Saxophonist David Liebman will never forget January 13, 1973. That was the night he played for the first time with Miles Davis at New York's Fillmore East. Then he took a taxi across town to join Elvin Jones' for his second set at the Village Vanguard. Liebman was 26.
"It was the heaviest night of my musical life as far as style," says Liebman. "Going from Miles playing this funky-oriented stuff, to Elvin playing straight-ahead jazz."
Of course, playing with both men was pinch-yourself territory for Liebman. "I watched Elvin so much with Coltrane, and there I was, standing where Coltrane stood," says Liebman. "With Miles it was the history of jazz, and there was no question that you now could have a serious career because you had reached the top of the food chain."
Growing up in Brooklyn, Liebman had started classical piano lessons at 10 and later shifted to reeds. But his musical awakening happened at 16. "It was definitely seeing Coltrane," says Liebman, who plays next Thursday at Lovin' Cup. "February 1962, at Birdland — it was cataclysmic. All I knew was that guy couldn't be playing the same instrument that I played at home, and whatever this is, I'll be back."
He saw Coltrane many times, listened to his records and transcribed his solos, all in an effort to absorb his style. "The whole community of sax players followed the leader, just like they had with Charlie Parker," says Liebman. "Coltrane was the major influence so we did the best we could to understand his language."
In the meantime, Liebman got a degree in history from New York University, studying by day and playing at night. After graduating he became a substitute teacher. He was able to quit when he joined the jazz-rock group Ten Wheel Drive in the late 1960's. Along with Blood Sweat & Tears and Chicago, the group was part of the fusion movement.
But Liebman kept playing the more experimental music that was thriving in New York. "In those days there were no schools, just contemporaries playing together, living in lofts where you could play all night, just playing and hoping someday you'd get a chance to play with one of the masters."
That chance came when a bass player told Jones about Liebman. Without rehearsing, he stepped on stage with Jones' band and passed the audition. It wasn't long before he caught the attention of Davis.
"The jazz scene was much smaller in those days, so everyone knew each other," says Liebman. "Steve Grossman, my playing buddy, was with Miles. Lenny White, Chick Corea, Dave Holland — we all lived in the same building. There was a community involved in the music, so I knew Miles and I got to play on the session for 'On The Corner.' Six months later he came to the Vanguard when I was working with Elvin. He basically took me."
Jones and Miles were both attracted by the same thing: the young player's style, which was reminiscent of Coltrane's. "At 22 you have no idea what you're doing. You just try to sound like who you want to sound like and hope some day that you'll become an individualist. We all knew that."
Liebman eventually found his musical self. "Somewhere in the early 1980's when I went to soprano [sax], I could see who I was."
What did he take away from the two legends? "The main thing was the seriousness of the music," says Liebman. "This was not just a way to get girls or a social hang, it was serious business when you got on the bandstand. The lifestyle was a different subject. Once you hit the downbeat, those guys were dead serious."
There was one complication in Liebman's dream-like career. The early 1970's was a turbulent time racially, and some musicians and audience members were not happy to see a white, Jewish sax player with top black jazz players.
"They'd ask, why is he there? In Elvin's band there were three white guys and he got pressure for that. He didn't give a shit," says Liebman. "In Miles' band I was the only white guy, and I was standing in front of the Black Panther flag on all the equipment. When you played in a place like Detroit or Chicago...let's put it this way, when the gig was over, I got to the hotel quickly."
As for Jones and Miles, "they knew it and acknowledged it but they were way beyond it. Miles told my girlfriend at the time, 'They don't like Dave because he's white. I don't know even what color he is. He has no color.'"
Since the 1970's, Liebman has recorded more than 100 albums as a leader and hundreds more as a sideman. He's played in front of tens of thousands of people with some of the top musicians in jazz, and with groups like Lookout Farm and Quest. But he still loves small club gigs, like the Bop Shop show at Lovin' Cup.
"I like to support somebody like [drummer] Phil [Haynes] and I enjoy playing with him," says Liebman. "Playing that kind of music — it's free jazz — for 30 people, is really what the music's about. You've got to make a living, but the truth is that's where jazz is heard best, in a small setting where people are close to you."
Of course, after four decades, Liebman has seen changes in the jazz world. "The internet's taken away any semblance of a record business, which means people have no way getting people to know them," says Liebman. "Economics have dictated that the jazz club is an anachronism economically. It's almost impossible to keep a club going and have real music. And that's the work place where we used to work out the music.
"On the other hand, education has grown in the last 30 years," says Liebman, who founded the International Association of Schools of Jazz in 1989. "So it's wonderful to see people from all over the world loving this music."