Jennifer Leitham: Transamerican Music
Jennifer Leitham says she’s always had a hard time sitting still when she’s onstage. Music has a visceral effect upon her, and never more so than when she’s caught up in a tune, her arms embracing her left-handed instrument, her toes beginning to move in rhythm with the music. “I was always afraid,” she says, “that if I stood up I was going to start dancing. Which would have looked kind of weird.” After years of attempting to hold those feelings in check by confining herself to the top of a wooden stool, she finally decided, eight or nine years ago, to set her feelings free. Discarding the restrictive stool, she began to play while standing, her body now unrestrained, moving in deep emotional physical sync with the pulsing rhythms she plucked from her dark-toned acoustic bass. “I immediately felt liberated,” says Leitham. “It was a revelation. And now I’m free to dance around any way I want.” Leitham’s dynamic onstage liberation was directly related to another transformation that had taken place a few months earlier. After living 40-plus years as a secretive transgender person, while rising to visibility as a much-in-demand jazz bassist, recording artist and leader, Leitham finally decided in 2001 that it was time to “transition.” Transition, that is, from living as John Leitham to living as Jennifer Jane Leitham. And to do so via sex-reassignment surgery (SRS).
In January, back in Los Angeles after a successful tour of the East Coast with her own group, she talked openly and frankly about her unusual journey—one of the most remarkable of the jazz world’s many remarkable stories. Alternating buoyant smiles with an occasional wry look and, once or twice, a sadness approaching tears, Leitham reluctantly acknowledged that she was “forging a new path, no question about that—in the world that I move in, anyway.”
The world that Leitham has moved in since the early ’80s has been at the center of the highest levels of jazz performance. More than 100 recordings as an A-list bassist, seven CDs of her own and appearances with the likes of Gerry Mulligan, Joe Pass, Louis Bellson, Bill Watrous, Cleo Laine and dozens of others, as well as long-term stints with Mel Tormé, Doc Severinsen and the Woody Herman Thundering Herd attest to the far-ranging versatility of her playing.
Jim Ferguson, writing in JazzTimes, praised her ability to “effortlessly improvise with imagination, incredible skill and even a bit of humor.” And Leonard Feather, the late jazz critic, described her in a Los Angeles Times review as the “left-handed virtuoso of the upright bass.”
But it didn’t come easily. Leitham’s rise to musical prominence took place while she was dealing with the problems of gender identity faced by all transgender people: those who feel their birth-assigned sex and own internal sense of gender identity do not match.
“Somebody who’s born transgender,” she explained, “is the sex they present themselves to be. When someone says ‘when you were a man’ or something like that—as though I once was a man, which I never was—it’s something that’s offensive to me.”
Even though she found it necessary to present herself as a man to the outside world for most of her life, Leitham says that she has “always been fighting gender dysphoria. I always knew that there was something different about me, that I was feeling that I didn’t belong with men, doing male things. But because I grew up in the ’50s, it wasn’t a time that was conducive to speaking about feeling different, especially in the blue-collar area of Eastern Pennsylvania where we lived. So I went underground. I did everything I could to deflect attention away from the fact that, inside myself, I was female.”
Despite a relatively diminutive stature, Leitham was “competitive in sports.” But a frail physique and a lack of body hair eventually drew jibes from the macho athletes in the locker room. Salvation came in the form of a tiny guitar.
“It was a primitive little instrument,” Leitham recalled, “almost like a toy. But I also had this record collection of 45s of the Beatles and Motown and whatnot. And I’d just sit in my room by myself and play along with my records. I loved it. And all the time I spent doing that made me fairly proficient at hearing what I heard on the record, and playing along on my little guitar.”
After a stint in the high school chorus revealed a clear, high voice, Leitham began to explore the possibilities of joining a rock group.
“I could sing high harmony parts without going into falsetto,” she said. “And, since I knew how to pick out melodies on my little guitar, I thought maybe I could be a bass player, too. I mean, why not? You only had to play one note at a time. And I always had my singing to fall back on. But I needed an instrument. So I’d skip school and hitchhike to Norristown and work in a car wash during the day; then I’d hitchhike to King of Prussia to work in a fast food restaurant at night. Finally, after four or five months, I had enough money to buy my first electric bass. That got me into bands, and then the music bug just totally bit me.”
Meanwhile, like many transgender persons, Leitham lived a private life contrasting directly with the image presented to the world.
“I chose cross-dressing when I was very young,” she explained. “But I learned to be very secretive about it. When you see yourself in a mirror when you’re cross-dressing, it’s like, ‘Wow, this is the way it should be.’ There’s a relaxation that comes over you. Now the mind and the body are matching; they’re congruent. You secretly acquire articles of clothing for your own. And eventually you have this little footlocker that you’re hiding from people. And then you suddenly feel this is wrong, that you shouldn’t be doing it, and you throw it all away. It’s called ‘purging.’ So you’re walking this tightrope.”
Ironically, Leitham’s first gigs with a rock band allowed overt expression of cross-dressing desires. Wearing long hair in a pageboy style, make-up and the tight, unisex clothes of the ’70s was perfectly acceptable at a time when many groups were following the path laid down by David Bowie, Alice Cooper and others. Leitham embraced the possibilities—too much so, as it turned out.
“The problem,” said Leitham, “was that I didn’t look like a guy dressing like a girl. I looked like a girl, which led to some pretty wild, hedonistic times, just living in the moment. That didn’t sit well with the macho guys in the band, and I realized that I was going to have to bottle it all up because I had this burning desire to be a musician. And I knew if I was going to be a musician, I was going to have to bottle it up. So I did.” Coincidentally, the band began to play more complicated music, influenced by the art-rock of groups such as Emerson, Lake & Palmer, Gentle Giant and Yes. Worried that it would take more dexterity and experience to keep up with the new music, Leitham, now 21, looked for a teacher, and found a new instrument.
“I started out with electric bass lessons,” she explained. “But there was an acoustic string bass teacher in the same studio. I listened to him, and he had this wonderful, unmystical way of teaching, so I started taking lessons with him. Al Stauffer was his name. I got an old German acoustic bass with a hole in the bottom from a guy in a bluegrass band; traded him an electric bass for it, straight up. Then Al found this luthier who converted the bass from right hand to left hand for $60—a total act of charity. That started me out studying the acoustic bass with Al, who became like a real musical father figure to me, as he was to a lot of players.”
Four years after beginning to study with Stauffer, Leitham was one of the busiest bassists in Philadelphia, with skills escalating rapidly enough to land a six-month gig with the Herman band, playing both electric and acoustic basses. Working in that environment, living on the bus, Leitham was surrounded by what she describes as the “macho, locker-room mentality of jazz.” But the music was always a pleasure, playing the great standards from the Herman book, as well as new arrangements of Steely Dan tunes. Leitham managed to escape the atmosphere on the 500-mile jaunts between gigs by maintaining as much personal privacy as possible. “I used to sleep,” she says, “up in the bus’ luggage lockers. But sometimes, inside, I was crying.”
At the same time, Leitham met a woman who was “completely accepting” of who he was, and they were married. “That’s when the real double-life started,” she recalled. “I really went underground and kept it at home. In fact, it was my wife who gave me the name ‘Jennifer,’ back in 1980.” The marriage lasted until 1999, continuing as long as it did, according to Leitham, because “my ex always knew about my situation, and I always knew I wanted to be a musician.”
After moving to Los Angeles in the mid-’80s, Leitham was working as a last-minute sub on a George Shearing gig. “Mel heard me,” she said, “called me, and I wound up playing for him until 1996.” After that, Leitham joined the Doc Severinsen band for the next decade. And it was while she was with Severinsen that she made the decision to transition via sex reassignment surgery (SRS).
According to the American Psychological Association, transitioning from one gender to another is a complicated process, involving changes in clothing, grooming, choice of name, changes on official documents, hormone treatment and possible sex reassignment surgery. The choice of which changes to make and to what degree, is, of course, an individual decision. For Leitham, it was a decision fraught with potential problems. But it was one she’d always wanted to make.
“I first learned of the possibility of sex reassignment surgery when I was in my early 20s,” she said. “But it’s very expensive. The surgery is expensive, the counseling is expensive, the electrolysis is ungodly expensive, and you have to do it for years and years. And it’s not covered by insurance. I thought I’d never be able to afford it. But what worried me even more was the thought that I’d never be able to play music if I did, that no one would hire me. So I put it in the back of my mind. And the fear of exposure kept driving my career: ‘God,’ I would think, ‘I hope they don’t find out I’m a girl.’”
But Leitham addressed the possibility of SRS again after her marriage broke up. “I found a good therapist,” she continued, “who helped allay my fears and helped me confront what I was afraid of. She showed me it was possible to transition the way I wanted to. I always knew it wasn’t going to be easy with my profession. I don’t have a regular employer. It’s not as though I have any kind of legal protections. I’m just an independent contractor.
“Remember, the jazz world is a very macho place. Look at how few women musicians are actually able to make a go of it, or get the kind of attention it takes to get hooked up with a major record company. There just aren’t a lot of opportunities for women. Then you look at people who are openly gay, and about how opportunities sort of get taken away from them. And just imagine what someone who’s transgender faces.”
Approval for SRS requires the signatures of two health professionals, as well as a period of time prior to the surgery called the Real Life Experience, in which the individual lives as the gender they’re presenting themselves as for 12 to 18 months. Leitham’s counselor and her psychiatrist signed their approvals for surgery after four months of Real Life Experience, and it was booked for July 2002, during a month when the Severinsen band had a light schedule.
“Usually,” she explained, “it takes about a four-week recovery period after surgery before you’re ready to lift anything again, like my bass. Unfortunately I had complications. My next bookings after that were a couple of festivals around Labor Day. I was pretty torn up and it took a while to put me back together again. Fortunately I had great friends who carried my gear for me, and I played those festivals, as well as the gigs with Doc.”
Leitham’s life, since the SRS, has had its ups and downs. Her 2006 CD, The Real Me (Sinistral), left no doubt about who she was and where she had come from, and last year she released a new CD, the more expansive Left Coast Story (also on Sinistral). “But it’s a double-edged sword no matter what you do,” she said. “Being forthright about myself has definitely led to a lot of prejudice against me. I won’t even attempt to soften that. There are a lot of people who are uncomfortable being in a room with me. There are some festivals I worked annually, and the first year, when I transitioned, I had signed contracts. I sent them a cover letter and a picture, just to make the situation clear. Nobody reneged on their contract; everybody followed through. But I didn’t get asked back to a lot of them. I just wish it were possible for the jazz community to be as creative about social issues as it is about music. You’d think that an improvisatory art form would be creative and open-minded. But I’m finding, based on what I’ve been through, that it can be very conservative and closed-minded.”
Leitham’s musician colleagues generally preferred to discuss her playing rather than her transition, but trombonist Bill Watrous and drummer Ed Shaughnessy offered some further insights.
Watrous has used Leitham in his rhythm sections for many years. “She’s been my number-one bass player for a long time,” he said. “Her time is impeccable, and she’s got ideas as exciting as any bass player I’ve ever heard.” Asked about his perception of her playing since the transition, he simply added, “She was terrific in the beginning, and she’s maintained that standard over the years. I don’t really notice any difference, and I’ve never really wanted any more than what she’s been doing all along.”
Leitham was a regular member of drummer Ed Shaughnessy’s quartet for more than a decade, often working alongside him in the rhythm section of the Doc Severinsen Orchestra. “She has excellent time,” he noted, “which is exactly what you want in a big band, where the bass player has to match your heartbeat, so to speak.” Shaughnessy noted an evolution in Leitham’s playing over the past decade: “I think she’s gotten much more virtuosic; she’s always been a wonderful rhythm player, now she’s become a terrific soloist.” He also quoted a comment his wife made when she first saw Jennifer after the transition. “She said, ‘Oh, she’s become such a more contented woman.’”
The upside to Leitham’s transition begins with her move from sitting on a stool to standing up and allowing her feelings to come through. And the most significant advantage, she said with a smile, was the impact her transition has had on her music.
“It’s made it so much better,” she said. “Now I don’t think about anything but the music. I like practicing more. I like everything about music more. I’m getting the chance to express myself with my own music much more.”
Even the fact that her phone doesn’t ring as much for gigs as it used to has had a productive effect.
“It’s actually been probably the best thing that’s ever happened to me,” Leitham continued. “It’s forced me to get my own music out there. Book my own gigs. Become more of a leader. And, in addition, I’ve had to become somewhat of an entertainer. I’m singing a lot, after not singing for nearly 30 years. I talk on the microphone between songs. I’m using everything I learned from having worked with Mel and Doc about how to handle an audience, how to keep them involved in the show, how to program the tunes. In the past, I don’t think I could ever have been that outgoing, that much at ease in front of people.
“The most important thing,” she concludes, “is that now there’s nothing to hide. I am who I really am. I go onstage and lay my guts out every time I play.”
Originally published in April 2009