LYDIA LIEBMAN – SCRAPPLE FROM THE APPLE
Jazzit Magazine, Issue 111
By Ashley Kahn
Lydia Liebman is a woman both experienced and wise beyond her years. As someone who’s has yet to enter her 30s—as of this writing she just turned 29— she’s proven her value in the music world, working with a number of major, Grammy-winning or -nominated jazz artists like trumpeter Brian Lynch, the Spanish Harlem Orchestra, the Baylor Project and Catherine Russell. In the last ten years, when she started to take on clients professionally she’s become one of the top names in jazz publicity in America, with a strong reputation oversees.
Yes, Lydia Liebman was born to jazz. She is the daughter of legendary saxophonist Dave Liebman and also composer-oboist-educator Caris Visentin, but that only begins to tell her story. Her heritage introduced her to performing music at an early age, and also convinced her that she preferred an offstage role supporting the music. She began working with fellow musicians—as a radio producer and event organizer, as well as a publicist—while still in university. She soon realized that youth carried its benefits: she had a knack for understanding both the music and its current trends, as well as digital technology and online promotional strategies. It wasn’t long before she was turning her attention to more established artists and projects.
Liebman is a proud and proactive woman in a world in which women have represented a minority of performers—especially instrumentalists—while being a significant part of the driving force behind jazz. It’s an historical imbalance that she is determined to do what she can to correct. At the age of 29—and at a very challenging time for jazz, for music and for the world—she’s spearheading with a spirit of change that is long overdue. Her story stands as a light for many.
The world has changed in such a drastic manner in the last seven months. Where were you and what you were working on in early March when the lockdown began?
Prior to the COVID-19 lockdown, I was running around everywhere. Over the previous six months, I had been traveling a lot, and I had either a concert or an event to go to at least three times a week. The last major event I attended was the NAACP Image Awards in Los Angeles at the end of February: I was working the red carpet with Vanessa Rubin and we had absolutely amazing time. On the plane ride back to NYC, I noticed a few passengers traveling with masks on, and honestly didn’t think much of it. About two weeks later, I was in a cab on my way to Dizzy’s [Club Coca-Cola] to see Lakecia Benjamin perform when I saw the alert that they were considering a city-wide shutdown. Her release show for her brilliant album Pursuance: The Coltranes was the last time I attended a real concert – by the time I got home from her set, New York City had effectively shut down.
I had an incredibly heavy load at the time. March was one of the busiest months I’d had in a while and it was stacked with some pretty major releases: in addition to Lakecia’s album, I was working new albums from Laila Biali and Thana Alexa, among several others, plus I had some major projects about to drop in April. So COVID really came at the worst possible time.
Those first couple of weeks I was glued to the phone. It was all about recalibrating, suddenly all our tours were wiped off the table, and any press events we had scheduled were gone – we had to start from scratch and completely change our approach.
First thing I did was reach out to my clients about live streaming. I sent a note to my press list asking them to please take streaming shows seriously. One of the first COVID-era projects I worked on was the Live From Our Living Rooms Virtual Jazz Festival, founded by Thana Alexa, Sirintip, and Owen Broder. The media interest in that really astounded me and I was thrilled to see we’d have support from the press for that format. Seems obvious now but at the time I really didn’t know.
I’m fortunate to say that my work has remained steady these past few months, and we’re working new releases regularly, but it is increasingly more difficult to secure placements for clients these days. Most publications are down to a bare bones staff, if functioning at all, and we’re up against a whirlwind newscycle that is laser focused on current events making it even more difficult to break through. Many days are good but then there are the bad days where it’s hard to see a light at the end of the tunnel. It’s easy to get wrapped up in the negativity of the current situation.
How do you describe what it is you do now, and how you see your stature and reputation in the music world?
For ease, I refer to myself first as a publicist. But the truth is I do a little bit of everything. In addition to the actual PR [public relations] work—pitching stories, securing story placements, organizing interviews, running promotional events, etc,—I also do a fair share of the writing myself, and I design most of the “one-sheets”, and marketing materials we use for new recordings and projects. Plus I deal with all the business stuff of running a business: accounting, managing data, etc.
I’ve been in the jazz business my whole life in one way or another and I’ve worn many hats, often concurrently. My first gig was as a radio host, and then that evolved into concert promotion, which is what I focused on with LLP [Lydia Liebman Productions] for the first couple of years. After settling in New York in 2014, I shifted to working on new album releases, and working for artists directly as a publicist, which is what I do now. I end up dealing with a lot of things outside of the traditional PR realm just because of the nature of the business. When you start working with an artist, a lot of the time you get to know them really well and get involved in other aspects of their career, especially with independent artists. Some days I feel more like a manager, other days I’m a photographer, and then other days—especially in these times—a therapist. Whatever it takes to get the job done.
I always say that I’m really just here to serve the music, and wherever my skills are useful is where I’ll end up. My main goal is to preserve this art form, and expand its audience as much as I possibly can. Publicity has been the best vehicle for me to push toward this mission.
Please take us back to the beginning—where you were born and raised, what sort of music you grew up with, and how jazz entered the picture?
I was born in Allentown, Pennsylvania, and raised in Stroudsburg, which is in the Pocono Mountain region, about 90 minutes or so from New York City. When I was growing up, it was a hip little town with a pretty vibrant music and art scene. I spent a lot of time at the Deer Head Inn, and the COTA [Celebration of the Arts] Jazz Festival was my favorite weekend of the year.
Obviously, jazz was present in my life from the beginning, but I definitely didn’t “get it” when I was a kid. It was so ingrained in my life that I missed the beauty of it! I went through different musical phases, from hip hop and soul music to classic rock and alternative rock. I had a thing for female singer-songwriters with emotive lyrics, starting with Joni Mitchell, then Tori Amos and Cat Power. David Bowie was, and still is, my all-time favorite musical artist. I saw him live in 2004 and it was an epiphany. And yes, you can believe there were disagreements when my parents found out I was listening to Dr. Dre at 12 years old.
All through grade school and high school I sang and performed. I took voice lessons, and participated in chorale singing, choir, and musicals. My dad and I would do gigs here and there together, community type things, or I’d sit in with his band somewhere. I was mostly focusing on musical theater at that time, and while I always sang jazz, I didn’t really start to love it and appreciate it for real until I was 15 or so. It just clicked for me overnight. I went to my dad’s CD collection, pulled out his copy of Coltrane’s “Live” at the Village Vanguard and that was it. I got it. I listened to everything I could get my hands on: Bill Evans At the Montreux Jazz Festival, Joe Henderson’s Inner Urge, Dexter Gordon’s Go. I went full force into everything I’d been resisting for the past 15 years. From then on, I embraced jazz as a major part of my identity.
It was not, however, a given that I’d end up in this music professionally. I had a lot of other interests and my initial goal was to double major in music and communications or political science… my parents were not stage parents in any way. That might be surprising to some. They actively encouraged me to pursue other things.
Tell us about your education at Emerson College in Boston, and also Berklee School of Music.
When I started college, I was a political communications major at Emerson. I did one semester and I immediately knew it wasn’t for me. So I transferred to the visual media arts department and ended up getting a degree in producing. It’s a vague degree title, but it allowed me to take a bunch of different classes from grant-writing to audio post-production to film classes, so it exposed me to a lot. I did half my course load at Berklee, thanks to a joint program between the two schools. I worked this connection to the maximum, and got special approval to take Berklee’s core music classes, and a bunch of others. [Pianist/educator] Danilo Perez let me sit in on his seminars at the Global Jazz Institute, and I got to know him and Marco Pignataro, the managing director, well enough that when I was just starting to get into promotion, they asked me to handle PR for the department.
Studying at Berklee was like home for me. Through my parents, I had met a lot of those professors when I was a kid, plus it felt familiar to be around musicians. Coupled with the new experiences I was getting at Emerson, it created a really solid environment for me to figure out what I wanted to do, and it became abundantly clear that my skillset was a fit for public relations.
About jazz education: I’m not sure if I’m qualified to speak on it because technically I didn’t go to school for jazz performance, but from where I’m standing, I think jazz education has gotten totally out of control here in America. There is no universe where it makes sense to go into debt for $200,000—or more—for a music degree. Obviously, if you get a scholarship or a full ride then OK, or if your family can afford to send you, kudos. But to me, the debt is not worth it.
What about your experience as a college radio deejay?
I actually didn’t do too much for Berklee in this regard. I was the general manager of Emerson’s internet station WECB for three years, and for four years I had a jazz program there called Reeds and Deeds II. Concurrently, I worked at the Boston FM station WERS as an on-air DJ hosting their soul music program, The Secret Spot, and also as an administrative assistant for the station. I absolutely love radio and knew I wanted to do it in college. The first thing I did when I arrived on campus was grab an application for WECB. I also knew I wanted a jazz show, and I went to work on making it happen. I had everyone up to my show: Gregory Porter, Kurt Elling, Pat Metheny, Jason Moran, Rudresh Mahanthappa… everyone.
This was the first time I saw this side of the business: I started to receive promotional CDs and press kits, and press releases from promoters and publicists. I know it sounds insane, but I really didn’t know much about the PR and promotion side of the music world until I got involved in radio. For four years, I scheduled my own interviews, made my own posters and flyers, wrote my own press releases, and pitched my show to press. That was my first PR campaign, and I didn’t even know what I was doing at the time!
I spent a summer interning with [jazz DJ] Mark Ruffin at Sirius XM, and when I first moved to New York I worked with Simon Rentner on [National Public Radio’s jazz program] The Checkout. All of these radio experiences had a profound effect and informed the way I approach PR. I like being on the other side of it now, where I’m the one pitching to radio hosts. But there’s nothing like being behind a microphone and speaking directly to listeners. If the right opportunity came up, I would find a way to return to it because I love it so much.
When and why did you make the decision to focus more on jazz publicity, and what were your first successes?
I never really made a conscious decision to become a jazz publicist. It just sort of naturally happened as a result of everything I was doing at the time. Originally I was only doing concert promotion, making flyers for my Berklee friends who had shows, and I developed this walking route around Boston and Cambridge and I’d drop off the flyers at local businesses. I cobbled together a press list (thank you Google). I just worked at this little by little until I learned the ropes. I didn’t know this was a viable career option until I met Boston-based publicist Ann Braithwaite. She had done some work for my dad when I was in college. Spending time with her, I saw what she did and thought it was the coolest thing ever. Ann is not only the most incredible publicist I know, she’s also very kind and supportive, so I had a really good role model.
The first few years I did everything for free. My boyfriend at the time, and now husband, Willy Rodriguez, was running the jam sessions at Wally’s Jazz Café, which is one of the oldest running black-owned establishments in Boston. So I started doing promotion for those sessions when they’d feature special guests or events. Word of mouth got around, and it was actually [Cuban drummer] Francisco Mela who was the first to pay me for promoting a show. After that it just sort of took off, and then Danilo’s Berklee Global Jazz Institute was my first true account.
In 2014, after spending the three years developing a press list and learning the ropes, I took on my first official album release campaign, which was a new release by [composer] Mehmet Ali Sanlikol and Whatsnext? I remember when I got my first review, I screamed! I was so excited. Full circle moment: Mehmet and I are working together right now on his new album The Rise Up, and I’m thrilled to say it’s gotten significantly more press than the first time around!
When I graduated college in 2013, I figured I’d get a real job and keep this going on the side. I originally wanted to work in jazz radio, but there were very few opportunities for this. During this time, totally unrelated, I was working for a trade publication Education Update as a journalist and assistant editor and that kept me afloat as I was trying to figure out my life. But the PR gigs kept coming. By 2016, I woke up one day and realized I was a jazz publicist.
My first long-term clients were The Baylor Project, who put me on retainer for their debut The Journey, which went on to receive two Grammy nominations. When I got the call from them I realized I was on the right path – and safe to say that was confirmed when we were on the red carpet at the Grammys.
Have you had any experiences outside of America, working with artists? What countries do you like?
I love Italy! One of my fondest childhood memories is traveling to Sienna for the International Association of Schools of Jazz meeting in the early 2000s. There is absolutely no place like that: the culture, the food, the people, the beauty. It is my favorite place in the world. Italian culture was big in my house, because my [maternal] grandfather traces his roots back to Northern Italy. It’s funny, one of the first major concerts I promoted was Enrico Rava at the Berklee Performance Center, so I worked closely with the Italian Consulate in Boston on that gig and it was an awesome experience. Today I work with a number of brilliant Italian musicians including vocalists Mafalda Minnozzi and Chiara Izzi, among others.
Many folks—maybe your parents too—look upon jazz as having gone through the golden years already. What do you think, and what do you think about today’s jazz scene?
I think it’s important to address why people think jazz already reached its peak and it plays into why I got into this work in the first place. I felt while I was growing up that all the major names in jazz were being covered by all the major channels that were available then—magazines and newspapers, radio, TV, the festivals, the Grammy Awards, etc. There wasn’t a lot of diversity. But at the same time jazz that was mixing a lot of genres, and new ideas, that wasn’t getting a lot of representation. So when people think that jazz has already reached its golden age, it is because they are being fed the same stuff again and again.
What’s been encouraging to me—and I hope I can say I played a role in this—I continue to champion those artists who are new, independent, and especially coming from a different place, outside the U.S. Musicians who are not playing the standard jazz. All my early clients were artists from Latin America and other parts of the world, because that’s who I knew at Berklee. If you open my inbox any day, emails from people who are trying to hire us or who I am already working with or other PR people sharing what they are working on, you can see there’s so much new music out there—and you think, “Oh my God, jazz is completely alive and well. Look at all these new artists who are doing creative things!”
I think if all that continues, that more and more jazz from outside the usual styles and places, then people will see the forward-thinking future of this music.
Your client list is so diverse and far-reaching. How did that develop, and what about it makes you the proudest?
We’ve got a little bit of everything on our roster. I’m very proud to have such a diverse roster—we rep musicians from everywhere in addition to the US: Mexico, Russia, Italy, Hungary, and also artists of all ages, from master musicians in their 70s and 80s to rising stars barely out of college. This year alone, LLP has represented a number of contemporary jazz recordings including Lakecia Benjamin’s Pursuance: The Coltranes and Regina Carter’s Swing States. We’ve done world-music infused albums like Michael Olatuja’s Lagos Pepper Soup and Latin jazz albums by Gonzalo Rubacalba and Aymée Nuviola, Viento y Tiempo, and Spanish Harlem Orchestra’s The Latin Jazz Project. We worked almost one hundred projects this year, and I’m proud to say they’re all very different.
We’ve been able to expand quite a bit in the past year thanks to Niamh White, my brilliant operations manager and UK representative. After working with me in the States for a few years, she moved to the UK where she’s been doing a stellar job building up our profile. Also last year, my husband Willy Rodriguez started officially working with me, and he handles all of our Latin offerings and works with the Spanish speaking press.
I also work with a lot of female instrumentalists and vocalists and I’m very proud of that. I really try to advocate for the women I work with and it’s important that my roster reflects that. One of my goals is to ensure that women and those who identify as a female, are given an equal platform for coverage, and to ensure that they are covered fairly. There’s a lot of sexism in jazz, and a lot of it isn’t blatant. It could be a throwaway line in a review that singles out their gender, or it could be that they’re given interview questions about clothes and shoes in an article that has nothing do with style, questions no man would ever be asked.
To name drop, some of the artists I’ve had the pleasure of working with over the years include: Ralph Peterson, Brain Lynch, Catherine Russell, Brandee Younger, Charles McPherson, Matt Ulery, Pacific Mambo Orchestra, Roxy Coss, Walter Smith III, Matt Stevens, Teodross Avery, Brianna Thomas, Lauren Henderson, Geof Bradfield and the late Wallace Roney, among others. I really love my clients – they’re the best people.
Is it OK to ask about your family, how Dave and your mom Caris are doing?
My parents are doing well, all things considered. I see them a lot because now we live in the same building. They moved back to Manhattan late last year. Of course, my dad was one of my first guinea pigs. These days I work a number of his new releases and am his publicist by default. I’m very happy to have gotten him some nice coverage in the last year especially.
I think my parents are pretty stunned with what I’ve done and that I’m making a living off of it. I think they probably assumed I’d be involved in jazz in one way or another, but jazz PR – I don’t think they envisioned that. I know they’re very proud of me, and they’re my first call when something exciting happens. They’re the best parents! They helped me out when I was finding my footing in New York early on, and they were an open ear for me to bounce ideas off of. Knowing they were in my corner really helped me develop the confidence I needed when running this business.
My husband and I got married a little over two years ago, and we’ve been together ten years. Willy has been the best partner I could ask for because he knew from the beginning that my business was a major priority for me and we were on the same page about what we wanted. Willy is first and foremost a musician, but when business started really picking up it became clear I needed help, so he found a way to split his time between LLP and practicing and playing. It works for us, and I feel incredibly lucky to have found someone like him.
A tough question: with the pandemic upon us, what are the most challenging things you see for jazz, now and in the near future ?
Honestly, I am probably not in right state of mind for this question at the moment, and I don’t want to leave a negative impression. I’m too overwhelmed by the details of the moment to come up with an inspiring answer to this. I’m writing this with the election just a few days away. I miss live music terribly and I miss the “hang” every day. I feel like all I do is work, since there’s not much to break it up and that mindset comes with its own set of challenges. Ask me again in a few weeks, OK?