer, how do you approach song titles?
I have several hundred tunes, and I’d say about 70 to 80 percent of them, I could tell you why I wrote them, what the vibe was, the exact story….basically the title captures it. I’m very programmatic. To me, it’s like a kind of picture show—I always see something in my mind. If you say “red,” I know what that sounds like. Talking about Japan, I have a tune, “Hiroshima Memorial,” because I stood there… thought about it and wrote a song to commemorate that event. For me, I work very well with images. Other musicians are fine with Piece Number 2, Piece Number 1. It doesn’t matter for them. I think for the listener, it’s not really important. They get what they get out of it, but for the creator, whatever works is what you do, and for me, it works when I have a programmatic idea in front that I’m trying to capture—a person, a place, a thing, an event—the complete opposite of what I’m talking about with Miles [laughs]!
What were some of Miles’ tricks or quirks as a conductor of the band that you enjoyed?
In that period, he conducted. You’ve got to remember, up till that time he walked off the stage when he was finished with his solo. Now on YouTube, you can see all that stuff. But in my period, by that time he was on the stage, back turned to the audience, and really cutting you in and out. I mean, you didn’t finish when you were finished…..you finished when he kind of signaled you or signaled the next guy or came in or started playing the trumpet. We didn’t have choruses; it wasn’t song forms. We were just playing on “Vamp” vamps. So he would just kind of interrupt you or cut the band out–you’ll notice in a lot of videos that I’m in the middle of my solo and he’ll just stop the rhythm section.
In normal language, that would be called “stop time,” and usually that would be allotted for a certain amount of bars…like four measures of time quite often. In this case, he would just cut it out and then cut it back in…you had no idea what he was doing. He was very hands-on during my period, and again, it was the complete opposite of the way he was historically from the ’40s, let alone the ’50s and ’60s.
Was this something that you grew accustomed to over time, or was it always a challenge?
It was tricky, you know? Let’s put it this way: because he stayed on the stage, it lent a certain atmosphere—I’m going to say tension. Miles was there, watching you. If he walked off the stage, you would have had to feel differently. But with him looming over you, you had to be ready, because you never knew when he was going to point to you or what he was going to do. When you watch the videos with Wayne or with Coltrane he’s not there so the soloists do what they want and finish when they want, within reason of course…more of a typical jazz setting. In my period he was there. It could be a little weird sometimes, but of course you got used to it.
What was the nicest thing he ever said about you?
He said: “You’ve got no color. You’re not black, you’re not white; I don’t know what you are.”
How about the harshest criticism?
He never really said anything to me; we got along very well. I hung with him a lot—he didn’t sleep, and he liked to keep it going, shall we say. Now I was a young guy and ready to do whatever to stay around him. This was a once in a lifetime thing that was happening and I was going to milk it for all I could. We got along, you know? I was an enabler [laughs] in some ways, and he was pretty cool with me…even when I left, I gave him notice. He said: “You’re gonna go and play that old sh*t.” I said, “Well, you did. If I skipped it, how would I be able to look at myself?” Then he put his hand in the air [saying]: “Ahhh, don’t give me that.” He was cute; it was in Brazil, you know?
I saw him over the years, one time in the hospital on a New Year’s Day if I remember correctly. The last time I saw him at that ’87 concert in Japan that I mentioned with Wayne Shorter. I had recommended Bill Evans, who became the first saxophone player in the ’80s when Miles came back. He took my word for it.. I guess he respected me, I don’t know what it was, but I got along with him. I didn’t have any problem with Miles.
Why did you decide to leave his group?
I was ready. In those days, you were a sideman to a leader….this is the way it went…basically an apprenticeship. You were expected to be with a guy who was known. Once that happened, you were also expected—by the audience and by the business, by the promoters and the record companies—to have music of your own to represent what you felt. I had just come from jazz drummer Elvin Jones for two years directly into Miles Davis. I had the stamp of approval from two of the greats of all time, and that’s why when I got to Japan they said: “Okay, you want to make a record?” It was expected that after Miles Davis you had to do your own thing, and I was ready. By ‘74, I had my guys ready to go, and I told him that. I had a record out with ECM and was about to make another one so it was time to make my move. And as I said, being honest with you thugh I enjoyed being with Miles, and of course the prestige of being Miles Davis’ saxophone player in the line of Coltrane and Wayne Shorter and so forth, as I said the music didn’t thrill me that much. I had to make a move.
You still kept in touch with Miles after that?
Yeah. I wasn’t bosom buddy friends with him, but we had a cordial relationship and we did spend time together. He was cool with me, and I saw sides of him that other people didn’t see. Of course he could be pretty crazy, but he was also pretty straight and loyal to some of his friends—he had a hairdresser guy that he supported; he took care of other guys at times. He could be generous also. Like a lot of these guys who are bigger than life from Elvis to Sinatra to Michael Jackson, Sinatra….these are complicated people, but you can’t tell a book by its cover, and when you get to know somebody you see another side of them. Miles could be very, very nice. What I learned was…after all he was the biggest star I was around in my life…that unless they have some kind of way to keep people away, they’ll never have a moment’s peace. They just have to. Otherwise, everybody walks right up to them and wants something from them, so in a way they have to be defensive. That’s how it seems to me at least.
There are obviously many positive things that come from being associated with Miles Davis, but did you ever experience any unfair criticisms or potential loss of gigs because of it?
No, absolutely not.
No one ever said, “Well, you’re kind of fusion, we don’t want to deal with that”?
That was the music of the ’70s. What’s interesting about this award I’m getting from a political, cultural, historical standpoint… and this is just my take on it….is that I’m the first of my generation to get this Master’s award out of all the 80 or so people that have received it. In a certain way, it kind of maybe is the beginning of the recognition that the ’70s wasn’t all complete bullsh*t [laughs], you know? Because the ’70s got a bad rap: “Fusion, all these guys sold out, they’re playing vamps, blah blah blah.” I’m talking about everyone from Chick Corea to Wayne Shorter to me to whomever, and supposedly that’s the Lost Generation. But you know what? There was some great music and a lot of excitement going on and maybe this award is a recognition of that. What is historically a fact is that in the ’70s, that was the new music to be involved in, and if you were a jazz musician, that’s what you did, because that’s what was happening. So that makes it legitimate in that respect.
Because you’re being inducted as NEA Jazz Master with Wynton Marsalis and his family, do you feel that this might be a bellwether of fusion’s acceptance?
The funny thing is, of course, Wynton, when he came on the scene…he torched it. He said, we’ve got to get back to the real deal, this is all not happening, and one of his main boys, Stanley Crouch famously put Miles down, as we well know. But I think it’s very interesting [laughs] in a certain way if I’m right about what I represent—I mean, I’m taking it a little far—but let’s say my observation is somehow in the ballpark….here’s the guy who actually came in and kind of nixed the whole deal, and here we are, both on the stage now. Of course, Wynton’s got every kind of award possible, so this is just another one to him, but I think it’s kind of interesting in a certain way, because here’s the white guy playing rock and roll with Miles Davis, who really stooped to the lowest level of all, playing that music, and here’s the guy who came back and put jazz back in its real perspective…. from the roots, and you know, swing and all that sh*t, and Louis Armstrong forever and all that. It’s cute, you know? I’m not judging it…just noticing.
Do you have any plans to talk with Wynton about that in person if you have the opportunity?
I don’t really know him. I know two of the brothers a bit and I’m sure everything will be very pleasant and fine. It’s just an observation, that’s all.
It reminds me of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, where they snub influential metal or progressive rock bands over pop acts or critical darlings.
You’ve got a point there. In a certain way, maybe that’s what’s going on, I don’t know. Maybe this opens the floodgates and guys from my generation will start getting this award, because there’s certainly a lot of people who it seems to me should get it. Look, you’ve got to be alive for the award, so they’re running out of people… let’s face it. I mean, the masters are dead or dying…and they’ve given everybody they could an award who’s from the bebop period and the ’60s generation. So what’s left are me and my cohorts [laughs]. Enemies at the gate, like the Huns—but what can they do? If they keep giving this award, they’re going to have to give it to some guys like me [laughs].
Wynton is even going to be doing shows with Chick Corea in January with an orchestra, so I wonder what those rehearsals are going to be like.
They’re musicians. Once you get into the music, everything is about the music.
Any other thoughts about Japan that you’d like to share with us?
I really did enjoy it very much and miss going there. I don’t know what happened with the jazz interest there….it seems like it kind of completely disappeared, or at least, it disappeared from my standpoint. I’d love to go back there, because I enjoyed it very much. So my best regards to my Japanese fans, whoever they are, and to the folks who are coming up, I hope to see you soon, go to the country and play live there.
What are your other plans for the new year?
In February, I’m going to be at Birdland for two weeks. The first week of February is with “Saxophone Summit”….Joe Lovano and Ravi Coltrane. The last week is with my group “Quest,” which was my main group in the ’80s, and has since come back together again with Richie Beirach, Billy Hart and Ron McClure. For anybody around, those are two really good jazz groups.