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Dave Liebman: A New York Story

By Published: January 10, 2011

Rubbing Shoulders

In the "small town in a big city" environment of the 1970s New York jazz scene, where everybody knew everybody, at least in musicians' circles, there was an opportunity to really appreciate how so many of the musicians who came up through that time—and some, beforehand—got to be who they ultimately became. But even the most innovative musician with the most distinct voice has to start somewhere, and few musicians (if any) can deny that, at one time or another, they wore their musical influences on their sleeves. "Each guy I'm gonna name," Liebman begins, "each guy had a certain distinct thing that they played. Steve Grossman had the Impressions (Impulse!, 1963) era of Trane down; I had the '65-66 period; and Michael [Brecker] went back to the early Impressions period. "

Liebman has particularly vivid recollections about Bob Berg, who died in a tragic car accident in 2002, at the age of 51. "Bob was the 'old Trane' guy, as Jerry Bergonzi
Jerry Bergonzi
Jerry Bergonzi
b.1947
saxophone
would become," Liebman recalls. "Bergonzi was not from New York, but he lived there for a while during this period, and he was Wayned-out; he only wanted to play like Wayne [Shorter]. We all played like somebody, and Bob was the old Trane guy; he played in that group where he's most well-known [for this kind of playing]: Eastern Rebellion, with [pianist] Cedar Walton
Cedar Walton
Cedar Walton
1934 - 2013
piano
. That group was a real hardcore, hard bop group, and we loved it—that was Bob's thing. What happened to Bob is that he did Miles [Berg played with Davis from 1984-87, appearing on the trumpeter's You're Under Arrest (Columbia, 1985), as well as the posthumous The Complete Miles Davis At Montreux: 1973-1991 (Sony, 2002) box set], and I don't know why or how, and may God bless him, may he rest in peace, but he ended up sounding more like Michael [Brecker] than Michael. I never really understood why, because he didn't sound like that in the beginning. He was known for Eastern Rebellion, and that was great."

Archivist Sam Stephenson's "The Jazz Loft Project," which is only now making available previously unheard or unseen recordings and images by legendary photographer W. Eugene Smith from the late 1950s through early 1960s, holds special meaning for Liebman, as it further reveals some perhaps surprising roots of musicians who have since become world-renowned. "It's about a guy who had a loft that ended up being just a few doors from where I had my last of four or five lofts in the '80s," Liebman says. "But this is the late '50s into '65, which was before my time. Smith set the loft up for people to play, and had the microphones, tapes and pictures. I was just listening to the radio the other day, going up to Boston to get my daughter, and man, there was this one tape with Chick Corea, it's gotta be '61-'62, and he's playing exactly like Bill Evans
Bill Evans
Bill Evans
1929 - 1980
piano
, and there's another session where he sounds exactly like Bud Powell
Bud Powell
Bud Powell
1924 - 1966
piano
. And then there's Paul Bley
Paul Bley
Paul Bley
b.1932
piano
from '64, playing on changes; you cannot believe the tempo that Paul Bley—who you never associate with playing fast tempos—was absolutely killing. It was a whole scene. These loft tapes were hidden for years. It's one of those finds—a Mozart's bones kinda thing."

And while most musicians met through the club scene or the loft scene, others still met each other in, perhaps, the most unlikely of places. "Ralph Towner
Ralph Towner
Ralph Towner
b.1940
guitar
— when he first came to New York in the '60s, I was playing with a big band somewhere in Queens or Brooklyn," says Liebman. "This has gotta be '66, '67, '68, and I was maybe in high school or just starting college, and the pianist in the big band was Ralph Towner [laughs]. I didn't even know he was a guitarist."


International Association of Schools of Jazz

Most musicians who have managed to accomplish what Liebman has, have plenty of which to be proud. But beyond his talents as a saxophonist, a composer, a bandleader, and a cofounder of Free Life Communication, Liebman has another major life accomplishment, one that is focused on continuing the in-jeopardy practice of mentoring: the oral tradition that—before the emergence of high-profile institutions like Berklee College of Music, the Manhattan School of Music and the New England Conservatory—ensured that younger jazz generations were groomed by those who came before. Liebman founded the International Association of Schools of Jazz in 1989, and in its 20-year existence the IASJ has grown to include schools from over 40 countries worldwide.

Sometimes life works and lessons learned from past experiences set a person up for greater challenges to come; the organizational skills Liebman honed with Free Life Communication gave him the perfect background for the far-more-ambitious IASJ. But other aspects of Liebman's early years also contributed and consolidated. "I started with music [in University]; I thought I'd get a music degree and do some teaching," says Liebman. "There were no jazz programs at that time, and I did not want to leave New York, so Berklee, Miami—the three or four that existed in America at the time—were not on the table. I didn't want to leave New York because I knew, for one thing, that if I wanted to get better at this, you couldn't leave New York. Therefore, the best thing was Queens College, which was a city school well known for its music department. Of course, when you said music at that time, you were not even talking a saxophone major, number one, so that meant clarinet; and number two, the first day you walked in they give you a list of four years of listening that you'd be required to know, which began with Palestrina and worked its way up to Stockhausen. Now, I was not that up on my classical shit; I didn't know it, I didn't like it, I didn't care for it that much. I mean, I played a certain amount of it as an instrumentalist, but it wasn't on my calendar, man, because I was looking at Miles and trying to transcribe Trane and all that. So I quickly realized that I could not be a music major, and switched to psychology the second semester, which in those days was the catchall when you didn't know what you were doing [laughs]—English and literature became it, and now, maybe, it's business management—every 10 years it changes for those people who have no idea what the fuck they want to do [laughs].

"In any case," Liebman continues, "I did love history. I was quite good at it in high school—I won some contests. I was really pretty good at it because I loved it, and I'd had a great teacher. So I said, 'Let me just major in something I like, let me go to a school with a little more prestige,' and so forth, and so I went to NYU, which at that time had a campus up in the Bronx—a very pristine, amazing campus in the middle of a hellhole—and I majored in history and got my Bachelor of Science in American history."

But like many aspiring musicians, Liebman may have been going to school for something completely different by day, but by night, it was another story. "I basically led two lives," Liebman recalls. "I was going to school and then going downtown to play and try to get my shit together. This is pre-loft, when I was 18-22; the loft followed right after that. So that was my education credits, and I don't know how that reflected, but really, you've gotta remember that people didn't talk much about music. They didn't really take lessons with anybody; you just hung out with them, maybe. Until I got with Jamey Aebersold—I don't know where he called me up in the late '70s, but he said, 'Could you come and do one of my things?' He said 'a clinic,' and as naive as this sounds, I didn't have any idea what a clinic had to do with music [laughs].

"So, I said, 'Clinic? What do you mean?'" Liebman continues. "He said, 'Oh, you know'- -he had that twang in his voice—and said, 'You know, you'll have some saxophone players, you'll have 100 people. Just play a set, and that'll be it.' And then I walked into a cauldron because, man, those guys—David N. Baker
David N. Baker
b.1931
cello
, Jerry Coker
Jerry Coker
b.1932
, Dan Haerle, Jamey Aebersold—those four guys and their legions could teach a fly how to sing the blues. I mean, they had it together, at least up until 1960. They could explain what jazz was and how you played it, and I never saw it organized like that before—or since, for that matter. And they were so humane and great about it, and they could all play; it wasn't just about getting up there. They were great guys, and so I started to do clinics with Jamey, and realized, 'You know what? This teaching thing is viable. It certainly looks like it's growing. It's a great way to pay back for the good fortune I had of being with Elvin Jones and Miles—this is like me offering apprenticeship, this is me mentoring, and it's a source of income,' which you needed if you were a jazz musician at that time. I wasn't making that much money playing jazz, and I wasn't going to play commercial sessions. I wasn't going to do like what Brecker did; I wasn't gonna go into the studio and play eight bars for anybody.

"And the teaching thing was natural for me," Liebman says. "I don't know why, but I had a knack for it and I liked it—I liked organizing and trying to explain my stuff. That was in the '80s, and was the beginning of doing clinics worldwide—with Quest we did it, or I did it alone, and I was going to countries and talking to guys in France about what I just did in Germany, and they didn't know who the guys were across the border. I said, 'This is ridiculous, everybody knows Miles Davis, and everybody knows "Blue Bossa"; we've got more in common than we don't.' The Common Market was about the biggest deal Europe had in the '80s—they had nothing. So I said, 'You know what, I've got a certain amount of prestige, I'm in a position where I could probably be writing and instigating some interest; maybe get these people together.'

"And that was the formation of the organization," Liebman continues. "I wrote letters and people said, 'Yes, that sounds great—like the United Nations of jazz.' So I called a meeting at my publishers'; they gave me their premises. I remember sitting in this restaurant in the afternoon—I think it was April 29, 1989, in a small town near Stuttgart, called Rottenburg—writing that I'll be there and anyone who really wants to do this, come and meet me. And, lo and behold, 15 countries showed up. And that's 20 years ago; now we have over 40 countries, on every continent. To be able to organize people—especially people like artists and musicians, not the normal type of person—and to put something together that's both idealistic and on the ground and running and does really well? I had a sense of not just knowing how to organize on a real, practical level, but how to be a leader and bring disparate people together, who have a common bond but are as individual as jazz musicians are. My first meeting of IASJ, I had 15 countries sitting at a table with me—trusting me, coming all the way to Germany from as far away as Japan and the States and Israel and Europe—saying, 'What do you want to say? What do you want to do?' And it was because of Free Life, really, that I had those abilities.

"This is not mega-mega," Liebman concludes, "but my meetings are with 100-150 people—50 students who, by the end of the week, will know each other. The mantra here is cross-cultural communication via the vehicle of jazz. That's the mantra, and that's what I wanted to do. I don't care about the teachers knowing each other, like the IAJE was [International Association of Jazz Educators, which went under in 2008]. IAJE was more administrative and teachers and stuff, and showing off your band and wearing uniforms. I just want 50 kids from 50 countries to eventually get together in six different groups, and by the end of the week put on a great performance- -and jam all week, just get to know other; and, via that, the teachers and administrators sharing how you finance, how you choose your students, what's your syllabus, how do you get your books—real administration problems. So our meetings are two-pronged: the students doing their thing, and then my chairman, he takes care of the teachers, has pedagogical meetings and that kind of stuff, like a conference. When someone asks, in music, 'What is your best thing?' I say, 'Forming this organization is definitely, by far, the heaviest thing I've done."



"Because I'm so eclectic and I'm aggressive, I can find some way to put out a record, and that's to my advantage," Liebman explains. "I once had this discussion with Chick Corea, years ago, that if I was beholden to a label, yes, there'd be the great advantages—if, of course, it was a viable label—a Blue Note, something like that. You get promotion that you won't get any other way. But if I was tied to a label, I wouldn't artistically be able to do the variety of things I'm doing; there's no way a contract would stand for me to be putting out three records at the same time, although we have very little control because some of these records are five years old when they're released, some are ten years old, and some come out within three months. You have no control over the business anymore. You used to attempt to have some control, and in some cases you could say, 'Please don't put out a competitive record within three months; it doesn't do anybody any good.' You would say that to another label and they might abide by that, but these days, it's such a hit-and-miss thing, so it looks like I have a lot coming out. But it's an advantage and disadvantage: an advantage because I can artistically do what I want, but a disadvantage because, of course, with most of these labels, I'm lucky if they sell a couple hundred copies."

Industry doom-and-gloom reports of the demise of the CD—or any hard media—seem premature, if for no reasons other than the burgeoning revival of interest in vinyl, and that most people who want to take music home after attending a show are not enthusiastic about slapping 20 dollars down at a merchandise table, only to walk away with a card that's a download key; they want something tangible in their hands. Many artists are selling more music from the stage than any other place, but it's still not always enough. "There's a definite advantage," Liebman says, "but, of course, that means you have to have a show, and that's another aspect of the business. I always say there's a lot of smoke and no fire—it appears that people are busy, and in certain ways they are busy. But it's highly competitive, because every young kid on the block is willing to play for half of what you make.

"So, let's say the opportunity exists," Liebman continues. "It's not like you go out on the street and sell your CD. You have to have a gig, and to make it viable, to sell a couple hundred, you have to have a thousand people there to sell ten percent ... or five percent. It's a little bit of a catch-22 in that there's the image that we're getting a lot done, that we're selling a lot of records off the stage, but most guys are only selling a couple dozen or, at most, maybe one or two hundred. We're not talking about three, four, five thousand, like it used to be. That's the problem, and that's why. I don't know who can stay in business, as far as record companies go, because there's no way for them to make money. We self-produce, that's what we do; the young guys self-produce on Facebook, and maybe they hit a vein and sell a couple hundred, but it is not good at this point.

"You have to combine all things now," Liebman explains. "At the Manhattan School of Music [where Liebman currently teaches], we make a big deal about a three-part attack for the masters students: they have to know how to teach, and we teach them how to teach; they have to write everything from orchestra to solo piano; and they have to perform, of course. We figure the 21st Century musician has to be equipped in all three ways. Longevity is the only way to win, and I tell my students, 'If you're consistent, and every day is a new day, and you play your ass off, you will get something in 20 or 30 years, but you really do have to stay in line that long."

And, of course, without the promotional support of record labels, most musicians also have to become businessmen and self-promoters with web- and social-networking savvy. Musicians who want to do nothing but focus on the music will, without the support of others, find it very hard to make a living. "There's a certain amount of that," is Liebman's response, "but again it's hit-or-miss, and only one out of a hundred will get the recognition. For every Vijay Iyer
Vijay Iyer
Vijay Iyer
b.1971
piano
, there's 30 cats who may play better than him, probably, but they're never gonna get past first base. They're not gonna have a promotion machine to help them, so as much as they can do, great, and let's see what happens, but it really is a jungle out there. The biggest thing—besides the way the business has changed, and aside from the cultural and economic changes—is that we have so many guys coming out of school who play good, or good enough. Supply and demand is way out of kilter—it's never been so bad. It's always been bad in arts, but it's even worse in classical music, dance ... everywhere."

The dearth/death of the club scene has also contributed to the challenge of more and more graduating musicians who are technically proficient but have few places to actually evolve a voice. "My daughter's going to Emerson College in Boston," says Liebman, "so she's connected up with all the Berklee folks; they have a little club where they do jam sessions on Saturday night, and couple guys have a gig and they play from six until eight, then they bring in a singer after that, because it's a bar. New York has Smalls and Fat Cat and 55 Bar. Every city with a couple schools has some outlet for the kids to play—those that can play and those that are aggressive enough—but it's a drop in the bucket for them to be able to develop their sound."

And the days where a touring group could set up in a club and spend five or six nights— often two or three sets per night—getting both tight and loose are long gone; most musicians spend far more time getting to each gig than they actually spend at it. "FedEx just came with my itinerary for next week [in Europe], and that's exactly what we're doing," Liebman says. "We're on two—if not three—trains each and every day, for twelve days; we are leaving at six in the morning, most of the time, and we're getting there at four in the afternoon. We're going from Vienna to Köln, and we are playing our one or two sets, maybe, in a club. I have the train tickets right in front of me, and no plane—all trains for 12 days, and, of course, nobody's gonna complain, because we're just so glad to play."


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