Almost thirty years ago, jazz bassist John Leitham moved to Los Angeles to pursue a career in music. Two decades later, he underwent gender reassignment surgery to become Jennifer Leitham. Tonight, as part of the Outfest Film Festival, Leitham presents a documentary about her decision entitled I Stand Corrected.
As John, Leitham started playing music in Pennsylvania as a teenager. He played the bass left-handed, already setting himself apart from most all other bassists not named McCartney. His nimble touch and hard-swinging lines eventually landed him work with West Coast luminaries like Gerry Mulligan and Joe Pass as well as long-term gigs with Doc Severinsen and the late Mel Torme.
In his late 40s, following a divorce from his wife, John Leitham pursued the physical change he had always desired. He then learned that many of those who had regularly hired John were uncomfortable sharing the stage with Jennifer.
“My art is a lot better but my career has suffered for it,” says Leitham. “I can't rely on waiting for the phone to ring anymore. I have to try pretty hard. Unfortunately in the jazz world, [gender] is way too relevant. It comes from jazz coming out of the big band, swing era. There is still a lot of that behavior amongst musicians, locker room type stuff.”
Understandably, Leitham was cautious when approached by documentarian Andrea Meyerson. “Initially, any interaction you have with the media can be problematic if they are not properly informed on the transgender subject,” says Leitham. “I've been burned in the past, but I felt that she was very much an ally.”
The two began filming in 2006 and wrapped up late last year. The response to the film was positive, and it won the Audience Favorite Award at the American Documentary Film Festival in Palm Springs and Best Documentary Feature at the Seattle Transgendered Film Festival in the last couple of months.
Of course, none of this would be much discussed if Leitham wasn't such a terrific bassist. Her current trio, which features pianist Josh Nelson and drummer Randy Drake, can swing like nobody's business, and she brings more melody to the bass than one would expect.
“When I played in my previous persona,” says Leitham, “I was always restricted. I really wanted to dance while I played, but I felt people might find it strange if I did.” Since her transition, Leitham has not held back on that urge to move. She even changed her technique, eschewing the stool that planted her to the ground for enough elbow room to cut a rug should the moment move her.
As the film title implies, Leitham is getting back on her feet in many ways — emotionally, physically and musically. “I managed to book a couple of nice gigs based on people seeing the film,” she says. “There are a lot of possibilities. I pick people for my band based on how they play. I don't look for gender or age, but I do like my musicians to be taller than me. That way I can wear heels.”