In this week’s print edition of the Scene, I write about jazz saxophonist Dave Liebman and his experience playing on Miles Davis’ 1972 album On the Corner, one of the freakiest and most polarizing albums in legendary trumpeter’s extensive canon.
On Friday night at 3rd & Lindsley, in what will undoubtedly be one of the jazz events of the year, Liebman, who has had a thriving career in the ensuing years, will join a crack band of Nashville jazz all-stars — saxophonist Jeff Coffin, guitarist James DaSilva, drummer Chester Thompson, keyboardist Chris Walters and bassist Victor Wooten — to re-create the music from On the Corner. Liebman says they’ll probably throw in a couple of other tunes from that era of Davis’ career too. This is likely to be one of the funkiest throw-downs the city has ever seen, and is not to be missed.
Below, the entire phone interview with Liebman, who discusses his experiences playing on the album and touring with Davis, the early ’70s jazz collective Free Life Communication, and his thoughts on the future of jazz.
Tell me about the Free Life Communication.
It was a group of us, some who eventually became quite well known: Michael and Randy Brecker, Bob Moses, Al Foster, Gene Perla, Lenny White. We just gravitated to the New York loft scene. In that time you could own a loft, which meant an industrial building or space that was renovated in some way. You could play, you could paint, or do photography type stuff. It wasn’t the kind of economic situation there is now, and it was affordable.
My loft was on West 19th Street. Below me in the building was Dave Holland and below him was Chick Corea. There were three floors. It was 138 West 19th St. I had met Dave in 1967 when I went to Europe. And through Dave I met Chick. Chick at that time needed an apartment. Anyway, the landlord was amenable to having these two guys come into a building that was empty. So we did a lot of playing, of which I have a lot of tapes — pretty cacophonous, noisy, everybody at the same time. The model was Trane’s recording Ascension. And that was really kind of the way we played. It was me, Mike and Randy Brecker, Steve Grossman, Gary Campbell, Bob Berg — there happened to be a lot of guys coming around.
And at some point, together with my oldest associate in jazz, drummer Bob Moses we realized yes, we’re playing for ourselves, which is great but we’re just kind of jerking off, though. We’ve got to get out to people. That meant museums, libraries, churches, etc. So we started to do concerts outside the lofts. Eventually, through a lawyer and paper work, we incorporated as a nonprofit. We got a grant from the New York State Council on the Arts and found a home in a renovated church in which we had one floor to present concerts. There was a ballet company on another floor and a video company on another floor at some point. That was the beginning of Free Life Communication, which went on for several years. I was the president of it for the first year or two. And then of course I got busy with Elvin Jones and Miles and moved on. FLC was a kind of a grass-roots organizations to put concerts on. In our first year we did 300 concerts in this space, which was a beautiful 2000-square-foot room, leased to us for $1 a year. We were kind of the avant-garde music group of downtown…. the equivalent of what eventually became the Knitting Factory people, the Kitchen, that kind of stuff.
When you said Ascension, I assume you meant the Coltrane record?
Yeah. That record Ascension has five, six, seven horns playing at the same time. Wild, no meter, no harmonic center, not even a key. And we’d play like that for hours and hours. I have tapes at 3-3/4 speed, double-sided tapes of six hours of time.
And we were having fun. That was the time when everyone was getting high in one way or another, we were all anti-Vietnam, anti-this and anti-that. It was a stage. It was our hippie period.
I lived in the East Village in the late ’80s. There was still a bit of a loft scene going on.
My first gigs were in Slugs on Third Street between Avenues B and C, which was gone by the ’80s. When Lee Morgan got shot, that was the end of the club, basically. That was a no-fly zone, a really rough neighborhood. This was a well-known jazz club. I played there often with Elvin Jones, my own group with Steve Grossman played there. The Lower East Side was another area. There were several areas where jazz guys lived. Where I was in Chelsea, there were the Lower East Side guys, and there were the cats all the way over on Fulton Street near the fish market where Gene Perla, Jan Hammer and Don Alias had a loft. Bob Moses had a loft on Bleecker Street and Third. There were various centers where you could pretty much drop by at any time and play.
I had a gig for several months at an after-hours club on Sixth Street between C and D. Let’s just say it was an interesting period.
Before the yuppies got a hold of it!
Yep. How did you first hook up with Miles? How did that come about?
It was an outgrowth of this … kind of community, I’ll call it. Everybody sort of knew everybody. In those days there were much less musicians because there was no school situation like there is now. You didn’t have the hundreds, literally hundreds of saxophone players, drummers, whatever, that we have now, that live in Brooklyn or wherever.
So I was around Dave and Chick, and of course Steve Grossman, who played with Miles. Steve Grossman, the other saxophone player and me, we traded places. He was with Miles, and then Elvin. And I was with Elvin, and then Miles. And there was a period when we were together with Elvin. Everybody kind of knew everybody. …
One time Dave and Chick invited [Miles] up for dinner in the loft. We all had dinner together. We were into macrobiotics, very strict. Rice-and-vegetable shit. Miles sat on the floor cross-legged eating this gruel. (Laughs.) He said, “This ain’t bad.” (Imitates Miles raspy voice.)
In a way, people knew you by face. At clubs you hung out from 9 until 4 in the morning. Then you went to Bradley’s. There was a lot of hanging going on. What happened specifically with the “On the Corner” recording was that I was visiting my parents in Brooklyn. I was at a doctor’s office downtown Brooklyn. And my mother called and she said, “Someone just called named Teo Macero, and he said come now to the studio record with Miles Davis.”
I said, “What?” I happened to have my soprano with me. It was completely and absolutely the luck of the draw. That I’m even talking to you now could be because of that moment. I knew where the studio was and I knew that recording in Miles’ case would be from 10 to 1…so not it is about noon and I knew I had to get there fast. The way things worked in those days, when jazz musicians recorded a lot sometimes guys didn’t show and another guy would come in. I don’t know who didn’t show, or how Teo called me, but I got to the studio.
And when you listen to “On the Corner” that first solo is me trying to find my way to a key center because I had no headphones! [Laughs.] It was all electric instruments plugged directly into the recording console except for the drums and percussion. So I couldn’t hear any keys or anything. I just heard clinking keyboards and guitar strumming, whatever. I’m fumbling around to find out it’s actually in E flat. And that was that track. A few months later I came back and did some overdubs. That’s my appearance on the recording. So Miles walks past me in the studio and says imitating Davis’ raspy voice, “Join my band.” I said, “I’m with Elvin. I can’t leave Elvin.”
He says (in the Miles rasp), “Aw, fuck Elvin.” Well, six months later I was playing the Village Vanguard with Elvin, and Miles came three nights in a row and snatched me from Elvin who said to me after the deal was done: “If Miles wants you, you gotta go!!”
How long did you play with Miles?
About 18 months from beginning to end.
That’s a pretty heady time. I’m someone who loves the crazy electric Miles stuff. I kind of prefer it, actually. But I know people were freaked out, and weren’t necessarily receptive.
People definitely did not get the point. He had fragmented his audience with “Silent Way” and “Bitches Brew.” In those days, just the fact there was an electric bass was enough to turn jazz people off. How are you going to have an electric bass do walking jazz? So there’s the electric bass, the guitar, and then me turned up real loud….this band was loud, man. I was wired up to three Marshall amps. I had 800 watts, and I could hardly hear myself. [Laughs.] It was the loudest band I ever heard or played in.
The music appeared to be pretty chaotic and disorganized. I have to say that in my time there with him, I wasn’t sure for a few months what I was doing or what I was supposed to do. He never said anything about what to play. And then after a few months, one night it clicked. We’d listen to the tape back after the gig. I hung pretty deep with him. I finally got the point a little bit.
Years later, I was asked to write the liner notes for the re-release of “Dark Magus,” a recording of a 1974 concert at Carnegie Hall. I sat down and listened to music for the first time in 20 or so years. And something clicked. I thought: “You know what? This motherfucker knew what he was doing.” … I realized there was a method to the madness. At that time, I didn’t know what the hell he was doing. And I wasn’t sure he knew what he was doing. But that’s what that period was about.
It almost seems that being put in a situation that was so chaotic and uncomfortable really forced you to figure you who you were, in a way that playing standards in a jazz club might not have.
No question about it. And that was the beginning of fusion which in the beginning was exciting. You think of Mahavishnu, and Herbie, Weather Report and Chick. These were great bands. There was a lot of creativity going on in that period. Nobody really knew which direction jazz would go. Rock influenced fusion was was also clashing with post-Coltrane, because he had just died and people like It was Ella Fitzgerald, who was still alive and active or Duke Ellington, etc. So it was a pretty heavy period, the ’70s, and I think it’s been given short shrift because of the fusion thing which seemed like a sell-out of jazz to some. This feeling became ensconced when Wynton Marsalis started to get a lot of PR in the ‘80s. Like something bad happened during the previous decade.
Personally, there’s a lot of fusion I don’t like, and I’m sure you feel the same way. To me, what you all were doing was fusion in the sense of fusing styles, but it wasn’t really what became known as fusion. To me, the most affecting music is when people, instead of trying to play something pretty or something interesting, are actually working out their issues onstage, getting inside their psyches, going into the dark places in their brain.
That’s what I’m saying about the period. It was an exciting time, but it eventually got watered down. By the ’80s, it was a drag. Kenny G is a result of this shit. When you combine things, ultimately, you water it down somehow, and you lose the essence of either one. You don’t have The Rolling Stones, and you don’t have John Coltrane. You have some kind of weird mixture.
It worked for a minute for reasons that you’re pointing to. And also, box office. Commercial reality. Labels wanted fusion and they were paying. I did records for A&M — I still owe them $97,000 on paper, in advances and recording fees and everything. You couldn’t resist the money, you couldn’t resist the excitement that was happening, possible true popularity way outside of what a jazz musician could be. It was exciting for five, eight, 10 years. By ’80 it was pretty much over except for Weather Report.
You talked about how people didn’t get it. When you were doing those shows with Miles, were there some people who were digging it, or was it most people not getting it.
Young people got it, of course. And we played to young people at times…..a couple of places in the rock scene, where people were standing up like you see from that period. But when you played the Montreal festival, or Concertgebouw in Rotterdam, they were looking for “My Funny Valentine.” They hadn’t even caught up with “Live at the Plugged Nickel” yet. Because the main stem of Miles’ reputation was based on the early ballads, and the stuff with Gil Evans like ”Porgy and Bess.”
For him, in the ’60s, he started to get more and more abstract as time went on. Finally in the late ‘60s with Jack DeJohnette, Dave Holland Chick Corea and Wayne Shorter in the band, that music lost a lot of people. But he was Miles Davis. He was expected to be a thorn in your side. That was his position, and he knew it, and he treasured that and wanted to be that. I think the audience didn’t matter to him. This music was loud and chaotic — at one point we had three guitars! I mean, come on! What do you expect the people to do? Also, the equipment wasn’t as refined as it became. So it sounded pretty awful sometimes.
I’m curious. What was it like performing live to a festival crowd of bewildered faces, and you can tell most people aren’t digging what you were doing. Did it make you go deeper into weirdness? Did it make you self-conscious?
I was 25, 26 years old. Just being onstage with Miles was a heavy experience. So I didn’t really think about who I was playing for at all. The thing with Miles is that when you were onstage with him, especially in this period of extended repetitive vamps he would conduct the activities. If you look at the videos online, you see him cut the band out, cut it back in. His back is to the audience. He didn’t leave the stage like he used to. I was so involved in trying to just watch him because once he kind of nodded at you, and you’ll see it if you watch the videos, you had to be ready to hit right then. He didn’t want any lag time from the end of his solo to you. I was usually second and guitar would usually be after me. You had to be on the case. So I really didn’t look out at the audience. I just realized at the end that the applause was not so enthusiastic. That I could tell.
In the ensuing years you’ve had a pretty thriving career by jazz standards. Do you go to Europe a lot?
Yep. A lot of Europe. And that’s where we make our money. Joining groups, teaching, big band. I’m going in April with my group and in March with another group, etc. I can be in Europe once a month sometimes.
Do you teach?
Yes, it’s a big component of what I do. Presently I’m Artist-in-Residence at the Manhattan School of Music for the Master’s degree program. I’m a guest lecturer at University of Toronto this year also. I’ll go there in two weeks for three or four days, twice or three times a semester. A lot of what I do when I’m out on the road and playing a concert involves teaching, like we’re going to do here in Nashville, a concert and some clinics.
That’s what I do: clinics in the day, play at night with some guys. I’m looking forward to playing with these famous guys, Jeff Coffin Victor Wooten and Chester Thomson are people who I am familiar with. Plus this is my first time in Nashville.
Do you enjoy teaching, or is it more something to pay the bills?
Absolutely both. At one point in the ’80s, I knew this was coming. I was good at it having written a couple of books. I’m good at verbalizing things. I was a teacher, my parents were teachers, so I guess it was kind of natural to me. Unless you become a big star — Herbie [Hancock], Pat Metheny, etc., those guys — you’re always going to be struggling financially. In the ’70s and ‘80s the only alternatives was studio work and signing on the dotted line, figuratively if not literally. At the same time jazz education was becoming more prevalent.
Over the past 25 years I did kind of the same thing we talked about earlier, Free Life Communication, except on a world scale. It’s called the International Association of Schools of Jazz. I organized the association in 1989. We have 40 countries involved, meeting in a different city every summer, doing student/teacher exchanges and so on.
And there’s another part to the teaching that I should mention The way I learned, in an era when there were no books and very few jazz study programs I learned by being on the stage with Miles, Elvin and Pete LaRoca, people like that. Now it’s through schools and conservatories. The classroom is the club. But I learned by apprenticing, and when I get up there and teach they’re getting a little bit of that. So it’s kind of a thing we have to do…..sort of missionary work to keep the music alive, and keep it honest. I’m a link to the past, whether I like it or not, at this age. By now I’m 40-plus years into it.
At least it’s a very cool part of the past.
Yeah. And you have a responsibility to do it. That’s what Miles did for me. I have to do it anyway I can. And these days, the way you do it is spend two hours with the kids and give them some words of inspiration if I can.
How do you feel about the future of jazz?
We live in this period, and it’s true for all music, where everything is available by the push of a button on your telephone. You don’t have to be sitting in front of Coltrane to get the point. I mean, of course it’s not the same, but it’s not bad. That means everybody has access to the same information and for better or worse, that means a giant bouillabaisse is being made every minute of influences from everywhere. This is the most positive thing happening.
If you go out on a night in New York City, and you start at 6 p.m. and go till 6 a.m., you can hear five or six kinds of music, all under the umbrella of the word jazz. And they can be as diverse as anything…..way more diverse than in the ’60s and ’70s. This is the most positive thing happening for jazz.
In essence, jazz ran its course by the ’60s. Basically, it was done as far as true innovation is concerned. OK, the fusion thing was happening for a minute but after that it was a repetition of everything that came before. So you needed the world influences, which is why I started the IASJ. I could see that everywhere from Turkey to Israel to Japan to France, there’s going to be people interested in this music.
So musically speaking for me, it’s the best period ever for jazz. But the business is completely gone. [Laughs.] It’s a mirage. This is what we’re left with: people not paying for music with a whole generation who doesn’t expect to pay for what they get. We’re completely screwed. I don’t know what these thousands of kids graduating with jazz performance degrees are going to do. We have a major problem of supply and demand here.
And they’re so good now. They’re so talented. They’re way ahead of what I was at that age. In summary, I’m very positive about the future of music, and I’m very pessimistic about the business.
Any thoughts about jazz purism?
That question doesn’t come up much anymore. The new generation doesn’t even know what pure jazz is. And under the umbrella of the word “jazz,” anything is possible.