Interview with Dave Liebman
If you compare music to the Amazon River, jazz is one of the major tributaries
A few days ago I interviewed saxophonist and flautist David Liebman. I saw him in 1997 at the North Sea Jazz Festival and heard him play the piano and the saxophone. Truly, one of the most powerful musicians I’ve ever heard. Since then I have been interested in this man and his music.
Bio:David Liebman-tenor and soprano sax, flute, composer; also piano and drums. Born: Brooklyn, New York, 4 September 1946. Piano lessons as a child, then clarinet and later sax; began gigging at 14 years; inspired by drummer Bob Moses with whom he was associated from age 16. Liebman also studied privately with Joe Allard, Charles Lloyd and Lennie Tristano. He graduated from New York University in the late 1960s with a degree in American history and a teaching diploma. Dave Liebman is steeped in the work of John Coltrane; other influences are Sonny Rollins. McCoy Tyner, Elvin Jones, Miles Davis and Wayne Shorter. He is one of the most gifted of the post-Coltrane saxophonists and his work is always infused with a very human feeling; his groups have created some of the most vital music heard (Carr, Fairweather, Priestley, Jazz, the Essential Companion). Notably, Liebman is the Founder and Artistic Direcor of the International Association of Schools of Jazz (IASJ) a network of worldwide schools from over 40 countries where jazz is taught since1989.
Currently, Liebman is Artist In Residence at the Manhattan School of Music. He has received several distinguished awards including two National Endowment for the Arts grants for composition and performance; Honorary Doctorate from the Sibelius Academy of Helsinki, Finland; Grammy nomination for Best Solo Performance in 1998; the Order of Arts and Letters from France; Jazz Educator Legend award from the Jazz Educators Network (JEN); Best Record of the year (2010) from the German Jazz Journalists Association and most notably the highest award given in the jazz field from the U.S., the Jazz Masters lifetime achievement award from the NEA. ( On Wikipedia, look for more information at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dave_Liebman).
Mr. Liebman, you have been active in jazz music for more than 40 years. How is jazz now different from before?
There are two things that have transformed jazz in our time. First of all is the growth of jazz education worldwide. Students are now trained in an organized way, rather than trial and error which was by and large the process for myself and my predecessors. The other factor is the growth of the internet meaning so much jazz history is available for learning by a click. You can see Coltrane play sitting in your bedroom anywhere in the world now. That means instant access to the history of jazz if one is motivated. On the negative side, there is less opportunity to see and hear jazz in our contemporary world. The reasons are both economic and social which is another discussion, but the result is less venues and more distractions for potential listeners. In the 1960’s you could visit a jazzclub in large cities throughout western Europe and America, which is less and less the case now. And clubs are where the music is best heard.
Yusef Lateef said to me in an interview the word “Jazz” is a misnomer. Do you agree with him?
Jazz means a certain historical style with its own set of customs, just like other improvised musical traditions in the world. These days, you have to be more specific about what style of jazz you are referring to in a conversation.
Which album of yours do you like best? Why? “Drum Ode”,”Double Edge”, “Voyage”, “Setting the standard” and “Colors” are mentioned in The Penguin Guide to Jazz. Are these your favourite records too?
My most representative recording is “The Loneliness of a Long Distance Runner (1986),” dedicated to the well-known soprano stylist Steve Lacy. It is a solo soprano sax album with a lot of composition and saxophone overdubs. The thing about a solo recording is that you are bare and naked without the assistance of other musicians, so you are 100% responsible for the contents. This very personal recording traces the path of a long distance runner as a metaphor for the life of an artist.
Do you visit concerts yourself? Do you still learn from your youthful colleagues? Are you inspired by them?
I don’t have much time to go to concerts. It is on tour that I have a chance to hear other groups. Concerning youthful players, if an artist wants to continue to evolve they should listen and be in some way influenced by the next generation(s) of players. The talent pool is tremendous now, so there is a lot to hear.
John Coltrane….you are long time fan. He’s been an example for a generation of jazz musicians. It’s forty five years ago since he passed on. What does this mean to you?
John Coltrane was and still is the major influence on my life. I saw him live many times and am still learning from his saxophone playing, use of harmony and music structures. For me, his work is still the highest of the high…… technically, spiritually and emotionally.
Is there jazz in the future? Jazz has been for the most part well documented by now, but do you think jazz will reach the youth?
It will continue on of course. Jazz is still alive and can be heard more and more worldwide. It is a classic form of music like any historical style…. Baroque, Romantic, Indian classical, etc. If you compare music to the Amazon River, jazz is one of the major tributaries. Its future lies with how the music will be absorbed and transformed by people from other parts of the world other than the U.S. and Europe. For these people, jazz is new and exciting. This is the hope for jazz, that by spreading its wings, it will stay relevant.