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Dave Liebman: Archives and Improvisations - The Past and the Now of a Life in Jazz

Victor L. Schermer By

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Prolific saxophonist, composer, band leader, and educator Dave Liebman is a living legend, an NEA Jazz Master who has been making waves since the 1970s and never stops growing, learning, and discovering. His autobiography, What It Is (Scarecrow Press, 2012, with Lewis Porter) is an honest probing of his more than half century experience as a musician in the context of his personal life and those with whom he has performed.

During all those years, Liebman has collected recordings, transcriptions, photographs, and memorabilia documenting every nuance of the jazz world that he encountered along the way. In August, 2018, he donated his extensive archives to the library of the famed Berklee College of Music, where he has served as one of their distinguished teachers. It is a treasure trove of hard copy items for researchers, musicians, and others who want a vivid glimpse of what went down in Liebman's life and career, and in the jazz world of the time.

All About Jazz felt that the milestone donation of his archives was a good occasion to touch bases with "Lieb," get some information about the archives, and explore a few of the many sides of his life and music. As in his book, Lieb here provides down to earth, sharp-as-a-tack perspectives on himself, the music, and the people, places, and ideas that informed his own development as a person and a musician.

All About Jazz: When did the idea of compiling your archives first come up for you?

Dave Liebman: I've been storing my recorded materials, photos, manuscripts, and so on since the 1960s. I've always been a collector. More recently, I was having dinner with my friend the photographer, Larry Fink, and he said, "I'm going to donate my archives, why don't you do something similar?" Such a thing never occurred to me. I thought only very famous people did that. But I thought it was a good suggestion, so a year or do later, I hit on the University of Michigan and the Eastman School of Music about housing my collection of manuscripts, recordings, and memorabilia. They were interested, but didn't have room for it in their facilities. Eventually, when I was doing some teaching at the Berklee College of Music, one of their staff said, "Oh, we have an archive setup, and we're looking to expand it!" It turned out they were really interested in what I had. Although I heard that Bob Dylan and Philip Glass had sold their archives for a few million dollars, I wasn't really interested in the money, Berklee's enthusiasm and the fact that it is such a great jazz institution led me to donate it to them free of cost. It was the perfect place for my collection, and it's on the East Coast, so I could still have convenient access to it.

Last August (2018), their archives staff came to my house with a van. They were real professionals. They sorted it out, boxed it and labeled it. I gave them my books, tapes, and recordings, both my own and those that influenced me. There was a book of my transcriptions of Coltrane. Some will be kept in Berklee's library and others are stored in an archives site at another location in Boston. For the material in the archives site, you will need permission to access them. They'll be carefully preserved with the techniques they have today. The Berklee College library will have everything listed, and folks can go there and request what they want to look at or listen to. The library has a special office where you can do your research. I'm not yet sure who's going to use it or for what purpose. But a lot of my own history and that of the jazz milieu I was in is documented there.

AAJ: So potential users would go to the library, check out the listings, and request what they want. But if it's at the archives site, they'll have to get specific permission.

DL: Yes. The archives site is nicknamed "The Fortress," which tells you how secure it is!

AAJ: If it were me, I would feel attached to all that memorabilia and not want to give it all up. Why did you donate your collection now, rather than as a bequest?

DL: I'm not at all attached to it! I did have a real twinge when I saw it all go out the door, but after it was gone, I was glad I did it. I hadn't looked at most of it for over thirty years. For example, there is a collection of my vinyl records that I stopped listening to when they came out with CDs. And I can get anything I want by requesting it. What matters to me is that it's safely taken care of, and hopefully musicians, researchers, journalists, and so on will find it interesting and useful.

AAJ: So you were emotionally ready to let go of it.

DL: Definitely. I just liked to collect them, and then occasionally I might go to them for one reason or the other, which I can still do.

AAJ: To go a little deeper on a personal level, which of the items you donated are the most precious to you?

DL: That's a very good question. I would say in general it would be the personal recordings of myself and others that I made along the way. They're in every format imaginable: reel-to-reel tapes, cassettes, many from my performances. The library will digitize them so they'll be easy to use. But, for me, I can't dwell in the past.

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