Dave Liebman: A New York Story
If there's a single scene that defined jazz in New York in the 1970s, it was the loft scene, with musicians living together in lofts that, outfitted with pianos, basses, drums and more, became 24/7 musical laboratories where much of the music that began to emerge from Liebman's generation was first seeded. But beyond the creative aspect of the scene, Liebman was instrumental in cofounding Free Life Communication, a collective of musicians (many of them famous today, but just getting started then), who were able to go beyond the solitary experimentation of the loft and out into the world, through public performance.
"In the 1960s-'70s, when I got into the loft scene and was playing so much of this free jazz, we were playing for ourselvesendless sessions," Liebman explains. "Bob Moses, Lenny White, Chick Corea, both Breckers, Bob Berg, and other people not so knowndozens of guys were coming up, and it just dawned on me. I remember talking to Moses and saying, 'You know that collective in Chicago [the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, or AACM], and in St. Louis, with Oliver Lake and those cats?' Some being, I guess, already good at administrating and organizationthese were my first tests, so to speak. But having some talent in that respect, I said, 'Let's do something; we gotta get out there into the real world.'
"So we called a meeting," Liebman continues. "I'd written about it, and we had 30 guys sitting on the floor in my loft on West 19th Street, and I said, 'Guys, you know, we just gotta get something together because we're sitting in the loft playing for each other. We gotta get out. Where are we gonna go?' We weren't good enough to be at the clubsnot yet, especially since we were also playing such avant-garde stuff, mostlyso I said, 'What we've gotta do is go to museums and libraries and churches, and put the concerts on.' So Bob Berg came up with the name. We had a discussion: Anthony Braxton had come up to speak to us that night, and Leroy Jenkinstwo separate times during this four- or five-hour meetingand we got it together. We got a lawyer who got us 501(c) nonprofit [status], and we got an accountant, and thenlo and beholdwe got a grant from the New York State Council of the Arts, and we got into a building called The Space for Innovative Developmentthat was built by a philanthropic society, The Rubin Foundation, that was supporting orchestras at that timeand they took us on as their avant-garde music group.
"I can't tell you how amazing it was," Liebman recalls enthusiastically."They came up to my loft, Mr. and Mrs. Rubina three-floor walkup on 19th street, my loft, spray- painted, with multicolored material stapled to the ceilingand these two sophisticated people, limousine outside, they came up to hear the group. We playedme and Moses and I forget who elsefor 45 minutes and it was completely freewe gave them some tea, and they were very nice. The next thing I know, we have a space in a buildingthree thousand square feetwith a pristine piano and wood floor, and money from the New York State Council for the Arts to buy pillows! We bought, like, fifty pillows, so that people would come and lay out on the pillows. And we did 300 concerts the first year."
Free Life Communication wasn't about making money, at least not directly. But it gave its members an opportunity to grow in front of an audience, which brought a whole different kind of energy and drive to its performances. It led to paying gigs for many of its members and, ultimately, the dissolution of the collective. "It was all-volunteer," Liebman says. "We got funding for one year, we had this space given to us for free, and had a piano given to us for free. I was the president, Richie [Beirach] was the vice president, [bassist] Frank Tusa ... we kinda ran it because Moses, who originated the idea, wasn't the kinda guy to do day-to- day stuff. We had a secretary, a treasurer ... the whole deal, and I must say that in my life, when I look back at that timesomething that not many people know about besides having this grassroots, self-help, free music organization, in certain ways that was my introduction to how to organize, beyond organizing music in a group, which is a very different thing.
"My mother was an organizer," Liebman concludes, "and she said, 'You've gotta read Robert's Rules of Order and parliamentary procedure,' and I was running these meetings according to the law. We were nonprofit, we had to do a tax statement and everything, and this went on for a couple years. But then the need for it disappeared for guys like me, because that's when I got the gigs with Elvin and Miles; we all started to get work. The organization went on for a few more years and then petered out, but it was quite something. At one point, we had 60 members, dozens of concerts, almost all exclusively free jazz à la [John Coltrane's] Ascension (Impulse!, 1965). I mean we're talking 20-saxophone-players-playing-at-once kinda stuff. I still have tapes of it and minutes to the meetings; this was an underground period where, I'd say, of those 30 or 40 guys, a good 10 or 15 are guys that I could name right now that you would know."