Thursday 19 December 2013

Interview with Jennifer Leitham

Monika: Today it is my pleasure and honor to interview Jennifer Leitham, an American musician and double bass player, an inspirational and talented woman, subject of an award-winning documentary "I Stand Corrected"(2012), known for her 2006 album “The Real Me”. Hello Jennifer!
Jennifer: Hi Monika, Thank you for asking me to do this interview. I hope that my English will translate in an accurate manner, it can be an inaccurate language.
Monika: How did you start your musical career?
Jennifer: I didn’t have any musicians in my family, but I always was curious about music when I was growing up. The Beatles were probably my first musical influence. I was also intrigued by the music of Vince Guaraldi from the Peanuts holiday cartoons.
My first formal introduction to music came in high school when I joined the chorus. It revealed an aptitude for music and also was a great lesson in ear training. I sang some solos with the Chorale and that brought the attention of some of the rock musicians in my school.
I had always fooled around on a little toy guitar, playing along with my records, mostly melodies and bass lines. That ability translated to electric bass combined with my incredibly high singing voice made me a valuable band member.

I worked in a fast-food restaurant and also a car wash until I had enough money to buy my first electric bass. One of the bands I played in became quite popular and was booked constantly, so I quit college to concentrate on the music. In dealing with my uncomfortable gender situation, music was the only thing in my life that gave me joy. I’ve always followed my heart.
After a while, I realized that I would need to study intensely if I were to have a chance at a career in music. I studied with a private teacher who helped me to get a string bass and he basically taught me the ropes. That was the real beginning of my musical career, I started studying in about 1974. 
Monika: Which project or moment was the turning point in your professional life?
 Jennifer: Careers in music as long as mine are filled with turning points, hopefully, there are still some ahead of me. Some of the important ones so far:
(1) Studying with my first teacher, Al Stauffer, then the mentorship of some of the giants of the bass world. Milt Hinton, George Duvivier, and Slam Stewart all gave me great advice and helped me in my career; (2) Going on the road with Woody Herman in 1981; (3) Moving to California in 1983; (4) Playing for Mel Tormé, beginning in 1987; (5) My transition and subsequent ostracism by most of the music community, leading me to become a solo artist and record “The Real Me” and subsequent projects under my own name; (6) The documentary “I Stand Corrected”.

At Vitello's. Credit by Peter Lonsdale.

Monika: You are a very active live performer. You've played in many places, including Carnegie Hall, The Hollywood Bowl, The Blue Note, Iridium, Small's, and Dizzy’s Club Coca Cola in New York, The Toronto Pride Fest. Do you prefer live performance or studio recording?
Jennifer: I love them both. There is nothing like the feeling of performing in front of an appreciative audience with musicians who are living in every note and listening and creating collectively.
There is also nothing like creating in the studio and being able to control the sound and performance to a highly polished degree.
Monika: You seem to have created a unique bond with your fans. Your 2008 album titled “Left Coast Story” was a collection of direct requests from them…
Jennifer: I always like to perform the material I am going to record for a while before going into the studio. My trio is in that process right now. I wrote some arrangements for music from “West Side Story” back in the early ’90s and my trio had been performing three of those tunes as a suite for some time. People kept clamoring for us to record the suite so I finally raised enough funds to record it and a number of other pieces that had been garnering big responses.
Left Coast Story was quite successful, but nothing I’ve done has ever approached the popularity of “The Real Me”. That’s one of the reasons I made the concert DVD “The Real Me Live”. I am so fortunate to have such a sizeable following. We never play to an empty room.
Monika: Do you often tour in Europe?
Jennifer: I’ve played in Vienna, played in Hungary many times, but I’ve never played in Europe with my own trio. I’ll be playing at the Breda Jazz Festival in the Netherlands in late May 2014, and will also be playing dates in France around that time through the first week in June.
I’ll be coming back to play in Hungary in late June. I post my dates in the Itinerary section of my website and also on my Facebook Fan Page in the Events section. I would love to be able to come to Europe with my trio sometime. It’s been very difficult to find management or booking agents who would take me on as a client.

Credit by Mary Ann Halpin.

Monika: Have you got any new projects in the pipeline?
Jennifer: Yes, I’m planning on starting a fundraiser on Kickstarter in January to help pay for the next CD and hopefully go into the studio late in February.
Planning on an April release if all goes according to plan. I’ve been writing some new tunes and arranging others and incorporating my singing much more. This one will be another CD with my trio and a few extra musicians but in the future 
I’d like to record a solo bass CD and also a Holiday themed CD. I’m the guest artist for a concert by Vox Femina, a fabulous all-women choir, in June here in Los Angeles. I’ve been composing some special material for that one and I’m hoping that we’re able to record it.
Monika: What inspired you to take part in the documentary "I Stand Corrected"(2012)? 
Jennifer: Andrea Meyerson approached me about it back in 2005, it percolated for a while and then we dived into it in 2007. I had written a memoir, but it would be a lot easier to prove that I’d done the things I was claiming by actually showing them on screen.
It is important for Trans people to tell their stories, and I had had a lot of press coverage that was mostly out of my control. Andrea put me at ease in that I felt I could trust her to be accurate and sensitive enough to make it a timeless piece. Trans-related material becomes dated almost instantly; it’s an ever-evolving subject. We wanted to tell a story of a person who is not only trans, but had/has a fairly prominent career, and what the risks were/are in being true to yourself in this day and age. People who see it come away with the realization that we’re no different than anyone else and that we have a lot to offer.
Monika: What is your general view on the present situation of transgender women in American society?
Jennifer: We’ve made a lot of progress since I transitioned in 2001 but there is a long way to go. Groups like GLAAD, NCTE, and TLC have done great work in keeping after the press and the government to make sure that trans people get a fair shake. Unfortunately, there is still a lot of ignorance on the subject.
Most media coverage still projects the seamy or salacious side of the subject, there is very little in the mainstream about the positive aspects. By telling our stories through the internet, and in being open about who we are, (as more and more of us who project a positive, affirming stance are getting coverage in outlets as The Huffington Post, The Advocate, and other more enlightened media outlets), the narrative is changing.

Credit by Bob Barry.

Monika: At the time of your transition did you have any transgender role models that you could follow? What was your knowledge about transgenderism?
Jennifer: I was fortunate to know Angela Morley. She carried herself with such grace and dignity, and she was a consummate musician, composer, orchestrator, you name it. She’s mostly known for her film scoring and symphonic arrangements. She orchestrated for John Williams on his biggest film scores. She also wrote arrangements for Mel Tormé and I met her on a recording date for Mel back in 1994. We spoke a few times. I was so impressed by her in that she kept the focus in her life on her music and talent. She shied from the limelight.
I am nowhere near the talent that she was, and my career is more about live performance, so it was impossible for me to go about transition quietly. In being true to myself I have been far more public, but Angela is the person I looked up to the most.
Back in the ’90s, when I was researching what my possibilities might be, I read Kate Bornstein’s books and stumbled upon Lynn Conway’s and Andrea James’ websites, they were very informative. I also sought counseling at The Los Angeles Gender Center. That was probably my biggest step.
Monika: What was the hardest thing about your coming out?
Jennifer: I didn’t want to hurt my family. I knew that part would be the hardest. In the angst of considering and researching a possible transition, my marriage didn’t survive. It was so very difficult, the loss is what made it so difficult and dark. It’s such a paradox. As you are going through the most joyous, intense self-realization, in your personal life most of the relationships you hold most dearly, are crumbling. At least, that’s how it was in my case.

Monika: Transgender ladies are subject to the terrible test whether they pass as a woman or they do not. You are a lovely lady yourself but what advice you would give to ladies with the fear of not passing as a woman?
Jennifer: Thank you, Monika, I have been most fortunate in that aspect. I really feel bad for people who are facing this dilemma. It makes me so happy for the youngsters these days who are able to get the proper diagnosis and treatment before puberty, they are so beautiful and happy. I think that fear is an emotion that we all share. There are so many kinds of fear. I remember the terror I felt in taking my first few steps out into the daylight. Hopefully, the time will come when there is enough understanding that people won’t care about appearances.
In my early days of being out in public, I went way overboard in trying to be hyper-feminine. Nowadays it just doesn’t matter. Used to be, the harder I tried, the less I felt accepted, now it’s entirely the opposite!
Goodness, I guess the best advice I could give is not to get too stressed about it, but be careful about the spaces that you habituate. If it is an issue that is making you miserable and you have the means, there are surgeries that can help change your appearance. So far I’ve avoided any of those kinds of treatments. In my case, I’ve always studied makeup, and that has been a help, although the older I am, the less I am using it.
Hopefully, it will get better, as more of us are public and people realize that there is no harm, the stigma will fade.

Credit by Maria Brunner Ventura.

Monika: Could you tell me about the importance of love in your life?
Jennifer: It’s important, but I try not to let the presence or absence of a partner dictate my happiness. I am blessed in that I have a large circle of friends who have been and continue to be like family. Slowly but surely my parents have re-entered my life. My cat has been a great mood enhancer, I really love her.
Monika: Do you like fashion? What kind of outfits do you usually wear? Any special fashion designs, colors, or trends?
Jennifer: LOL! Being a musician, my color scheme professionally is usually black, black, or black. I was big into the leggings craze, it’s a great look for playing but seems to have fallen out of fashion. I go with mostly machine washable fabrics when I play, I get very physical if you can catch my drift…
Most of the time I’m very casual, I have lots of jeans… Anyone who has seen “I Stand Corrected” knows of my penchant for Mary Janes, I have a large collection, heels, and flats, but when I play I usually don’t wear heels.
Monika: Playing the double bass must be harmful to your fingers and nails. How do you cope with this?
Jennifer: Well, I never worry about it. My hands are always going to be muscular and calloused. I’d rather have working hands than pretty hands any day! It’s only harmful to my fingers when I don’t practice. As long as I am playing all of the time, they never hurt and they stay intact.

Monika: Many transgender ladies write their memoirs. Have you ever thought about writing such a book yourself?
Jennifer: I already did that! They’re complete up to about 2007. I haven’t really touched it since. It's hard to write about the last few years for some reason. I was working on them a lot when I was playing for Doc Severinsen, it helped pass the time on all of the long flights. I’ve never attempted to get them published.
I’d love to find an author/editor to help me finish, it might be easier if I talked rather than write. I’m not sure if there would be enough interested readers, there are so many transgender autobiographies these days.
Monika: Jennifer, thank you for the interview!
Jennifer: Thank you for asking Monika!

The main photo: credit to Mary Ann Halpin.
All the photos: courtesy of Jennifer Leitham.
© 2013 - Monika Kowalska

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