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A Lieb of Faith

Dan Bilawsky • FeaturesSeptember 2021 • September 6, 2021

SBO is excited to introduce the new editor of our sister magazine, JAZZed: NEA Jazz Master and Grammy nominee David Liebman. “Jazz education has come a long way since its beginnings,” Liebman observes. “JAZZed Magazine is now the head of the class and guardian of the pathway. I am excited to join the staff and contribute to its success and relevance.” Read on to learn more about the newest member of the JAZZed editorial team and his thoughts on music scholarship and instruction.

Jazz educators: subscribe for free at jazzedmagazine.com

For Dave Liebman, the most difficult part of dealing with our world in flux may be the need to stay put. The legendary saxophonist – an NEA Jazz Master who’ll be celebrating his 75th birthday in September of 2021 – has been one of the most active forces on the scene for half a century. Having initially carved out his place in the early ‘70s while working for Elvin Jones and, shortly thereafter, Miles Davis, Liebman would go on to blaze numerous trails with his own breakout bands – the Open Sky Trio, Lookout Farm, the Dave Liebman Quintet, and Quest. Even with his eventual rise to prominence in the world of jazz education in the ‘80s and ‘90s – working with Jamey Aebersold, authoring numerous books and resources, and founding the International Association of Schools of Jazz – he remained one of the most relevant and productive artists in the business. To date, Liebman has appeared on over 500 recordings – more than 200 of which are under his own name or leadership – and he remains omnipresent as a performer and beacon of wisdom for those who surround him.             

Characteristically generous with his time, knowledge, and memories, Liebman spoke to JAZZed about everything from personal developments to technological advancements, the impact of the coronavirus on the jazz ecosystem to the mechanisms supporting artistic growth, and the impetus behind thorough documentation to the passage of information across generations. Candor, good humor, and a wealth of experience informed the easy flow of this 45-minute conversation (which has been edited here for concision and clarity). 

For the bulk of 2020, COVID-19 ground things to a halt. What was that stretch of time supposed to look like for you, before everything shut down, and how have you refocused?

I had a couple of big band engagements, some work with Richie Bierach, gigs with my regular group. But, of course, as you know, everything went down to zero. And we moved – my wife and me – right about when things broke, so we got in under the wire with that. We’re in Manhattan now, in the same apartment complex as our daughter, Lydia. We downsized from our house in Pennsylvania. We were there for 35 years. So we started a new phase of our lives. It took a lot of time to do that, and there’s still a lot to do, so for a minute I didn’t miss things. 

While this crisis has caused so many problems in so many different ways for musicians, if you were to say there’s a positive to come out of the technological shifts in the way things are happening now, what would it be?

I think live streaming. It’s like we have a club on the internet. And everybody knows that at whatever time on whatever night there’ll be two sets, and so-and-so playing. And on another night there’ll be another band there. I think this is going to grow, and not only as a result of the negative – that we’re trying to make up for what’s missing – but with a connection to the positive because people will be able to hear you, in other parts of the world, who would never have heard you before. And that’s a good thing. We just need more of it. And the clubs need it. This could be the end of the clubs if they have a bad winter. New York has always been known as the center of jazz, and all of this could be in danger depending on the situation in the coming months. 

It’s interesting to see how the clubs have started to pivot, live streaming music and dealing with all of the new health concerns and restrictions.

I’ll share a story that I’ve been telling recently. I was playing at Smalls. It was one of the early gigs when the scene started to open up [in the summer]. And at the end of the first tune, I felt strange. I quickly realized it was because there was no audience there. And it really made me reevaluate the role of and the need for an audience – customers, the people who listen to the music. Because without that vibe, it’s kind of empty. And then, along similar lines, there are the students I teach that I think about. They’re not having a chance to interact – with their peers, with other people. And if jazz is anything, it’s about getting together and performing and playing and thinking about music as a group. The whole group aspect with everything is completely gone. 

So what advice would you try to impart on music students and artists who are new on the scene who are attempting to live and learn through this pandemic? 

That’s hard to answer. It’s a very individual thing. First of all, there’s the financial aspect to contend with, which is always a problem for students and artists and certainly jazz musicians who don’t make a lot of money. There’s no alleviation there, except to get more gigs. And there aren’t any gigs right now. There’s not much they can do [since] they have to negotiate an environment that doesn’t have gigs. With that in mind, a young person has to be ambitious and try to keep the inspiration going. The longer this goes on, the harder it gets. But to be inspired – by your peers or giants like Wayne Shorter or whoever it is that motivates you – is important. Once the inspiration goes, and the energy to support that inspiration goes, it’s pretty hard for a young person to get that back.

Let’s change topics and talk about your music. In looking at some of the records that you’ve been a part of in the last two years – a Saxophone Summit album with Joe Lovano, Greg Osby and a Rolls Royce rhythm section; a live On The Corner reworking with Jeff Coffin and Victor Wooten; Earth, the conclusion to your elements suite; dates with John Stowell, Fred Farrell, Martial Solal, Jim Robitaille, Adam Rudolph, Richie Bierach, Quartette Oblique, Kaleidoscope Quintet, and so many others – I’m struck by how different each one of those projects are. In one respect it seems like there’s no tie to bind them. But then it dawned on me that the common thread is really this idea of relationships – with different musicians and languages and legacies. Do you think that’s accurate and do you feel that’s been important in your artistic pursuits? 

It’s been crucial. When you read that list of most of my recent recordings – and I’m sure there are a few more – I get all out of breath [laughs]. This is eclecticism. And there’s no shame in eclecticism. Being eclectic was kind of a negative thing or had a negative connotation back when I started – like, “oh, you dabble.” But eventually, by the late ‘70s and ‘80s, that became a rallying call for a lot of musicians. For me, the first time eclecticism took over was with Miles. Because if there was one thing about Miles, it’s that he was a master at putting his own thing into or over a different background, therefore making it sound different. When you looked at Miles, if you took the wah-wah pedal away, which he was using when I was with him, you hear he’s playing pretty simple. Pretty much blues with a couple different kinds of notes. But it’s surrounded by two guitars, congas, drums, effects, a saxophone player who played in post-Coltrane [style]. He was a master at this. He was basically saying, if I have to change, I’ll get those guys who can help me change that way. 

You document your work so well and so often. You obviously feel it’s something that’s important. Why do you feel that need to document so many different endeavors?

Because you can shut the door on something once you know it’s in the room. I’m not going to do it again once it’s done. I’m not going to make a life out of it. For example, that duo with Martial Solal that you mentioned. That’s a very particular thing because he’s such a master and he’s in his nineties. And mastering bebop fits into that situation. So each of these recordings has a little story about it. And making the recordings is a way for me to clear my plate. And my plate is usually very full – with different styles and so forth. So why not record if you can find the opportunity. And also, the other aspect of cataloguing your work is that those in the audience – those that listen to you – are being educated. I’m helping to educate them. With this music, you have to know what’s going on. You have to have experience listening to it. I look at all of my music as being part of a whole, with different aspects [of myself] being brought out from record to record. But I do like cataloguing – liner notes, my website, the music – because I think that the people who enjoy me already will enjoy things more then. When they read what I write and listen to what I say and play, there’s a good chance that they’ll be a fan for life.

How do you approach these vastly different collaborations? Do you have a general guiding philosophy in terms of your openness or do you walk into each of these situations – the Sidney Bechet tribute with John Stowell, any of those other projects, really – with a very different mindset?

 Well, the mindset comes from the music itself. Sidney Bechet was somebody I knew about but wasn’t too familiar with. So going through 30 or 40 or 50 songs, trying to find the right material, was a real learning experience because I didn’t know what he was doing before. What you’re doing, when you taste the wine, so to speak, is building your repertoire. And each record is a world of its own. I learned pretty quickly that the only way to keep interested and not repeat yourself is to play this eclectic card. And I was certainly interested in enough music. And I still have more to go. So you do your research. The Beatles is a good example. I went through 150 tunes of their music to [find the right songs] for the record I made – Lieb Plays The Beatles. I’m good at spotting the things that I can use. I’ll never forget, Miles turned to me one day and he just said, “I only steal from the best” [laughs]. And seeing how well he did it – switching styles – convinced me to do that. What ties all of my work together is that I’m still one of the people improvising and it’s my vocabulary, which doesn’t change too drastically. I also pair myself with different repertoire and different musicians, like Miles did, which gives me the opportunity to create something new and different in the world. 

How do you keep the creative juices flowing so freely in terms of conceptualizing these different projects and bringing them to fruition?  

 Well, I’m a big finisher. I just like finishing things. You have to finish it. So once I decide it’s going to be Sidney Bechet or Kurt Weill or Earth, I do my research. And that might mean going outside of jazz and music. It might mean reading philosophy or books on a different topic. If you’re going to be interested in different things like that, you’re going to get educated. And educated musicians are great because they have more resources to use. I could play a post-bop repertoire for years, and it would be okay. But for me, eventually, it would be boring. I have no interest in doing the same thing over and over again. You do it once, you move on. But you have to be able to put the record out there to make it a reality. And record companies have, sadly, disappeared. 

That mention of record companies serves as a decent segue. I know a few years ago you started to release some personal recordings under the banner of the Lieb Archive. Do you have any thoughts about what you’d like to do or where you’d like to go with other archival recordings?

 Well, I have the archive, which is mainly [recordings from] Quest. And Richie Bierach and I have a 5-CD box set coming out in the spring on a label called Jazzline, based in Cologne, Germany. I figure that if you do something and record something, it will get off your shelf [laughs]. It’s my goal to get it done. And then I can turn to something else.

You’ve often discussed your experiences with Miles Davis and learning on the job. And you’ve studied formally or informally with a pretty unique cross-section of other musicians – Lennie Tristano, Charles Lloyd, Joe Allard, Pete La Roca, on the bandstand with Elvin Jones. What are the big takeaways that helped you get to where you are?

 Well, you have to develop your personality/individuality. It’s the idea that as soon as you hear three notes you should know it’s Joe Henderson; or you should know it’s Michael Brecker; or you should know whoever it is that’s playing. And in order to get to that position, you have to believe in what you do and believe in who you are and keep carrying the ball over the goal line. And eventually, you develop a personality if you want it bad enough. I always talk about the difference between standing next to a musician and being in the audience. When you stand next to somebody, you get more than just the notes. You get the whole vibe of a person – that personality or individuality. Miles, I’ve spoken about that way. But Elvin was another thing. I learned more about humanity with Elvin. I don’t know how else to put it, except Elvin was a beautiful person. His vibe permeated everything he did. Miles’ vibe was not that warm, but his direction was very clear and you could see where he came from. So I’ve been lucky to have these mentors that you’re mentioning and I’ve been lucky enough to get something from all of them. I’m grateful for that. 

A young person has to be ambitious and try to keep the inspiration going. The longer [the pandemic] goes on, the harder it gets.

And you’ve kept it going and paid it forward, both through your work with Jamey Aebersold’s camps and the many books you’ve put together. But on an even broader scope, you’ve done that with the International Association of Schools of Jazz. I believe that organization, which you founded, just celebrated its 30th anniversary. Can you share a little bit about your work to create that?

 Well, I was looking to do a little more than just playing in the ‘80s. I went to the Peace Corps and an organization called Save the Children. But, of course, they don’t need a saxophone player. They need people building wells and dealing with agriculture. But I wanted to do something that would have a real impact on the world. So I started to think about this with education. And Jamey Aebersold is actually a good place to start this topic. He invited me to do a workshop in the late ‘70s and I didn’t know who he was at the time. And when he called me and said it was a clinic, I didn’t know what that was. I was naïve. But seeing him, and the way he organized things, was incredible. There were four people – Aebersold, David Baker, Jerry Coker, and Dan Haerle. These four guys really organized the music all the way up to “Giant Steps.” They were unbelievable teachers. At that time, I came from an environment in New York City where there was very little talk about the music. You were there every night so you didn’t have to talk about it. But after that experience, I was looking for something that would have an impact on people in other spots in the world. So I decided on a United Nations of jazz. I called a meeting in 1989 at my publisher’s offices in Germany, and 13 schools from 10 countries showed up. It was unbelievable. It’s been a long road for 30 years, in a different place each year for the annual meeting. It’s usually a week spent with people from 20 countries. I call it cross-cultural communication using jazz as the vehicle. When people ask me what’s the most important thing I’ve done besides my family, I say it’s starting the IASJ. 

At your position now, having been so involved with the music for 50 years and having pretty much played with everybody and done it all, do you still practice? Do you have a routine and still hit the shed?  

I do not have a routine and I do not practice.  There was a six month period when I finished college – NYU, as an American History major – before I went and lived in New York City in a loft. At that time I found a place up in Woodstock, with my girlfriend at the time and a bass player. I graduated in May and the next day I was up there. I drove a cab – I got a taxi license and drove for a short time to have enough money to be able to support myself for those six months. It was very low-level living – hundred dollar rent, rice and beans for food. I practiced during that period. I can’t tell you I remember what I practiced, except that it certainly involved transcribing solos because that’s a big part of what I believe in. But that was the only organized practicing I ever really did. And I’m not bragging. I’m kind of lamenting what I should’ve done, which is more practice. But it just didn’t line up that way for me. 
 Interestingly, I did learn something about practicing from Miles, indirectly. Before Miles – in my time with Elvin, for example – I was always really prepared for the gig. And then I went with Miles and saw that he didn’t touch the trumpet between gigs, if you can believe that. We’d be off for maybe three weeks or four weeks and he didn’t pick up the trumpet until the first night we played again [chuckles]. And then he’d look at me – like, “I’m having a little trouble, Dave,” – because he hadn’t warmed up. The trumpet isn’t the saxophone. You need a little time to get it going. So I saw that. And he’d miss things. He wasn’t as good on that first night back as he became three nights later. But it was so spontaneous. So I said, “You know what, there’s really something about the naturalness of this.” In other words, this is my day today. And the next day is another chance to play. And the third day is another day. Every one of those playing opportunities is another level of finding out who you are. It’s not that you’re going to play poorly if you don’t practice, so that made me stop feeling too bad about not getting practice in [laughs]. 

I think what’s hiding in the corner of those stories, which is something that aspiring musicians need to understand, is that there’s a lot to be said about the work being the practice. You were doing and continue to do so much playing that those very acts almost become the practice itself. Or the organization you’ve done to put together all of the books you’ve published becomes the practice.

Yes. Absolutely. We played a lot. That’s why I moved into the loft in the late ‘60s. It was great. It was downtown, you could play all night, you could have your friends over any time, and you could do whatever you want. As soon as I finished NYU and that six months of practicing, I immediately found a loft in a building that later became quite famous because Chick Corea and Dave Holland eventually moved in. And I realized then, for me to get good, I had to play a lot. Some people might be more talented or have some strengths that don’t demand that. But I knew that I had to play, play, play, play. And when you had a loft in those days, you could play at night; you could play all the time. And I had an open door policy. You rang the bell, I threw the key down, you came up three flights. Whoever it was, I was there to play with them because that type of thing was necessary for my evolution.

Having taught for so long – basically for four decades in some way, shape or form – what are some developments you’ve seen in students over time?

 Well, the students now are much better than we were. And that’s because of the internet. It’s very simple. You’re 10 years old, you’re sitting in your bedroom, you press a button and John Coltrane comes on now. At 12 or 13 years old you’re already seriously exposed to the music. So that, to me, has raised the level of everybody’s playing. Some of the students are really very good. Have they formed their own sound? Of course not. But they’re very talented.  And it’s hard for them because of the financial piece. They’re spending four years, with a high expense, learning to play saxophone, which they already do pretty well. I have a little problem with that, so I like to see them have something else they can do too. It can take three to five years for somebody to find their niche after school, so hopefully these students can do something besides playing. They can pursue a double major. I believe in that because it not only makes sense economically, but also philosophically and spiritually.

Assuming we get past this current crisis in the near future, which obviously remains to be seen, what are some of your hopes and plans?

 Well, I had a pretty good setup for years. I’m older now; it’s not as easy to get around. But I’d still like to do special projects with musicians I like and know. I actually have a Coltrane project coming out on the Dot Time label, with my Expansions group, in 2021. And, of course, I want to continue to mentor musicians. It’s my responsibility to give back. I got the message from Miles and Elvin. I feel like my biggest job now is to impart my knowledge to the people who are interested. I’m passing the message along. 

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