Dave Liebman – Interview with a Jazz Sax Master

Originally published March 2021

For today’s interview we’re joined by a real jazz legend with a career in contemporary music which stretches back nearly 50 years.

NEA Master Dave Liebman emerged in the 70s performing saxophone (and sometimes flute) with artists including Miles Davis, Elvin Jones & Chick Corea.

Alongside an illustrious career which includes over five HUNDRED records (including almost 200 as a bandleader!) he has also forged a reputation as a tireless jazz educator.

He’s performed workshops and seminars internationally and written books including Self Portrait Of A Jazz Artist, A Chromatic Approach To Jazz Harmony And Melody and Developing A Personal Saxophone Sound (available via his website).

In the words of Downbeat: “Liebman is among the most important saxophonists in contemporary music… a leader and artist of integrity and independent direction.”

Dave spoke to Jazzfuel’s Maggie Samkova in early 2021, in the midst of COVID, on a range of topics including getting the gig with Elvin Jones, the changing demands on musicians today and how jazz education has evolved.

There are some fascinating takeaways from a musician who has managed to successfully navigate the jazz ‘business’ whilst staying true to his artistic vision.

Also, some great stories:

“I remember one place called Bradley’s, it was a Piano Bar – piano and bass. I remember coming in at 4 o’clock in the morning and Herbie Hancock and George Shearing were sitting at the piano, training.”

You can of course keep reading for the full interview, but here were a couple of things which really stood out to us:

  • “It’s a lot of hats we wear as a musician. This is what I learnt in the 60 years of doing it: be organized and be able to take care of the business in as many ways as you can.”
  • “The record companies are not coming back. They had a good seventy years from the 40’s on and now it’s up to each artist to find a way to get their music out there.”
  • “We have supply and demand always working against each other… We have to find an audience. We need to find people who listen…”

Did you pick up any tips in terms of career management in your early days touring and performing with older artists like with Miles Davis?

I was not the leader so I had less responsibility than I would in the years after I was with Miles and Elvin Jones.

I always say the most important thing I got from those two great artists is that when you go on stage you have to give it your all.

The general thing is that this is the stage that you want to use for prayer or for meditation.

It’s a very important moment. 

When Elvin and Miles would get on stage, the atmosphere immediately turned to business.

It was like you were a different personality, completely.

That was the big learning lesson because it made me feel that if you get the opportunity to perform – and especially this music called jazz – you have to give it your all every time, even when it’s a rehearsal.

And then the business or administration aspect of being an artist which has changed over the years since the 60s or 70s means one thing: you have to be organized. You have to have your stuff together.

You have to have your music together, your relationships with other people, with people who run concerts and clubs, with the doorman…

It’s a lot of hats we wear as a musician. 

This is what I learnt in the 60 years of doing it: be organized and be able to take care of the business in as many ways as you can. 

Who are the musicians around you today and how has that evolved over the years?

Over the 60 years I’ve had several bands but I keep the same musicians as much as I can because I believe in longevity of relationships.

So besides being organized as I said above, it’s also about being a personality that can smooth over problems. That can be anything from “I don’t have the right seat on an airplane” to “the sound system is not that great” etc. 

The latest aggregation I have with musicians was to purposely look at the younger generation (guys that are in their 30s except the bass player who’s been with me for 40 years) –  I wanted to see how they hear the music. 

We could take a song like Body And Soul or Satin Doll and give it to 5 musicians representing a different generation and each one will have a completely new vocabulary to express themselves.

I wanted to be sure that the party was going on and I could see it. 

You’ve been very active in hosting workshops and masterclasses around the world. What do you think about the evolution of jazz education over the last 50, 60 years?

Jazz education has become a major business, like the businesses in the entertaining world.

We are entertainers to some degree and the structure of where things are now is completely different than before, because of the internet.

‘Education’ has really become the way people learn.

It used to be, in my time coming up, jam sessions, informal gatherings, late night at bars – the venues were staying open later at those days and, generally, you learned by hanging out and by being around other (more experienced) musicians.

That has been altered by the fact that you can get John Coltrane in front of you in three tenths of a second and go on from there.

Education has been really affected by technology.

The problem is of course, as in any art form, we have more supply than demand.

This is not unusual in any art.

And as we speak today, early 2021, we have an epidemic and a lot of problems. If we were talking year and a half ago, we wouldn’t be discussing this; your website would be even more practical to people because they won’t have any gigs now.

Hopefully this will all even up and if we talk in 6 months or 9 months (hopefully not 9 years), the situation will change. But right now we’re in a pretty big dilemma with how to learn this music because more and more students are dropping out of the programs.

There are so many obstacles to just getting up and talking about John Coltrane.

This situation is exaggerated right now in our history.

How do you think the whole situation with covid-19 will develop?

It’s like we’re in an alley between buildings but it has no end.

We don’t see the end in sight.

Right now, I’m listening to the government of New York talking about doses of vaccine.

There are a lot of things going on that are more important than jazz.

It’s very difficult for clubs to survive.

We have major clubs closing or close-to-closing in New York City.

New York has been center of jazz since 1940 so right now, the difference between the generations, is that you guys do it by computer, we do it by long relationships with people.

But there’s no question that the computer and the internet have made a gigantic difference in how you expand the way you’re linked to people.

Instead of talking to somebody you do it by email.

I wish that I would be more optimistic but right now it’s a difficult period as everybody knows.

On the other hand, jazz represents an art form where people interact together much more than in other music in a way.

Jazz needs a resuscitation, like what you’re doing with your website.

It’s the best we can do right now.

Which is trying to organize: how to get a job, what’s the role of a manager…

We hope everything will change and get back to some way that it was normal.

Is there anything that you recognize in today’s students that – in their perception of music business – significantly differs from when you were younger, trying to build your career path?

The obvious thing is the internet again and all the social media.

I have a few hours of work to do now that have nothing to do with playing.

These skills with the social media, the younger generation will take it naturally to their existence.

Now if you want to see John Coltrane you don’t have to go to a club.

You can do it in your bed.

The influence of that is very important because of the immediacy that we didn’t have in my generation.

In my generation you had to go to the Village Vanguard, you had to physically go to the Half Note.

It was great, you heard the music live… That’s different now.

I remember one place called Bradley’s, it was a Piano Bar – piano and bass. I remember coming in at 4 o’clock in the morning and Herbie Hancock and George Shearing were sitting at the piano, training.

That was the way.

Now it’s more in school, it’s more academic and that’s the way things’ changed.

Let’s get back to the better times when you played with Miles Davis and all the great musicians… Aside from the high level of music, are there any shared traits that these jazz greats share? 

The older generation – guys who played the bebop language and made that into the main way of speaking to each other and to the audience, those musicians learnt completely by questions, answers, trial & error and, most important, many hours spent on stage – because there were more opportunities to play.

If I talk to a young musician now, he or she might say “I have a gig next week, then three nights in three weeks and then there is a concert in April”.

That means they’re performing let’s say 10 times in a month if I’m generous.

Elvin was once asked “How many times did you played My Favorite Things?” And Elvin laughed and said “We played it every night, sometimes we played it twice a night and we worked (the John Coltrane Quartet) 40 to 45 weeks a year!”

That’s a lot of training.

You can’t compare playing 10 times in one month to playing till 3 in the morning 3 weeks of a month.

And that’s how they learnt – those musicians learnt by doing it, that’s where they got their munition.

Your generation learns by reading about it.

I must say the education is very organized, there’s great teaching going on: that’s how we learn now.

How did these early opportunities come about? Did you ever go after them, or they arrived serendipitously?

They arrived.

Somebody heard me or heard about a gig with Elvin; it was not called an audition but it was.

I knew Miles and some of the people in Miles’ band: Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea… 

I was around the team and just got a call from the manager one day.

Usually in those days the way you got work was by word of mouth.

“I know a guy who plays a beautiful saxophone…”

Because of the situation I just described – 40 weeks a year – there was plenty of chance to hear somebody.

Once, a bass player called me at midnight: “Elvin wants to hear you right now.”

So I went to the club, it was called SLUGS (it was in a pretty bad area in New York, Lower East Side) I came in and Elvin said, dramatically: “Are you ready? Put you horn out, you’re gonna play the next set.”

I played 2-3 tunes and then he said: “I’m recording next week at Rudy’s (that’s the famous studio of Rudy Van Gelder), be there and bring a song for us to play.”

And that was it.

From the moment I was in the band.

It worked on a very human level those days.

How do you think the emergence of self-releasing music has influenced the development of jazz (compared to the 50s/60s when labels controlled what was being put out)?

First of all it was technology.

Technology leads arts in a lot of ways.

I could be sitting in my living room and making a record… with an orchestra!

Because of that, I think record companies are basically finished. It means there is a lot of interesting music being made by the younger generation.

They have the opportunity with all the machines and it’s quite easy to make an interesting product.

The record companies are not coming back.

They had a good seventy years from the 40’s on and now it’s up to each artist to find a way to get their music out there.

That’s why my daughter [publicist Lydia Liebman] is working so much – she’s got over 50 projects to work on.

Because PR is necessary.

You need people to hear about you and find out about you.

You could easily spend 23 hours a day on social media and just scratch the surface.

I’m hearing very interesting music from young musicians who I’m seeing in my classes and I think that’s a great development.

So what we have is supply and demand always working against each other, and we have technology, leading the way where relations are speaking musically but we have to find an audience.

We need to find people who listen…

Thank you, Dave, for this great interview!

About Dave Liebman

David Liebman is considered a renaissance man in contemporary music with a career stretching nearly fifty years.

He has played with masters including Miles Davis, Elvin Jones, Chick Corea, John McLaughlin, McCoy Tyner and others; authored books and instructional DVDs which are acknowledged as classics in the jazz field; recorded as a leader in styles ranging from classical to rock to free jazz.

He has performed on over 500 recordings with over 200 as a leader/co-leader featuring several hundred original compositions.

International recognitions and awards include :

“While others of his ‘60s generation have fallen off their ambition, Liebman has remained dogged about composition and trying different styles… he’s a fighter.” Ben Ratliff, NY Times

“The confidence that Dave Liebman shows in the chemistry of his musicians is justified and each hearing reveals new facets of these musical gems.” Ken Dryden, NYC Jazz Record

Connect & More

If you, too, enjoyed this, make sure you’re connected with Dave via his website which includes a huge range of content and resources.

And, if you’re looking for more industry insight, check out our previous conversations with Greg Osby, Christian McBride and Kurt Rosenwinkel (to name just three)…

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