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Live Trane: Never Before, Never After

David Liebman By

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NEA Jazz Master and much celebrated saxophonist, composer, bandleader, educator and author Dave Liebman recounts the life-changing experiences of witnessing live performances by John Coltrane as told to Dave Kaufman.

I always say my epiphany was the first time I saw Coltrane in February of 1962 at Birdland. The fact that I even knew about Birdland at 15 years old was because I was invited to go there a few months earlier by some of the older guys in the high school dance band during the Christmas break. Playing that first time were Count Basie and Gerry Mulligan's group. It was my first time in a jazz club and I quickly learned about the Birdland "peanut gallery" that had maybe three, four or five tables where underage folks could sit for the whole night and have a Coke-we couldn't drink of course. So we sat in the back and it was so impressive to see a big band up so close. After all Birdland was not that big. A funny story: We had to order a coke or something. When she said it cost a dollar I said wait a minute: "It's only 5 cents in Brooklyn! "Son, you're not in Brooklyn anymore..." a little awakening to the real world!! Birdland was separated into a bar area, where who knows what was happening, and then the club itself. I remember a red velvety Las Vegasy kind of thing—'50s, '60s supper club type of decor.

That Basie visit was Christmas of '61. Now I was an experienced jazz patron so I invited my first girlfriend who was a flautist in the school orchestra, where I played clarinet. We ate at a famous Italian joint called Mama Leone's and then went over to Birdland. I didn't know who was playing and was just starting to read Downbeat at that time. When I got to the club, there was a sign outside listing the John Coltrane Quintet. There was a picture of Trane with a soprano. I said to the Julie, this is the guy who is playing soprano saxophone which at that time was still a pretty rare instrument. I had never seen a soprano before in front of me. Also appearing was the Bill Evans Trio. It was quite a double bill. We went in and were met at the door by a gentleman whose name was Pee Wee Marquette. He was the MC at Birdland. You might know his voice from the Art Blakey Meet You at the Jazz Corner of the World recording. It was $5 admission for each of us. Pee Wee said "you know where to go" and I said yes sir, the peanut gallery. It was Saturday night and like Saturday nights anywhere, it was crowded and noisy... dates, people talking, etc. Bill Evans was playing and I don't think I heard or concentrated on a note. All I remember is that he had his head straight down, no talking to the people and really soft. It looked like these guys were in a living room. I didn't really think much about it.

Then comes on the quintet with Eric Dolphy who was with Trane for that particular period. They start playing and I said to Julie: "I don't what's going on, but this guy sounds like he's practicing." Dolphy's style it turns out was a little more rooted in bebop rhythm, though his choice of notes was quite different than what I had heard so far in jazz. With Coltrane I didn't know what he was doing. He was playing trills, tremolos, creeping up into the altissimo range... all heavily technical saxophone type stuff. All I remember saying to Julie was that I can't believe that this is the same instrument I have under my bed in Brooklyn—that I practice. This cannot be a tenor saxophone. Of course, the soprano was completely new to me. Then towards the end of the set they went into a tune and she said to me that it comes from the show Sound of Music which was a big movie/Broadway hit. She said that's "My Favorite Things" that Julie Andrews sings." Me, the great expert replied that these heavyweight jazz guys don't play corny stuff like that! Of course it was "My Favorite Things" which was Coltrane's signature tune and when I saw him on subsequent occasions, he played it every night—sometimes twice a night.

That was the night that I always go back to even now more than 50 years later. That night basically set the course of my life. I didn't know it at the time, but that was the beginning of the curiosity vibe of "how do you do this?" I was taking lessons in a private little family school in Brooklyn near my home. On Saturday morning, I would take piano lessons, play in an ensemble and sax lessons. In between the classes, the guy in charge—the teacher, would play with his assistant. He played piano, drums, saxophone much like I do now. I remember looking at them and asking how do you do this with no music in front of you; you don't talk, there is no conductor. He said it's called jazz and that is improvisation.

So this intro to jazz kind of happened at 12 or 13 years old and the Coltrane event when I was fifteen. From then on until he died, I saw Trane and the group on many occasions, whenever I could which was on the weekend when the group was in town at one of the clubs. Those guys in those days would work two weeks at a time—and maybe be in New York three or four times a year. They didn't travel as much as we do to Europe and so forth in the present day. I got to see Trane quite a lot, but I always go back to that first night in February '62 when I felt that power, that spirit and the intensity of the band. It just felt honest with no pretense, no phony shit... just the real deal. Ultimately, these kinds of experiences made me realize that there is a lot going on behind the proverbial curtain... meaning what you see is NOT necessarily all there is. Pretty heavy stuff for a teenager! And it wasn't just Coltrane... it was the group with Elvin, Jimmy and McCoy... everyone was on the case. It just seemed so deep and meaningful. I think that's what captured me more than anything. If only just the way he played saxophone... I never heard anything like it and again as I said earlier I was astounded that this was the same instrument I had at home (the tenor). It sounded like something from another planet. So that was the epiphany night.

All About Jazz: As I understand Coltrane's live performances were somewhat ahead of his LPs of the day.

Yes, for a variety of reasons. First the LP had time limitations which were about 20 minutes per side. In general, whether it was Coltrane or me or anybody, the studio is a very different situation from the gig and still is. For obvious reasons, you have people in front of you and you feel something, somehow from the audience. Inside the studio there is no public. The lights are bright and the microphone is on. You go back and listen and you check it out. It's more like a laboratory. I love the studio because you can really get things done and can hear really quickly stuff you want to change on the spot. You don't need to wait till the next time you play. On the other hand, it is a little inhibiting to have a microphone capture everything you do and know that it is forever. You don't know how many people will hear it. In those days, records/LPs were a means of communicating to people who were not sitting in front of you.

In Coltrane's case, the live gig was unbelievable. There are some videos now capturing a little of the vibe but they are short. I do remember at least one time a 45 minute to one hour duet between Elvin and Trane which they did quite often. Another time they played one song for an hour and 45 minutes... with everybody soloing of course. The intensity was at a really high level and by the way the volume was very loud with Elvin really hitting hard. You have to remember at that time Jimmy Garrison was not playing with a pickup, just a microphone in front of the bass. The pianos were not the greatest in these clubs and the miking was not like a professional sound system we have now. These were bars really and they weren't made for loud music. When you are so close to the performers the energy is palpable and you could feel it. In a club like the Half Note for example you were really close to the action. You can see the photos on the Trane record One Up One Down-Live at the Half Note. Birdland was a little bigger while the Vanguard was much more compact and so forth. There was an immediacy that you felt in a club.

That group definitely rose to the occasion when they played. I have to think that Trane felt the bandstand was an extension of his practicing because he was a compulsive practicer—even in between sets. When you went to see Trane, you were definitely hypnotized... You would be moving around in your seat, your leg hurt, you had to stretch your back, maybe you took a sip of Coca-Cola or whatever and they were STILL playing a tune. Some time they would leave the stage and Elvin Jones would solo or Jimmy Garrison would take a 15-20 minute solo. It's hard to imagine now. The attention span at the time was sometimes good and sometimes it wasn't. They definitely were a club band; there is no question about it.

AAJ: I guess in '62-'63, jazz fans that were familiar with the early Impulse! albums, which are beginning to get pretty adventurous in themselves were not really well prepared for the live experience. Is that a fair statement?
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