THIS WEEK’S TOP STORIES
All that Jazz
By Charles Swenson
If they asked me, I could write a book.
The preface on how they met would start when Barry Lieberman and his wife Jill stopped on their way from Hilton Head to their home in Rhode Island to see their friends Jack and Betty Seibert at the Tradition Club. “I said, ‘Jack, where are your drums.’ He said, ‘They’re up in the attic,’” Lieberman recalled. “Get them down. Let’s play,” was his reply.
That’s how jazz was born in the shape of the Island Jazz Quartet. Lieberman on sax and Seibert on drums were joined by Ben Clark on guitar and Clair Fancher on bass.
Lieberman came south for a month to six weeks every winter. For a decade they played together and with the occasional guest. “It wound up being a social night,” Seibert said. A few times they played for their neighbors. When Lieberman headed north, the quartet was put on hold. This year, the Liebermans came to stay. That was in July.
The Island Jazz Quartet gave its first public performance this month at the Waccamaw Library, playing the standards that are known as the Great American Songbook. They’ll be back at the library in January.
“We’ve really got something going,” said Fancher, who also provides the vocals. “I think we’re going to stay together.”
The quartet also picked up a gig at a party in DeBordieu from their library concert. “We’re looking for venue, but not anything regular,” Seibert said.
“At this stage of my career, it’s not like we want to be out there every weekend,” Lieberman said. “You’re living on the other side of the clock.”
They all know what that’s like. They all started playing when they were kids and music has been a part of their lives ever since.
Lieberman made his career teaching music at a high school in suburban New York. It was the same school system where he starting playing clarinet at age 7 or 8. He studied music at Ithaca College with the idea of making a career in performing. He was advised to get a teaching degree just in case. His plan to perform on cruise ships, formed while studying at the University of Miami was scuttled by service in the National Guard from 1968 to 1974. He wound up in the 7th Regiment Band of the New York National Guard, performing regularly for Gov. Nelson Rockefeller.
“He is the consumate leader,” Fancher said.
“He was the glue that got us together and kept us going,” Clark said.
Seibert, another native New Yorker, taught English and French at the same school as Lieberman. Both Seibert’s children took lessons from him. His daughter is a flautist and his son plays the jazz saxophone.
Fancher and Seibert connected through a garage door repairman who was also in a band that Fancher played with. He saw Seibert’s drums in his garage and suggested Fancher get in touch.
Seibert started playing drums as a boy. He took lessons for about six months. His parents complained that he didn’t practice, he said.
“I play through feel. I’m a good listener. If I hear a tune, I never forget it,” he said. “What’s good about this group of guys is that they’re all good listeners.”
Fancher started out playing the trumpet as a school boy in Portland, Ore. He still has his King cornet, but doesn’t play anymore. He switched to the bass when he was a student at Oregon State University. He taught himself and played weekend gigs for 40 years.
“I don’t read music,” he said. “It’s all in my head.”
He also does the vocals for the Island Jazz Quartet. “I’m probably the only one in the group that sings,” Fancher said, the result of school and college training. “Barry wants me to do more.”
Fancher got into computing and ended up in Rhode Island working for IBM. “Because of that experience I worked with a lot of good players and learned a lot,” he said.
He also wound up with a listing in the book “Who’s Who in Rhode Island Jazz.” He moved to Murrells Inlet about the time Lieberman retired to Rhode Island.
Clark stands out not only for his guitar solos, but as the only Southerner in the quartet. He’s also the youngest member, turning 65 next month and continuing to work as an optometrist in Murrells Inlet. He grew up in Elizabethtown, N.C., where he followed the lead of his older brother and started playing stringed instruments. “Back in the folk days of Peter, Paul and Mary and the Kingston Trio,” he explained.
He got interested in bluegrass as a student at the University of North Carolina, then started playing jazz in clubs when he lived in the Charlotte area.
“I’m just a closet player,” Clark said. “It’s therapy really.”
He met Lieberman through a fellow musician, “at a jam session I think,” Clark said. “We kind of liked the same types of music.”
Stacks of music books are spread out over a sofa in the sunroom at Seibert’s house. Since his drum set is the least portable part of the quartet, he hosts their rehearsals.
The Great American Songbook is a genre, not a text. “We play out of all the music books that are available to us,” Seibert said.
Rogers and Hart, the Gershwins, Irving Berlin, Duke Ellington are just the tip of the repertoire. The quartet members worry that the audience for the music is becoming scarce even as they admit that this isn’t the music of their generation. “I was 14 or 15 when Elvis Presley came in,” Seibert said. “I didn’t like that.”
But he played his share of rock and roll. So did Lieberman. “That was just what we did growing up,” Lieberman said.
But they came back to the jazz standards. “It’s the structure of the tunes,” Clark said. “The tunes are so well written.”
The quartet plays the music through as written, perhaps changing the tempo, then they improvise with the chords. “We’ll talk about it before we blow it,” Lieberman said. “When I get finished, I’ll just look at Ben.”
Sometimes they trade back and forth every four measures. “It depends on how we feel at the time,” he said.
Even after 10 years of playing together, they rarely play the music the same way twice. “The improvisation part is triggered by something subconscious,” Fancher said.
“There are a lot of conventions to doing that,” Clark said. “We try not to get in a rut.”
And they try to respect the tune. “These are classics,” Lieberman said. “It’s hard to get away from really good music.”
No one would mistake the Waccamaw Library auditorium, with its high ceiling and fluorescent lights for a jazz club. In their blue oxford shirts and khaki trousers, the Island Jazz Quartet might be mistaken for The Four Freshmen, all except Seibert, whose shirt is French blue sans button-down collar.
They opened with “Time After Time,” one of their favorites, Lieberman said. In a Saturday night audience of about 75 people, toes started tapping with the first measure. Midway through, heads were bobbing to the beat. By the end, bodies swayed in their chairs.
A few couples took the quartet up on their invitation to dance. “This is our kind of music,” said Bill Luptowski.
He and his wife Jan are spending the winter at Litchfield by the Sea.
They danced through most of the numbers at the back of the auditorium. Both 77, the Luptowskis agreed this wasn’t the music of their generation, either. “We love jazz and we love to dance,” Bill said.
Lieberman understands. Although his mother was a Frank Sinatra fan and he liked the big bands, he recalled that the music he plays now was what was played in dance class when he was a boy.
“I went to that because there were a couple of girls I was interested in,” he said. “Maybe I got interested in the music for that reason.”
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