David Liebman Interview with Keith Javors for use in doctoral thesis.
Keith Javors: OK, today’s day is Friday, April 23, 1999 and I’m speaking with David Liebman. Dave, just as a reminder, I’ll be tape recording our conversation today. As I mentioned, I’m interested in your appraisal of jazz education in colleges and universities, particularly regarding issues related to jazz performance programs. The questions I’ll ask can go anywhere you wish them to and all generally pertain to the standing of formal jazz education as related to actual professional performance practice. And so, Dave, the first question I would have for you is kind of just a general one, but what is your overall feeling about the state of jazz education in colleges and universities?
David Liebman: Well, I think it’s in very good shape, very positive. I think there is a lot of energy and a lot of people interested in it, you know. It’s actually probably in the best shape it’s been in all over the world.
KJ: All right. How do you feel studying jazz formally in the schools might differ than studying jazz from, say, inside of the culture or what some would call the real world?
DL: Well, first of all, there isn’t much culture left, so that’s, you know, a thing of the past. I mean there isn’t the club scene where people used to learn by being on jam sessions and hanging with the musicians. That exists much less. So, in a lot of ways, there isn’t much choice. Of course, there’s nothing like the hands-on approach of a real live master/apprenticeship learning system and that’s something that a musician who’s good and really into it will eventually get somehow. But the function of school is to expose a student to what he needs to learn: Show him the process, short cuts, how to get there quickly, and basically socially just to get him there to be with other musicians and start to interact already at a young age. So the school has a function. It can’t replace being a musician and being out in the real world, but it definitely is a good introduction.
KJ: Absolutely. How important do you feel authenticity issues, such as how great professional jazz musicians of the past and present learned to play, should be in the undertakings of formal jazz performance programs?
DL: Well, the closest you can get, and by the way, it’s not any different than studying a Bach score or Beethoven symphony, is what I emphasize which is transcribing solos and duplicating them exactly, analyzing them much like you would analyze a classical score, but mainly being able to play them exactly. I mean, this is about as authentic as you can get and as close as you can get to the source. Of course, as I do and others like me do, going into schools and lecturing and being around for a few days is great too. That’s about as much as you can do these days. There aren’t the bands around to hire sidemen like there used to be so that the authentic thing is pretty much out the window.
KJ: I see. You’ve kind of already answered this, but let me just go ahead and ask it this way: How successful do you feel colleges and universities have been in training jazz musicians for professional expectations?
DL: Well, I don’t think that’s their function. Some people would like to think it is but I don’t think their function is to turn out players that will play at the Village Vanguard next week or similar. I think, as I said, it’s exposure and process and so forth. You know, some schools are a little bit more adept at showing young musicians the various things they can do to make a living; you know, at a school like Berklee, which is well-equipped, or the University of Miami; synthesizers, recording, technology, music law, you know, all that stuff, business and so forth. I mean I think the function of the school is to show them various fields which they are probably going to have to deal with in order to make a living, and some schools do better than others in this regard. And usually it’s a matter of, you know, how big the school is and how developed the program is.
KJ: Have you noticed any recurring musical or value-oriented deficiencies that frequently appear amongst students who learn to play jazz primarily in the college or university setting?
DL: Well, sometimes, depending on the school, there’s a lot of emphasis only on bebop, which of course, is a foundation for learning chord changes and all that. But, you know there needs to be a well-rounded approach outside of bebop and big band and only playing the older repertoire. You know, they have to be exposed to newer stuff also. And they do it on their own, most of the time. In some schools, like the University of Miami, there’s an ECM class or a Charles Mingus class, etc., which I think is important. So you have to balance the need to know the basics and to understand what came before with what’s going on now. And that is the function of the program and its director.
KJ: What about in the area of values? Do you feel that musicians that are coming primarily out of a college kind of situation, could they be missing certain values that may be, I guess, easier to get or acquire in the field?
DL: Well, they can’t get the reality of what it is to play in front of an audience three sets late at night, traveling everyday, and all the real world stuff, interacting with musicians on a social level day to day and then getting up on the bandstand. I mean these are things you can never get in school. So school is not expected to do that. Got to be out in the real world and there is no substitute for it.
KJ: Absolutely. What advice do you have for jazz educators or even jazz administrators for improving their teaching of jazz music?
DL: Well, again, in general, same thing. Just mix things up. You have to inspire the students, make sure they’re listening to the right stuff. It’s very important that listening goes on a little bit more. I’m not sure that there’s any class in listening. In other words, you expect the students are listening but are they really, first of all, sitting through a whole record? Probably not!! And are they listening repeatedly to the same tracks, which they should if they are valuable, which they’re probably not. And what are they listening for? I think there should be some dedicated listening together. The teacher should say, “This is what I’m hearing, this is what you should be noticing, not just a saxophone solo but what’s going on in the cymbals or the bass or whatever.” And that’s something that takes experience. Guys usually get that by hanging out with each other and bringing different matters up as they are listening, but a teacher could direct that a little bit more and help the students form more opinions based on what they are hearing, not just based on “Well it sounds good, it feels good,” and generalizations. But more specifically, “What is going on, what is happening behind the solo, underneath the solo, what’s the form, did they go fast and then slow, is it an exciting solo then going down to quiet? Things like that that really should be emphasized in listening. I think there is a little bit of lack of that sometimes.
KJ: I understand. Beyond the students and teachers, do you feel that there are any administrative, cultural, or perhaps societal barriers that university jazz programs, or even professional jazz musicians like yourself, in general, have to face?
DL: Well, we’re in a minority. The music sells about one percent of the entire mass. You can’t expect much. I think it has to be an art form and it should be very clear that you make a choice to be either an artist or a craftsman. And if you are looking for commercial success, it’s a different thing than if you are looking for artistic success. They may coincide but not likely, or not necessarily. It’s a decision that you will have to make at some point, not necessarily when you are 22 but eventually you will, which almost comes down to how many people do you want to play for? It almost comes down to that. If you feel like you should play for 10,000 people, 5,000 people, you are definitely picking a different road than if you don’t mind playing for 150 dedicated people. And there’s nothing wrong with it. It’s not a judgment. It’s just a matter of choice. These days it’s very clear because it’s so obvious what choosing a commercial career is like rather than just falling into something like we did. Getting successful was something we just kind of fell into in those days, but now guys come out and they get a P.R. agent, they put money into it, etc. It’s a different story and I think that, you know, a guy should realize the differences and make his choices as he likes, but he should definitely not fool himself because there’s no hiding behind it anymore. Also, one other thing I didn’t mention with this methodology. I think that depending on the size of the department, it’s important that the teachers in the various fields, if there is a harmony teacher, let’s say, and a ensemble teacher and, let’s say, an instrumental teacher for the saxophone or sort of thing…There are three teachers maybe that are combining during one given year to teach the students. There should be monthly or whatever, bi-monthly meetings to talk about the individual student’s progress and see how they are doing in each of the fields and try to relate to each other. In other words, if there is a harmony problem, maybe the ensemble teacher could use that kind of tune to play and work on that at the same time. There should be staff meetings about the students. Because what I see often is, you know, each guy has his course and the private teacher has his thing, and they go on their own way and there is no interaction between the various teachers, and that could really help an individual student.
KJ: What I heard from some of the faculty of leading jazz programs was that many of them had mentioned that they, in universities, had to teach under what many would term as Euro-centric types of ideals and that those types of values often made it difficult to make progress as far as jazz education. Have you had any experiences or run-ins with anything like that or even heard of anything similar?
DL: Jazz would not likely be included in that since it comes from such a black-oriented thing that…and also becoming more international (World music and so forth). You know, that would be something that they may worry about in the physics department or other, but I don’t think we have that problem. I mean we are pretty universal. Jazz is probably the most universal art form that there has ever been in its inclusion of peoples from all over and all nationalities and creeds, and in that way, it’s the most positive thing you could ever see. So really, we kind of escape that issue which is basically the truth I think for us.
KJ: Along that line, a couple of people had commented on issues about race and wondering why that if you look at jazz studies programs in general, you don’t see as many black people. Do you have any feelings about that?
DL: Well, it’s a byproduct of our culture and the position that blacks have been put into economically and socially. They are not going to get the opportunity to study formal jazz unless they have a big band in high school, like a white middle-class kid is – or hear it on the radio, or so forth, because they’re surrounded by a different kind of culture that really is more of a survival culture, for the most part. The other thing is that they are, of course, attracted to people of their race who are doing, you know, whatever is hip, whatever is successful, which now is rap or hip-hop or whatever. And there is nothing you can do about this. Jazz has become a middle class or upper-middle class pursuit. Even the black guys that do it now mostly come from that kind of background. So, for the masses of people who are not in that economic strata, they are just never going to hear it, you know, so they are not going to know about it. It’s not happening in the ghetto.
KJ: I know what you mean. If a young jazz musician who is situated in a university jazz environment came to you and asked you what they could do to supplement their study of jazz outside of their formal education, what advice would you offer them?
DL: Well, certainly going to summer workshops where they play a lot, you know, whatever it is; Aebersold, etc. I mean there are a few now, so at least during the summer they are exposed to playing on a really hourly schedule, that’s for sure. Definitely they must seek out live jazz. It’s very, very important, depending on where they live, that they see as much jazz as possible. That’s why people come to New York, because at least there’s a lot to hear. I mean you’ve got to see it in front of you. It’s very different than a video or a recording. And, of course, just trying to have lessons with, even if it’s a one shot with a heavy cat which I do quite a bit…Somebody comes in and they just want to spend a few hours with me and I know when they come in they really don’t have necessarily anything definite. They just want to see what I’m going to say. I think it’s important to seek out guys who are older and who have been around and that you respect, and just see what they have to say and get the vibe from them, even if it’s not more than a specific musical tip that you may get in a three or four-hour session. At least you get the feeling. You know, you pay for that, but that’s part of the apprenticeship system. I think that’s about the best you can do.
KJ: I understand. Many people have made comments as far as not feeling that, even within the context of universities, students are not “playing” enough. Do you have any feelings about that?
DL: The school can only do so much. But certainly if it’s a small town or a small city, the music department, the guys in charge…I mean it’s up to them, really, and the kids. I mean they should make an effort to have a playing venue once a week, once a month, be it a church or a museum or a park if it’s summer and, you know, no money or a door fee of $5 or whatever. Money is not the object, but they should be geared towards going out and playing for people. I mean, if it’s ten people, the idea that they have to play for people and they have to organize music for presentations is something that is positive. It’s not the function of the school but it would be nice. This is what they can do on their own. And of course, more than that, even on the initiative of the students and this depends on your individuals, they should combine and form groups and try to present music. Having a recording project is always great if there is a facility to do that, because that makes them have to organize and make a so-called “finished product” or close to that. That’s very good for the students to have. So any kind of reality check for playing live or recording that are outside the classroom ensemble things is always a very good impetus to make students organize music.
KJ: Absolutely. Just a couple more questions. If you had the immediate power to change any one or two aspects of formal jazz education, what kind of changes would you make?
DL: Well, I would just make sure that I include World music and classical music, especially Twentieth-century classical music, and certain things of rock or R&B and whatever, and really give them an understanding that jazz is, certainly now in the last part of the century, in the last 20 years, a hodge podge and a bouillabaisse; a mixture of so many different styles and that it’s not just purely Charlie Parker anymore. I would be sure that they know that.
KJ: OK. As I mentioned at the beginning, all of this is just in an effort to try to improve what we as professionals do in jazz education within universities. And so just related to that, did you have anything else that I didn’t mention that you think definitely should be added?
DL: No, I think I covered most of the points. You know, things are as good as they can be in a lot of ways. Remember, jazz is a a very personal music. I mean it has to do with individuals and personalities. It is not a group orchestra type thing. You know, it’s hard to make generalizations about jazz education across even one area let alone a country, let alone the world, because everything comes down to the particular director or the program head or that saxophone teacher in Colorado, or whatever. It’s a very individual thing. Students should know, and it’s word of mouth really, where to go according to what they need. I mean if there is a really great teacher for a certain study area, then you go there for that. If the school is known as a bebop school, you go there for that. This is the kind of the thing that can’t be generalized. I think if they teach medicine or law, it’s more general. Maybe it’s more like general or business management or whatever. You can go from one school to the other because it’s pretty much a general course. But in jazz, although the information is general, it’s such a personal thing that it comes down to the personalities of those who are instructing and that’s real important that the students are aware of that. They go to school sometimes and they expect it to be everything and every course to be great and not to be bored, but really it’s up to the students to seek out those teachers who have something to offer them and not expect it to be just laid out at their feet. Learning an art form is not like learning a vocation in a normal sense and it takes a lot of initiative on the student’s part. Given the ease which one needs to have jazz programs, there is a little bit of a laziness that’s inherent in the students. That’s a natural thing, but has to be reinforced. Say “Look, I’m only just laying it out there, it’s on you to get it happening,” And that’s something that needs to be reinforced, because there’s a certain amount of like, “Well, I’ve got all the information and I’m cool.” Well, that’s not really right, you know.
KJ: I agree. Well, I just wanted to thank you. I know you are very, very busy.
DL: Well yeah, this sounds good. I’d love to have a copy of this, of your final thing. I’ll give you my address. It sounds like you’re gonna really have some interesting document.