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


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[The following is an excerpt from Chapter 4 of What It Is: The Life of a Jazz Artist (Scarecrow Press, 2012), by saxophonist Dave Liebman, in conversation with Lewis Porter, author of John Coltrane: His Life and Music (University of Michigan Press, 2000). In it, Liebman and Porter discuss the saxophonist's involvement in the loft scene of the late 1960s/early 1970s in New York City, and creation Free Life Communication with a group of like-minded musicians.

This excerpt appears by permission of the publisher, Scarecrow Press. This material is protected by copyright. All rights reserved. Please contact the publisher for permission to copy, distribute or reprint.]

Arrival: Becoming an Artist

Lew: This loft was an important thing. How did the loft come about? When did it start?

Dave: In late 1968, after the practice period upstate, I went home to my parent's house to figure out the next period. During my time practicing in Lake Katrine from June to Thanksgiving, I had realized that I wasn't the super talent that some others around me were. I was just starting to understand what talent was, and how that affected what you did. I had al-ready met Steve Grossman, who definitely was what you called talented. I didn't have that kind of natural ear. I did not have that kind of natural talent, but I was a hard worker. I was fairly disciplined and had energy and emotion and expression—these aspects were never a problem. I knew that I had a story to tell. I could compel people to listen to me, but I wasn't that kind of guy who could hear something and play it back at you, which is the heaviest thing you want. I knew that for me to be good, I had to play and play more. There was no shortcut. It was hands on, hours at the wheel, and the only way to do that was to have a loft.

At the same time, I made a musical decision to play no more club dates. If I needed money, I had, after all, the right credentials and credits from college to be a substitute teacher in the public schools, which was a familiar scenario because of my parents. With substitute teaching two days a week, I could swing enough bread to be cool. It paid $35 a day and you were done by three in the afternoon.

I knew about the loft situation through my experiences with Bob Moses, who had introduced me to that whole world before. I knew that was the situation I needed in New York to get good. I knew how you got one—a real process. You got the Village Voice on Wednesday morning at six a.m. at Sheridan Square—direct from the printers. Then you got on the phone, ready to go immediately to see an advertised loft. You had to beat everyone else.

Lew: You mean you would buy it?

Dave: Exactly. It was called key money, which was basically a payoff. In other words, someone "owned" the loft who had ostensibly put in the fixtures—stove, fridge, toilet, shower, whatever. He might want $2,000 just for you to have the right to go to the landlord to negotiate a rental lease. I mean, you still had to pay monthly rent, and a sizable deposit for security. It's hard to explain, but in a way you were paying them, or someone before, who had put money into the building to make it liveable. Now, we are talking very basic in some cases, although when lofts be-came fashionable in the seventies and eighties, they could be like palaces. So, if you wanted it, you paid what the guy asked or whatever you could negotiate.

Lew: And it had nothing in it?

Dave: Well, maybe a toilet, but these were former industrial spaces, of-ten for the fashion trade which was centered in New York City during this time, especially in the Chelsea area on the West Side.

Lew: This is before SoHo lofts?

Dave: Before SoHo. That came a little bit later, and they were generally bigger and fancier—much more expensive than what I could ever afford. This area I'm talking about consisted of former industrial spaces with heavy machinery and the like. In one of my later lofts, above me was the constant thumping of clothing presses or whatever, but it all stopped at five p.m. and on weekends and holidays. Chunk, chunk, chunk, but at five o'clock, done!

Lew: Who lived in lofts?

Dave: Painters, photographers and musicians. Painters needed room for canvases. Photographers needed light. A lot of these lofts had big windows with a lot of light—floor-to-ceiling windows, twelve-foot ceilings. Musicians needed a place to play where they wouldn't have trouble with neighbors. With these places deserted at night, holidays, and weekends, you were cool. Nobody cared. It also fit the musician lifestyle, which was hanging all night and sleeping during the day, though depending on the situation, it could be rough with the factory noise. Often I didn't get up until two in the afternoon, after having gone to bed at six in the morning.

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.

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, 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.

People already knew Chick Corea. The 'hood knew—the community knew him. He was definitely the piano guy in New York. So, he asked me if I thought he could get the first-floor loft. I went to Saul and we went through the same rap—can he pay?, yeah, he works with Miles Davis; ok, you guys have been good, etc, etc. That was how we had all three lofts in the building on 19th Street—Dave [Holland], Chick and myself. That's the beginning of a lot of stuff—scientology, macrobiotics, psychedelics, the group Circle, and the Free Life Communication project.

Chick had a big influence on me. First of all, just the physical aspect of living with Dave and Chick, since they were playing with Miles. Informally, as it turned out, because of the proximity, I was privy to their reactions and what was going on with the incredible music they were creating in that band. In fact, Miles came up to Dave's loft for dinner one evening, so I formally met Miles for the first time. I had met him backstage previously because of Lenny White, who was on some of his gigs and played on Bitches Brew. When Miles came to the loft, the guys made a macrobiotic dinner for him, and the three of us were sitting there on pillows, legs crossed Indian style. Miles was cool. He ate the rice. We were very strict with the macrobiotic thing. Miles said the food wasn't bad—we actually had a very civil evening. I don't remember much. I know that I didn't talk and I remember that Miles was a very soft talker. He was very nice and it was a pleasant evening.

The 19th Street loft was truly the beginning of my creative life. Everything was preparation up to that point.

Photo Credits

Page 1: Wolfgang Becker

Page 2: Dave Kaufman

Page 3, Liebman with Miles Davis: Courtesy of Eagle Rock Entertainment

Page 4: Bill King



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