Jazz Studies Online: You're from New York. What kept you here when you decided to pursue a career as a jazz musician? What features did the city offer then that others did not? Given that you stayed in New York (or nearby) have your motivations for being here changed?
Dave Liebman: In any career you have to be where the action is--so-called ground zero. For fashion it is Paris and Milan. For movies it is Hollywood and so on. For jazz, it is and has been since the 1940's New York, and formerly that meant Manhattan. Everyone lives and works in close proximity, a car is not a necessity, the sheer density of artists per square mile dwarfs anywhere else. For me, I was born here-no problem. For others, they should and must spend at least some time here if they want to know about the essence of the music. Of course, this has changed in the past decades because New York has joined the mall mentality, commercial tourism, etc., that is present everywhere-but it is still the center of real, hard core jazz. A young person hears everything they need on any given night (granted it will cost a small fortune); they know where they stand both up and down; there are no half truths. There is always someone better than you and not as good. Once you are established you don't need the proving ground anymore, but you still need the energy that comes from so many great musicians within close proximity, which means nowadays around a two hour drive from NYC if need be, meaning trying to bring up and support a family.
Jazz Studies Online: How did opportunities for work come about when you first began as a professional? Who helped you the most in that regard? What networks did you take advantage of, if any? In what way has that environment changed since then?
Liebman: We jammed, we got recommended, we hung out, we "networked." The bottom line was we (I) were interested and driven to live in a situation where we could play all the time, the so-called "loft" scene of the 50's through the 80's when it was more or less affordable. You got involved with a group of musicians, you hung and played and eventually you worked with them and for them. Now, it is through being in jazz school that the networking takes place and by extension small door gig clubs which in some ways substitutes for the old club scene which is basically dead because of economic forces. Word of mouth is still the way someone gets going in this business. Of course, every once in awhile someone is "chosen" by the jazz business (which barely exists anymore by the way) and can skip a few steps, but of course what goes up has to come down. One's relationships with other musicians over a period of time develops a common musical vocabulary as well as a social and behavioral context which becomes familiar. This is true in any business, but in jazz, though it is unspoken and hard to pinpoint, it is about "vibes" and a feeling between people-life itself.
Jazz Studies Online: What is, or was, your favorite NYC venue (or venues) to perform at? Why?
Liebman: I enjoy Birdland because the sight lines are good for most anyone in the club; the staff stays relatively the same, meaning continuity and good management. In general, it is a professional situation for personal, one-to-one contact. 55 Bar is cool. The people are right on top of you and they really get the point.
Jazz Studies Online: Have you noticed any major changes in the audiences for jazz at live performances in NYC since you started your career or came here? That is, in their knowledge of or appreciation for the music? In their demographics or personal background? in the way they act and react to the music? If so, why do you think the nature of live audiences might have changed?
Liebman: At the major clubs there is no question that the audience has changed from years ago, mostly because of economics-the cost of a set for one or two people. We used to play for students, other artists and interested foreigners. Now it is mostly fans with their dates, foreigners who know jazz from festivals and occasionally the "wrong" person(s)-meaning usually a couple that comes to see "jazz." Although it would appear that this present public is less sophisticated, the truth is that often they are very receptive to the music, even though they may not be aware of what the artistic parameters are.