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 Brooklynthat 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 nightsometimes 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 chargethe 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.