BURBANK — Have you seen those bumper stickers that have four or five notes of music, then the words, If you can read this, thank a music teacher ?
Bassist John Leitham, a native of Phila delphia, knows a music teacher to whom he owes a debt of gratitude. He studied with a man named Al Stauffer for just a year, in 1975, but what a year it was.
Stauffer, who died earlier this year, was not known outside Philadelphia, Leitham said. But "he was the most influential man I ever met," the bassist said. "He changed my life.
"Before I met him, I was rambunctious, a wild guy, playing with rock bands and living the life of wine, women and song, literally," said Leitham, 40, who leads his trio Wednesday at Chadney's in Burbank.
"And some of those songs, which were on the Top 40, left a lot to be desired," he said, chuckling.
Stauffer "gave me direction, taught me how to practice, made me learn about music, made me a musician," Leitham recalled. "I have much more of a purpose because of Al. I am just constantly trying to improve as a player, and a person, seeing everything I do as a learning situation."
Leitham, who moved to Southern California in the early '80s, lives in Studio City with his wife of 11 years, Victoria, an interactive-media specialist.
He said he got another unexpected benefit from studying with Stauffer: He discovered acoustic mainstream jazz, now his favorite music.
"He introduced me to people like Oscar Peterson and Ray Brown," said Leitham, referring to the redoubtable pianist and bassist. "That music is so appealing. It becomes an obsession when it calls to you."
Leitham remembers exactly when he got his call. It was during his year with Stauffer when he bought an album by the Peterson trio called "Affinity."
"I bought it for 99 cents at Woolworth's," he said with more than a trace of enthusiasm in his voice. "And on the first tune, 'Waltz for Debby,' it was like they were flying. When you hear people groove like that, it's like the music lifts off the ground. I was thrilled, and it made me want to play that way, just a truly swinging style."
These days, the bassist makes most of his living from acoustic jazz, and has performed and/or recorded with luminaries such as Woody Herman, George Shearing, Ed Shaughnessy, Bob Cooper, Mel Torme and Tommy Tedesco.
He talked about what he feels are the essentials of good jazz, particularly in the rhythm section, with a piano player and drummer. Of utmost importance, he said, was that groove.
"That's when all the musicians are playing together, and there's a definite pulse, which happens when all the players have a good-time feel, when they all feel the tempo of the piece the same way," he said.
"That makes the music sound so much more together. Then you have communication, which allows for real interplay between the players."
Leitham pointed out that a bassist is, first and foremost, a supporting player, which is just fine with him.
"I'm happy with that role," he said. "It's interesting, in that I not only supply rhythm, I supply the harmonic foundation, interacting with the pianist and drummer. A good bass player can glue it all together."
One of Leitham's regular employers is Torme. The two are ardent fans of each other.
The bassist called the singer "a great musician," and in the liner notes for Leitham's debut USA Music Group CD, "Leitham Up," Torme wrote: "The beauty of John's playing is that . . . he's a pulsing, driving basic bassist, whose rock-solid time and full ringing tones kick instrumentalists, big bands and singers alike right up the backside."
At Chadney's, Leitham will work with two of his favorite partners--drummer Roy McCurdy and pianist Shelly Berg--in premiering his second USA CD, "The Southpaw."
The album, he hopes, is indicative of where his career is going, in a gradual upward spiral. He said he's thankful for people like Stauffer, Tedesco and Cooper for their help.
"I have been fortunate to bump into older musicians who have a nurturing way about them, and who inspire me to do better," he said.
WHERE AND WHEN
What: John Leitham's trio at Chadney's, 3000 W. Olive St., Burbank.
Hours: 9 p.m. to 1 a.m. Wednesdays.
Price: No cover, no minimum.
Call: (818) 843-5333.