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Book Excerpts

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

By Published: June 22, 2012
Dave: Yeah. So here I am going to schools everywhere—the South Bronx, Bed Stuy, etc. The public school system in the late sixties into the seventies was completely broken. There was a major strike and a whole lot of stuff happening. There was decentralization, meaning local boards of citizens would decide on who the principal would be, the assistant principal, whatever. It was called community control and it led to a breakdown. The teachers' strike of 1968 was very famous, and a big deal nationally, concerning pay and community control. Albert Schenker was the guy in charge of the teachers' union. Remember my parents and their friends were all teachers and administrators. I think by then both my parents were assistant principals, so I heard all these discussions going on around holiday dinners. Nonetheless, it didn't prepare me for being a substitute. I walked into one school and the principal said, "You got class 6Z today? Make sure they don't jump out the window." I was like, "Uh, okay." He said, "Good luck."

Sure enough, by two-thirty in the afternoon, I was standing at the door with my arms extended, blocking the exit. The kids were throwing stuff out the window, screaming, yelling—all minority kids, going nuts! Three o'clock—bell. You're finished. You're done. I tried to be hip, so I would take Coltrane records to schools. These kids had no idea who Coltrane was. They couldn't care less—didn't mean a thing.

The best time I ever had was with a kindergarten class for two weeks—all young kids, so I played Trane all day! What did they know?

They were cool. Anyway, that was my job in that period to make a living.

Lew: So, it could be any grade?

Dave: Anything. You could have kindergarten to high school. You didn't teach biology, algebra, or any subject—just basically babysitting. You told the kids to take out their notebooks and do what they did yesterday. No real teaching, of course.

I hated getting up in the morning and putting on a tie. I hated authority. I hated people telling me what to do. Plus, it was a very unfulfilling job because basically I was a babysitter. This was not education in the positive sense of the word.

When I got home Tuesday afternoon by five o'clock, I'd rip off the sport jacket and tie. I would smoke a joint and play for the next twelve hours, and then for the next five days. Then Monday morning, I would start all over again. This was my routine until I got the job with the group Ten Wheel Drive, which is the next subject and was a real salaried musical gig.

The big thing with playing in the loft was that I told everyone who wanted to play to come over to my place any time, day or night. In the case of this building there were no factories so it was open ended as far as when I could play. I had drums—maybe a bass—vibes, and that Steck grand piano. And I had a tape recorder. There was a kitchen area and a living room area all covered in linoleum, and a nice oriental rug; stereo system; a big picture of Trane, and LPs. In the little anteroom was my mattress with a shower and toilet near the kitchen somewhere. There was stuff everywhere. I was already starting to collect flutes from all over the world. It was hippied out with a jazz vibe—like that.

I had a little pouch for throwing the key down and everyone knew how to open up and come upstairs to the third floor. It was wonderful. But let me finish the living situation because it's apropos. Dave Holland, playing with Miles Davis, was living in a hotel or something like that, so I told him that the second floor of this building was available. I went to the landlord, Saul Lieberman, and asked him. He said, "Can he pay the rent?" I told him that Dave was working with one of the most famous musicians in the world. Saul said, "Well, you've been paying the rent, so I guess it's okay." So Dave moved into the second floor with his wife, Claire. Their daughter, Louise, was just a baby then. I used to babysit her.

The next tenant in that loft building was Chick Corea
Chick Corea
Chick Corea
, who was playing with Miles also, and getting divorced at that time. This was the period of his influential LP Now He Sings, Now He Sobs, recorded in '68. I drove out to Chick's house and I remember hearing the mix of that rec-ord before it was released to the public. It had no name at that point. I remember being very struck by the music. Of course, eventually it turned out to be the pentatonic scale bible—especially the "Matrix" solo, for sure. I didn't know Chick personally at all. His house at the time was in Middle Village, Queens—row houses, real suburbs. I couldn't believe that this was where Chick Corea lived. Joan, his wife, was the subject of that tune "Tones for Joan's Bones." I think he had two kids, Thad and a daughter, whose names together made up the title of one of his tunes, "Litha." In his basement there was a piano, tape recorder, and phonograph.

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