Jennifer Leitham started her career & life as John Leitham. Although a right-handed person, he had begun his musicianship as a left-handed bass player, crafting his style after Paul McCartney of the Beatles. A coincidental portrayal of truly being one thing but assimilating yourself according to an outside world to become another.
An up & coming bassist in the Philadelphia area, John worked his way up to joining Woody Herman’s band for a national tour. The jazz world opened up for John from that point on; he went on to play & record with jazz giants Mel Torme’, Doc Severinsen, Gerry Mulligan, Peggy Lee, Louie Bellson, Bill Watrous, Joe Pass, and the Benny Carter Quintet among others. After a lifelong struggle with gender identity issues, John made the transition to Jennifer Jane Leitham in 2001, risking this amazing career. You’d be hard-pressed to name an American jazz music festival Jennifer hasn’t appeared at. This summer she played the Playboy Jazz Festival at the Hollywood Bowl, her trio at the Mammoth Lakes Jazz Festival and the Sweet and Hot Festival in L.A., Sacramento Jazz Festival as a featured musician in the All-Star Players sessions, was featured on San Diego’s KSDS Jazz Live broadcast, and is preparing to tour for the Winter of 2008. Jennifer also has recently been interviewed by Worcester’s own The Radical Guy at internet site http://radicalguy.podomatic.com/
As a measure of reclamation, Jennifer has re-recorded several of her previously released songs on her 2006 record; the CD is appropriately titled The Real Me. Songs like Altered Blues and Split Brain are an interpretation of Jennifer’s journey through gender variance. The following excerpt written for her tune Split Brain cleverly abridges her experiences; Why did the one side want to dominate/ Why did the other hide, in plain sight/ I knew it wasn’t a choice, I didn’t hesitate/ Just to make it all one, the deed was no fun, to make it all right. But I was the only one to see it all from the start/ Kept it inside, went for the ride/ Didn’t know why, in my heart/ You came, and we decided just to put it away and pretend it was a game. It wasn’t cool to bend the rule and go to school to learn that life isn’t in your name. Now that the nexus is behind me/ I take no joy in losses made/ They’re gone but now it’s a whole new world of wonder/ You know the mind is the key, the happiness free, there’s no one to blame. It’s not a wonder why you’ll find several butterfly references on The Real Me celebrating her change into natural beauty and freedom. Jennifer has also released her eighth CD this summer entitled Left Coast Story which includes the long awaited recording of her West Side Story “trilogy” and a clever New Grass treatment of her hit Studio City Stomp (see our review).
BGG: Can you play the bass right-handed? When you were first learning it, did you ever try?
JL: No, I’m spastic as a right handed bassist. I never realized I was going to be a string bass player when I was starting out; it happened by accident, really. I was playing in a talent show in the 4th grade – goofing around mimicking the Beatles. I was supposed to be Paul. Paul played electric bass left handed so I held this mock guitar left handed.
From that point on whenever I picked up a guitar it just felt right left handed. The other way didn’t feel good. I never considered I was going to become proficient at that time.
BGG: You mentioned you were a singer in a garage band. At what point did you decide to study music?
JL: I actually sang in my High School choir and always wanted to be a musician - probably a drummer. I was always banging out rhythms on things. My parents were not always that encouraging about that fact. At that time I had developed a knack for playing this little toy guitar in my bedroom. I spent hours and hours with my guitar and records, it kept me busy to the point where I didn’t think about gender issues. I just felt musical and had a pretty decent singing voice so I started to get the basic elements of music while I was learning to be a choir singer.
Eventually I started to sing some of the solos & more of the “exposed”
parts; people started to notice my voice. So when I first played in bands, it was more because I could sing than that I could play. I was about 17 when I got my first instrument. I used to skip school to go work in a carwash across town & worked at a fast food restaurant at night. Before long, I saved enough money to buy my first instrument; a Kalamazoo made by Gibson. It looked like a Fender bass – it even had a Humbucking pickup.
BGG: Was that a left-handed bass?
JL: No! Actually I flipped it around & played it upside down. I reversed the strings – I played it properly left-handed. But it looked kinda goofy!
BGG: So what prompted you to go from singer to bass player?
JL: Well, I thought playing the bass would be easy - you know – you just play one note at a time, no chords or anything (laughs). OK- I’m just being facetious! But really – here’s a kid with not much musical training and I could sit with my records and figure out the bass lines they were playing in groups like Led Zeppelin, Cream, the Who, Jimi Hendrix – the bass parts were pretty simplistic. I could figure them out and play them on this electric bass. A lot of it was playing in patterns so you’d just play the pattern and be able to sing – not worry so much about what you’re doing with the instrument. I never really considered “being a real professional musician was going to require training” – I just thought this is a simple way to be a more valuable band member. But the band I played with got better & better and the stakes got higher.
The pop music of the day got more sophisticated. When I first started playing in garage bands it was the earliest heavy metal; blues based stuff. It was great and I still love a lot of that stuff. But then I got into a commercial band, was able to quit my job because I was actually being paid to play music. Then this one band I was in got into the “art rock” of the day. Like Gentle Giant, YES, E.L.P. – it got more and more complicated. I didn’t have the dexterity required for some of this stuff and didn’t know how to get it. So I figured I better start taking lessons. That’s when the bug really bit me. And this is also when what the mental health people consider “Gender Dysphoria” started to hit me in a much bigger way. At least my gender difference was coming to the forefront to the point where I needed to express it. And I finally learned enough about it where I could let my hair down in front of people. What was interesting is that right around this time David Bowie was becoming a big thing. So was the commercial band I was in – it was real vogue to wear make up & glitter. A lot of the guys were wearing platform shoes. I never liked the clunky platform shoes so I bought myself a pair of go-go boots, a girl’s top and hip-hugger bell bottoms.
The wildest thing was that girls dug this! It was the craziest period of my life as far as my sex life goes. I met some girls because of this who were kind enough to just let me be one of their tribe for awhile… these were my first forays out in public.
BGG: So you started taking the music show to a whole different level.
JL: It was getting around that I was having this double life & I wasn’t functioning very well. The band basically fired me. And I purged at that point; anybody that goes through what I have often tries to deny it or keep it under wraps. I threw everything away. I swore to myself that I would never let those behaviors take over my life again. Some people join the military at that point, others try and find the most masculine thing they can in order to deflect attention. There was so much shame and humiliation attached to gender variance in those days. Fortunately I didn’t go to those extremes! I went back to work at the fast food restaurant & studied music for awhile. I didn’t play a gig for close to
2 years. During that period I met my string bass teacher Al Stauffer; he taught right next to the waiting room of my electric bass teacher’s studio upstairs. I listened to him and got so inspired by his teaching methods. And I thought if I took some string bass lessons it’d make me a better electric bass player. He was a veteran player and phenomenal teacher; quite a few of his students have gone on to have pretty decent careers. He taught improvisation and I was fortunate to get a classical background for technique.
BGG: Were you studying jazz with him?
JL: Oh yes. He was a jazz bass player –he’d played with Bud Powell and a lot of famous people as they came to Philly.
BGG: Who are your biggest bass influences?
JL: It’s difficult to whittle it down to just a few people, there have been many. There’s a long line of bassists who’ve been innovators and classic practitioners. Jimmy Blanton was one of the first to modernize the instrument, he influenced all who followed. I’ve probably listened more to Ray Brown than any as far as people who’ve recorded. Oscar Pettiford, too. There are literally hundreds of players who I admire and have learned from.
BGG: How about vocal influences?
JL: Oh my goodness –that’s a hard one. There’ve been a lot of those, too! I worked for Mel Torme for 10 years; there’s no way I couldn’t have been influenced by him. I don’t know that I’d ever be able to sing as well as he did! I certainly emulate his dedication and preparation.
There are so many. I’ve worked with so many - Maureen McGovern; I don’t know if I could ever be as precise as she. Of course Ella Fitzgerald, Sara Vaughn, Carmen McRae - all the great jazz vocalists – I’ve played for or have been around a lot of them. I’ve also been influenced by many other types of singers – Joni Mitchell is a huge influence. Emily Sailers of the Indigo Girls – I love how her personality comes through her voice. It’s all raw musicality – they all affect the way I sing. My choral teacher, my friend Keni Bothwell of the Milwaukee Symphony Chorus has helped me a lot with technique. I would leave hundreds of people out if I really tried to answer either of these questions.
BGG: Besides talent & hardwork, what paths did you choose that allowed you to take your musical career to the incredible level it is at?
JL: I think it was meeting my bass teacher Al Stauffer; I owe pretty much everything I am to Al. A lot of conscientious musicians would say that – they have a private teacher somewhere along the way that shows them how it’s done. Al convinced me if I did the work he gave me it was going to lead to something. Trusting in his teaching. Al really taught me there is no magic bullet; you get proper instruction to guide you in the most efficient manner possible and you follow that path. No higher body can make you a player – it’s up to you to become the player and basically teach yourself. Because of that, during those 2 years I worked that regular job and practiced all night. After that I got to quit that day job and started to work- started to play shows. I became a lunch-pail professional musician; you punch the clock, you read the show… the whole time I was doing that I was learning improvisation in jazz and my skill level kept coming up and up. Within four years of picking up string bass I was playing in Woody Herman’s band. Before then I’d play in pit bands and do shows – one of the guys in the band who’d come and play weekends was a contractor who booked musicians for Buddy Rich. He asked me if I was interested but I was scared to death I’d be found out if I went on a bus tour with a bunch of guys so I said no.
About 2 years later I got asked to play in Woody Herman’s band. By this time I was fully flourishing in my home life as myself. I’d met my ex and was able to live the life at home. I just thought “I can just bottle this up- I’ve learned how to turn it on and off.”
BGG: Was that true?
JL: No – but I thought so at the time. No, you can’t turn it off – that’
s the point. So I did accept that gig and I went out with Woody for six months. That then opened up a wider world for me – we played the Playboy Jazz Festival in L.A. And that convinced me that maybe L.A. would be a place that we could be happy. Anyway, I met a few of the famous players like Stan Getz who were saying how good I was. I thought, “well maybe I can make it out here.”
BGG: You’ve played everywhere from the Hollywood Bowl to Carnegie Hall; what is your favorite venue?
JL: Of all of the halls, I’d say the Ambassador Auditorium in Pasadena.
That room has warm natural acoustics. When you play with a drummer and there’s ride cymbals it’s difficult in some of these halls – Carnegie Hall is a very bright sounding room – it’s difficult for a drummer to play tastefully and not bury the band. The Ambassador was perfect for a trio with Mel (Torme’) – piano/ bass/ drums/ voice. No monitors on stage. There’s one in Edmonton, Alberta called Winshear Centre which is interesting because they fine tune the room by changing the shape of the room with panels. I’ve played a lot of really great venues though – it’s hard. Suntory Hall in Japan – goodness there are so many. Probably the most meaningful for me was playing The Academy of Music in Philadelphia.
I had moved to LA and had been on the road and made a few records with Mel Torme’. At that point, I was returning home to Philadelphia and playing at the most hallowed musical venue possible. My teacher Al was there, my friend Jimmy Bruno. We tore it up that night and I was so proud.
BGG: You played the Playboy Jazz Festival this summer. How was it returning to the Hollywood Bowl?
JL: It was very surreal. I've played at the Bowl many times, the last time was for Mel Torme's memorial concert in 1999. I remember walking to the edge of the stage after our performance and thinking to myself that it might be the last time I ever would play there. I was planning to transition and was very pessimistic about my chances of acceptance in the Jazz world. Now there I was, almost a decade later returning to that stage for the first time in my true gender, playing with a big band populated by female musicians like myself. A lot of the producer types and backstage people are still there, they all remembered me and were very cordial.
Best of all was getting to hang out a little with Bill Cosby. He remembered me from my very first Playboy Jazz Festival performance back in 1981 when I played for Woody Herman. His son liked the way I played, and being left handed, convinced his dad that it would be OK for him to play the bass left handed too. He likes to remind me of the hassle he went through trying to find a left handed bass for his son. We talked as though nothing was different about me. I will always remember him for that kindness.
BGG: How did you get involved with the California State University Long Beach studio staff?
JL: They asked me, I didn’t seek it out. Frankly I was surprised anyone would give me a fair chance- I’d been burned a bit in some music education circles after transitioning. At one time I was a fairly active clinician. CSULB has been enlightened enough to view me as an asset; I have many years of teaching and professional experience. I am teaching the string bass and electric bass, carrying on the tradition of my bass teacher and others who’ve helped me along the way. During the twenty years I’d played with Mel (Torme’) and Doc Severinsen, I was playing a lot with symphony orchestras. I’ve played with most of the major symphony orchestras in North America. I would befriend the bass sections – usually they are friendly and curious about the left handed bass playing. I got to know a few of the orchestra bassists quite well – I would take lessons with them; they would help me with my classical technique & I’d help them with improvisation. Some of their technical exercises work really well no matter what kind of music you’re playing.
I’ve invented a lot of my own technical exercises as well to help cement proper arch & span.
BGG: Are you accepting new students for private instruction at this time?
JL: Yes I am. I am teaching a lot right now.
BGG: How long have you been playing with Josh Nelson & Randy Drake?
JL: Randy and I have been playing since 1986. I’d been in town for 3-4 years here in LA. We both were playing with trombonist Bill Watrous. The two of us still play with Bill today; he and Jack Sheldon are some of the few old school guys that have hung on with me during my transition and didn’t forsake me. Randy and I know each other’s playing very well – we go back far. I love his whole approach. I was playing at Ernie Watt’s wedding about 5 years ago– he had hired Josh and his trio and I sat in.
I dug his playing a lot, he’s young but plays with a seasoning that’s rare for any age. I started scouting him at a couple of his gigs to listen to him to get a sense of his musical personality. We played together about 2 years before we recorded The Real Me. That is one of the reasons I re-recorded Turkish Bizarre; because of how they play that song – their approach is so hot.
BGG: The bass is typically a support instrument, not a lead instrument. You eventually plan to release a bass solo record. Keni’s Song on The Real Me is a perfect example on why this record will be a success. How does one write an infectious, catchy melody like that on a support instrument? Can you disclose your approach on crafting songs for bass only?
JL: I think any jazz musician’s goal is to have your music reflect who you are; to have a sound that’s identifiable to who you are. I sometimes take exception to some of the music education in that it turns out homogenized musicians. My teacher’s beautiful methodology left it up to me to develop my own identity on the instrument. I think having lived my life like this – everything I do is atypical of the normal human being.
I’ve just always done what called to me. I kind of just let it go where it goes. I’ve done tons of mechanical preparation to get it there. It’s lead me into some real interesting areas – I may be re-inventing the wheel at some times but it’s who I am. Thinking about how it should be done – believe me I’ve learned the traditional role of the bass and can play styles as well as anybody. I’ve made a living playing behind all sorts of acts & artists. But when I am creating on the instrument I just try to let it be – to just let go. The whole goal is to become the notes. You want your being to float on every note you play. I never think about the instrument, it’s hopefully about the music that flows through us.
Note: A portion of this interview was conducted shortly before the recording of Left Coast Story which was released late Summer 2008.
BGG: Can you tell us about your latest release Left Coast Story?
JL: I have picked out the tunes and the players; I’m just considering which studio to do it in. I am leaning toward the same studio where we recorded “The Real Me”. I have someone that’s willing to back half the cost – I make my records with my own money. It’s important to plot it all out before you go into the studio.
BGG: Will there be new originals recorded?
JL: I may do one original but this time it will be focused more on the arrangements I’ve been writing. I’ve gotten oodles of requests for the West Side Story trilogy that we do. I’ve written arrangements for that whole show but I don’t think I’d want to put out a West Side Story record. It’s a daunting thing in the jazz world to do a West Side Story jazz treatment because you get compared to Oscar Peterson’s version. It’
s hard to imagine anyone doing it better than that. I have an elaborate arrangement of Henry Mancini’s Dreamsville where I change the meter. I want to do some more vocals -I’ll put some of my torchy ballads on there. Not sure exactly what tunes I’ll sing yet. I may do a vocal version of the Studio City Stomp. I don’t know if I can pull this off but I’m thinking of a “New Grass” version of it. I really like this new fusion of bluegrass– like Edgar Meyer, Bela Fleck, Nickel Creek, Allison Krause. I think Studio City Stomp would lend itself to that kind of treatment.
BGG: How do you approach revealing your true identity to the jazz society you’ve been a member of for so long? What challenges/prejudices did you experience during your transition?
JL: It’s not easy. You put one foot in front of the other. When one transitions, you have to notify people about what’s going to happen. At the time of my transition, I was under contract for a couple of jazz festivals. I had to write them stating my name & gender change. I tried to put it in a good light and explain I feel really good about this- I had pictures done trying to show me as normal. No one reneged but I’m sure it was a shock. I played, the audiences couldn’t have been nicer and more appreciative, but in most cases I didn’t get asked to come back. When I first came out, that’s when the media wanted to talk to me because there was of course a lot of angst involved. The media likes to talk to you about your angst. Not when it’s all happy and good. There was a big public splash at first. LA Times did a piece about me. A stupid wire service piece went out, later there was a nice Hollywood Reporter article. But it was difficult for a lot of people, including me. Unfortunately the jazz world can be a macho place – I hate to say that because you’d think it’d be real creative… Mind you not everyone is like that. I don’t want to paint everyone with one brush. I hate it when they do that to me and “my community.” I don’t know how it will all play out. I transitioned almost seven years ago and there are still many patrons and musicians in the Jazz world who are totally uncomfortable being around me. I’ve been carving out my own niche of musicians and fans who are positive about everything. More and more I’ve stopped caring about whether or not I’m being accepted in the Jazz world. There were lots of people that were real positive through it. However, I just wish there had been more of them.
BGG: Did you ever feel you might have had to choose between maintaining your music career vs. undergoing your transition? Did your position as a well known jazz artist hinder your decision to transition your gender?
JL: That’s what took me so long! It’s easy to look back and say I would have done this or that differently. But I was afraid – scared to death that I wouldn’t be able to make a living. In some ways I’m not, at least not like I did before. A lot of what I was afraid of has come true. I’m not stupid; I do know there’s a lot of ignorance, I won’t say prejudice but ignorance about the subject. A lot of people are afraid of things they are not familiar with. When I finally made the decision to go ahead with the transition, I reached a point where I was willing to give up my career. And mind you playing the bass is every bit as important to me as my gender identity.
BGG: Was any change to your vocal quality in making the physical transition a concern?
JL: There really has been no change to my vocal quality. Surgery and hormones don’t affect the vocal chords. After the rock and roll period I never sang again. I sang at home but not in front of people because my voice was really high. My voice is a lot lower now than it was then. I had a late puberty and my voice didn’t change until I was 25. I was like a falsetto or a castrato. I’m an alto now but I was a soprano back then.
That’s why I was a valuable band member – I could sing those high harmonies. So I got embarrassed by this – you get these waves of paranoia like “I hope they don’t find out I’m a girl” – that’s kind of how you feel and you can’t let them know. You develop these techniques to deflect attention away from it. I artificially tried to lower my voice, spoke from deep in my chest cavity. But it was always a struggle. You’re always present about it – it’s always there. You grow up with it. I couldn’t hide it when I sang. That’s the reason I stopped singing.
Having moved in with my friend Ginger after my marriage fell apart – she’s a singer and we would sing at home all the time. She convinced me I could sing again. At first I was trying to sound like a girl (after my transition). You know, like a Marilyn Monroe breathy whisper. It was just as hard as trying to sound artificially masculine! (laughs) I eventually started to sing more with my full voice. I just am, you know? The more I sing naturally the more acceptable I am. People don’t question the gender of my voice.
BGG: Your sense of humor really shines through your music. Do you find it helped you during your transition period?JL: It was essential. It was the only way I got through it. You have to have a sense of humor because it’s your first line of communication with people; to let them know “hey this is alright – it’s OK to be uncomfortable with this.” I don’t mean to make myself into a clown but there are some really funny situations that can come out of this.
BGG: Can you tell us about the book you’re writing?
JL: When the flood of Email arrived after the first showing of the documentary that I appeared in for TLC, many of them were exhorting me to write a book about my experiences. I started jotting down a memoir on my computer to pass the time during all of the airplane travel during my tenure with Doc Severinsen. I'm not an author, and wasn't really sure if it would ever see the light of day, but it was somewhat therapeutic to try and jar my memory after all of the anesthesia I had been through.
A couple of years ago The Hollywood Reporter did a nice feature about me and it brought some interest from a film producer interested in doing a film based on my story. He's the only one to read a nearly completed version of it and together we wrote a short treatment in order to pitch the idea for a film.
There have been some nibbles but I'm sorry to say that there have been no firm offers. I'm beginning to wonder if there would be enough interest anyway. The whole transgender subject has been much more common in the media and entertainment world since my transition.
I haven't completely given up on the idea of putting a book out there, but I haven't brought it to a finished stage as of now.
BGG: Are you planning a tour for the new release Left Coast Story?
JL: I'll be playing in the Northeast in December and early January. I'm still filling in some dates but the cornerstone of the trip is during Christmas week at Dizzy's Club Coca Cola at Lincoln Center in New York City. It's probably the most prestigious jazz club in America!
I'll be playing with my New York trio, John DiMartino on piano, and Sherrie Maricle, (the leader of DIVA), on drums. We're playing the late set (11pm) on December, 22,23,24,27,and 28th. I'm also playing a concert at Proline Music in Fairless Hills, Pa. on January 3rd.
BGG: It’s been 6 1/2 years since your transition; how settled are you with your identity and your life?
JL: I feel great!! Anybody that goes through the process of having sexual reassignment or realignment or whatever they call it these days has to either go through the surgery and get a hormone regiment that works really well or be able to come to a peaceful acceptance of their gender identity, whatever that might be. I’ve always felt that I have had endocrine issues; going through surgery and taking hormones have taken me to a place where I’ve never felt better in my life healthwise.
What is hard is in the way other people relate to you. When I’m out with people who don’t know what I’ve been through, it’s perfectly natural and normal. It’s fun! All the people who knew me before – the vast majority – are cordial, are friendly, are nice to me but for whatever reason don’t seek me out very often. It’s lonely. That’s difficult because I’ve lost relationships of people I have really loved and admired. That’s the most difficult thing – it’s not that I’m transgender or what I’ve been through for my sexual reassignment. It’s the loss that’s the most difficult thing. Trying not to dwell on the loss is the biggest challenge someone like me faces. There are a lot of people who change their names and looks - you can change yourself to the point where no one recognizes you. They may move to another state, take a different job, make a whole new world. Maybe for someone like that it might be a little easier to live in what we call stealth mode. Maybe the relief of living in stealth would be worth the loss but I don’t think it’s worth the paranoia. I want to reiterate I have no lament and would do it all again in a heartbeat. I have no regrets. And my own sense of well being?
I feel better than ever and although I’m not at the level I want to be, I think I’m playing better than ever.