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

Lewis Porter By

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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.

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