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Donald Leight Dies

Donald Leight, trumpeter and inspiration for the hit play Side Man, died on January 3 in Manhattan of pneumonia and complications from Parkinson’s Disease. He was 80.

Indeed, Leight led a career as the archetypal sideman. He leapt into the jazz world after service in World War II and from 1948 to 1950 was the featured soloist in Buddy Rich’s band. He played with Woody Herman and Claude Thornhill during this period. From ’56 to ’68 Donald performed regularly with Frank Sinatra, Lena Horne and Sammy Davis Jr. at upscale New York clubs such as Copacabana and The Persian Room. Leight’s career was most stable when he performed in Hair on Broadway from ’68 to ’72. Leight can be heard on RCA’s November 2003 release of Hair‘s original cast recording, The Broadway Deluxe Collector’s Edition.

The play Side Man, written by Leight’s son, Warren, won recognition for the trumpeter as well as a Tony Award and a Pulitzer nomination in 1999. A largely autobiographical work, Side Man details the volatile professional and personal life of a backup musician. Characterized as wholly dedicated to the music but emotionally distant, Warren’s side man muses “I used to wonder how he could sense everything when he was blowing and almost nothing when he was not.”

Side Man draws parallels between decay and dysfunction in the Leight family and the dilapidation of the jazz world, allowing anyone experienced in family discord to sympathize with the shriveling jazz community.

Leight is survived by his son, a brother and a daughter.

Originally Published