Dave Liebman: When Miles Came Calling

In this book excerpt, the saxophonist reflects on working with the Prince of Darkness

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Dave Liebman
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Miles Davis greets Dave Liebman on the bandstand, NYC, 1981

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In the summer of 1972, 25-year-old saxophonist Dave Liebman was thriving and learning in a band led by Elvin Jones, the drummer most associated with Liebman’s idol, John Coltrane. And then Miles Davis came calling.

In this exclusive excerpt from his recent memoir, What It Is: The Life of a Jazz Artist, a collaboration with author, historian and musician Lewis Porter, Liebman reflects on his time with the brilliant, mercurial trumpeter.

LEWIS: When did you first hear from Miles?
DAVE: The first specific event was June 1, 1972. I happened to be staying at my parents’ house, visiting in Brooklyn, and had an appointment at a doctor’s office in downtown Brooklyn, Hoyt-Schermerhorn Street to be exact. I think it was an allergy doctor. Out of nowhere the secretary shouts, “Is there a David Liebman here? It’s your mother on the phone.” My mother says, “Somebody named Teo Macero said you should come to the studio to record now with Miles Davis.” Teo was Miles’ producer for many years. This was like 11:30 in the morning. I happened to have my soprano with me—talk about good luck. I knew what this meant, because I knew that Chick [Corea] and Dave [Holland] were doing sessions with Miles in the mornings. As well, I knew that it was probably a 10 to 1 session and it was going to end soon. So I hightailed it out of Brooklyn like a maniac and parked my car right on 52nd and Madison in Manhattan, where the studio was. It didn’t get towed, by the way.

So it was about 12:30 when I got there. I walked in and stood in the hall between the studio and recording booth, looking through the glass at Miles and everybody. There were like 9,000 people in the studio, all sitting, quiet—John McLaughlin, Chick, Don Alias, Herbie Hancock, Michael Henderson, Colin Walcott, Larry Young, Jack DeJohnette, Billy Hart, Badal Roy on tablas and another keyboard player named Harold Williams. Miles signaled me to come in.

Miles was standing next to Jack and was whispering in his ear the way he used to sort of sing something in that gravel voice. Everybody was really still, at attention. There was a big boom microphone in the middle of the studio—obviously Miles’ mic. He said, “Let’s go,” and they started playing. You’ve got to remember that everybody was electric, all plugged in—keyboards, guitar, organ, bass—and I had no headphones, so it all sounded like clicks! All I could hear were the drums and a little tablas and congas. Basically, I don’t think there were any actual amps in the studio. Miles made a motion moving his fingers, like, “Get your horn out.” I took the soprano out, and he signaled me to come over to this gigantic microphone and nudged me up to play. He literally put his hand on my back to go to the microphone.

Anyway, that’s the title track of the On the Corner record. You hear me fumbling around because I couldn’t hear what damn key I was in! I couldn’t hear anything. I couldn’t hear a root. Nobody said a word to me, and everybody was pumping along on their keyboards and drums. I didn’t have time to think, but I played OK. Anyway, that’s it. The take kind of peters out because, as I learned, there were no beginnings or ends to any of these tunes during that period. It was a little bit awkward. I could feel the presence of Miles just put a freeze on everybody. The session seemed over, and everybody was putting their horns away or whatever. I didn’t know what to do. Nobody said anything to me. I put the horn away and I went into the booth. I thought maybe I could hear back what we did—which of course never happened. Teo communicated with me: “Here, sign this paper and you’ll get a check.” Something like that. Then I saw what I learned was pretty much the ending process on all of those recording dates. Miles got the cassette and was gone. The limousine was waiting for him, evidently. As he passed me—he hadn’t said a word to me yet—he said, “You should join my band.” Very offhand.

Forward six months or so, to the second week of January 1973. I was with Elvin [Jones] at the Village Vanguard that week. On Tuesday night, Miles showed up right at the beginning of the gig. [Vanguard owner] Max Gordon asked him, “What are you doing here?” “Just hanging out.” He was very cool, alone, no trumpet, no entourage, no girl, no nothing. He said, “How are you doing, Dave?” Steve Grossman was in the band by that time and he didn’t talk to Miles, which was weird since Steve had recently worked with him. I don’t remember if they had any words at all. My girlfriend at the time, Eleana, was sitting with Miles when I was playing. He was very personable, very cool. This was just a few months after he had broken both ankles in a well-publicized car accident when he ran into a traffic island on the West Side Highway in October. He said to me during a break, “We’re gonna play Friday and Saturday night.” I can’t tell you what we talked about—it was just very kind of like, “You’ve got to join the band.” He was there to get me. Wednesday night, he was there again. He said something like, “You don’t wanna play this corny shit no more.”

You have to understand that these guys were like plantation owners, and they were bartering their cats. It was funny in a way—you were like a piece of meat. So he was there again, and Elvin saw him. Elvin said into the microphone, “Now, ladies and gentlemen, Miles Davis is here.” [Jones’ wife] Keiko asked me, “What’s he doing here?” Elvin said, “What’s that little black motherfucker doing here?” You know, the way they were to each other. The next thing I know—now this was Wednesday night—he said, “I want you to join the band.” I said, “Miles, it’s up to Elvin.” He said, “I’ll take care of it.” So he left. I drove home to Greenwich, Connecticut—and at around 4:30 a.m. the phone rang. It was Miles: “Elvin said it’s OK. You play with me Friday and Saturday, then go back and finish with him next week in Boston. Then you’re mine.”

***

Friday morning, the roadie called and told me I had to get a pickup for that night at Manny’s or whatever music store—maybe Sam Ash. I went into the store, and when they told me they had to drill a hole in the necks of the soprano, tenor and flute, I almost died. This was the Varitone that Eddie Harris and Sonny Stitt played. You attached the actual pickup on the neck of the horn and the wire leads to the amp. I was flipping out. I think the road guy was there—Jim Rose. “It’ll be fine,” blah, blah, blah.

In the evening, I went to the theater. This was formerly the famous Fillmore East, Second Avenue and 6th Street, which had closed in June 1971. Now it was reopened under the name the Village East, with new owners, and there were two groups, Miles and the Paul Winter Consort. I went backstage and saw drummer Al Foster and Badal Roy—some familiar faces at least. Next thing I know, I plugged in and my sound was coming out of like 700 watts of Marshall amps. I had never had this experience in my life, with a wire coming out of my horn. Miles arrived and didn’t say a word—didn’t talk to anybody.

We were in a semicircle and Miles was in the middle. It was so dark in that theater, and everybody was dressed in black. Miles had gigantic sunglasses on and a cape—he looked like some alien from another planet. The music was deafeningly loud and chaotic. Now, there was also Cedric Lawson on electric organ, Khalil Balakrishna on electric sitar, Al and Badal as I mentioned, Mtume on congas, Reggie Lucas on guitar, with Michael Henderson on bass. I had no idea what I was doing. When Miles put his hand out and pointed to me, I played, and then he cut me off. That’s all I know, and that was it. The gig was short, maybe an hour and a quarter, if that. Nobody said a word to me.

I took a taxi to the Vanguard across town and stood on the inside steps. This was Friday night, Jan. 12, my mother’s birthday. I just stood on those famous steps that lead down to the Village Vanguard listening to Steve, Gene [Perla] and Elvin playing. I’ll never forget it. I savored the moment. Here I was, just returning from a 21st-century Star Wars vibe, back to the root. It was the old world and the new, and I would experience both that one night.

I must say, that is one night that stands out above all nights for anything to do with music, because I played with both of them and it was the beginning of another life for me. I just stood on those steps to listen, reflecting. Nothing overly dramatic, just standing there and saying to myself, “This is really something, Dave.” Talk about being a jazz musician! Being with Elvin Jones meant you were accepted. But I was going with Miles Davis, which meant in a way that you were in the line of Bird. You were taking Trane’s place. You were taking Wayne’s place. Of course, there were others—Gary Bartz, Grossman—and Carlos Ward, whose place I actually did take. But this meant a certain kind of legitimacy that speaks for itself—the top of the sideman food chain, so to say.

I went downstairs in the middle of the set and took my customary place with Elvin for the rest of the night. Everybody was like, “How was the gig?” I sort of mumbled, “It was cool.” We went to Boston and I played the next week with Elvin, then joined Miles as promised the following week. It’s a very dramatic, great story, and I remember pretty clearly the details because it stood in my mind forever—the whole getting hired by Miles, the Vanguard, Elvin’s graciousness and that first night playing that music.

***

LEWIS: Would you say that part of Miles’ concept [at that time], and part of the reason it was different, was that the music didn’t need this thing of, “We have to make a grand statement”? It was more kind of like, “You played enough. Stop now.”
DAVE: Yes.

LEWIS: In fact, you couldn’t even think about building a so-called statement because you didn’t know when he was going to stop you!
DAVE: Right. There were no real dynamics or storytelling possible to a large extent, and little if any direct communication between the soloists and the rhythm section. At first I had no idea what the hell we were playing. I didn’t know what to make of it. Now it appears to me, years later, that it was a concept.

I couldn’t help thinking that I wished it were 10 years earlier and I was in Wayne’s place, because of the music they played compared to what we were doing. Not that I could have been in that group of the ’60s—I wasn’t up to that level at that time, to be honest, but in any case I felt frustrated. After I got used to Miles, nine months or so into the gig I sort of got the point, but still felt like, “This is great, but really not that great.” Because musically, it was not really challenging.

One of my famous Miles stories is when I asked him why he even had a saxophonist at all during this period. This was electric music, real loud, not subtle at all. Basically it was guitar and keyboard, electric bass, drums, percussion-oriented stuff. Obviously, there had to be a trumpet there, but it seemed to me the saxophone was superfluous. So I asked him once why he had a saxophone. He said, “Because people like to see you move your fingers!” As nonsensical as that sounds, when I thought about it years later, as with most of what he said to me during that period, he had a point. When you think of Bird, Trane, Wayne, etc., the saxophonist was the foil to Miles’ trumpet style. He played slow and you played fast. Opposites—tension and release. Right!

One thing was definitely true about the music we played: When Miles hit the stage, man, it was serious business. Like I said earlier about lessons learned from Pete [La Roca], Elvin and Miles, there was nobody smiling up there. I mean, this was a level or two up in seriousness from Elvin, basically because Miles never really laughed or joked, at least not the typical way. To me the music itself was chaotic and disorganized, but it seems to me now that Miles had a scheme, just that I didn’t really get it—although I sort of understood what was happening better after a while. We always listened to the cassette of the gig afterward. One night it just made sense to me in some way, and I said to him, “I think I got it. I know what you are trying to do.” He looked at me like I was an idiot—like, “Of course, you moron.” This “awakening” made it better, but still I was musically frustrated, mostly because the music didn’t allow for the kind of interaction I was expecting and used to in a typical jazz situation. When you think about the Herbie/Wayne band—that was the ideal.

But there was always one high spot in the set. If there were two sets, the tune that has become known—in those days there were no titles—as “Ife” [sings tune] would start the second set. It was slow and started soft. Miles would build for five or more minutes. It seemed like forever. This was the real Miles Davis—the lesson of the gig. He’d play and he’d peck around; play one note and then he’d play another note; then he’d play off the key; then a blues phrase; then a gigantic space. He would build way up with the mute and then take it out and Al would get real strong with the sticks. It was like having an orgasm, musically speaking. This was Miles Davis. Once a night, I saw the Miles Davis that was the great teacher for 30 years of music because of his storytelling ability. The rest was loud and crazy.

***

LEWIS: How would you sum up your relationship with Miles?
DAVE: I don’t know if it was the music, if he even liked the way I played. I kind of assume it, but the main thing with Miles was that it was macho-land. Those guys from his generation, it was about man-to-man stuff—how much you could drink, get high, fuck, play, how fast, how strong, how much you could hang. All that stuff was part of the code. I could see it with Elvin and Miles so clearly, even though in some ways it was over by the time I was with them in the early ’70s. It was in their DNA, so to speak. I just feel with Miles and me, it was like, “How can you, Dave, do all that you do with your leg the way it was?” [Ed. note: Liebman suffered with polio as a child and as a result has walked with a limp throughout his life.]

When you have something wrong as a kid, you don’t know. You grow up with it as a part of your life. If you’re blind, you’re blind. I think Miles saw that, especially because he had leg problems then, with his hip and all. He saw that walking was pretty hard for me to do, and it is a pretty important thing to walk. Whatever it was, we always had a cordial relationship. I never had a bad moment with the guy, one on one. All the stories about him, like the way he was in the ’80s to some of his musicians and so on, I just can’t relate to them. For sure, he could be really spiteful, mean and petty, and a drag, especially when he kind of got the feeling you were leaving the band. But he never did that with me.

So, my take on Miles—the bottom line is that he was obviously a complex personality. I really think that in his heart of hearts, he was a shy, Midwestern, small-built, good-looking cat, serious as could be about everything, let alone music. A lot that happened to him was to me the result of outside forces: the conditions of being a black man in that milieu of the ’40s and on; the colossal effect of Charlie Parker’s overwhelming personality; and even more into the ’50s, Miles’ status as the symbol of everything hip in the black world, which appealed to a certain breed of white people looking to break out of the middle-class coma they were in during that time period. Music doesn’t exist in a vacuum—the times dictate a lot. I’m not a psychologist, but that’s what I think. He was really a simple cat who just wanted to play the music—very much like Coltrane. I think that’s where they met, in a psychological sense. In that way, I think Trane and Miles were kindred spirits, even though they had completely different lifestyles.

Excerpted with permission from What It Is: The Life of a Jazz Artist, Dave Liebman in conversation with Lewis Porter. Scarecrow Press, 2011. All rights reserved.

Originally published in October 2012

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