“…After all, it is our livelihood and art that are being downgraded as we speak. I support the efforts of MFM towards organizing musicians to develop a new paradigm.” – David Liebman
Date: March 23, 2017
Venue: WeWork Bryant Park (NY)
Text by Dawoud Kringle
On Thursday, March 23rd, Musicians for Musicians (MFM) presented the first Talk. The guest of honor was David Liebman, who’s a member of MFM’s Advisory Committee. The event was hosted and moderated by MFM President Sohrab Saadat Ladjavardi. This was the first of such “Round Table Talks,” and promised to deliver an immensely interesting and informative dialogue.
David Liebman’s resume reads like a biography of a jazz legend. His career spans nearly five decades, beginning in his teens, his work in the early 1970s as the saxophone/flautist with Miles Davis and Elvin Jones, and continuing as a bandleader. His current group Expansions just released a new album called Expansions Live. He is also a respected and accomplished educator, founder and artistic director of the International Association of Schools of Jazz (IASJ), author, and recipients of several prestigious awards (including NEA Jazz Master, the Jazz Educators Network, Legends of Jazz, the Order of Arts and Letters, Grammy nomination for Best Jazz Solo, and Honorary Doctorate from the Sibelius Academy).
Saadat started the event with an introduction to Musicians for Musicians’ mission. He introduced Liebman as the quintessence of a professional musician. He went on to describe how musicians need to cultivate a professional stance.
Then Liebman offered a solo musical performance on soprano saxophone. It was marvelous. Post bebop arabesques and romantic blues soliloquies flowed from his horn like poetry and were over all too quickly.
The discussion began with the question of why musicians need to cultivate the attitude of a professional. Liebman summed it up succinctly: “You’re supposed to do your job well in life.”
Saadat asked about the four aspects of Liebman’s career: performer, educator, writer / author, and endorser.
Liebman began by talking a bit about how he got started at age 13. He’d struggled with polio in his childhood, and originally wanted to be a doctor. Seeing John Coltrane changed his mind, and he pursued music. He went on to describe his years of struggling to survive and develop his artistry and career.
His philosophy of music began to develop when he started to teach. This forced him to learn to articulate the sublimities of music, and to qualify his own personal philosophies.
In 1980, he abandoned the tenor saxophone. His belief is that it’s nearly impossible to become truly great on an instrument without concentrating on it 100%. From then on, he concentrated on soprano.
Inevitably his stint with Miles Davis came up. With Davis, it was a “handshake agreement;” no contract. Davis offered him a set amount per gig, which was administered through Davis’ business office. One got the impression that Liebman looks back at his time with Davis as difficult, but not so much that he didn’t walk away wiser and unharmed.
He advised that musicians organize themselves, and put together a plan of action. Think about exactly what one wishes to accomplish, and how they plan to accomplish it in a set period of time.
He also advised that a musician should become “one of the three best at what you do.” This is something which each musician must define for himself, and there is a wide breadth of interpretation of what one may be the best at. “It’s about the aesthetics: you gotta be a bad (expletive deleted)!” This is an important thing to consider, because young people are faced with a great pressure to have one’s act together early on. The luxury of taking one’s time developing oneself is no longer available. Liebman advised taking a double major in college, and pursuing multiple revenue streams.
There is also the perspective of the club and venue owners. The Blue Note costs $50k per day to operate. If this operating cost is not met, and the incentive of a profit isn’t happening, the venue cannot exist. Musicians often fail to factor this into their equations. Ultimately, it’s a matter of seeing that the relationship between musician and venue is one of two businesses convening to accomplish a mutually profitable goal; not musicians coming to a successful business with their hats in their hands.
Liebman and Saadat disagreed on the idea of “rehearsing in front of an audience.” Saadat’s argument is that such gigs exploit the musicians, and reinforce the zeitgeist of musicians being unprofessional and irresponsible in their business practices. Liebman’s idea is that it’s not only possible to do this and get at least some financial remuneration, but is essential to the development of one’s art.
The question of recording contracts was brought up. Liebman spoke of his stint with A&M (to whom he still owes $90k). The economic realities of a record deal are things that music be addressed, and navigated.
The idea of a concerted organized effort to break the vicious cycle of musicians not being paid was discussed with some detail; and passion. This, to the point of lobbying in Washington for musician’s legal and financial rights. This is, of course, something that has to have some flexibility in its definition. But the fact remains that musicians must demand that they are treated as a business as well as art or entertainment.
Saadat asked Liebman about his pursuits as an educator. He spoke about how he founded the International Association of Schools of Jazz (IASJ), and its mission.
David Liebman spoke about the present situation for musicians with the horrors of post-Obama / Trump America. He feels we have come full circle. It started with patronage artists and musicians relied upon, and he feels we are back full circle. However, with the example of Beethoven as an early model of music activism, the idea of musicians taking a position of power is not out of the question.
The event was concluded with another masterful and breathtaking solo by David Liebman.
Thus, the MFM Talk Series got off to a brilliant start. With the example and wealth of knowledge Liebman brought to the table, the tone has been set for the development of the Series in the future. Great things may be expected.