Thanks to his Tony Award-winning role as Aaron Burr in the hit Broadway musical Hamilton, Leslie Odom Jr. became an overnight success. Except that all that acclaim came after nearly two decades of scuffling. As reported in a 2016 profile in the New York Times, Odom was actually considering taking a job as a hotel clerk just before getting that big gig with Lin-Manuel Miranda’s smash show. Such is life in show business.
The more appropriate lead is that Leslie Odom Jr. is a singer. A singer who can dance. A singer who can act. But a singer first and foremost. He was born in Queens, but when he was 7 his family moved to Philadelphia. He went to the local Fame-type school for creative types, the Philadelphia High School for the Creative and Performing Arts (CAPA), the same one that produced Boyz II Men, Christian McBride, Joey DeFrancesco and the Roots. With a keen interest in musical theatre, Odom continued that performing-arts training at Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh, and managed to score some jobs in the NYC theatre scene, including a stint in the company of Rent when he was only 17.
In 2003 he moved to Los Angeles where he did the usual potpourri of acting jobs, including walk-on parts in shows like Gilmore Girls, Grey’s Anatomy and The Good Wife, and, more notably, regular roles on CSI: Miami, Smash and Person of Interest. After coming back to NYC for a Broadway show as well as for Smash, Odom returned to live in the city in 2012.
Although he wasn’t part of Miranda’s usual crew of actors, Odom auditioned and campaigned for the part of Aaron Burr in Miranda’s Hamilton in 2013, when the show was being readied for its initial run off-Broadway at the Public Theater. The show’s director, Thomas Kail, told the Times that Odom “was coming to play.” The show went on to an historic run on Broadway, winning awards and selling tickets at rates heretofore unseen – all with Odom in the so-called villain role as Burr, the dramatic nemesis of Miranda’s title character.
Since July 2016, when Miranda, Odom and Phillipa Soo – three of the principal actors from the original cast – left the show, Odom has been concentrating on his solo singing career. First, Odom re-released an eponymous album that had been quietly released in 2014 but with three newly recorded songs. In addition, he recorded a new holiday EP/album, Simply Christmas, that included a sensational version of “Winter Song” by Sara Bareilles and Ingrid Michaelson. During much of 2017, Odom has been performing with his group at theaters and mid-sized venues, as well as at jazz festivals like Newport and Monterey.
In this interview, given immediately after his appearance at the Monterey Jazz Festival, we managed to not talk much about Hamilton at all, nor about his endearing Nationwide commercials that are so ubiquitous during televised football games. Instead, the conversation was about the music and about his life before and after the hit show.
Odom will be performing on the Blue Note at Sea cruise that sails in January 2018.
This interview was edited for clarity.
JazzTimes: I was surprised to learn that you grew up in Philadelphia.
Leslie Odom Jr.: I was born in Queens, but we moved to Philadelphia when I was about 7. And we lived in West Oak Lane there and then five years later we moved to East Oak Lane.
Did that city’s rich musical heritage and legacy have any influence on you as you developed? And going to CAPA, were you attuned to all the great musicians who went to that same school, or was it just something in the background?
Sort of both. It was so in the water, in the DNA of the place. It was all around me, but in a beautiful way; it wasn’t special. It was just how we rolled. A couple years ahead of me in high school was Bilal. At my first audition coming out of Philly to do Rent on Broadway, Jill Scott was at that same audition. When I was on Broadway doing Rent, Jill Scott was in Canada doing Rent. When we would come home from CAPA, we would take the same train route, getting on the train downtown at Market East, and before anybody knew who he was, there was this guy who called himself “Music.” And we didn’t know where he came from or who he was, but how random and generic a name to call yourself? He would sing and harmonize with people. And that was Musiq Soulchild [later a successful hip-hop/soul singer].
It was all around us. We took it completely for granted. But now as a musician, I’m so grateful for it. There’s no escaping the formation of your taste. There’s no escaping when you were first exposed to great music. It’s always there.
It’s always said about all the great Philadelphia bass players – Stanley Clarke, Alphonso Johnson, Victor Bailey, Christian McBride, Gerald Veasley, Jamaaladeen Tacuma, etc. – that it must be in the water.
The really cool thing for all of us is that when we meet out in the world we can all influence each other. My band has a cat from St. Louis, a cat from London, a cat from D.C. With everybody bringing those distinct flavors, we can create our own sound.
You had an unusual situation as a singer fronting a band, in that you went from zero to 60 because of the success and visibility of Hamilton. All of a sudden you’re headlining theaters and festivals. It wasn’t like you were doing club dates for years, or even months. How did you determine the band’s make-up and sound?
You’re so right. I think that an artist needs a collaborator. You see it throughout time – a manager, a bandleader, a best friend, a mentor. I saw that with Lin, who had that [relationship] with Tommy Kail, our director, who was like the other half of Lin’s brain. Lin dreams it up and Tommy is the architect and helps him build it and make it sturdy. For me, that’s Joseph Abate, my manager, who has allowed me to dream big dreams, and he finds a way to make it happen. There was a sound that we imagined and Joseph found the guys. And 70 percent of that original team is still with us. He’s going to do the research and deliver on it. He’s been a great collaborator.
And the record company. I’d heard so many horror stories about labels over the years. I wasn’t sure I would ever go that route. I wasn’t sure there was a need to. But I found the people at S-Curve Records to be great collaborators. That gut instinct I had to sign on the dotted line and walk forward with Steve Greenberg and S-Curve has paid off. They’ve been so supportive.
It was S-Curve’s idea when I came out of Hamilton: “Let’s do a residency in New York: You have the band, you have the music. Let’s find a small club somewhere that’s off the beaten path but that’s really cool and has a good vibe. Where you guys can go and play once a week. We’ll try to get a little thing started.” We were at the McKittrick [Hotel]. I went from 1,400 screaming fans at the Richard Rodgers Theatre to 125 very, very polite people at the McKittrick.
We hit the ground running and have been gigging everywhere, playing for anyone who would have us. When we step on these stages at Monterey and Newport, we’re the very new kids on the block. We’re just trying not to embarrass ourselves.
I do reconnaissance on all these gigs. My parents didn’t have a whole lot of money, so we weren’t traveling the country going to jazz festivals. So I hadn’t been to many of them before. When we do these festivals, I’m always nervous. Is this the moment when we’re going to get booed off the stage? Now I can watch Herbie Hancock or Roberta Flack do their sets at Newport or wherever. And what I see is people onstage being themselves. You’ve already been invited. It’s not an audition.
The audience wants you to be good. They’ve invested in it, in fact.
They want you to be good. You have a time slot, you have a stage. So step onstage and be authentic and be who you are. And give your band the freedom to be who they are. We’re not going to be uptight. We’re going to do our best to leave nerves in the dressing room. That’s been serving us well.
If you’re not a little nervous, then you’re probably not taking it seriously enough. I love this quote by you in the New York Times, talking about your audition for Hamilton, but applicable to a lot of things: “You have to walk toward the things that make you alive.” What a simple, beautiful notion. Have you enjoyed performing for the jazz audiences?
It’s absolutely been positive. It’s so encouraging. And I’ve learned a ton. Watching John Clayton at Monterey, who had [been] commissioned to write this gorgeous piece. It was 15 minutes of …well, God was pleased. At that outdoor venue, there’s something about that the music going up and out. It was enough to make you weep. It was crazy. The most important thing I’m learning goes back to that authenticity. And to give yourself time to grow. The best guys are often the older guys, the guys who have been doing it the longest and have the least to prove and are coming from a different space as a leader. We’ve been really encouraged. We’re about audience retention and we try to turn every gig into two gigs. The phone keeps ringing and people are asking us to play small things and big things. It’s really cool.
Part of my fascination with your journey as a performer is that your background was in musical theatre. With this life, you’re in charge. There’s no script, no audition, no role, no lines, no direction.
That is one of the things that is most attractive to me. I don’t have to wait for the phone to ring. I don’t have to wait for somebody to write me a script. I get to wake up and if I want to make music that day, I can call my guys and we can make music today. That’s what is most exciting. I want to keep going. I still haven’t hit my stride. This is a time of my life when I want to be making things.
Coming up in Philly, it’s not a musical-theatre town. Those people I mentioned to you … When I was a singer, I was training with singers. I was far from the best. When I was learning dancing, I was with dancers, and those people are now with Alvin Ailey or [are Beyoncé’s] choreographers. Acting was the same way. When I came into the musical theatre, I found I was a little more prepared than some people because I had been shedding with people in those individual disciplines. They were masters. To come back and remove all that and get back to singing … I wasn’t trying to be a singer on Broadway. I was just trying to be a singer.
Read more of Lee Mergner’s interview with Leslie Odom Jr.
Preview, buy or download songs from albums by Leslie Odom Jr. on iTunes.
Dianne Reeves listens to a cut from Leslie Odom Jr. in a Before & After column in 2017.
Learn more about the Blue Note at Sea cruise on which Leslie Odom Jr. is appearing.