One of the most stalwart torchbearers for jazz – for both the music and the “message” – David Liebman has been a hugely significant figure within the genre for over four decades.
As a performer, he cut his teeth playing with Elvin Jones and Miles Davis (not too shabby!), before embarking on his own highly acclaimed solo career, which has been distinguished by celebrated collaborations and partnerships with Bob Moses, John Scofield,illy Hart, and many others. Recent recordings include: The Bickel-Marks Group with Dave Liebman (Zoho); Lieb Plays the Blues a la Trane (Daybreak); and Live: As Always (Mama).
As an instructor and advocate for the advancement of jazz education, Liebman was an early clinician at Jamey Aebersold’s camps, has led countless clinics and master classes throughout his career, and has authored a number of popular method books. After working alongside the likes of Aebersold, David Baker, and Jerry Coker, and then witnessing the global appeal of jazz while on tour in Europe and elsewhere in the ’80s, David founded the International Association of Schools of Jazz (IASJ) in 1989. The organization, dedicated to helping students and educators from international jazz schools network with one another, recently celebrated its 20th year and is still going strong.
Liebman has received countless accolades for his accomplishments as a performing and recording artist, as well as a number of awards for his work in the field of jazz education, including being named a National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master for 2011.
JAZZed recently had the great pleasure of speaking with David Liebman, who was every bit as engaging, funny, sharp-witted, and kind as his reputation would lead one to believe…
JAZZed: First off, thanks so much for taking the time to talk.
David Liebman: It’s my pleasure. Thank you.
JAZZed: Let’s start at the beginning – you initially played classical piano, yes?
DL: Yes. I grew up in Brooklyn and, in that generation, you had piano in every house, more or less. My mother played piano; my father loved music, and it was just a thing you do – at nine or 10 years old, you start taking piano lessons.
JAZZed: When and how were you drawn to the sax?
DL: I loved the tenor saxophone. I was a fan of early rock n’ roll. “Rock Around the Clock” was probably the national anthem of rock, and had a prominent sax solo, and Duane Eddy had a great saxophone player. I just liked the sound. My mother said, “You’ve got to take two years of piano before you play anything else” – which turned out to have been the best piece of musical advice I ever had.
Finally, around 12 years old, I got my wish and went to a neighborhood school, a private school that was run by a family. I started first on clarinet. That was yet another, “You have to do something before you can do what you want” instance. By the time I was around 13 I got to play tenor and very quickly was playing club dates.
JAZZed: Paying real gigs? At 13?
DL: Oh yeah. By 13, I was playing bar mitzvahs and weddings – playing paying gigs at the encouragement of my family. I had a little group of guys, we had our tuxedos and were in the union.
JAZZed: In the union and making money at 13. Impressive.
DL: It was pretty heavy, actually. Yeah you had to be in the union – which was a big scam, just to get $120 dollars [laughs].
JAZZed: Was that one of the ways in which you got exposed to jazz?
DL: Exactly. I was working gigs and of course I’d invariably hear people playing jazz: whether it was the party next door or… I played the Catskill Mountains every summer, and there’d be jam sessions.
JAZZed: What was the repertoire of that early band?
DL: In those days club dates were made of up dance music. If you play “Autumn Leaves” now, you would’ve played it as a foxtrot then. And, of course, ethnic music – cha-chas, mambos, tangos, Jewish music.
JAZZed: Who were some early educators who were influential?
DL: Well this family studio I was at – Bromley Studios – was of course influential.
JAZZed: Is it still around?
DL: The mother actually just died, at 96 years old. Unbelievable. The son is around, but he doesn’t teach music.
He was, in fact, the first guy I saw playing jazz. I would spend Saturday mornings at the school – saxophone lessons at 9 o’clock, 10 o’clock would be piano, and then11 o’clock was combo and it was run by the son, Eric. In between combo sessions there’d be a changeover period, and he and another guy, his assistant, would play. His assistant would play drums, and he’d play saxophone or piano and I would say, “What are you doing?” and he’d say, “Oh, we’re improvising.” I’d say, “What do you mean? You have no music in front of you and your eyes are closed and you’re moving your fingers fast…” I mean, I was fascinated, of course – for a kid that’s pretty exciting. And he said, “Oh it’s called ‘jazz’.”
Then I guess I heard Brubeck, and then I heard “Girl From Ipanema” – this is all around 1960 when, slowly, some jazz tunes were crossing over. Eventually… that became the thing. In high school I gravitated towards others who played jazz. Really, as I’ve remarked many times, the epiphany or what turned my life around was seeing Coltrane at 15 years old.
JAZZed: Talk a little about that night?
DL: That night stays in my mind. It was at Birdland, and I didn’t know who he was. I was just starting to read DownBeat and get familiar with who Stan Getz and all these people were. I knew Coltrane was a guy who played soprano sax because there was a picture of him on the placard outside. I said, “Oh, he plays that instrument!” which was then very uncommon. It was opposite the Bill Evans Trio.
JAZZed: What a bill!
DL: Amazing. And I had no idea who anybody was. [laughs] But, whatever it was, I had to go back. In those days, guys played the same club night after night for a week or two at a time. In the course of a year, you could see somebody eight, ten, twelve times. So by 1965 or ’66, I probably saw Coltrane a few dozen times. And, of course, everybody else – Monk, Miles, everyone. This was Birdland, The Village Vanguard, the Half Note – all the famous, historic clubs. Slowly it just became this thing that crept on me and I just wanted to get better at this music. In those days you didn’t think about a career, there was no “jazz education” to speak of, and none in New York. There was, of course, Berklee and Miami and a couple others, but there was nothing organized on the East Coast, except for Berklee. So you kind of got guided by hit or miss, looking over some guy’s shoulder.
Eventually I took some lessons with Charles Lloyd and Lennie Tristano. Tristano was known as a teacher, and that came about through my piano player friend and that went for a year.
JAZZed: What piano friend?
DL: Mike Garson. His father was a liquor salesman who sold liquor to the Half Note club and that’s how Mike heard Lennie and took lessons with him. Lennie had dozens of students and he took every instrument and his lessons were 10- to 15-minutes long. He didn’t know your name; it was an assembly line.
JAZZed: How’d you pair up with Charles Lloyd?
DL: Charles Lloyd at that time was just becoming a star, and he was working with Cannonball Adderly. He played very much like Coltrane; who I, of course, was drawn to. “What’s the key to the door here?” I went up to him at a club after a show and said, “Do you teach?” and he said, “No,” emphatically. But then he looked at me and said, “But… you can come over tomorrow” and gave me his address – right across from the present-day Blue Note. We started a relationship that went on for a year-plus. It wasn’t so much teaching as “hanging out.” I was kind of his gopher: I drove Keith Jarrett and helped with gigs and that sort of thing.
JAZZed: Informal, then.
DL: Very much. Now Lennie was formal. Lennie had a system. From an education standpoint, what Lennie made me aware of was that you could study this music. Up to that time, everything was kind of amorphous and ambiguous. How do you learn jazz? Those [older generation jazz] guys didn’t talk, either. They didn’t give information, that generation. It was kind a little bit of a Mafia deal, Omertà – “Don’t give away the code,” and so on. I understood why, and that was in their blood, and so forth. I saw that Lennie really had “A to B to C.” You could teach and study this music.
JAZZed: Talk some about Joe Allard.
DL: He was the most important guy when I finally left the Bromley Studios, where I had learned from Nat Shapiro. That [studying at Bromley] was all method books, the basics – no jazz. I went and said to my mother and father, “I think I’ve got to move on here.” I literally looked in the phone book under “saxophone instruction” and, finally, I talked to Joe Allard. He just seemed right and became my main teacher on saxophone. As I came to learn, he was extremely famous, world-renowned. He taught at Carnegie Hall Studios, which was very impressive.
It was through him that I got the point of the saxophone. Not jazz, because that wasn’t what he did, but the essence of what it is to get a sound, what goes into making a sound, the physical mechanics of producing a tone. He was that for everybody; he was in the Zen of it; he was in the center of it… nothing to do with style – whether you played classical or jazz or whatever else it didn’t matter. I was so used to books and lessons and material, but studying with Joe, I’d play three notes, and that’d be the last three notes I’d play for the whole lesson. Then he’d talk, and then he’d fix my reed, and then I’d leave. It took me a good ten years to really understand what Joe was about. He was the guru of saxophone teachers, no doubt about it. His only counterpart would’ve been Joe Viola up in Boston at Berklee.
I was one of his main protégées and my book and video on the subject is basically his stuff re-channeled.
JAZZed: So how did you wind up at NYU studying American History?
DL: Well, I had started out as a Music major at Queens College. I thought “Oh, I’ll be a music teacher and play on the side,” but the thing is, you had to know the classical stuff, and I wasn’t really interested. So I saw that this wasn’t the path for me. I always loved history I did that and did music on the side. At NYU I basically lived two lives, as a student and a musician. The jazz scene was like a little secret. It was nothing like it is now – there weren’t dozens and hundreds of people – it was a small close-knit group.
JAZZed: How did you wind up with Elvin Jones and, later Miles?
DL: The way it used to work was, there was an apprenticeship system. You knew you had to be a sideman with somebody. That was de rigour; you weren’t famous overnight. The industry – meaning the clubs, concert promoters, the tour managers – expected you to put your time in, and then you’d get your due. You’d get your due, your record contract, the chance to make your own music. Elvin it was like… the bass player for him at that time called me and said, “Elvin wants to hear you now” – and it was like, that minute. So I raced over there and played, and the next weekend I was recording with him.
JAZZed: How old were you?
DL: I was 25
JAZZed: And the hookup with Miles?
DL: That was just a few years later. That was a record date. I was in the doctor’s office, and my mother called and said, “you have to be at such and such a place right now to audition for Miles Davis,” I drove over there, left my car in the middle of the street, and that was that. That wound up being the opening track to On the Corner. Within six months I was with Miles. These things just had a way of happening, people knew you by name or face, and after a while you’d earned your stripes, and it was just your time.
JAZZed: Can you discuss learning music in a classroom compared to learning music by playing – especially playing with the greats?
DL: It’s a completely different system and, in the best of all worlds, you’d have both. Academic learning, the positive value is that everything is organized and presented to you in an orderly fashion. You go from 1 to 2 to 3, in order; when you get to 10, you have definitely been presented with the stuff. It’s not about creativity, or being a great player. It’s about “Here’s the information, here’s the way to learn it.” When you do it by apprenticing, you’re not going to get it in any logical order. You’re going to get tidbits, you’re going to get innuendo – especially from people like Miles who never talked about music [laughs] – you’re going surmise from what they said or felt or did, you’re going to end up thinking about, “What did he mean?” and it is hit or miss. You’re not sure what you get, because you’re exposed, but you’re not sure.
Each one has its positives and negatives. Learning on the job is a natural thing – you learn at your own pace and when you’re ready to hear something that the guy said you’ll hear it. When you’re in school, you hear a lot of stuff that you’re not ready to hear, because you’re just not up to that level yet. You can’t practice what [an instructor] said and get it together by next week; So when you move up to week two or whatever it is, there’s no way you can keep up with it. So you’re always behind. And that’s not natural, and you do the best you can, and after three, four years, you come out with some information – not as much as what’s been presented to you. You spend the rest of your life trying to fill in the cracks.
Obviously in my case I was privileged – I mean, what a gift to be with Elvin Jones and Miles Davis…
JAZZed: Ya think?
DL: [laughs] I was blessed in a lot of ways. I never had anybody talk to me about learning jazz. The teaching I do now is me coming up with my way of doing it. I feel like in some way there are holes in my education – there are things that I’m not as good at as some of my students, because I just never had it. On the other hand, there are things that you get from being around greatness that can never be replaced by a book or by a classroom.
JAZZed: Agreed. Talking more about your own involvement in teaching, how did you first connect with Jamey Aebersold and his programs?
DL: Jamey called me in ’77 or ’78 and I didn’t know who he was or anything about clinics. Literally, the guy said, “I’d like you to come and do a clinic in Hayes, Kansas” and thought “Clinic? What is that – medical?” and he said, “No, no – you’ll play saxophone and then you’ll talk and so forth.” So I go there, Kansas, dead of winter, there’s a 100 kids there and I played and talked and it was fun and went well. He said, “I do a lot of these in the summer. Would you join me?”
Lo and behold, the next few summers I did a couple and was completely knocked out. I had no idea it could be organized this way: Jerry Coker, David Baker, Aebersold, Dan Hurley – I mean, these guys could teach a fly to sing the blues in an hour. They had it together. They could play, they could teach, they were humane, they were funny, and deep and together. They had be-bop completely codified. I felt like a complete novice. I’m the big, you know, “ex-Miles Davis man” and I’m walking in there and I can’t do half the shit that these guys can do.
JAZZed: A positive experience, though.
DL: Very positive. Because I saw interest and I didn’t know that – this was the Midwest, now. I had no idea. I was knocked out. Aebersold was very influential. I saw what he did: he built an empire in the middle of nowhere. And he meant it, and it was real, and it was good pedagogy, and good positive energy. I couldn’t negate that, as much as I was this snobby esoteric New Yorker insider – I saw these guys in Kansas and there was no denying that it was pretty deep.
Also, right around then, reality hit. Here’s the thing: the beginning of the ’80s… I was kind of a little disillusioned; I’d seen the world already; I’d had a band; I’d been at “the top” – I’d kind of done everything by 35 years old. So I entertained the thought of becoming a lawyer. I actually got into law school, but I didn’t go through with it ultimately. I wanted to have a little more meaning in my life. I felt the music was great, but it wasn’t enough.
The teaching thing started to loom very high. I said, “You know what? This idea of spreading this music is important.” Because I really believe in jazz and I love jazz. It’s not just that I love playing jazz; I love what jazz represents; I love the tradition; I love everything about it. I think it’s a great message to give to anybody, in particular young people, whatever they may do with it. It’s just a great message. And I just started to think: this is a positive thing I can do. And I’m good at it; I’m a good verbalizer; I can do it well. So that was my way to find more meaning. And, number two, as a practical thing, to be honest with you, as a jazz musician you’re not making a full living by going out and playing your horn every night. You’ve got to figure something out. Those days, teaching was not the common thing, but I didn’t want to play in the studios, I didn’t want to play any other kind of music. The missionary aspect of teaching, which any great teacher feels, took hold.
JAZZed: What format do you prefer, as an instructor – more intimate, larger?
DL: There’s one-to-one, then one-to-10, to one-to-50-plus, which becomes like a performance. I like all three levels. The one-to-one, at a high level, I’m very effective at, because I can talk about aesthetics and the practical aspects of being a bandleader and so forth. And then, master class situations where you’re talking to 10 to 20 saxophone players is also a useful format. I’m decent performer, so I can do “the show” to a large group, as well.
I have total respect for guys who are teaching every day, 18 weeks a year. At Manhattan School of Music, as Artist in Residence, I’m a lecturer – I come in and present my material; it’s my book I’m presenting. I see the guys who plug away every week and I’ll tell you, man, that is a bitch to do with music – to keep good, to keep yourself interested, to keep things fresh even though you’re repeating the same things each semester.
JAZZed: How long have you been at Manhattan School of Music and what do you currently do there, as Artist in Residence?
DL: I’ve been at Manhattan School of Music for the past 10 years. I go in about once a month, a 10- or 12-hour day, I’ll do a couple performances, I’ll give open master classes on different subjects.
JAZZed: What’s most rewarding about teaching?
DL: Obviously, one thing is the pride and joy of seeing a student become an active participant in the scene. Bill Evans, the saxophone player, I basically recommended him to Miles Davis. What could be better? You get a great feeling when you see one of your guys go on. Two nights ago in New York I played with one of my students at the release party for his first record. It was great, I’m on the record for a couple of tunes – that’s just a great source of pride.
The other thing is, I know when I leave an audience; whether it’s a large or very small format, I know that they leave with an impression of what the music is about through my personality because a teacher, really, in this stuff – I don’t know about math or chemistry – but when it’s about an art form, the main thing that a student is getting is the personality of the guy who’s speaking to them – that and the information, of course. If the information is good and backs up the personality, this is a perfect world. If there’s not much information, but a great personality, it’s a nice way to spend an hour or two. If there’s just information, but the teacher doesn’t personify the music because maybe he or she isn’t a performer, there’s a gap.
This music is about feeling. Feeling is the most important thing. Content, of course, is important, but what you’re saying is what this music is about. That’s what makes Dexter Gordon Dexter Gordon. It’s his sound and his tonguing and all that, but it’s about him as an individual and what he’s saying. At a certain age, somewhere around 15, 16, it’s very important for the kid to get the vibe of the joy of this music and of the intensity of the commitment. This is going to be work, this is long-term, the rewards are probably not going to be for 10 or 20 years and also this music has a deep tradition and you have to be true to it. This is not a game, this is not something you enter lightly.
Everybody asks me, “What did you get from Miles and Elvin?” The main thing was their commitment. When the downbeat comes up, you are 150 percent there. This is no bullshit and this is not fooling around. This is business at the highest level. I mean, ok, we’re not pushing a button to launch a nuclear missile, we’re not driving a bus full of 100 people – it’s not actually life and death. But it’s complete business, and it’s work. Everything before that and after that could be completely bizarre and weird and all the folklore about jazz and all that, but when those guys hit the bandstand and that downbeat goes down, you’re in the middle of the storm, and you’ve got to be awake and committed. And I really did not realize that; it took them to make me see that.
JAZZed: Any advice for jazz educators?
DL: Bring guys in like me – real-deal guys, who are good at doing this and who can have a minute with the kids and give them an impression. When you walk out of a good clinic, the teacher will come up and say, “It’s all the same things that I say, but coming from you makes a different impact.” The other thing is, these days there’s so much access to videos and online material, it’s possible for a student who’s interested to watch the process of jazz. You used to have to be sitting with Miles to get it, but now you can access it and a good teacher can sort of build the drama.
DL: If I want to start a guy playing, any instrument, I might show him Art Tatum. Why? Because it is such prodigious technique that you’d have to be brain dead not to want to do it. A kid is attracted to speed. Speed and in some cases volume. So you show them a guy like that, who’s just way beyond the pale. Then you progress to a guy like Bill Evans who doesn’t play with anything near that kind of flash, but has as much depth in other ways, that it makes the kid see there’s many ways of doing this. There’s a lot of ways of getting to the same thing. That’s the thing – to make a young person understand that there’s no one way to the truth. There are many valid approaches.
For an older student, it’s about – “Hey, if you really mean this, now we’ve got to get past the surface. You’ve got all that stuff together in your fingers, you can play, but what does it all mean? Who are you? What do you want to say? Have you read about anything besides music? Do you know who Dostoevsky was? Do you know what Rembrandt did?” In other words, now we build a cultured person who has something of value to say to the world that will make people listen. Otherwise, they just go in and pay their money and be entertained briefly, and have a drink. It’s got to be something beyond ability; it’s got to be something compelling in the message.
JAZZed: What’s your proudest achievement, thus far?
DL: It’s IASJ. It was my attempt to try and make what we’ve been talking about real, in a material way. In other words, if this music is so powerful and if it’s such a great vehicle for communicating, it should be a perfect means of bringing people together from different places. There’s nothing more universal than music. We know the power of pop music – everybody knew Michael Jackson, that’s understandable. But this is a different thing, we’re talking about improvisation et cetera – it’s not pop music.
So this is the ’80s and I’m doing workshops everywhere in the world and I’m saying, “I’m in Norway and they’re doing ‘Blue Bossa’ and last week I was in the Ukraine and they’re doing ‘Blue Bossa’.” They had so much more in common than they know. So the idea was that this could be the perfect setting for cross-cultural communication. I started in ’87 and I wrote to educators, called a meeting in ’89 and… now we just celebrated our twentieth anniversary. We have 40 countries represented, we’re on every continent. I feel very proud that all these 20 years we have a meeting with 150 kids and teachers, more or less – that’s, what, 3,000 people who have come through the doors and met people from 20 other countries that they never would’ve run across. Of course with media and the internet, that’s caught up with what I was thinking about in the ’80s, but the idea of having physical proximity to people doing the same thing as you, using this music as the vehicle has got to lead to something positive. That’s my proudest achievement.
The other thing, of course, is I’m very proud to get this [NEA] award. To even consider myself in the same circle as Miles, Wayne, Herbie… they’re still on another planet, as far as I’m concerned, but to be considered anywhere near that category is an honor and I’m very gratified to partake of their air, where the air is rare [laughs].