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Dave Liebman Remembers Vic Juris

The saxophonist pays tribute to his longtime bandmate and friend (9/26/53 – 12/31/2019)

Vic Juris
Vic Juris in 2013 (phoo: Alan Nahigian)

The first time I recall meeting and playing with Vic was at a workshop in Germany. I was thinking of breaking up Quest [Liebman’s principal group from 1981 to 1991] and starting a new band. I knew I wanted guitar, and I liked Vic right away. He was the kind of guy who, when people talk about him, it’ll be as much about his personality as the music: what a beautiful cat he was, honest and straight-ahead and winning, not flashy, all the good words. I could tell he’d be a fine candidate for the new band. So he joined, and he ended up being with me for 23 years, covering all corners of the planet; my philosophy with the Dave Liebman Group was to play anywhere and everywhere, and we did.

Vic’s background was rock & roll, and you could always hear shades of that influence, a little bit like Larry Coryell—the blues was in there no matter what the material was. He was self-taught, which meant that he maybe had more of a chance to come up with an individual style than you do if you’re being influenced by the other 29 students in a conservatory class. And he found a way to do that while playing music that was rather challenging.

He was so serious about getting it right. He’d tape our rehearsals, and then he’d stop me and say, “Play that part of the tune again—okay, let’s go on to the next part.” The next week he’d be back and he’d have it all down. A very hard worker, extremely methodical. Of course he was legendary as a teacher, and rightfully so. I’d even go so far as to say that, for guitarists, he was the main professor of this music in the ’90s and 2000s.

The word “eclectic” was always an argumentative description for music—until the ’60s, when our generation said that Jimi Hendrix and Bartók and Coltrane all do go together. And Vic was a reflection of that. My group played everything from Puccini to On the Corner-style Miles to “All the Things You Are,” and no matter what music was in front of him, he’d eat it up. He’d say, “I got it, I know what you want from me.”

For the first six years of that group, I had Phil Markowitz on keyboards, so Vic was really serving as the second horn. When Phil left in ’97, Vic had to step up and be the main accompanist. That’s when he got into [effects] pedals, which I totally encouraged—I loved that stuff. I said, “You’ve got good taste, so I know you won’t go overboard. Please go ahead.” Unbelievable, these little boxes, and how they can enhance the sound of the music.

Vic was a very consistent player and a very consistent person. Even-tempered, relaxed, cool in the positive sense of the word. Your ship was in good hands with him. “Professionalism” is a word we bandy around a lot, but he was a living example of it.

He fought [the cancer] hard. Sometimes he was better than others, of course. And then he went to the hospital, and that’s the way it ended. When somebody’s sick like that, you see them and say, “Well, he’s sick but he seems to be okay,” and then three minutes later the whole world changes. So even though it was expected, it was still a shock. We all miss him sorely. My hope now is that more people will tune into him and say that he was overlooked, that they didn’t have their eyes as wide open as they could have been to the work of this gentleman.

[as told to Mac Randall]

Read the JazzTimes obituary for Vic Juris.