Tag: Miles Davis sidemen

The Forgotten Man: Teo Macero and Bitches Brew

Miles Davis and Teo Macero standing together each wearing a white shirt and a tie; Miles is also playing trumpet
The gatefold LP cover for Bitches Brew which attempts to create a visual analog to the music on the album.

The complete LP gatefold for Bitches Brew featuring the art work of German painter Mati Klarwein which attempts to create a visual analog to the music on the album.

There is so much to hear in this music, Miles Davis’s Bitches Brew album.

Each side comes to an end, but the music never seems to conclude. There’s only so much information that a physical recording medium can hold. But the durational restrictions of a vinyl LP were less important for Bitches Brew than the design and intention of Miles’s music making. The music on the album doesn’t conclude because it doesn’t formally resolve, and Miles didn’t want it to resolve.

That’s how Miles was playing with his quintet at the time, with saxophonist Wayne Shorter, Chick Corea at the electric piano, Dave Holland on bass, and drummer Jack DeJohnette. That band’s live sets were one continuous stream of music. They would start with a recognizable theme—often it was “Directions”—and follow with solos. But instead of returning to the head and reaching a final cadence, Miles would play a musical cue that would turn the band immediately to the next tune. The constant, roiling group interplay was as vital as the soloing, which itself was more a part of the texture than a showcase for one individual. Pace, pulse, and mood were always flowing and always malleable, and the music stopped only when the set came to an end.

Bitches Brew captures that experience. But the music that is closest to the live sets makes up less than half of the album: three of the four tracks on the second disk—“Spanish Key,” “Miles Runs the Voodoo Down,” and “Sanctuary”—were central to the band’s repertoire. The rest of the music was new, played for the first time at the recording session and made with a concept new to not only jazz but to music across all genres.

The first disk is similar in sound but entirely different in method and teleology. In fact, it is music entirely without teleology. And Miles didn’t make it by himself; it was the product of a unique compositional collaboration between the trumpeter and his longtime, essential producer at Columbia Records, Teo Macero. That disk, with “Pharoah’s Dance” on the A side and “Bitches Brew” on the obverse, was played by Miles and the musicians in the studio, and then composed by Macero in a manner that was unprecedented and still, forty-five years later, has been barely explored by others.


Macero (October 30, 1925 – February 19, 2008) was by background a musician and a composer, but by training he was an audio engineer; at Columbia Records, he was an in-house composer, arranger, and producer. He worked with some of the great musicians of the 20th century, and shaped and directed essential jazz and pop albums by Thelonious Monk, Charles Mingus (both of whom he signed to the label), Dave Brubeck (the Time Out album), Johnny Mathis, and Tony Bennett. He also produced an album of music by Alan Hovhaness, as well as the soundtrack to The Graduate and original cast recordings for many Broadway shows. As an independent producer in the 1970s and ’80s he worked with Herbie Hancock, Michel Legrand, Vernon Reid, The Lounge Lizards, Robert Palmer, and many other musicians.

As a musician and composer, he co-founded the Jazz Composer’s Workshop with Mingus and had a friendship with Edgard Varèse—there’s even a rumor that Macero helped Varèse prepare the tape for Poème électronique. While there’s no documentary evidence to confirm that, Macero paid his way through Juilliard by working as an engineer in the school’s recording studio, he had the skill and experience to make that a tantalizing possibility, and he did visit the composer and at least observe some of Varèse’s work on the piece.

Miles Davis and Teo Macero standing together each wearing a white shirt and a tie; Miles is also playing trumpet

A Columbia Records promotional photo of Miles Davis with Teo Macero

Macero’s most important work was with Miles Davis, with whom he worked intimately as a producer from 1959 (beginning perhaps with part of the Kind of Blue session, though that is unclear) through Davis’s retirement in 1975, and then with the first few comeback albums for Columbia. There’s no direct line connecting Macero’s own music and the realization of Bitches Brew and other albums. Macero was a professional but with little lasting distinction as a composer or performer. He played the saxophone in the manner of Warne Marsh, though nowhere near as well, and experimented with composition in the Third Stream style. (Miles called some of those efforts “sad,” and judging by the album Explorations, with Macero, Mingus, and accordionist Wally Cirillo, he was right.) There are also some solid but unremarkable film scores, and the exploratory One-Three Quarters for chamber group and two pianos, recorded on the New Music in Quarter-Tones album, part of David Behrman’s “Music in Our Time” series for Columbia. (And a passing thought for the downside of the end of the big labels: during the 1960s, Columbia issued albums by Davis, Mingus, Monk, Bob Dylan, Glenn Gould, Stravinsky, Simon and Garfunkel, The Byrds, Leonard Bernstein, Behrman’s series, etc., et al. There won’t be anything like that again.)

Even before Macero started work as Miles’s producer, his critical ear and skill with the razor blade, splicing block, and tape were already established in jazz history. He produced Mingus’s Mingus Ah Um album, one of the greatest recordings in the history of the music, by editing the original tapes. The full master take of the opening track, “Better Git It in Your Soul,” has an extra chorus for Booker Ervin’s tenor sax solo. Ervin wanders around for the chorus, warming up, tossing out discontinuous ideas that never amount to anything interesting. Once the second chorus comes around, Ervin is in full swing and launches what is, at least on the LP release, a cooking solo, made hard-hitting by its concision. Macero lopped off the first chorus—and over a minute total—and is responsible for how tight and effective that track is.


The cover for George Grella's book about Bitches Brew which shows the LP cover in the top right corner.

Read more about Bitches Brew in George Grella’s book about the album for the 33 1/3 series.

At the Bitches Brew session, Miles had music for the band to play. Along with the music the core quintet had been playing, keyboardist Joe Zawinul brought in “Pharaoh’s Dance,” and Miles had some sort of sketch for “Bitches Brew.” That’s how he liked to work when he was experimenting. Beneath the public style, popular superstardom, and communicative playing, Miles was essentially an avant-garde/experimental musician. The musicians on the Kind of Blue album didn’t see what they were going to play until they arrived at the recording studio. By August 1969, the date of the Bitches Brew recordings, Miles was using the minimum of notated materials. He even cut out harmonies from Zawinul’s piece, leaving what he felt were the essentials: there is one chord, which at times is no more than a B pedal tone, and one spare, syncopated, repetitive theme that doesn’t first appear until almost 17 minutes into the 20-minute track.

But there’s no way to know when Miles first played that theme in the studio, in real time. The entire first disk of the album is a non-real time tape composition by Macero, and the material he had to work with was the recording session tapes. Miles and Macero kept the decks rolling while Miles had the band play various short passages, lay down different versions of the groove, and come together for extended stretches of ensemble playing that featured his own soloing, that of Shorter, and numerous conversations between bass clarinet player Bennie Maupin, guitarist John McLaughlin, and the keyboardists Corea, Zawinul, and Larry Young. The same is true for the 27-minute title track on the second side. The piece is even more substantial when you take into account that the track “John McLaughlin” on the first side of the second disk is a straight edit that came out of the recording of “Bitches Brew.” Miles and Macero had gone into the studio thinking that “Bitches Brew” (at the time not the title track, the initial intention was to call the album Listen to This) would be something of a four-part suite—e.g. they were thinking in terms of form. But the form in the studio, as played by the musicians, was nothing like the form that Macero gave the music in the editing process. The results were so far separated from the experience of the sessions that neither Maupin nor Zawinul realized what the record was when they first heard it after its release.

That Bitches Brew is so impressive is a testament not only to Miles’s great playing, his under-appreciated leadership and musical direction, but also to Macero’s compositional thinking. This was a new kind of music, using tools and idioms of musique concrète, aleatory, improvisation, jazz, rock, and funk, and creating new forms and structures around contemporary ideas about tonal harmony. Macero had all this material at hand in the form of feet of recording tape with instrumental passages. But how did those get spliced together into complete wholes?

Macero gave “Bitches Brew” a clear, simple form, guided by the original structural idea: a malevolently atmospheric fanfare leads into a bass vamp that continues for almost the duration of the side, interrupted only by returns of the fanfare. One of those repeats is a direct tape copy of the music heard at the start of the track; the other is a different, real-time stretch of the musicians playing the phrase. The track ends with another copy of the opening fanfare, which dissipates to nothing. The musicians didn’t play anything that created a sense of an ending, that wasn’t in the cards, so Macero’s edit brings the music to a place past which it doesn’t continue. Neither he nor Miles cared about any kind of formal conclusion.

But Macero did more than just put the tapes into some kind of shape. At about ten and a half minutes in, Miles, soloing, spits out a strong, short, rhythmic phrase, and Macero used a series of edits to repeat and extended the phrase, using a fragment of it recursively, making Miles sound like he is obsessively circling a musical idea, turning it in space, before he dismisses it and moves on. It’s quite a moment, musically rich and conceptually mysterious, one musician turning another musician’s improvisation, after the fact, into a composition. With the goal of creating an album that sounds like the band playing live, but which also displays deliberate, ex post facto compositional decisions, what kind of terms exist for this type of music making? Alchemy is the word.

Although “Pharaoh’s Dance” is the most heavily edited track on the entire album, a tour de force of critical listening and tape composition. “Pharaoh’s” opening is a sequence of edits, all short, that build an ABCBCABC structure. This was done entirely with the razor blade—in real time, the band was playing a vamp, punctuated by Holland playing a rising, arpeggiated B chord. The circularity of the playing, after Macero took it apart and reassembled it, produces music that has the unique, uncanny combination of a repetitive drone set inside a linear timeline. The intro leads into the meat of the performance, group interplay and solos, and the bulk of the track maintains the complexity of music made without the conception of linear time—without a structural or formal need to move from one bar or chord to the next—arranged into the linear sequence that tape splicing physically demands.

The track is both free form and concrete, improvised and composed, and there are brilliant edits that anchor musical events and create the unequalled and mysterious force of the record. At about eight minutes in, an edit cuts out a vamp that is losing energy and returns the opening material. Or something like it, but hauntingly different—the band is continuing the phrases from the start of the track, but they are somewhere farther along, in real time, though not in the album/listening time. The close listener remembers the music, yet the sensation of the music is extracted directly from the past and inserted into the present, dislocating the listener from the stream of time. If sonata form returns music transmuted by the experience of intervening time, the changes that time wrings on Bitches Brew do not come from the musicians, they take place entirely inside the listener’s mind. (The editing on the second disk is much lighter and directed towards getting the best out of the performances. “Voodoo” is a straight take. The edit on “Sanctuary” splices together two different takes to make an extended reverie on Wayne Shorter’s harmonically and emotionally ambivalent tune.)

This short stretch of music manages to both extend the duration of the piece while also seeming to go back to a moment in time that has long passed. Macero’s technical skill means the music keeps flowing, and his compositional thinking produces an effect that is unlike anything else in music, recorded or live. It also challenges, again, how we think about and describe the compositional process and its results. Macero wasn’t making a tape piece, any kind of pastiche or collage, he was producing an album by another musician. But Miles wanted to make part of the album in this manner, to play raw material and have his musical partner turn it into something that never existed in the studio. It’s a record of a band playing music that was never heard in real time. It’s a concept that, through praxis, plays with time in deeply mysterious ways. And it’s a complete artistic statement that, through its process, discards form, while managing to sound organic and logical. There is no one answer to what Bitches Brew is, but one truth about the album is that it is Teo Macero’s greatest composition.

Teo and Miles standing in front of the Columbia Records recording at night

Teo and Miles in front of the Columbia Records recording studios in 1971. (Creative Commons)


George Grella, Jr. is the author of Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew for the 33 1/3 Series of books. He is the Music Editor at the Brooklyn Rail, publishes the Big City Blog, and writes for the New York Classical Review, the American Record Guide, and Music & Literature.

Dave Liebman: Unabashed Eclectic

[Ed. note: This conversation between saxophonist, composer, band leader and one-time Miles Davis sideman Dave Liebman and Richard Kessler, then the Executive Director of the American Music Center, was originally published on the American Music Center’s website on January 1, 1999. It was the fourth in a series of interviews entitled “Music In The First Person” that was published in the year before the launch of NewMusicBox on May 1, 1999. “In The First Person” served as the model for one of the primary components of NewMusicBox which still continues on the site as “Cover.”]

1. Jazz in the 1990s

RICHARD KESSLER: How do you feel about the recent growth and interest in jazz?

DAVE LIEBMAN: It’s a double-sided coin. By appealing to the wider public, jazz gets watered down by necessity. What people consider jazz — which ranges from the commercial type you hear on easy listening stations to a lot of nostalgia-type jazz — is not, for the most part, the jazz I consider artistic.

In order to have more people like something, the language has to become more common, and in that watering down, you’re going to lose a certain depth of what was there in the first place. It’s funny in a way, because when jazz started out it was entertainment. The reason jazz was popular in the ’30s was that it happened to fit with what people wanted to do: dance and listen to the radio and so forth. That changed, of course, and became much more of an esoteric thing in the ’60s and into the ’70s. Now it’s swung around the other way to become another arm of the entertainment business.

The positive side is that more people are aware of it, the negative side of it is that what they’re getting isn’t the real deal. On the other hand, there’s always the potential for those who are getting into it to go further and become more educated and more sophisticated in their tastes, and that’s the hope we hold out for as musicians.

RK: I read with great interest your thoughts about the pressures that commercial entertainment interests can have on art. What are your thoughts and concerns about the growth of corporate sponsors and global entertainment in jazz?

DL: I think it’s a terrible thing. I mean, most jazz musicians’ lifestyles in the early days, if anything, were not part of ordinary middle-class life, and for them to be controlled financially by the system is probably the worst thing that can happen to the art. And it’s going on even in the education system. We’re having a big debate now in some of our journals about the record business getting in on the International Association of Jazz Educators (I.A.J.E.) convention, and how they’ve taken over a couple of the evening’s performances. But we’re just catching up with the rest of the world. This is happening everywhere. It’s an unfortunate by-product of the age we live in.

RK: I think to some extent what you’re talking about is deeper than some people even see. It’s the issue of for-profit education, of a financial market seeing education as one of the next great frontiers of investment and earnings, and that’s a potent force that can change things. I’m not sure if it’s good or bad, but a lot of people find it disconcerting at least.

DL: Well, definitely some of us middle-aged dinosaurs remember jazz not being institutionalized at all. I’m one of the last of a generation that didn’t have jazz education in the school system as a matter of course. From the ’70s on, everybody had it, and for the last 30 years we’ve accepted it. But we all need to be part of the education system. All the musicians you talk to are teachers somehow, and many of us are making a good part of our living by doing it, so we can’t debunk what we’ve become. The thing we need to consider is that when it gets into the institution, it becomes academized. And once that happens someone says, “Oh it’s a package, let’s just take it over.” One thing definitely leads to another. It’s an inevitable cost and I don’t see how we can get away from it.

RK: Do you think it’s changing the way people play, the fact that there’s sort of a jazz education institution as opposed to let’s say, a Charlie Parker learning to play jazz in the Jay McShann band?

DL: I talk about this all the time, this question is usually put this way: What do you think of the so-called “Young Lions” movement that occurred in the ’90? The recording industry took these guys and raised them up to the pinnacle of fame (and often to the detriment of people of my generation, who were right in the middle – not old enough and not young enough). My answer is: You can’t blame these guys because they’re a product of the conformist society we’ve been living in since the ’70s and ’80s. It used to be when you recorded on Blue Note or any of those labels in the ’60s and you had your first record, the unspoken pressure was to do something different. And now the unspoken pressure — and even spoken — is to do something like. So therefore, in that respect, it’s obvious that younger musicians are attempting to join the crowd rather than fight it in order to be whatever they have to be.

This whole institutionalization has resulted in conformity, which in an art form that especially prides itself on its individuality is probably the worst thing that can happen. Individuality is the most important aspect of jazz; to be yourself is the whole point. From the first note, you’re supposed to be able to tell that it’s John Jones rather than John Henry. And now, with that not being the value system, we kind of lost the whole essence of jazz in a certain way.

2. The Historical Continuum in Jazz

RK: In your writings you have covered the idea of a historical continuum in jazz. You certainly see things from that historical continuum.

DL: I was an American history major, and I tell you it really influenced my thinking.

RK: How do you characterize today, the late ’90s, as part of this continuum?

DL: Well, it’s the retro-cycle, the cycle of recollection: looking back and reassessing all that happened.

Jazz seems to move in 10-year cycles. The ’40s were kind of innovative; the ’50s (really until the end) were not. I mean, it was what Bird [Ed.: Charlie Parker] put down being explored in various tentacles. And then the ’60s were quite, quite heavy, while then the ’70s were a retrenchment period. Unfortunately the ’80s went back to the other side, which should have been a rebellion. In a sense, it was a rebellion against the ’70s, against the fusion part of the ’70s. It was about: “Let’s get back to the roots.”

I can’t really say much has happened in the ’90s. The one really positive thing (…and this may be come to light in a few years as a reaction to the ’80s…) is this incredible influx of world music influences not just upon jazz, but also pop. To me, the only recourse that music has is to look outside of its borders. I don’t see any other future except to look to the other parts of the world beyond the western axis. They learn our language; we learn their language. It’s intermarriage physically, musically and culturally. That’s the hope. And this has been the first time that it’s been so prevalent. The ’60s was the beginning of that kind of thing, but now it’s become a kind of fad, this intercultural musical thing. And I think it’s very positive. Maybe the ’90s will be looked upon as a bit of rebellion against the retrenchment of the ’80s. I’m not sure.

3. Unique Voices in Jazz

RK: Many people believe or feel that there are fewer unique voices in jazz today, that the days of instant recognition for new artists — in a way that you hear Coltrane, you instantly know it’s Coltrane — are over. Do you agree? What do you think about that perception?

DL: Well, that’s exactly what we’re talking about, the institutionalization of it, being taught by rote. That’s the negative side of it. You come out sounding like whatever the norm is, in whatever style. And the search for individuality…let’s put it this way: It becomes a longer process to find individuality. Whereas when you didn’t have a school system and the books and the how-to stuff so prevalent, you had no choice but to be yourself and to carry through whatever you heard around you. If you were in New York or Chicago, you heard certain people, they influenced you, but you basically were a combination of yourself and what you heard.

Now with the whole oral tradition being put down on paper and video and so forth it becomes much more difficult at the beginning. But my contention (and this is what I teach to those who get to the level where I can really speak about aesthetics) is that there’s a lot of water under the bridge. It might be more difficult to come up with unique trumpet or saxophone tones because there’ve been, let’s say, 20 or 30 styles, whereas 15 years ago, there were only 10. That might be true, but if you look hard within yourself, and you look outside of your own little world and go a little further, there’s no reason why you can’t turn out something that is you. It might just take longer these days.

So I’m always optimistic that someone will, but my problem is that most of them go in there not wanting that. And that’s part of the attitude of, “Well, let’s be a jazz major in school,” like English literature or psychology in the ’60s. It has some positive things, because it does teach you a lot about a lot of music, but it’s not about having an original voice. It’s about vocation, not art. And the whole thing is really the difference between craft and art. We’re in that age where craft is being touted and elevated to the level of art, and it’s just not.

RK: Many people believe or feel that there are fewer unique voices in jazz today, that the days of instant recognition for new artists — in a way that you hear Coltrane, you instantly know it’s Coltrane — are over. Do you agree? What do you think about that perception?

DL: Well, that’s exactly what we’re talking about, the institutionalization of it, being taught by rote. That’s the negative side of it. You come out sounding like whatever the norm is, in whatever style. And the search for individuality…let’s put it this way: It becomes a longer process to find individuality. Whereas when you didn’t have a school system and the books and the how-to stuff so prevalent, you had no choice but to be yourself and to carry through whatever you heard around you. If you were in New York or Chicago, you heard certain people, they influenced you, but you basically were a combination of yourself and what you heard.

Now with the whole oral tradition being put down on paper and video and so forth it becomes much more difficult at the beginning. But my contention (and this is what I teach to those who get to the level where I can really speak about aesthetics) is that there’s a lot of water under the bridge. It might be more difficult to come up with unique trumpet or saxophone tones because there’ve been, let’s say, 20 or 30 styles, whereas 15 years ago, there were only 10. That might be true, but if you look hard within yourself, and you look outside of your own little world and go a little further, there’s no reason why you can’t turn out something that is you. It might just take longer these days.

So I’m always optimistic that someone will, but my problem is that most of them go in there not wanting that. And that’s part of the attitude of, “Well, let’s be a jazz major in school,” like English literature or psychology in the ’60s. It has some positive things, because it does teach you a lot about a lot of music, but it’s not about having an original voice. It’s about vocation, not art. And the whole thing is really the difference between craft and art. We’re in that age where craft is being touted and elevated to the level of art, and it’s just not.

4. Changing Audiences

RK: Well, let’s turn it around from the performer to the listener, to the audience. You’re a musical creator. How do you think audiences are changing? There’s a noticeable shift in the pop world towards rhythm much less than melody and harmony. If you listen to rap (although rap is starting to evolve), the harmony’s becoming more complex and the melody’s probably becoming a little more complex. There’s a lot of pop becoming dominated by rhythm in ways we haven’t seen in this century. Do you perceive a difference in the audience?

DL: No question about it. I mean, when I started out in the late ’60s, and into the ’70s, it used to be (…well, it’s always been…) musicians, fellow artists, intellectual-type people and their cronies who you played for. And of course, a certain sprinkling of nightlife people. The audience I’m talking about was there to really hear the advancement, the evolution, the intricacies of the music. I mean, musicians and non-musicians alike were still interested in how it was changing, and they were probably seeing it through the eyes of their art or their intellectual interests.

Now, as we slowly turn into a non-intellectual culture, your audience’s attention span is quite small and you have an audience that can’t really listen to this music for the most part, except the musicians. That’s basically who I’m playing for, because it’s really gone into the entertainment thing. It’s not the people’s fault. It’s the culture. I mean, nobody’s sitting down listening to a full record anymore. First of all, 60 minutes is impossible — nobody has time — and jazz absolutely demands rapt attention and intensity of listening.

That’s completely the opposite of what’s going on. I always say to my students, “Listen, the people don’t know anything. In fact, most of the musicians hardly know, so you cannot play to them, you have to make a decision at some point in your life who you’re playing for because in fact, that is probably the most important decision you will make which will determine your career. Or what you would like you career to be.” If you’re playing for the people, that’s definitely the decision you make. Now, I have no problem with entertainment. It is, after all, entertainment that people are paying for. But if you’re playing for the art then you’ve also made a decision and you’d better be in for the long run, and you’d better learn how to make a living some other way for a while. It’s really black-and-white; it’s not gray anymore.

RK: When do you think it will occur that jazz players will start having light shows and concerts that look like rock concerts?

DL: Well, it has occurred. I mean, Pat Metheny does it. Weather Report did it in kind of an antique way in the ’70s. With the technology, that’s just part of getting out on stage in front of 10,000 people. You have to do that.

See, here’s the real problem: it’s gotten too big. And the question is, did it have to? Well, of course, society took it that way. Should it? is the real question, and in my very strong opinion, jazz is not meant for many people. It is not supposed to be a popular music. It’s supposed to be played for a few hundred at the most. It is absolutely an esoteric art form, and you know, I get into discussions, because everyone says “Oh, what a terrible view to have,” but I have no problem with that because that’s what I, and probably several other people and certainly some musicians, are interested in. I have no problem playing for those few people around the world and being in contact with them like a small and private club. It’s not to be excluding or prejudicial, but it’s the way it is. And I’m not against those who look further. You want to play in a style that attracts 5,000 — or even 50,000 — I have no problem with that.

My point is, make a very clear decision somewhere along the line for yourself as an artist about whom you want to play for. It’s almost a number. You can almost say, “I wish to play for 5,000-plus people” and that determines almost exactly how you’re going to play. In a sense, I could put a line between that and link it on a piece of paper to style and music: what you have to wear, who you have to talk to, how you have to talk. I mean it could almost go down like that. So, really, by determining that, you have determined your stance. And there’s enough around for everybody. That’s the good thing about our age. There is room for specialization. You can get a shoe made that’s one of a kind, and there are probably five people who’ll wear it. And you can have music for five people, or 50, or 500, and probably make a living at it. I don’t have a problem with that, I just think it should be clear.

RK: Yeah, although how can anybody who has a halfway deep understanding about jazz compare going to the Vanguard to going to Alice Tully Hall or Avery Fisher?

DL: I don’t see it as a problem. It’s what’s relative and what’s proper in proportion. It’s music that doesn’t speak to everybody, and I don’t see it as a problem. I think there are people who are very interested in the intricacies of what I do or what Coltrane was doing in ’66 or ’67, let’s say. And there’s nothing wrong with that. And now with the media, with the technology and communication, we can reach those people in Indonesia or eight people in Chicago, so really that’s the problem of our time: how to link up to those who want that specialized need? How do you find your audience? And that’s not unlike any other business. I think they’re out there, I’m just not sure they’re at the North Sea Festival or reading Downbeat Magazine anymore, that’s all.

5. Miles

RK: When you look back on your time with Miles, what stands out in your memory?

DL: I’m doing a clinic tomorrow out here in Allentown (Pennsylvania) that’s called the Dark Magnus Workshop. And this guy here that runs a school for kids thought it would be great to run something about that period of Miles I was involved in which has gotten a lot of attention nowadays because of re-releases and the rappers and people discovering the early ’70s and Miles.

RK: Rappers discovering Bitches Brew?

DL: Well, Bitches Brew and on. Especially the stage I was in was even more chaotic than Bitches Brew. Get Up With It and On the Corner and all that and they’re discovering this and seeing it as a harbinger of what they’ve been doing. Not only rap, but let’s say acid jazz and all that. I was just thinking that probably the one thing that I remember most or that I got out of it besides musical things was that Miles couldn’t care less. You have to keep in proportion the fact that he did change mid-course from pure jazz to rock-fusion, but he didn’t seem to really give a shit about the audience.

RK: At that point, he used to turn his back on the audience.

DL: He really didn’t care. I mean, he really played for the musicians. He was a very canny and sly kind of guy, and in the back of his mind, he knew what was gettin’ over, and what wasn’t. But I got to tell you, my time with him wasn’t a very popular period. It wasn’t like people were standing, clapping, and cheering. No standing ovations; no encores. I mean, we went on, did our fifty, or hour, or hour-and-ten depending on the night, and walked off and people were mostly like dribbling or dragging out of the place. They were hardly applauding even. The music was a shock.

RK: Some of them must’ve been resentful.

DL: Well, it was a shock. Some of it was incoherent. Technologically, it wasn’t refined. It was loud and raucous. And it was not really organized very tightly, which is probably what the charm of it is now, in a certain way. But in that period, it was very off-putting. I mean, he just kept doing it. Personally, I would’ve been hard-pressed to keep going out night after night and not let that passive reaction have an effect upon what I would present as an artist. And I must say that was an amazing lesson to me. Of course, he was Miles, with 30 years behind him; he didn’t have to care anymore what people thought. But to see somebody go out and just do what he wanted to, regardless of the reaction, was amazing. And it made me think very differently about it. This is Miles Davis, after all. This isn’t somebody on my corner. This is Miles Davis who’s playing for himself and a few people. And I guess that’s one of the kind of ways my vision has been formed.

6. Younger Artists & Underappreciated Artists

RK: Who are some of the younger artists that you find interesting?

DL: I enjoy a young saxophone player — well, I guess he’s not so young anymore, Ellery Eskelin, who’s been around quite a bit. He took some lessons from me years ago; he uses an accordionist and is kind of into free things. There’s a fine saxophone player named Tony Malaby who’s been around. A good writer named Joey Sellars has also been around. I mean, New York is full of interesting music; I just don’t get down and hear a lot of people. Paris is full of interesting music, mixtures of African and Vietnamese, and rock stuff. There’s a lot of great stuff going on… and there’s a lot of hype going on. They’re all trying to find their niche. I think there’s a place for all of that stuff.

The thing about jazz I hope will always be there is that a guy goes out on a tightrope with maybe a safety net below him… which you hope is a drummer and bass and piano… but he’s basically balancing himself. He’s taking chances; he’s taking a step. He may fall, but he comes back. And it’s that process you don’t hear in world music in the same way. You don’t hear (…certainly in classical or pop music…) that chance, that bravery, that courage. The good ones are those who know what they’re doing and their next step isn’t going to be off the tightrope. To witness that live (…because records, forget about it, it’s over now with digital editing; nothing’s real anymore…) is an amazing, existential experience that I hope will not be lost. That spirit of questing, of looking, of searching, of not being afraid to miss the note, miss the chord, get lost, play out of tune, whatever. Because you know you’re searching; you’re not afraid to fall because you know you have enough musicianship to recover. I hope that will still exist.

RK: Who were some of the great jazz artists of the past that go unappreciated, unrecognized? Or have just become lost through history?

DL: There’s a guy who’s unappreciated named Tisziji Muñoz, a guitar player who kinds plays out of a Santana/Sonny Sharrock vibe. On an historical level, Hank Mobley, an incredible improviser who played with Miles, did a lot of great records and was really a deep improviser who never got the accolades. Paul Bley is another great who is known primarily in Europe. He works a lot and he’s famous in Europe. He has a real revolutionary approach, but I think he hasn’t gotten his due respect. Lennie Tristano is another for sure, due to maybe the school of thought he was attached to. Being blind, it wasn’t easy for him to get around. But I studied with him, and I have to say he was a genius. He was unbelievable… the things he did in the’50s.

There are so many people who don’t get recognition. I just came across a guy named Bob Graetinger who wrote for Stan Kenton and died very young from a drug overdose. In 1947, he wrote music that is still unapproachable as far as complexity with the Stan Kenton Orchestra, with strings and woodwinds and so forth. There are unknown guys that come along. (It’s true in classical music too, guys come along like Mompou.) Guys come along that you never heard about who just didn’t hit the imagination or didn’t take care of business or whatever. There are so many of them. And in music like jazz, it’s really great when you find a guy who’s undiscovered and you say, “God, what a body of work!” and you go into it, and it becomes a source that’s not known. That’s one of the ways that you can try to find an original and personal voice, to find some sources that are not so standardized and not so well known. And of course this doesn’t mean that Charlie Parker should not be studied, but it means that when you find someone who’s not so obvious… my God, you have a gold mine of influences to dig into. That’s something we all try to look out for. In fact, if there’s anything that musicians talk about, it’s probably “Did you hear this thing by this guy?” or “I just heard a tape, I never heard of it before.”

7. Liebman as Composer & Listener

RK: I’ve known your work for years and admired it as a performing artist. I also (from one particular album) know your work as a straight composer because bass trombonist Dave Taylor is an old friend of mine. I used to do a lot of playing with him. Where does your work as a composer fit in with your career right now?

DL: I am an unabashed eclectic. The ’60s was a period when someone like myself, without much looking, could find music from everywhere without having to go to Bali to do it. In the same day you could listen to Ravi Shankar, John Coltrane and Buddhist music. Coltrane took me first. But then I was exposed by friends and the kind of people I was referring to earlier who said, “Man you gotta get this Tibetan chant, you gotta get this gamelan music, or check out Bartók’s violin concerto, etc.” I learned about things that normally wouldn’t have come down the pike 10 years earlier, not to somebody like myself of my generation. So that affected me and made me really like all this music and find that I could (or would like to) express myself in various idioms. And they range of course from straight jazz (from be-bop to all styles) to free jazz to classical (I mean contemporary 20th-century classical) to pop and world music.

The thing you’re talking about with Dave is one of those aspects (trombone with string quartet); I just love the sound of quartets. I haven’t done brass yet because I don’t know the instruments that well, but I’ve done several things for three or four woodwinds and strings. Especially in jazz, three to four voices intrigue me. It’s the string quartet in essence. I’m not a classical music expert, but when you talk to guys they say, “Look, in the end, the string quartet will tell you the whole thing anyway.” It’s a cut-down version of the real deal, and in the final analysis I feel that three or four voices is really what you want to hear. It takes into account the whole scene: you’ve got your chord, you’ve got your harmony, and so forth, taking the rhythm out of the question here. And that’s why I was very interested in Dave Taylor: he heard a string quartet I did and he approached me. That’s how that particular piece, “Remembrance” [Ed: published by Advance Music], came about.

I’ve done several things in that genre, and I’ll tell you, next week, I’m going to Dublin doing three very nice nights. One is a concerto (written for me by Bill Pobbins); the next night, I’m doing string quartets (several of mine and a new one by a composer); and then the third night, we’re playing jazz in a club. So that is exactly what I would like to do. That is for me a perfect week artistically, because it allows me to manifest myself in all those various ways. And I think the challenge, for any artist, is to be yourself within various genres and backgrounds. Coltrane did it for 15 years; Miles did it for 30 or 40. And to me, that’s really the challenge: to be yourself; to have your voice; to have something of worth to say; and to surround yourself in (hopefully) interesting and challenging backgrounds that are different and changeable. In some ways it has been bad: it has diffused my audience and my critical appeal, because there are those who like one aspect of my music.

RK: So you haven’t focused on a market?

DL: If you look at my recording discography, I am among maybe three or four other people (like Steve Lacy or David Murray) who are on literally dozens of labels. It’s because one producer likes one aspect of your work, another guy likes another. If you work on it enough, you can spread yourself out. And that’s been the bad part from the business standpoint. On the other hand, I know that in the long run, doing what I’m doing is going to be OK as far as the public is concerned. It’s just that you’ve got to add on another 10-to-15 years because you didn’t stay in one style, and because you weren’t in one clique. I’ve really made sure of that now that I can see it. I don’t belong to any school of thinking. I wasn’t part of M-Base or part of this or that. We started out together in the late ’60s in a kind of situation a lot of guys together playing free jazz, but then I just found my own voice. I can’t compare myself to anybody else, and I feel very proud of that. And now it’s too late to change.

RK: What are you listening to today?

DL: Well, to be realistic, with the little time I have, I’m usually listening to my own stuff, or editing, or trying to catch up with what I have to do. Like right now, I’m sitting downstairs about to listen to the string quartet that I have to play next week. I mean, people like us have very little time to listen to things of choice. The second area I usually listen to is tapes of students or people who send me their stuff to check out. If I just turned off the hose and said, “No tapes, no CDs,” I would probably have time to listen. I’d love to get back into Mompou and this Graetinger-thing with Kenton because it has been on my mind, or something that’s apropos to a mixed project I’m doing, and so forth.

But being a teacher and an educator is part of my personality, and I feel a debt to it. I answer everybody. They send me tapes and I might write three or four words quite quickly, but I’m in connection with a lot of people — student types or musicians who want me to hear their music. So that takes a lot of time, and it keeps piling up. Every couple of months I leaf through and just listen and make comments when necessary when I feel it has to be. So sometimes I can’t even listen to the things I want to. For example: yesterday I talked to the guy over at Verve, and he’s going to send me something called 20th Century Genius (Art Tatum) that he says is unbelievable. I have the box that came out last year, Coltrane Live at the Vanguard, but I still haven’t listened to the outtakes. Because I’m so busy and involved, I just don’t have the time to concentrate, and I haven’t had it for probably 10 or 15 years. It’s a terrible, unfortunate part of being an artist today, because so much time is spent on business and logistics and the mechanical aspects of getting your stuff out there. That’s just the way it goes. I don’t have a manager; I do it myself.

8. Upcoming Projects

RK: What are some other projects you have on the back burner?

DL: The next release is on a label called Arkadia. It’s with Pat Metheny and it’s called Water, Giver of Life. I’m portraying the element of water in various manifestations and writing programmatically, which I like to do. So I want to complete the cycle of the four elements over the years on some label or another somehow and the next one I’m looking into is Earth. I have some themes that I have used for a ballet a couple of years ago called The Stones. I don’t know what’s really going on in general, maybe it’s living out in the country (…I’ve been here in the Poconos for about 10 years…). I see my perspective changing towards outside of me as I mature. But I’m also a very subject-literal minded person. I mean I like a subject. Give me a subject; say “blue” and I paint blue. I see my interests moving away from the personal view, the personal theme which was so much of the first ten, twenty years. It’s more of what’s around you.

And I’ve done a record lately called The Tree, a record called Time Immemorial, this water thing, and then Earth and Fire and so forth. I’m trying just to paint the things that are around me in music. If I have a subject, it makes it much easier for me to get to the heart of the matter rather than just perform a musical exercise (which other guys do very well and I respect that). I like a subject. It could be very literal or figurative, but it really helps me out. So right now I’m going to try and produce a cycle over the next three years.

RK: Great. I have no more questions, but you know it’s a funny thing you mentioned Dave Taylor. You remind me of Dave Taylor. You know Dave’s from Brooklyn, by the way…

DL: You’re Jewish too, right?

RK: I am.

DL: Happy New Year!

RK: Yes, Happy New Year.

DL: Happy year 5,000-something.

RK: Happy 5,734-something. Anything else you want to talk about?

9. The International Scene

DL: I’m at a point where I’ve been around for a while. I’m an “established” artist, at least among those who know, and you have to be careful not to be sour grapes on anything that comes after your time. It’s like your father’s stuff: “Well, you know the good old days.” You start talking to your kids like that: It’s not the same, therefore it’s less. I think about that all the time when I get these kind of questions, about the way it’s changing, and the demographics and the corporate stuff and all that which we spoke about. It’s terribly negative from the standpoint of what this art form purports to be, of what people like us are trying to do.

On the other hand, I really have to try to come up with the positive side, which as I mentioned, is influencing the world. The education thing has to be good in the end. People knowing something have to turn out better than not knowing something. So I’m always tempering my remarks about the loss of individuality and of standardization and everything with the fact that we live in an incredible period of openness and communication and availability of knowledge. Maybe things aren’t right now, but someday the scales will balance the negative side of this period we’re living in. And I think that’s important to everyone. When we get negative and say, “Where are the good old days?” or “Nobody’s really playing it like that anymore,” we gotta remember that the other side of that is an incredible explosion of knowledge and opportunity. I must say the most positive thing I’ve done has been the teaching.

In 1989, I founded an organization that we named International Association of Schools of Jazz. (It’s on my web site.) After all my traveling and teaching (…I did so much of it in the ’80s…), I saw that so many people were doing the same thing, especially in Europe, and the boundaries, borders, were really separating people. It was amazing that they didn’t know each other two hours away from Germany to France. And I took it upon myself to put these people I knew together. In 1989, we organized, and 10 years later we have this wonderful association. We have schools from 35 countries — I mean Slovakia, Lithuania, Japan, etc. — that meet once a year. We have a meeting where students come. We have a newsletter, a magazine. My point is that by my exposure to these teachers and students from all these countries I really see that the future of jazz is outside of America. It truly lies in those places where it’s still considered a new thing. That what’s going to revitalize (or let’s say continue to vitalize), this music: input from cultures that you would never think would have anything to do with jazz or western music as we know it. It’s happening in pop a little bit, and I really believe that in jazz it’s going to be a little purer, on a higher level. I really think that that’s the future.

It’s not that America is over, or finished, but the truth is that the birthplace of the music has had its time. It had its hundred years, or whatever, and the innovators were here and are done. But for this music to exist and go on, it had to get infusions from other cultures and other peoples, and it’s happening. A lot of people in America are not aware of it because they’re insulated and they don’t get out, but people like myself, and people who travel to a lot of countries and teach, are. There are young people who are really for the most part optimistic because they are bringing something to it. It may be a Danish folk song in a jazz style, but it’s an attempt to bring what they have to the music they’re learning. And I think that’s a very positive thing.

RK: I’ll tell you, I was in Vienna last week at a conference for the International Association of Music Information Centers and we went for a day trip to Bratislava where the mayor had us to lunch. We got to the town square and a jazz band was playing “When the Saints Go Marching In.” I mean there’s a trip: you’re looking at a place where Liszt lived and all of a sudden you walk into the square and hear this. And it’s a good band too!

DL: And probably in a school down the street, somebody’s talking about Charlie Parker. This thing is happening. People here are just not aware of it because America is a fortress. But this is happening, I see it through this organization. There’s attention towards internationalization of this music. I mean, we’re working with UNICEF. In the mid-’80s I was so blue about the business that I was applying to law schools to get out of the whole scene. But I realized that what would make me personally feel good was not so much just the music (…’cause I’d already understood that music was a very personal, egotistical self-entertaining thing…), but something that could be international and that could use the power and energy of the music for communication. It’s very simple. And that’s really what propelled me into this teaching thing in the ’80s. If there’s one thing that makes me feel optimistic about this situation we discussed earlier, it’s the internationalization of jazz on a level so unprecedented that you have no idea how much is going on. It’s really incredible.

RK: These are terrific sentiments. Thank you for your time and the candid thoughts.