With a staggeringly prolific catalog of more than 500 recorded works, multiple GRAMMY nominations, and stints with jazz legends Miles Davis, Elvin Jones and Chick Corea, jazz saxophonist David Liebman could easily rest on his many laurels. Yet Liebman, who was named among the National Endowment for the Art’s prestigious Masters of Jazz in 2011, shows no signs of slowing down after nearly 50 years in the music industry. In addition to maintaining a busy teaching and workshop schedule, Liebman jumps between recording sessions and live gigs around the U.S. and abroad.
Born and raised in Brooklyn, Liebman started frequenting jazz clubs like the Village Vanguard and Birdland as a teenager, where he saw John Coltrane perform many times throughout the ‘60s. After graduating from New York University, he immersed himself in the New York loft jazz scene in the early ‘70s, honing his craft by playing music all night and paying the bills by substitute teaching during the day. Identifying a need for jazz musicians in his peer group to book their own public performances without relying on a big name, he formed the Free Life Communication, a collaborative nonprofit funded by the New York State Council on the Arts.
After landing a stint playing with Coltrane’s drummer Elvin Jones, Liebman caught the attention of Miles Davis, who invited him to play on his 1972 album On the Corner. Liebman subsequently played with Davis for about a year and half, further raising his profile in the jazz world, which enabled him to form his own groups and release his own compositions. Over the next few decades, he’d release more than 200 recordings as a leader or co-leader, showcasing several hundred of his original compositions.
When recalling the many milestones of his career, Liebman’s rapid-fire, electrified manner of conversing is magnetic, and exemplary of an artist who truly loves what he’s doing. We caught up with Liebman before he hopped on a plane to Europe for a couple of weeks, where he planned to teach, record, and perform – in his words, “the whole gamut.”
When did you really know that music was your calling?
I was very privileged to have seen John Coltrane live when I was 16, at a jazz club in New York called Birdland. I would go and see Coltrane during the next five years until he passed in ‘67. It looked like it was magical, because the guys didn’t talk to each other while they played, and there was no conductor. You know, I was a kid, and I thought, how do they do this with their eyes closed? They just get up and play like hell. I thought, whatever this is, I need to learn more about it.
You started taking classical piano lessons when you were 9, and then saxophone and clarinet when you were 12. Why were you drawn to these instruments?
My parents insisted. I don’t know where they got this – because they weren’t musicians, they were schoolteachers – but they said: “You’ve got to play piano for at least two years before you can play an instrument of your choice.” So I took lessons in the neighborhood with a classical teacher. And of course by the time I was 11 or 12, I said, “OK, I did your thing, now can I do my thing?” And that’s how the saxophone came in. The saxophone was because I loved early rock and roll; I came up in the ‘50s and the ‘60s, and rock and roll was really great. And it was, as I learned, an extension of one aspect of jazz called blues, so it was akin to jazz in a certain way, although I didn’t know it. And in those days, saxophone teachers felt it was important to begin on clarinet for at least a year, and get used to that, and then go to saxophone. So it took a little time to get to the tenor [saxophone], which was my initial goal.
And then a few years later, you’re in jazz clubs watching Coltrane.
Yeah, I grew up in Brooklyn, and it was just a subway ride away. I was young and I went with the older guys in high school, and it was great – hearing music like this 20 feet away from you. And for the next five years I saw Coltrane a lot, I saw Miles Davis, Horace Silver, Thelonious Monk. In those days, there were a lot of jazz clubs in New York, and everybody played until 2 or 3 in the morning. I’d go as late as I could and take the subway back home.
Not a bad early education into jazz.
I was lucky to be in the right place at the right time.
Who are some of your other artistic influences?
I’ve always enjoyed Picasso, I even wrote a song for him. I think, in a lot of ways, he was very similar to Miles Davis. They went through stages where they’d be interested in various ways of creating. It was inspiring for me to look outside of jazz to see what other artists were about, with photography, literature. I love Dostoevsky. You just try to be well-rounded – to understand the tradition of what you’re learning and the artistic value of what you’re learning, and you try to put it together. I didn’t know that as a teenager, but later on, I could see how I was on that path without knowing it.
You graduated from New York University with a degree in American History. Why did you choose to study history instead of music?
In those days, when they said “music” they meant classical music. There were no jazz programs like there are now. So there was really no opportunity to study jazz in a university setting. I did take music for the first six months, and the thing that intimidated me was the repertoire that you were required to know. I was just trying to learn what John Coltrane and Miles Davis were doing; I really couldn’t get my teeth into that. I tried, and that failed. And my second semester as a freshman, I tried psychology, which was, in those days, the go-to major when you didn’t know what you were doing. Finally I decided that I would pursue what I really loved outside of music: American History. I’d been reading it since I was a young kid, and decided, why not major in something that I’d enjoy doing while I got my degree.
And were you planning to pursue music as a career after graduation?
Well, I finished college, and I decided I’m going to give it a shot. That meant living in Manhattan in a loft scene – industrial spaces where artists could do their work. They’re basically illegal and fire traps, and they were in neighborhoods that weren’t developed as they are now. There was a textile business in the building, and after 5 o’clock I could play all night. I could play on the weekends and holidays.
So I decided to give that a chance, but I also had to make a living. My parents said I had to be on my own, so I made a living as a substitute teacher, which means you’d go to a school when the teacher is sick, you’d take the train at 7 o’clock in the morning to Brooklyn or Queens or wherever, and you’d take the place of the teacher, which is kind of a hell on its own [laughs]. But I’d get enough money to live on, and I could really try to play and get better and see what happened. In those days you could live as an artist in Manhattan at a very cheap rate. You can’t anymore, but you could in those days, so I could exist on my little teacher’s pay. It was nice.
Is this how the whole Free Life Communication co-op came to fruition?
I was with other musicians my age, and we all decided that we needed to find a place to perform. We weren’t well-known enough to play in the major clubs, and we were all making a living from driving taxis, bartending, or teaching. We were playing for each other in these lofts – we’d have 10, 20 guys taking turns playing on any given night – and we’d figured out that we’ve got to play for people. In the end, it’s just for people to enjoy.
So we’d play in churches, libraries, and museums, and so forth, and after doing that for about a year, I called a meeting with all interested parties. Everyone came to my place, and I said: “We’ve got to make an organization. We should try to get funding – there’s a grant from The New York State Council on the Arts. I have a lawyer friend who will set us up as a 501c3 so we can be a nonprofit.” So that’s how Free Life Communication came to be, and in our first year we were given a space in a church to perform, a beautifully renovated space that they granted to us. It was an exciting period; it was very grassroots. All of us were in our early- to mid-20s, making an effort to get the music out into the world, because we still weren’t known enough to play with Miles Davis or anything like that.
You really took a leadership role from a young age, in bringing all these like-minded artists together.
I was a very good organizer; I did it later on with the International Association of Schools of Jazz, which has been going on for 30 years and involves jazz schools from 40 countries that I put together. I just had those skills; I don’t know how, but I put them to use. And of course I put them to use by having a jazz group of my own with four or five people, and being able to manage that. In the ‘70s, after I was with Miles Davis, I was in a position career-wise to record for a major label. Because when you play with Miles Davis, you get recognized, so things went pretty well for me in the ‘70s. And the next 50 years has been developing it, and refining it.
With the International Association of Schools of Jazz, was that an effort to bring jazz educators together?
Educators for sure, but primarily for students from member schools, for them to meet each other. My basic premise was student-to-student interaction. In making an ensemble, we’d have a student from Japan, and a student from Israel, and one from New York, and so forth. That was the idea. In the ‘80s, I was touring and doing master classes in different countries every day, and it was amazing to me that the musicians in Germany didn’t know the musicians in France. We needed some communication. So that was the impetus, to try to get students from other countries to relate to their peers and find work, and to help young people make a living. It was kind of a networking situation for jazz schools, and now we have 40 countries involved, and we have a meeting every year. We do it in June or July, and we’ll be in Zagreb, Croatia this year.
While you were playing with big names like Miles Davis, you were also starting to explore your own music with the Open Sky Trio and Lookout Farm. How did you find your own voice as a composer?
You’re constantly working on it. The thing about having a group is it enables you to have a laboratory. You set the parameters, because you’re the leader. And the leader, just like in any other corporation, makes the decisions as to where, when and how. So because of my playing with Elvin Jones and Miles Davis for three to four years in the early ‘70s, I was given the opportunity as a leader. In those days, the jazz community was very personal – people would come and hear you in the club, and say: “Do you have your own music? What style is it? Is it on a label?” And you would get an opportunity to have your own music put out into the world.
I was mostly self-taught, I really was a very curious person. I’d always be looking over at the piano player, or the drums – I just tried to know what each member of the group was responsible for, and what they would contribute. And that’s how you build up your idea of what kind of music you want to play. So since the ‘70s, I’ve had four or five groups, which is rare because most guys switch a lot. I kept groups together for decades in some cases, because I believe that the contact you have on hopefully a daily level enhances the music, and the listener gets a bigger treat because these people know what they’re doing with each other. And our music is primarily group interaction – with jazz there’s no conductor, and when you solo, you’re the leader. And everybody gets a shot to do that in the course of a night.
So I had the chance to have groups over the years – some more successful than others – but for me, just to keep a catalog of my interests, because I like playing in a variety of styles. A group enables you to do that because you’re the one that says: “What are we going to play today?” So I’ve been very lucky in that respect.
You’re incredibly prolific – you’ve played on over 500 recordings, and several hundred of your original compositions have also been recorded. When you write, do you prefer to write alone or do you like to collaborate with others?
I have a piano player who’s been a big part of my work over the years, his name is Richie Beirach. Piano players are very skilled – they are a fountain of wisdom. They have to be; their instrument demands it. I’ve been fortunate to learn a lot by watching these guys and really asking questions. In jazz, composing is really a group effort – it’s a collaborative thing, for the most part. You’re trying to play and get the other musicians to hear and replicate what your vision is of the music, and that means discussion, composition, etc. And that’s what I love so much about jazz. It takes the group – or the cliché, it takes a village. You have to have people who are like-minded who play the way that you want.
And with Miles, one of his biggest strengths – and he was famous for it – was his choosing of sidemen. And who he chose to play with would become pretty famous because of their connection with Miles. He knew exactly what he wanted from you, and somehow he made you do it with very little explicit direction, very little talking about it – but just by nuance. Somehow you’d say, “I guess this is what I’ve got to do.” And as long as he didn’t say anything, you just kept doing what you thought was right. Musicians of that era, they didn’t talk about music – they just played, every night, for weeks and weeks, much more than these days. So they had a chance to work things out, and they took advantage of that.
There is a great quote from comedian George Carlin on your website that you use to explain the elusive “jazz moment.” Can you elaborate on what that means to be “in the zone,” as you describe it?
The French have a great way of describing it – “Le Roi Du Monde” – the king of the world. It doesn’t happen all the time, but in a certain way you’re always looking for what I’m describing: it’s when you’re playing, and everything is going the way it should go. Because jazz is such an immediate art; it’s based on the improvisation as you’re seeing it in real time – there’s no past, there’s no future. There’s only the present time. You feel right, you have guys or women playing with you who are doing what you need, and the audience is on the same wavelength. You live for those moments when you’re playing. It could be for three to five minutes – which is a long time in an improvisational sense – for those three to five minutes, you are the king of the world. Nothing will ever be as perfect as that in the real world, and people refer to being in the zone. It’s all working. And you always hope to recreate that moment.
That sounds like an incredible feeling.
Yeah, because you know when you’re in it. And when you’re done with it, you kind of have nostalgia for it [laughs]. But then you move on to the next song or the next performance. And that’s what we mean by “present time” – you move on.
What is the most challenging project that you’ve tackled?
Orchestras are a real challenge. First of all, it’s 100 people, and it’s all about the conductor, and your musical relationship and social relationship with the conductor. And not being an expert classical musician, the first few times I did it, I was like out in the sea without a life raft. I was watching the conductor – and his hand would come down on the beat, but the strings and the woodwinds were on the upbeat, and I was very confused. I got frustrated. The conductor was a friend of mine, and I said: “I’m having trouble following you, your downbeat looks like an upbeat.” And he said: “Don’t watch me, just listen to what the orchestra is playing.” And that seems pretty simple and obvious, but it took me a minute to say, “Oh, of course. I don’t keep my eyes on you, I just close my eyes and listen.”
What else are you working on right now?
I’m touring and doing some recording, and I have a busy teaching and performing schedule. I have a few releases next year; there’s another group that I’ve been part of for over 20 years called Saxophone Summit, and that features Joe Lovano and Greg Osby and myself with an all-star rhythm section, and that’s been going on for decades. We have some work in February, a record release, and I’ll follow that with some concerts.
The Elements was a series that I started 20 years ago, and it’s a picture of the elements – air, fire, water – that you could represent in music. I just did Earth a couple of weeks ago with my present group, which has a couple of young guys in it. The other three were in different settings, with some notable musicians – Pat Metheny on Water, Jack DeJohnette and Dave Holland on Fire.
How did you first start working with BMI, and how has that impacted your career over the years?
It was the ‘70s … I can’t tell you exactly because it was 50 years ago, but someone called me and said: “I represent BMI and their jazz wing, and I know who you are.” We met at the 21 Club or somewhere very impressive, and for BMI to put their hand out to a musician like myself – I wasn’t world-famous – and to give artists support, I truly appreciate that. And looking at us as the subculture that we are – we’re really a small percentage of musicians. So for them to show us support financially, I have very positive feelings for BMI, and it’s been going on for decades.