Mel Tormé Would Be Proud of Jazz Great Jennifer Leitham
BY Diane Anderson-Minshall
July 13 2012 4:00 AM ET
One of the best documentaries on the festival circuit this year is I Stand Corrected, lesbian director Andrea Meyerson’s intimate and engaging portrait of Jennifer Leitham, the transgender bass player whose unusual technique and extraordinary talent has made her one of the most recognizable musicians in the jazz world.
Her career actually began decades ago when she was stil known as John Leitham — and her unusual left-handed techniques and passionate earned her a spot on more than 100 jazz recordings and a long gig with Mel Tormé. But after a lifetime of hiding her female identity at home in order to seek musical fame, Leitham couldn’t take it any more and decided to risk it all to start living life as the woman she always knew she was. She found some unlikely allies including The Tonight Show bandleader Doc Severinson. We caught up with both Leitham and Meyerson to talk about the movie, their careers, and what they hope audiences take away.
The Advocate: Jennifer, I love that you play the bass left handed, which most people don’t. Does that affect your music?
Jennifer Leitham: Makes it very difficult to obtain a decent instrument. I’m told I give people vertigo when they watch me play. My teacher used to and now my students relate to me as though I was in a mirror.
Mel Torme' was a huge part of your career, but he passed away before you came out publicly. How do you think he'd react?
Mel’s wife Ali came to one of my trio shows and we spoke about it. She felt that he would have been very accepting. The great composer/orchestrator Angela Morely was one of Mel’s top arrangers. She was the first transgender person I ever met. She gave me hope. Mel was totally accepting of her.
You've played with jazz greats and some of your influences have passed away. Of the people who most influenced you, how many were you able to come out to before they were no longer with us?
I was able to see several of them after I transitioned. Benny Carter and Louis Bellson were so warm and encouraging. Ray Brown told one of my best friends “The hard part is over. Now all she has to do is just play.” I can’t tell you how much that meant to me. Snooky Young was so beautiful about it; he pulled me through some pretty rough stuff. There are others too — so many have left the world in the last few years. Some are still with us, Bill Watrous still calls me to play, as does Ed Shaughnessy. Of course Doc Severinsen was very encouraging during my transition, and was highly supportive when I had some challenges after surgery. I’m very grateful for the wonderful interviews he gave for I Stand Corrected.