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Aaron Diehl Remembers Drummer Lawrence “Lo” Leathers

The pianist pays tribute to his close friend and frequent bandmate (11/23/81 – 6/2/19)

Lawrence Leathers
Lawrence Leathers (photo: Joe Lane)

Lawrence Leathers was an enigma—a formidable yet charming personality, though his demeanor on the bandstand bordered on self-effacing. He rarely wanted to take a drum solo, since his priorities were always to support the ensemble in rhythm with a rare sensitivity that one immediately recognized on the downbeat. His intellectual capabilities were evident in his speed solving the Rubik’s Cube or playing chess, and most utilized in his handling of social situations. He could read people’s characters in an instant, and usually his assessment about new acquaintances turned out to be frighteningly accurate.

Whether around a close friend or transient stranger, he knew how to make everyone feel like he was engaged in their existence. His challenges, however, often revolved around the need for external validation, especially through social media platforms. He would frequently be frustrated, as so many of us can be, that he was not fully appreciated as a musician or human being. When Cécile McLorin Salvant received the Grammy nomination for For One to Love, he was the band member most excited about the prospect of being a part of a Grammy-winning album. Yet, when the band flew to Los Angeles to attend the awards ceremony, Lawrence mysteriously missed the flight. Ironically, it was fear of his own success that frequently prevented him from appreciating his own contributions.

Pastor Joe Lane delivered the eulogy, “Dealing with Dissonance,” at Lawrence’s funeral on June 29, 2019. Lane, a mentor and close friend, undertook the impossible task of attempting not only to reconcile a tragic event that left a chasm in our community, but also to explain a life rife with contradictions. Dave Chappelle says, “Comedy is a reconciliation of paradoxes,” and if anyone knew Lawrence, they would have recognized a deep-seated anguish masked by a quick wit and Übermensch confidence. Nobody understood Lawrence better than Joe, who mentored him from age seven every Sunday in church (Lane is also a drummer and organist). According to him, Lawrence always possessed a strict code of loyalty, as there were significant events in his life where he felt abandoned. This manifested itself in proving his own loyalty to those who loved him, but also alienating himself from those who, in his estimation, didn’t live up to his expectations. That could extend into the professional environment, and caused a discord that resonated throughout a milieu of musicians who never saw the complete picture: Some had few problems with Lawrence’s reliability and others always did, some witnessed certain patterns of behavior while others did not.

Artistic expression can indeed help suppress mental disorder; Lawrence knew his sensitivities as a musician allowed him to deal with life’s dissonances. The ritual of playing drums was “therapy,” in his own words, but many times professional help is needed outside the catharsis of actively creating. The late nights in clubs, and the generally fragile state of affairs within the arts, are not always conducive to stability and personal wellness. There is a deep stigma in seeking help, which can be seen as a form of weakness in an environment that is still predominantly male. After Lawrence’s death, bassist Alexander Claffy immediately recommended his therapist to me. That personally has had tremendous benefits in unraveling a plethora of emotions linked to this trauma.

Truly loving Lawrence meant loving the whole of him, including the him with his strife, his self-sabotage, his demons. That love was always reciprocated tenfold in unique ways—like the time he charmed an airline agent to upgrade the entire band to first class on an oversold flight. Or when he flew Joe Lane from Michigan to the North Sea Jazz Festival to express his lifelong gratitude under the guise of needing promo photos (Joe is also a photographer). Or the day Lawrence spontaneously showed up at my doorstep, with a framed photograph of myself that he captured months prior, and a dedication that said, “Don’t ever stop being you, no matter how much trash I talk!!” Or during a Washington D.C. performance with Cécile in 2014, where there was a one-minute ovation after the piano solo on “What a Little Moonlight Can Do,” and during the course of the applause, he mischievously smirked at me as if to say, “I am happy the audience recognized that I hooked that up for you.” Bassist Paul Sikivie once observed, “Certain musicians want to show you how good they sound, and Lawrence is a drummer that makes others sound better than they really are.” Playing music with him was like riding a magic carpet, but simply being in his presence was like having an older brother.