A few weeks ago I put on the newly released CD of Marian McPartland's interview with Steely Dan from her Piano Jazz show. McPartland introduced the group's two members, Walter Becker and Donald Fagen, and then moved on to their rhythm section. Jay Leonhart was on bass.
A few days later, I was going through the arts section of the New York Times. In a photograph of a cabaret singer the figure in the background seemed familiar. It was Jay Leonhart with his bass.
Leonhart doesn't just seem to be everywhere; he is everywhere. Aside from the hundreds of albums he's been on, he's in demand for gigs with players like Bill Charlap, one of the hottest pianists in jazz, and Eddie Higgins, a Chicago pianist who he just accompanied to Japan.
When I tried to reach Leonhart for an interview recently it was almost impossible to catch him by phone, because he was running from one gig to another.
He said he'd try to call during a break from backing Les Paul, the 95-year-old guitar legend, at Paul's weekly gig at Iridium, a Manhattan nightclub. When he finally did call it was eight in the morning the next day and he was at a train station heading for another gig.
"In about a minute we're gonna have to stop talking because a train is about to go by," says Leonhart. Sure enough, I heard the zooming sound. But Leonhart seemed to be moving just as fast.
I wondered how he even got from one gig to another with his giant double bass.
"New York has a lot of these little trains that go underground. I don't like to take a taxi because you have to put the neck out the window. Sometimes I put the wheels down and walk it."
Growing up in Baltimore, Leonhart admired the great bassist Ray Brown. He was single-minded about his ambition: "My goal in life was to be a good bass player. That was it." He went to New York as a young man and four decades later he's at the top of the heap.
"When you've worked for 40 years, people move up in the ranks," he says. "You eventually become a senior player and you get a lot of the good gigs. You learn how to be a sideman --- be quiet and do your job."
Leonhart is one of the most successful session musicians playing today. Chances are he's on several albums in your collection. He's recorded with everyone from Gerry Mulligan and Louis Belson to Linda Ronstadt and James Taylor.
But when he appears at the Swing 'n Jazz festival the first weekend in June, Leonhart will give the audience a taste of what happens when he steps out front.
Leonhart has led his own bands over the decades; since 1983 he's recorded over a dozen albums as a leader. But he's perhaps best known for his one-man show, The Bass Lesson.
"The premise is that I'm going in to teach everybody to play the bass," says Leonhart. "When I see that they don't have their basses, I make it about the history of the bass. It's all tongue-in-cheek. I can take it anywhere and I do."
Leonhart proceeds to play "It's Impossible to Play the Bass and Sing" and other tunes he's written about his career. He possesses a dry wit that has drawn comparisons to Ben Sidran, Mose Allison, Bob Dorough, and Dave Frishberg.
"I write the kind of stuff that I would like to hear if I was in a club," says Leonhart, who has performed the show off-Broadway.He currently performs it on the road a couple of weekends each month. The small sample of the show Leonhart does at Swing 'n Jazz --- he's performed it at least five years --- is an audience pleaser each time.
But there's more to Leonhart than funny songs. He recently wrote lyrics to Tommy Flanagan's "Bluebird," a well-known jazz tune. It was promptly recorded by Karrin Allyson. Recent sideman gigs have included working on a tribute to Rosemary Clooney by Clooney's daughter-in-law Debbie "You Light Up My Life" Boone.
When pop singers like Boone attempt to crossover to jazz, Leonhart often gets the call. He's recorded albums of standards with Linda Ronstadt and Carly Simon and recently turned down Rod Stewart.
Leonhart's ability to fit into just about any situation makes him an ideal participant in Swing 'n Jazz. The festival's events are built around three wonderful jam sessions by musicians good enough to call a tune and jump right in.
It all benefits The Commission Project, which brings composers to schools to work with students and inspire them to make high-quality music a part of their lives. That's something for which Leonhart is happy to take time out of his busy schedule.
Plus, "it's like a little vacation," he says. And if anybody can use a vacation, it's Leonhart.
Swing 'n Jazz events
Trombonists' Night Out: 7:30 p.m. Friday, June 3, Country Club of Rochester. Fred Wesley, Keter Betts, Evan Dobbins, Nick Finzer, Phil Flanigan, Dave Gibson, Sean Joseph, Bob Kalwas, John Marcellus, Bob Sneider, Akira Tana, Rich Thompson, and Brian Zimmer. SOLD OUT!
Gala Jam Session: 8 p.m. Saturday, June 4, Hochstein Performance Hall, 50 North Plymouth Avenue. Fred Wesley, Carl Atkins, Keter Betts, Phil Flanigan, Dave Gibson, Mike Holober, Mike Kaupa, Paul Smoker, Marvin Stamm, John Sneider, Jay Leonhart, Akira Tana, Bob Sneider, Rich Thompson, and Steve Wieranga. Tix: $50 VIP; $20 general; $15 students. Ticketmaster: 232-1900 or ticketmaster.com
Swing 'n Jazz Golf Tournament: 11 a.m. Sunday, June 5, Greystone Golf Club, 1400 Atlantic Avenue, Walworth. "Dine 'n Jam" at 5 p.m. will feature many of the musicians mentioned above. Info: 377-1566.
Free workshops on jazz and improvisation for anyone with or without an instrument will be held from 9-11 a.m. Saturday, June 4, at Arcadia High School, Eastman School of Music, James Monroe High School, Hochstein Music School, Abelard Reynolds School No. 42, and School of the Arts. Students who attend workshops receive complimentary tickets to Saturday evening's Gala Jam Session.