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Dave Liebman: A New York Story

Dave Liebman: A New York Story
John Kelman By

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When I'd see Trane or Cannonball or Miles when I was a kid--when those guys walked into a club ... man, the vibe. That's what I wanted to be: this underground heavy that everybody was almost afraid to talk to because of their skills.
A few months shy of 65, saxophonist Dave Liebman may be having the busiest time of his career, now in its fifth decade. In the past 12 months, nearly a dozen releases have demonstrated the tremendous stylistic breadth of a musical oeuvre that kicked into high gear early, when, in the short span of three years, Liebman participated in three recordings that remain important touchstones for their artists: guitarist John McLaughlin's My Goals Beyond (Ryko, 1970), drummer Elvin Jones' Live at the Lighthouse (Blue Note, 1972), and trumpet icon Miles Davis' On the Corner (Columbia, 1972), the latter an album whose innovations went underappreciated until many years later.

On January 11, 2011, Liebman is being awarded the 2011 Jazz Masters Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), and it's a milestone for both the saxophonist and his generation. In addition to being publicly honored at the annual awards ceremony, which takes place at New York's Frederick P. Rose Hall (the home of Jazz at Lincoln Center), the fellowship includes a $25,000 bursary. Though this is not a huge amount of money when compared, for example, to the MacArthur Fellows Program (which carries a whopping half-million-dollar, no-strings-attached grant), the ever-organized, always forward-thinking Liebman has already put that money to good use, hiring a both a publicist (Braithwaite and Katz's Ann Braithwaite) and a web-savvy person (Michael Crowell) to increase his overall presence on the public's radar and his specific visibility in the world of social media, with a revamped Facebook page.

But how much impact will the fellowship actually have on his career? "I don't think it's gonna do a lot; I've spent the money already," Liebman says, laughing. "I don't see my price going up or my popularity going up; that's not a side effect. The best thing is, your bio, three years from now, will say 'NEA Jazz Masters,' and that's nice. But in the real world, my answer to this is two-fold: one is objective, the other subjective. First of all, I am the first one of my generation to get this—I'm the youngest, if you don't take into account that the Marsalis clan is getting it this year also [a fellowship is also being awarded, in 2011, to the Marsalis Family as a group: Ellis Marsalis, Branford Marsalis, Wynton Marsalis, Delfeayo Marsalis and Jason Marsalis]. I'm the youngest individual, let's say. And I think, as I am saying to everybody, it's a reflection of the fact that the '70s is finally kosher—that we weren't just a blip on the screen that tried to play rock and roll and get across. We actually kept going, some of us, and I can name about 10 other people who certainly deserve to be looked at for this award, and that means that not all was so bad in the so-called Fusion Era.

"It's very funny that I'm getting the award opposite Marsalis," Liebman continues, "but in this respect, when Marsalis came on the scene and basically drew a line in the sand, guys of our generation got lost in the cracks, and now this is the establishment saying, 'Excuse me, there are a lot of guys there who deserve it.' From a cultural and historical standpoint, I think is interesting. Of course I certainly do not consider myself in the same breath as, say, Wayne Shorter or Miles Davis or whoever of the 120 guys who have received the award. I mean, some of them, yes, but most of them are just way beyond anything I could ever dream of, and I have to pinch myself, in a certain way, that I'm up there with those guys. If I went down the list, some of them I could say, 'This guy stands to the left' and 'That guy stands to the right,' and the guys on the right are the real deal. I'm okay, but from day one the real deal is these guys who are at a really, really high level to which I aspire—and am hopefully getting better at—but musically, they're in another category. I'm just glad to be up there with them. The others? I'm cool; I'll stand beside some of them. But a few guys? I can't believe I'm in the same breath as Miles Davis, for God's sake, or [Elvin] Jones; I never thought of that!"

How Liebman got to this point is a story in itself: one that reveals the truth of being a working musician, but one that also shines a light on Liebman's particular strengths as an organizer, a band leader and a champion of jazz education.

Chapter Index
  1. A New York Story
  2. The Loft Scene: Free Life Communication
  3. Rubbing Shoulders
  4. International Association of Schools of Jazz
  5. Survival in the 21st Century
  6. Dave Liebman Group
  7. Recording
  8. A Plethora of Projects and Partners

A New York Story

Born and raised in New York—Brooklyn, specifically—Liebman grew up at a time when jazz education was not what it is today—where clubs and lofts were the schools and jam sessions the teachers. "It's a New York story," Liebman begins. "I was from New York; I was there from the get-go. In some cases, that worked against me because I played before my time, and guys don't forget; on the other hand, I was there, on line, and living in a loft, and I knew that I had to play every day to get better. I wasn't the kind of guy who could wake up every morning and just be great. And in those days, that meant getting a loft and having drums, piano and a bass, literally; having some mu tea, because we were all macrobiotic, some stimulants of sorts; and doing our job, which was to come up anytime you wanted to play. At that time, it was mostly free jazz—just playing your horn.

"Guys knew guys, and it's not unlike it is now, where you get jobs and you get recommended, usually by a guy you know on your own instrument," Liebman continues. "The first time for me, I was with Pete La Roca because [drummer] Bob Moses—who was already a friend of mind and way ahead of me—he said, 'Pete La Roca is looking for a saxophonist and Jim Pepper can't make it. Would you like to go?' That was my first time, playing with Steve Swallow, Chick Corea and Pete La Roca.

"For example, with Ten Wheel Drive [a brass-heavy jazz-rock outfit emerging at the time of Chicago and Blood, Sweat and Tears], [I got the gig] through my friend from the club date days in the Catskill Mountains. He got the job on trumpet, recommended me, and I auditioned.

[With] Elvin [Jones], it all went through [bassist] Gene Perla. Basically, Gene said, 'I'm gonna get you and Steve Grossman the gig,' and eventually Joe Farrell was moving on. He got me to sit in one night, and I got the gig with Elvin.

[The gig with] Miles was because I was living with Chick [Corea] and Dave Holland in the same loft. I was around, Grossman was there ahead of me [with Davis], and I was with Elvin.

"So in a certain way," Liebman concludes, "these things that happened to me, and of course formed the basis of my career, were because you were around—and, of course, you were good enough to get going; obviously I was good enough to be accepted. But, really, you had to just be there, be on it, and be with guys who were moving ahead as well. It's who you hitch your horse to; it really was like that in those days. We didn't have dozens or hundreds of musicians [like there are now]; in my generation we had maybe 20-30 guys, so you knew everybody and you saw them every night because the clubs—they were where you bought a beer and sat all night. So there was a community. Within that community there were cliques—there were the downtown guys, the uptown guys, the Dixieland guys and the free guys, but it was much smaller than it is now, so you could navigate your circles and have some kind of relationship, and that would grow because someone would say, 'I know a guy and he plays saxophone. Let's hear him.'"

In those days—the mid-1960s through to the early 1970s—the New York scene was hot, but it was also small, in relative terms. But things aren't all that different when it comes to the players themselves, according to Liebman; only the scale has changed. "If we'd stopped in 1955 or 1965, and said, 'Let's look,' there might have been 20 good tenor players playing in New York City, and [among those 20], 'This guy's a little more generic, this guy has something personal to say and this guy doesn't have it together yet.' But now, instead of 20, there's 200 or 2,000! And the volume makes it seem different than it's always been, or different than before. But individuality is not something anyone or any school can teach. The need to express oneself and have something of value to say that's absolutely unique, it's not a common thing, and that's always been true of artists, in general. Now, we're just seeing more of it, that's all."

Liebman considers himself fortunate, growing up when he did. "I came in at the right time," he explains. "It was time for a middle-class white boy to get in there [laughs]. I'm not the only one; look, there was Joshua Breakstone and Randy Brecker, Richie Beirach, you name it. Our generation was the postwar baby boomers who had parents that enabled us to do what we wanted. That's really the truth, because without that we'd all be schoolteachers or working in a factory, like the generation before that. By the '60s, if you were middle-class in America—and I'm being very general now and observing sociologically, which is not my field—I think that we really were the first generation to do what we wanted to do, rather than being about survival.

"Our parents were making a living and encouraging us to be who we wanted to be and not to be like our fathers—not to go out to the field and work," Liebman continues. "We were urban, liberal people and arts were important—that was the culture of the day, and equally, there was a very uneducated poor class also—obviously, things happened in the ghettos in '68, all the black-white stuff. But, in general, guys like me had a chance, and we could have easily gone into something else; it could have been another art. If it had been two years later and I'd heard Jimi Hendrix when I heard John Coltrane, I can almost promise you I'd be playing guitar. I could see it; he could have had that effect on me, because it was so mind-blowing and so above the earth, coming from somewhere else. We were ready for it, and we were being exposed to it; this was really an explosion of communication of media, not comparable to what we have now with the computer, obviously, but to what came before, in the '60s, when you had only three TV stations in most cities and you had just records. The youth culture was announced, and we were the beneficiaries of that. For the lucky few of us who heard jazz at the right time and said that's what we liked, that's why this happened. I must say, we were like fish out of water compared to jazz beforehand, which was mostly black. We kinda turned it around because of the number of white guys that came out of my generation.

"We were the eclectic generation," Liebman concludes, "because of our influences; because in the '60s, you finally had Ravi Shankar next to Béla Bartók string quartets. It wasn't difficult to get, and people were finally starting to listen to this stuff in a more regular manner. Bird [Charlie Parker] and great people like Stravinsky, we all know that; but for it to leak down to a 17-year-old kid in the middle of New York, who could hear the Bulgarian Girl's Choir in 1964 because [Bob] Moses turned him onto it, and the next thing go see Trane live at the Half Note, and then rock and roll. I've gotta say that, in the end, if there's one real reason, one event or one thing that really changed the way that jazz was perceived, it was the rock-and-roll explosion of the '60s, and what it meant to be people of that generation. Because you couldn't escape it, asit was tied to political and social things, because of the whole hippie shit and Vietnam—that really changed everybody. In other words, even if it wasn't the music, it was just such a shock that my generation had to reflect change to what came before."

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