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Sons of Miles
DAVE LIEBMAN: Passing Down the Tradition
by Mike Zwerin
12 November 1998

David Liebman's press kit includes a brochure ("Liebman's music is easy to praise but hard to categorize"), clips, photos, transcriptions of his soprano saxophone solos and blurbs filed in a golden folder: "A hell of a reedman" (Billboard), "A leader and artist of integrity and direction" (Down Beat), "He knows the value of space and never gets carried away" (Leonard Feather).

He has received grants (National Endowment for the Arts), leads his own band (Quest), lectures (Eastman School of music), has played with Chick Corea, Michael Franks and Elvin Jones, and appears at least on two seminal records: "On The Corner" by Miles Davis, and Mahavishnu John McLaughlin's "My Goals beyond."

Liebman is a small, honorable man who prefers to record with companies he can identify with. OWL, with offices in Paris, has just released his excellent album "Homage to John Coltrane" (he is one of Trane's prime musical descendants). He has no contract with OWL; or with any other of the small, honorable outfits he records for.

He jokes that one of them makes records primarily to please the rich owner's girlfriends: "This is not a corporate situation. I become friends with these guys. They want to talk to me, not an agent. The idea of having an agent in jazz is ludicrous. What's an agent going to make? Fifteen percent of nothing is nothing. Isn't it better to pay the overweight for the drums or give the guys an extra 50 bucks so they can eat better?"

This still young elder statesman deals with the vagaries of the jazz life with remarkable aplomb. "I wanted to make a record live from the Montmartre in Copenhagen. I spoke to a Danish company that has distribution, like, from here to the door. The guy said, 'I don't know if we can sell a lot of records.' I said, 'We're playing in this joint anyway. Record us, if you release it, give us a thousand apiece, whatever. If not, I'll pay your expenses, you give me the tape and I'll try to get rid of it somewhere.' Even if only 500 people have listened to an album, at least you have chronicled your work at a certain point. Then you can move on.

"Musicians are confused now. They start thinking they're supposed to be making albums that sell, and this or that compromise would mean they could play for more people. The minute that kind of manipulative thinking comes in they're in trouble. We're only playing jazz for a minority and that's tha way it's going to be.

"I moved to Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania, the Pocono Mountains, close enough to New York but not in it. I hardly work in New York anyway. New York has only the appearance of a lot of activity. Most of the clubs you see listed in the New Yorker just have duos. Rents triple and then triple again, the four or five serious clubs still going can only afford to hire big names - whatever's hot. They charge $100 a head and turn the house over three times a night to make their nut.

"That's the biggest change in jazz in 15 years. The clubs where we all learned how to play were like the salons where Mozart learned how to write. They had a social purpose, we met there and listened to each other. No more salons. Musicians can no longer afford to go to clubs. Only tourists go, and only because they think somehow they're supposed to go. Going to a club now is like going to hear the Preservation Jazz Band in New Orleans.

D A V E  L I E B M A N

"I have a reputation. I get students from all over the world. I like teaching, but that's not the question. You have to pass down the tradition, spread the word. And there's a payback - spiritual, psychological, social. It's a tutorial situation, give and take, you meet new people, young people, learn what young cats are thinking. It's a nice responsibility. But teaching is also my living. The world forces you to do something else in addition to going out playing your horn because that's too much fun. They won't give you that.

"Sometimes it seems like everything's been laid out and explored, all the combinations have been put together. But if you sit down and look at the history of your instrument and think about it - if you're clever with this music you can still come up with an individual way to play. You can sound like you. Isn't that the point of jazz? People listen to you and say, 'That's Liebman.'"

Photo: Dave Liebman.
Credit: Christian Rose

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