Jazz drummer Lawrence “Lo” Leathers, a two-time Grammy winner who was a beloved member of New York’s straight-ahead modern jazz scene, was found lying in a stairwell of his Bronx apartment building on the late morning of June 2. Emergency medical technicians declared him dead at the scene, as first reported by Newark radio station WBGO.
The 37-year-old drummer was apparently the victim of an assault. The New York City Medical Examiner ruled that Leathers’ death resulted from “homicidal asphyxiation with compression of the neck.” The NYPD arrested Lisa Harris, 41—who lived with Leathers in his East 141st Street apartment in the Bronx’s Mott Haven neighborhood—and Sterling Aguilar, 28, of Brooklyn in connection with Leathers’ death. Ann Shelton, New York’s Deputy Commissioner of Public Information, announced that both suspects had been charged on June 3 with assault; according to the New York Daily News, charges have since been upgraded to criminally negligent homicide and manslaughter.
Leathers was perhaps best known for his work with pianist Aaron Diehl and with vocalist Cécile McLorin Salvant. Both of his Grammy awards came from his work with the singer, who won the honors in 2015 and 2018 for her albums For One to Love and Dreams and Daggers, respectively. (Leathers played drums on both albums.) He was also a prolific presence at late-night jam sessions at New York venues such as Smalls, where he was scheduled to play in a house band led by trombonist Ben Barnett on the night he died.
His recordings evidence a musician of superlative technical ability, but not of ostentatious tendency. His accompaniment lines comprised steady, unfailing swing, seemingly impervious to change-ups by the soloists he worked behind. As a soloist himself, Leathers was more concerned with texture and with improvisational cogency than with showing off.
Bassist Dezron Douglas remembered Leathers as a “kind hearted, strong minded, swaggerific [sic], hilarious Black Man” with a distinctive ride cymbal and “serious musicianship.”
Lawrence Leathers was born in Lansing, Michigan, on November 23, 1981. He began playing drums at two years old, later appearing as a child prodigy on TV’s Jenny Jones Show and graduating to professional performance by the time he was 15. He earned a degree at Michigan State University, then matriculated in 2007 to the Juilliard School in New York.
While attending Juilliard, Leathers met and formed a trio with pianist Aaron Diehl and bassist Paul Sikivie, recording with them in 2010 for Diehl’s self-released Live at the Players. Around the same time, Leathers began regularly holding down the drum seat in guitarist JC Stylles’ organ ensembles. He also began attending late-night jam sessions at Smalls and Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola, where he impressed onlookers with his skill and the depth of his knowledge of the jazz tradition.
Leathers became a protégé of trumpeter, educator, and impresario Wynton Marsalis, who recommended Diehl’s trio as accompaniment to the then-rising star Salvant. Leathers worked with Salvant in that capacity, playing on her two Grammy-winning recordings and appearing in festivals and tours throughout the world.
In addition to his profound musical abilities, Leathers gained a reputation for his empathy and positivity both on and off the bandstand. Salvant told WBGO’s Nate Chinen that he was something of a cheerleader during the recording of Dreams and Daggers: “He kind of pulled us all together and gave us a Snakes on a Plane type of speech.…Like: ‘We gotta do this! What have we been doing? Let’s get to our s***!’”
In addition to his work with Salvant, Diehl, and Stylles, Leathers was a prolific freelancer. He worked semi-regularly with saxophonist Ian Hendrickson-Smith and trombonist Corey Wallace. He also headed his own bands (especially in the context of Smalls jam sessions, which Leathers frequently led).
“Thanks Lawrence for the constant laughs, music, and friendship,” wrote his friend, pianist Sullivan Fortner, on Facebook. “We’ll swing again soon. Tell Roy [Hargrove] hello for me in paradise.”
The investigation into Leathers’ death is ongoing.