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Book Excerpts

Dave Liebman: What It Is - The Life of a Jazz Artist

By Published: June 22, 2012
That loft I found was on West 19th Street between 6th and 7th Avenues. It had been a tie-dye fabric factory, which is really kind of ironic in light of the hippie thing. I paid $1,200 in key money and the rent was $125 a month. The building was three floors and I was on the top walk-up. The landlord's name was Saul Lieberman, similar to my last name. When I turned over the loft to Mike Brecker a few years later, I got $2,500 in key money. Later on, when I turned over my last loft to saxophonist Bill Evans, I charged him $8,000, which I think was double of what I had originally paid, but by then it was the early '80s. This key money thing was considered fair game and no problem.

These were good deals. Guys were charging whatever they could. Like I said, once you paid the key money, the tenant was gone and you had to deal with the landlord with a lease and all that.

Lofts were illegal to live in. These were commercial buildings, so the first sentence in your lease was that you would not live there, which of course everyone knew was a sham—the landlord and you—and the fire department, etc. These were all fire traps, but that was the way it was. Guys would have a hot plate and a cot maybe, saying you were heating stuff up or just napping, but most of the time nobody cared.

In the case of this first loft on 19th Street, I went to the landlord and he said, "Oh, your name is Liebman," meaning obviously Jewish, so at least there was some rapport. "What do you do?" "I'm teaching school and trying to play music." He remarked, "Yeah, yeah. I guess that's why you're here." You know, he was hip to it.

This was a very small loft, 1,200 square feet—one long room with a little room off to the side for a mattress. There was a small room at the back, if I remember right, with a toilet and a shower. The previous guy just left all this tie-dye material, so the day I took over I got out a staple gun, got on a ladder, and stapled all that cloth into the ceiling, which was only about eight feet high. The ceiling looked like a rainbow. I went around with three cans of spray paint and did the walls in about ten minutes. Then I got a refrigerator. I bought a piano, got a drum set from someone and now starts this next period of my life.

Lew: Did you have an upright piano?

Dave: No. I had a George Steck baby grand. I'll never forget it because the movers couldn't get it up the narrow steps, so it was hoisted up from the roof. We were lucky the whole damn building didn't collapse. These big black cats came in, the moving brothers, saying, "We can't get it up the stairs. We'll bring it from the roof." And I'm like, "Forget it. I don't know nothing. Do your dance." The next thing I know, there's a cat on the roof with a hoist, and I see the piano coming in through the window—sideways, legs off. That piano never moved again. It's probably still there. I could never get it out. I bought it for $600, I think.

So, that became my first of several lofts—January '69. The building is still there, but it's not a loft anymore. I don't know what it is.

That was the beginning of my real life, I would say. No more school, and definite-ly no parental stuff anymore.

Lew: What about Laurel, for the time you're in the loft?

Dave: She's around, but it was dissipating. I'm in the beginning of my real life as a musician. I'm jazzed out though teaching as a substitute Monday and Tuesday, meaning putting a tie on and doing that whole deal. Talk about straight life!! Tuesday afternoon, I would come back from whatever school I was in that day and get to my music work.

I only needed two days to make a living— $70 a week. I had it down to $280 a month.

My name was on the substitute teacher's list everywhere from the Bronx to Queens. When they'd call on Monday, I'd go. This could be anywhere from Howard Beach to the North Bronx or wherever. I was on the subway by six-thirty, quarter-to-seven in the morning. Of course, I had some difficult experiences. Even a good kid would take it out on the sub! Lewis, don't you remember when you had a substitute teacher when you were in fourth grade, fifth grade?

Lew: Yeah?

Dave: Did you go, "Hmmm—we're going to have fun today." When I was a kid, I was a ringleader, so I was the one saying, "Let's really have fun today, guys!"

Lew: Uh-oh.

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