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One Bass Hit

At 61, Baltimore-Born Player Fulfills Lifelong Dream

Jay Leonhart

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Jay Leonhart

By James D. Dilts | Posted

If the rest of us could talk about our jobs as entertainingly as bassist Jay Leonhart does, parties would be more endurable and the world a better place. And if Leonhart's successful Jan. 2 preview appearance for his month-long weekly residency at Bertha's in Fells Point is any indication, the New York bassist with Baltimore roots is well on the way to fulfilling a lifetime ambition to be a solo performer of original material.

Leonhart's career thus far, both onstage and in the recording studio, has cast him as an accompanist for singers (Judy Garland, Mel Torme, Stevie Wonder) and jazz players (Gerry Mulligan, Phil Woods, Lee Konitz). He currently tours Europe twice a year with a trio, New York Swing, that also includes pianist John Bunch and guitarist Bucky Pizzarelli. Not bad company, musically speaking, and Leonhart, who just turned 61, has taken full advantage of it by converting the raw material of years of experience into the refined art of a new adventure. "I don't really need the money," he says before the Bertha's preview show, "I just want to do the songs."

Upstairs at Bertha's lies a medium-size room that has served over the years as a ballet studio, informal recital hall for Peabody students, and performance space for visiting artists. Bertha's owners, Tony and Laura Norris, a classical guitarist and violinist, respectively, bought the bar in the early '70s as a place to play music, but finding that they violated the zoning code, started the restaurant instead. Bertha's became famous for mussels, and when music was allowed in the early '80s, the Norrises added jazz to the menu. They have known Leonhart for years; he played opening night at Bertha's in 1972.

A slender man with chiseled features, Leonhart took the stage Jan. 2 wearing slacks and a turtleneck, his stand-up bass his only prop. (The new show, of which this was the first performance, is called "The Bass Lesson.") The audience was small--the room's capacity is just 30 people--but receptive, having been primed by wine and snacks provided by the hosts.

"Don't you wish you played the piccolo?" Leonhart asked by way of openers, as he edged into a humorous review of the highs and lows of his art. "Schlepping them can be a drag, but playing them is a joy." The next hour and 10 minutes sped by, frequently interrupted with laughs and applause, as the clever lyricist and rapid-fire monologist worked his way through a dozen or so of his creations, alternately playing and thumping his stage partner.

Some standouts: a brief history of the bass; a hilarious account of flying first class from New York to Los Angeles with unexpected seatmate Leonard Bernstein--"He did the London Times crossword puzzle in 10 minutes, with a pen!"--and a bluesy, poignant original about a young musician's love affair with a Baltimore stripper, "a genuine, bona fide heartbreak machine." Along the way, Leonhart handily disproved such theories as "It's Impossible to Sing and Play the Bass" and "Bass Solos Should be Banned."

His presentations are not quite songs; recitative with bass accompaniment might be a better description. Melodically, they tend to blend into each other. What prevents them from doing so are the lyrics (witty and with narrative twists) and Leonhart's offhand but compelling delivery, complete with flash endings.

Jazz musicians are nothing if not improvisers, and the bassist deftly turned a few musical gaffes into part of the act by enlisting a member of the audience to hold his playlist--but not to tell him what was on it. "You can practice all you want, but when you do it in front of people, it's a whole new ball game," he quipped.

"I've got hundreds of songs; I wrote eight new ones for the show," Leonhart says in an interview after his performance. These "jazz poems," as he calls them, are necessarily autobiographical, a good example being the moving tale of "My Uncle Jim," an eccentric member of his German-Irish family. And a good bit of the material, at least for the Bertha's appearance, is Baltimore-based. Leonhart spent his formative years here, growing up on North Charles Street, attending Loyola High School, and getting an early start in music. His parents were musically inclined, and they encouraged Leonhart and his five siblings to play, he says.

Piano lessons at the Peabody Conservatory before he was 10 convinced him that he didn't like the piano. Leonhart tried mandolin, guitar, and banjo before discovering the bass at age 14, after hearing Ray Brown play the instrument with pianist Oscar Peterson. With his brother Bill, now a guitar teacher in Seattle, he formed a banjo duo that played and sang on local television and Dave Garroway's Today show in the early '50s. Leonhart then played with a local society band, the Rivers Chambers Orchestra, and the Pier Five Dixieland Band.

He was still a teenager when he left town, stopping first in Boston for three semesters at the Berklee School of Music (the Oxford of jazz), then leaving there to spend a year on the road with the Buddy Morrow Band and ending up in Toronto to study with his inspiration, Ray Brown. Since then he's been in New York, with the exception of a few years in the early '60s when he came back to Baltimore to dry out. He returned to New York in 1967, sober, "and really got serious," he says. "I worked hard in New York, I wanted to stay there." His children, Michael, a trumpeter and composer, and Carolyn, a singer, both play with Steely Dan.

"And I knew 30 years ago that I wanted to do this," Leonhart says. After honing his compositions with a trio playing Sunday jazz brunches at New York's Blue Note from 1986 to '96, Leonhart formed a production company with investors. He plans to take his solo act back to New York and then on the road playing small auditoriums, music schools, and college campuses.

Now, for the first time, it's just him and his bass. "You have to be funnier, quicker, more on top of it," he says. "If they're bored, you're dead--this is theater."

Jay Leonhart appears at Bertha's at 8:30 p.m. Jan. 9 and every subsequent Wednesday night in January.

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