Dave Liebman: A New York Story
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 timeand some, beforehandgot 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 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. That group was a real hardcore, hard bop group, and we loved itthat 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, and there's another session where he sounds exactly like Bud Powell. And then there's Paul Bley from '64, playing on changes; you cannot believe the tempo that Paul Bleywho you never associate with playing fast temposwas absolutely killing. It was a whole scene. These loft tapes were hidden for years. It's one of those findsa 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 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."
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 thatbefore the emergence of high-profile institutions like Berklee College of Music, the Manhattan School of Music and the New England Conservatoryensured 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, Miamithe three or four that existed in America at the timewere 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 managementevery 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 schoolI 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 Bronxa very pristine, amazing campus in the middle of a hellholeand 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 AebersoldI 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 voiceand 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 guysDavid Baker, Jerry Coker, Dan Hærle, Jamey Aebersoldthose 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 beforeor 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 Milesthis 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 itI liked organizing and trying to explain my stuff. That was in the '80s, and was the beginning of doing clinics worldwidewith 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 '80sthey 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 greatlike 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 afternoonI think it was April 29, 1989, in a small town near Stuttgart, called Rottenburgwriting 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 peopleespecially people like artists and musicians, not the normal type of personand 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 metrusting me, coming all the way to Germany from as far away as Japan and the States and Israel and Europesaying, '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 people50 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 booksreal 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."