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.

AAJ: What do these archives represent for jazz history?

DL: I think they say a lot about my generation of musicians from the 1960s on. This is a record of someone, namely myself, who was intimately involved and in a lot of places and events of the time. So you can get an idea of what it was to be a musician from the 1970s as distinct from those in the 1940s for example. My archives collection shows a lot about the priorities, the lifestyle, the bands, the learning process. For a long time, I lived and worked in New York, so I was at the center of things. People will relate to the fact that I was right in there during the times of Coltrane, free jazz, fusion, and so on. And in addition to performing, I wrote a lot of books, and I've been heavily into jazz education. The archives document a period of jazz history that I've been part of. I'm an NEA Jazz Master because of what I participated in and contributed to musically and personally. So scholars and musicians who are interested will hopefully find much that is enlightening in what is there.

AAJ: Do you think the student musicians will find it interesting as well?

DL: They like to use the computer and internet for such things these days, but there's still something to be said for what you have direct access to and can see and hear in their original hard copy form. And there is some material in the collection that is not on the internet.

AAJ: And they might want to study and play the transcripts of your compositions and other music.

Liebman's Autobiography: What It Is

AAJ: Let's talk about your life and music. I read your autobiography, What It Is, which you initially recorded in conversation with your friend, musician, and author Lewis Porter. I found it to be a fascinating, provocative book that's moves so well that I couldn't stop reading it.

DL: Lewis is a terrific interviewer, and he had a way of getting me to open up. We worked on it over a two year period, often at the Manhattan School of Music when I'd be teaching there. I was inspired by Lee Konitz's book (Lee Konitz: Conversations on the Improviser's Art, with Andy Hamilton; U. Michigan Press, 2007). Konitz was so honest and truthful, and I wanted mine to be like that.

AAJ: I was surprised you had such a passion for Konitz because his style of playing is so different from yours.

DL: But I saw it from a different angle: we're both Jewish saxophone players. He's a wonderful musician and very outspoken. He's very honest and can even be caustic. He didn't hold back, and I happened to agree with a lot of what he wrote.

AAJ: The Jewish connection has had a big impact on jazz. There's always been a link between Jews and African Americans on account of their histories of persecution and minority status. And so much of the music owes a lot to Jews: Gershwin, Richard Rodgers, the Great American Songbook, Leonard Bernstein, the influence of the Jewish Musical Theater.

DL: For me, there were two important influences from my Jewish family. One was that you had to have an education. In my youth, during the 1950s-60s, a Jewish boy had to go to college. That was different from a lot of the other jazz musicians of the time. The other point was that you were expected to do something significant for the world. You had to make a contribution to the betterment of mankind. For a lot of us, it meant becoming a doctor, a lawyer, a teacher, where you could make a good living but also do some good. For me, I came to think of music as making such a contribution. We musicians are "shamans," and we bring a message to people. When you hear great music, you feel something that affects you deeply. Other ethnic groups have a similar idea, but for me the idea that the music carries a positive message for our species is part of my Jewish heritage.

AAJ: So this Jewish guy, Dave Liebman, takes up the saxophone, and he starts out playing with his high school cronies, and then gets gigs in the Catskill Mountains. So he's playing pop music for people who are more interested in eating, socializing, and dancing than listening. Suddenly, one night he goes with his girlfriend to Birdland to hear John Coltrane and pianistBill Evans on the same bill. And his whole life changes! That's what you say in your book.

DL: That might be over dramatic, but it's very true! Actually, my goal at the time was to become an orthopedic surgeon. I had polio from a young age, and I wanted to be like the doctors who helped me. So it's quite true that Coltrane's music, in particular, took me to another place. My whole life changed after hearing him on a couple of occasions. Before that, it was about a family and culture that had nothing to do with jazz as such. My mother played piano, but there was no impetus at home to be a creative artist, like a musician or a painter or an actor.

The Influence of John Coltrane

AAJ: Something about Coltrane and his music took you over. In retrospect, do you know what it was that grabbed hold of you so much as to change your life?

DL: Yes. I'm pretty sure I know what it was. It definitely wasn't about the music per se, because I'm still trying to figure that out! I went to hear Coltrane many times after that night at Birdland, up until he died. It was his unpretentious attitude and the straight-ahead honesty of his group with McCoy Tyner, Jimmy Garrison, and Elvin Jones that totally impressed me. There was no bullshit! They didn't even announce tunes. They just got up and played like there was no tomorrow. I was really attracted to that way of doing things. They were completely into the music, and everything they played was consistently great. You can hear that on all the records they made, even some that were only recently discovered (Both Directions at Once: The Lost Album (Impulse, 2018).
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