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Going solo in a man’s world

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.”

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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.”

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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.”

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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.

“All the men I’ve worked with who knew me before the transition sort of view me more as an oddity than as a woman. For those who didn’t know me as well, the tendency is not to deal with me at all,” says Leitham, preparing dinner in the Pasadena home of her friend Ginger Berglund. Leitham has been calling this sweet bungalow home the last few months, since funds have been slim post-surgery. No gig tonight, she has a little down time before she’ll need to practice -- some Bach cello suites, her own compositions. So she’s making red sauce as the boombox blares an old Stan Getz and Oscar Peterson recording, “I Want to Be Happy.”

Even close friends are sorting through their reactions, people like Bruno, who’s known Leitham since they were teenagers. “I had no idea this was going on. John, I mean ... I have a hard time calling her Jennifer, I won’t say that he was the most macho guy. But he was really determined, really stubborn. Still is. Things have to be perfect. But I never suspected anything like that. I told him, ‘John, now you’re really outside the bar lines!’ Just like the music. I knew he was angry and had a temper. In retrospect, this all makes sense. Gradually it started to seep in. This is not a man. This is a woman in a man’s body. I got used to it. Except when we played.”

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Much of Leitham’s work of late is at once a game of working against being forgotten and striving to be remembered. She has spent months trying to scrub out even the faintest residue of her old self -- down to the gold stickers she affixes to the cover of old CDs that proclaim in red type: “The Artist NOW Known as Jennifer Leitham!!!” But she wants the world to remember who she is as a musician, how she made her name.

It’s an endeavor that keeps her, for the time being anyway, bridging two worlds. “I’m not doing clubs as much. I don’t get called. I’m hoping as people become more familiar with me that that will change.”

It’s early yet. Everyone, including Leitham, is on pins and needles. Much of the time among old friends or bandmates, when she’s not weathering awkward silence -- or worse, suffering as tongues stumble through pronouns (“They always get ‘em all wrong!” she groans), she’s playing teacher. Thus is the new life of Jennifer Jane Leitham.

Leitham has been keeping fans appraised of her progress on her well-tended Web site, which serves both as a calendar of coming events and Web log. She worries, though, about the questions and potential pen pals. “I don’t want to become the Transgender Oracle! Really, all I am is a bass player.”

She’s watched the composition of her concert audience shift since word has trickled out. More and more she will see clusters of souls like herself, mirroring the stages of her own process -- cross-dressing, transitioning, post-surgery. That audience has grown since the Learning Channel documentary “Sex Change,” on sexual reassignment surgery, included her story. “I mean they come up and ask me advice....”

But the constant push to turn her into a role model makes her blush. At bottom, she worries that this gender odyssey might overshadow her skills as a musician -- that her shows will become more camp, looky-loo events than serious jazz sets. “I think my best service as a role model is to just be as good a jazz bass player as I can possibly be.”

As the dinner hour approaches, Berglund breezes in with bags of groceries. Their catch-up conversation turns to gossip -- which drifts into conversation about who gets work and why.

“We’ve had this debate about whether or not her career would be what it is -- or what it was -- if she had started as a woman,” says Berglund, a singer on Southern California’s jazz circuit.

“I think it would have been,” Leitham says as she tosses a salad.

“Watrous says she would have gotten work no matter. You don’t find bass players like that....” The unspoken “but” just hangs. “Being a woman in the jazz world is different. You’re just treated differently,” Berglund continues. “There’s the flirtation. The not taking you as seriously. I think that the opportunities that she was able to take advantage of ... would have been difficult or impossible if you hadn’t been male.”

Leitham simply shrugs. This back and forth is like the well-worn grooves of a familiar song. It’s a circular debate because it is impossible to know for sure how Leitham’s trajectory would have shifted had things been different. Whether she would have survived the jazz world whole -- that is the question

She’s still figuring out the cues and nuances of what it is to be a woman in a man’s world. The differences? “Mostly the guys. They won’t listen to me in a conversation like they used to. If I’m making a point at a rehearsal, trying to bring up a musical point, I get shouted down more often than not. It’s as though my opinion isn’t worth what it was before. I’ve noticed the difference. It’s worth it, though.”

A life in conflict

Born in Philadelphia, Leitham says she always overcompensated for that feeling, that ever-present tug -- outdoors, it was baseball; behind closed doors, “I was dressing in my mom’s clothes. I had no idea that anybody else in the world was doing the same thing I was doing.”

“My earliest waking memories are of thinking I was in the wrong group,” Leitham says. “It was a very abstract thought.”

This inner confusion shadowed Leitham throughout childhood into adolescence, when a debilitating depression set in. But music offered relief. . From teacher Al Stauffer, Leitham got the basics of the string bass down and then graduated into playing with local rehearsal bands who “basically stuck with me until I could figure out how to swing.” The calls came, and that opened the doors to gigs with high-profile locals -- Hank Mobley and Philly Joe Jones and eventually a seat with one of Woody Herman’s Thundering Herds.

While Leitham was caught up in the romance of musician’s life -- the blur of the fast-forward pace, new cities, new influences -- something emerged crystal clear: It was the first realization that being female and being in the jazz world might be mutually exclusive. “I loved to play music so much. I didn’t want to sacrifice that. I didn’t see women playing anywhere at these jobs I was doing. So I pretty much decided to stay secret about it. And I had a secret life.”

For close to 20 years, Leitham lived this split life. There was marriage. There were the beginning blooms of a career that showed great promise, a move to California. Early on, Leitham had cut an impressive figure on the L.A. scene. “He had and ... has great time,” Watrous says. “An incredible sound. Fabulous technique and a very intimate and serious knowledge of the music.” Eventually he was tapped for one-night gig with George Shearing. “I thought it was just going to be a concert with George Shearing and then Mel Torme walks in.” It would be the beginning of six years of work with the singer.

Lost in the music, Leitham found peace. “Gender becomes totally nonexistent. It’s like being within a flock of birds and that telepathic thing ... you turn one way and everybody turns. If you’re thinking about anything else, that kind of thing can’t happen.” Though Leitham had short respites, that pull -- a drone -- just below the surface, became too overwhelming. The line that had for so long divided Leitham’s private life and public life began to blur. Leitham wasn’t dressing up just at home any longer but taking a few clothes on the road and slipping out to clubs, meeting sympathetic people.

Leitham wrestled with what transitioning might mean. “I had terrible fears about how it was going to affect my career financially,” Leitham says, “how my family was going to perceive it.”

Counseling at the L.A. Gender Center and a two-hour conversation with Doc Severinsen, who had been hiring Leitham for his big-band events since Mel Torme’s stroke in 1996, helped provide needed courage. “ ‘Listen,’ I told her,” Severinsen says. “ ‘I hired you because you are a bass player. Whether you are a man or a woman is not the point to me.’ ” Next he sat down with the band: “Now, you’re dealing with 15, 16, 17 older gentleman with varying viewpoints on this. So I tell them, ‘It’s in effect the same person, the same bass player. There are no two ways about it. You have to accept it.’ ”

Like so much else in a musician’s life, you learn acceptance on the fly.

“When she came back to Philadelphia to do this clinic,” Bruno recalls, “I picked this person up at the airport: Beautiful girl with this big bass. ‘John?’ This was this guy I knew. Virtuoso bass player. My best buddy bass player, John? No. Jennifer. It was a shock. He told me all of the mental trips he’d gone through. I said: ‘Hey, John, you’re still my friend.’ But when we play together, you don’t really look at her. There’s John, but it’s Jennifer. It’s like hearing someone’s voice coming out of a different body.”

They still wrangle about it. “She’ll ask, ‘When will you accept me as a woman?’ I just have to stop her and say, ‘Hey! You’ve been at this 25 years, I’ve only had a year to get used to it,’ ” Bruno says. “It made her laugh. The anger is gone. It’s still John. But it is the real John -- still very opinionated and strong. I just don’t know how she covered that misery for so long.”

Leitham wonders too. “For the very first time in my life, there is not a dichotomy about how I perceive myself. I’d achieved quite a bit in music, but I don’t think before I had quite the same focus as I do now.”

Already that is loud and clear. “My feeling is that any woman -- anyone -- that plays like that is going to work,” Watrous says, “even if she was an orangutan. She’s going to work. To me it is the same individual, playing the same notes. It’s a personal choice to do that, and it is none of my business. She may even work more now.”

A resonant existence

The ghost of John Leitham stops by occasionally, mostly arriving just at show time. He shows up in ways as deep-seated as those old perfectionist jitters and as obvious as an announcer flubbing an intro: “Welcome, the John Leitham Trio.” Which is what happens on this evening at the Jazz Bakery. Leitham walks out purposefully, her long, red hair flapping behind her, and gives all a dose from her own wisecrack arsenal: “Who am I? ... " And then she sails into a set sprinkled with standards, show tunes, bop and pop. One moment her attack is full, round and burnished, a loose swinging stride; the next, more abstract, adrift in a minor key. She dances with the bass, glances up with a bemused “How did we get here?” look.

Midset, she leans her bass against her hip, out of the way for a moment, so she can tell a story: “I’m going to play a song that I wrote and dedicated to my surgeon, Dr. Alter ...” Chuckles build to full laughter. “That’s not a joke. That’s really his name. Sometimes life pens something more interesting,” she pauses, drawing out the moment.

“Life is full of resonances that won’t go away. I sort of wrote a tune with a harmony that won’t go away ... and I call it ‘The Altered Blues.’ ” Leitham leans in, her long fingers work up and down the neck. There is a drone, right under the melody -- thudding, dissonant -- Leitham tucks herself into it, her face placid, going with the flow.


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