Jon Liebman has spent his life following his passion for music — and would-be musicians are about to benefit from it even more.
He’s performed around the world with famous musicians and groups, including Cleo Laine, Eartha Kitt, Julio Iglesias, the Ink Spots and the Fifth Dimension.
He’s played in the pit for Broadway musicals, in auditoriums from Madison Square Garden to Tokyo’s Suntory Hall, and in bullrings in Central America. He’s a past inductee into Crain’s Detroit Business 40 Under 40, he’s been the top administrator for a respected Michigan trade school and more than 100,000 people have learned to play bass from him. And that number is about to multiply.
Now Jonathan Liebman is dedicating his love of music and his business acumen to building an online music empire.
He recently left his position as chairman and CEO of the Specs Howard School of Media Arts, the Southfield school founded by his father in 1970, to work full time for his Notehead Media Group, which develops resources and instructional materials for musicians.
A love of music is part of his heritage. His father, Jerry Liebman — who took the name of Specs Howard in 1956 when he started working as a rock-and-roll radio disc jockey — frequently brought his children to performances of the groups whose hits he played on air. Liebman, 56, says seeing the Beatles live in concert at age 6 was a profound experience.
Growing up in Southfield, the Liebman children (Jonathan is the youngest of four) all took piano lessons, and “there always seemed to be a lot of guitars around the house,” he said.
Liebman took up guitar as a student at Southfield High (after attending Hillel and Akiva day schools as a child), then switched to bass. “There’s no shortage of guitar players; good bass players always find work,” he said. He plays both electric and stand-up bass.
In the 1970s, he and his brother, Marty, played in a Jewish folk-rock band that performed at parties all over the U.S. and Canada, including conventions for Jewish youth organizations.
He began his studies at Wayne State University in classical bass but finished as the first graduate of the school’s then-new jazz program.
While studying for a master’s degree in jazz at the University of Miami, he traveled widely throughout the U.S. and Central and South America, playing with numerous well-known bands and soloists.
A friend hired him to do some musical arranging, and he realized he was good at it. Soon he was writing and arranging for a variety of TV shows, including the Tonight Show, the Late Show and Miami Vice. He recalls the thrill he felt when he watched the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson and realized the band was playing notes he had written.
He was getting steady work writing, arranging and playing in Los Angeles, but after he and his first wife divorced in 1992 he decided to
base himself in Michigan to be closer to his son Josh, then 5.
With a passion for business second only to his passion for music, Liebman joined the family enterprise, the Specs Howard School (where his father, now 90, is still a daily presence). Starting as a marketing analyst, he rose to president and CEO. He gave up the day-to-day operations in 2008 — his brother, Marty, is now president — to concentrate on external relations and long-term planning as chairman and CEO.
Jon Liebman served on the board of JVS for six years and has been active with several Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit committees.
Soon after Liebman returned to Michigan, a friend suggested he write about some of his bass techniques. His first book, Funk Bass, was published in 1992. Five more books of bass instruction followed.
His seventh book, Play Like Jaco Pastorius: The Ultimate Bass Lesson (Hal Leonard) and a companion Jaco Pastorius Bass Play-Along, will be published this summer.
Liebman considers Pastorius, who died in 1987 at age 35, to be the greatest bass player who ever lived. Preparing the play-along book and accompanying CD was a challenge, he said, because he had to play the way Pastorius played.
Liebman’s books have been translated into French, German and Japanese, and have sold hundreds of thousands of copies.
Dan Hildebrant, 32, an electric bass player who grew up in Farmington Hills and now lives in Redwood City, Calif., is a fan.
“A friend recommended his books Funk Bass and Funk Fusion Bass when I was 17,” Hildebrandt said. “I found the instruction techniques and the bass lines in his books to be so well structured and funky that I brought them both to California with me, and now I am teaching some of his techniques and grooves to my own bass students.”
A suggestion from a fan in England inspired Liebman to develop his online presence, and he launched ForBassPlayersOnly.com in 2009. The site has news articles, an online store with bass-related books (including his own), CDs, DVDs and more, and interviews with more than 400 bass players, including Paul McCartney and bassists from bands like Metallica, Black Sabbath and Aerosmith.
The same year, he launched JonLiebman.com, a platform for bass instruction, with video lessons — 99 so far — for students at all levels. Students can buy an “all access pass” for $12.99 a month. And last April, Liebman launched ForGuitarPlayersOnly.com, and he plans similar sites for pianists and drummers.
Music journalist Gary Graff, formerly with the Detroit Free Press, writes many of the articles on the guitar website.
“Jon is the rare guy who’s not only a great player but also knows how to teach, and especially how to convey feeling and nuance and passion in playing as well as technical skills,” Graff said. “His enthusiasm for music and for the culture of music and the camaraderie of musicians really gives his enterprises a unique perspective that sets them apart from others.”
For many years Liebman was a one-man band. “I was Employee of the Month every month,” he joked.
His business is still based in the West Bloomfield home he shares with his wife, Mindy, and the youngest two of their four children. But he has hired a staff writer, a webmaster and a social media expert, and he’s considering adding marketing and administrative staff.
His online presence is growing. His For Bass Players Only Facebook page has more than 100,000 likes, with about 1,000 new fans joining every week.
Liebman’s long-range vision is to expand into websites for the various instrument groups (strings, woodwinds, brass, percussion), music genres (jazz, rock, classical and more) and careers (music engineering, songwriting, composing, arranging, music therapy). He wants the Notehead Media Group sites to be a comprehensive resource for musicians, music students and music enthusiasts.
Liebman’s friend Josh Linkner, a tech entrepreneur and jazz guitarist, says Liebman has the right combination of skills to pull it off.
“Jon is a passionate musician, educator and business leader. I have deep respect for his thoughtfulness in the board room and his artistic fire when behind the bass,” Linkner said.
“He continues to push the boundaries in a sincere and humble way. He’s the rare guy who’s doing work that matters while following his calling.”
By Barbara Lewis | Contributing Writer
Brett Mountain | Photographer