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Going solo in a man's world

After a lifetime in jazz, bassist Jennifer Leitham is seeing it from across the gender divide.

August 31, 2003|Lynell George | Times Staff Writer

One day not too long ago, bassist John Leitham disappeared. Vanished from the newspaper listings. The program lineups. The list of personnel.

The void he left filled with rumors.

Trombonist Bill Watrous caught wind of one while picking up a few things at his neighborhood Ralphs. A photographer he knew fairly well from the local jazz circuit stopped him. " 'So did you hear about John Leitham?' " went the pitch. " 'Well, he's not exactly John.... "

About the same time, back east, Leitham's close friend guitarist Jimmy Bruno, got a couple of cryptic phone calls from people close to Leitham on the Coast. " 'John is very different now.... He's not going to be the same.' " It all sounded so ominous to Bruno: "I thought maybe he was sick -- a strange disease. Maybe he's gay. I can't believe that! That can't be."

Different versions flew around town, across the country.

By the time Leitham resurfaced -- no longer John, now Jennifer -- those in the jazz world who weren't speechless were filling dead and/or jittery air with jokes and creaky one-liners.

"People we're shocked." It's not something you deal with every day, Bruno says. "There were the typical kind of jokes. 'You don't play bad for a broad.' " Or, from Watrous' arsenal: "Hey, John! Why did you wait so long? You're almost past your prime."

Though it all makes Leitham wince, the 50-year-old musician knew to expect it. She herself will tell you with a shrug, "It's just the way we deal with things. Musicians."

As Leitham sees it, she's jumped out of the boys' club and into the fire. "I gave away my membership," she says. "No question about that."

This veteran, battle-scared musician built her skills with some of the best: Woody Herman, Mel Torme, George Shearing, Peggy Lee, Doc Severinsen. And over time she's garnered props from peers and enthusiastic critical praise. The crowning glory: being dubbed "the left-handed virtuoso of the upright bass" by the late L.A. Times jazz critic Leonard Feather.

But the status she'd long taken for granted has shifted, sometimes discernibly, at other times with a confusing subtlety. The accolades will always trail her, but gone are the winking camaraderie, the back-of-the bus antics, the particular freedom of speaking one's mind unchallenged, the ease of being one of the boys. Whatever she's given up, however, she says it is worth it for the sense of stillness she now feels inside.

And in observing the ripples her change has brought about, Leitham occupies a unique perch. Who better to assess the odd hierarchies and insider practices of the jazz world than one who has seen it from both sides -- as a man, and now as a woman?

The notoriously macho world of straight-ahead jazz has always provided a vivid backdrop for wild, guys-on-the-prowl stories. Particularly in its heady golden years, the jazz scene could be as hospitable as a "no girls allowed" treehouse. There was the girl singer. Maybe the girl pianist. Certainly the girl at the edge of the stage. But add Leitham's twist to the mix and she can only laugh. "I mean, what can you do?"

"I don't carry baggage on stage with me as much. I think I've calmed down a lot as a player. I've let down a lot of barriers. It's nice to be able to put your best foot forward and not feel you are holding something back. Hiding...."

A different feeling

Every day, Leitham says, it's a brand-new world, "in all ways. People smile at me more. Men buy me drinks at clubs and bars. At the airport, they stop and help me with my bass. Now that's never happened before."

The music feels different too. "There are devices that improvisers will follow to help you coast until the muse comes to get you. I find now that I don't need to do that. That muse is there more. I'm in a more relaxed mind-set. A lot of the fear has left me. I don't care what people think. If you screw up, you screw up. It's been said jazz is a series of miraculous recoveries. And you work yourself back out of it."

Jazz is also about spontaneity and freedom. In these post-transition months, connecting with that sense of abandon has become a sort of mantra for Leitham, who finds herself constantly improvising -- thinking fast in ways she hadn't had to before.

Sometimes, post-set, when fans are clustered around Leitham, asking for autographs, peppering her with tech talk, she'll get that question.

Do you have a brother who plays bass?

"Sometimes," Leitham says, "I tell them we share the same DNA. That's all I say. I let it just hang there."

It's one of the many snappy retorts that she's been cultivating since officially transitioning in November 2001 (her sexual reassignment surgery was performed in July 2002), providing the jazz world with a conversation piece -- and, she's observed, 101 chances to put a foot in its mouth.

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