QMH Script, August 2007

Transgender Music Special, Part 4

Suzi Nash - Uncle Mike (2005)

Welcome to Queer Voices on KPFT and this segment is called Queer Music Heritage. I'm JD Doyle and this month I'm bringing you Part 4 of my latest series on the music of Transgendered Artists, and it will include a very special interview. Now if that song I used to start out the show sounded to you like a children's song, well, it is. In 2005 Suzi Nash released an album called "Rainbow Sprinkles." Its subtitle was "Songs for Our Children Celebrating Our Diverse Lives," and it was designed to empower the children of GLBT families.

I've got I think a very interesting feature interview for you this show, with jazz musician Jennifer Leitham, whose been making great music on her stand-up bass since the late 70s. Before we get to that I want to bring you some other transgendered artists, and first up is Rae Spoon. he's a Canadian artist with three CDs out now, and I'm sharing a track from hia 2005 CD called "Your Trailer Door." The song is called "Don't Turn on Me.'

Rae Spoon - Don't Turn on Me (2005)
Actor Slash Model - S&M Cowboy (2007)

Following Rae Spoon was a fun Chicago duo going by the name Actor Slash Model. This act is made up of Simon Strikeback and Madsen Minax and they bill themselves as a grassroots DIY, transgendered indie-grass music and performance duo. The song "S&M Cowboy" came from their debut album from this year called "Cheap Date."

I can't help but share one more song from them, also from that album, called "TN Tranny Two-Step."

Actor Slash Model - TN Tranny Two Step (2007)

Next is a track from another new recording, and while the artist is not transgendered, the subject matter is. Jeff Heiskell was the leading force behind the band The Judybats, who had a number of releases starting in the early 1990s. He's now fronting a new band, just called Heiskell, and I find the song you'll hear very intriguing. It follows his observations of a young boy and the boy's journey to become an Atlanta drag queen and future transsexual known as "the Death of Knoxville Cool."

Heiskell - The Death of Knoxville Cool (2007)

Again, that was the band Heiskell, from their new album "Soundtrack for an Aneurism."

I've been a fan of this next artist since her 1997 album "All I Want," and on my November 2005 show I featured a wonderful interview with her. She's Veronica Klaus, and she recently sent me an advance copy of an album by her called "Family Jewels: The Making of Veronica Klaus." That's the title of her award winning show in San Francisco, and is her story set to music, connected with dialogue. I'm very pleased to share with you a little of it. Vernonica Klaus.

Veronica Klaus - dialogue / Tomorrow Is My Turn / dialogue / I Feel Pretty (2007)

That short excerpt definitely does not do justice to Veronica Klaus' show. If you can't make it to San Fransisco to see her, you'll just have to get the whole album to experience it. Again that was from "Family Jewels: The Making of Veronica Klaus."

Klaus QMH ID

You can find out more about her at www.VeronicaKlaus.com.

Glen or Glenda trailer (1953)

So goes part of the trailer for the schlocky 1953 movie "Glen or Glenda," directed by and starring Ed Wood. We've come a long way.

And this is a good time to invite you to check out my website. If you visit it while you're listening you can see the playlist and follow along, while looking at photos of the artists and recordings. I've always considered our music history as a visual as well as an audio experience. Again, that's at www.queermusicheritage.com, Also, for more very queer programming, please listen to After Hours with Jimmy Carper, every Friday night/Saturday morning from 1 to 4 am, on KPFT, it's Queer Radio, with attitude.

Jennifer Leitham Interview

Okay, pay attention not to the singer on this next song, but the bass player.

Mel Torme - Glow Worm (1992)

Now, why on earth would I be playing "Glow Worm" by Mel Torme on Queer Music Heritage? Well, I'm really not focusing on Mel, but on the bass player who worked with him for ten years. That's jazz musician Jennifer Leitham, who before 2002 was John Leitham. Since 1979 this artist has performed with a who's who of the jazz world, from Woody Herman, George Shearing, Doc Severinsin, Peggy Lee, Cleo Laine, and on and on. You've got to be pretty talented to work that long in those circles. Her very public transition was difficult enough without also facing the unknown reception she would get in the less than liberal jazz world. That hasn't slowed her down though, as she's just released her sixth album, and that's where I started my interview with Jennifer Leitham.

Tell me about the album "The Real Me"

Well, "The Real Me" is my sixth CD, the first one to bear my true identity, Jennifer Leitham, and I'm very proud of it. It's all original music. It's got a couple of vocals on it but it's mostly accessible jazz. It's jazz that people that like rock or classical or folk music, they all seem to like this record, and again I'm very proud of it.

One review I've read says that you've earned a reputation as a swinging, straight-ahead player. What does that expression mean?

Well, I guess the more famous people that I've played with have been people like Mel Torme and Doc Severinsin, and in playing their style of music I have to pretty much play a classic approach to playing the string bass, and you know, the quarter note right down the middle of the beat, and play driving bass lines, and I guess that would be a straight-ahead swinging kind of player. I've always been blessed with a very good sense of time, and I've worked very hard at that, so that where that my bass never wavers. I never slow down or speed up, you know, I'm pretty consistent with that. And it makes me popular among those people that want a really solid support from the bass player. I feel like I do a lot more than just that, but that one particular quote is attributed about me.

From reading about you I've noticed that with your music you do at least three things out of the ordinary. You're a woman playing an upright bass, you play lead or melody with it, and you play left-handed.

Yes to all three. I think it all stems from my being, who I am. I chose to play the bass basically because it just felt that it was right. It felt like it was part of me, and I just did it my way right from the beginning and I've tried to live my life that way too, just be who I am. And it's taken a long time but I'm finally able to express all of me, and it's always come through the bass, and playing left-handed is unusual because it's difficult to find an instrument that's proper for a left-handed player on the string bass, because not only do the strings have to be reversed but the entire bass has to be taken apart and rebuilt, so that it resonates properly. So for a left-handed player the strings are left-handed. The E-string has to be on the opposite side, the A-string…and so forth. So it's almost like the bass goes through a reassignment, almost like I did. In my surgery the bass went through reassignment surgery as well.

I don't want to get too far into this interview without touching on particular songs, so I'll ease into that this way.

You've released six albums since 1989. Which one brought you the most attention, and any idea why?

Ah, good question. The second and third ones, the second was "The Southpaw," and I had a really wonderful bunch of musicians with me on that one but it was probably the last studio record for Bob Cooper. He was a tenor saxophone player that played with Stan Kenton's Band, was married to June Christy, was…he was a great man. He was like a father figure to me. And it was his last recording, studio recording, and that record has sort of become a collector's item because of that. And some of my compositions from that record…I started to get noticed for my songwriting on that record. There was a tune on there I wrote called "Turkish Bizarre," and another one called "Stick It In Your Ear" and I re-recorded those tunes on "The Real Me." Part of the reason is some of those older records, like the following record after that was "Lefty Leaps In" and one of the tunes from that record, "Studio City Stomp" is probably the most popular song that I've ever written. It's gotten a lot of play around the world and it's actually a hit tune in Norway. And it's been in a number of television shows and things. It's quite a popular song for me. And I've re-recorded that one as well on "The Real Me" partially because I took some of my more popular music, re-recorded it under my proper identity. So now when radio people want to play my songs they can play them and not have to be fumbling on the name, they can say the right name.

Right, so "Studio City Stomp" is your best known track?

I would say so, of all the things I've written, yeah.

Here's a little of "Studio City Stomp"

Jennifer Leitham - Studio City Stomp (2007)

That song was originally on the 1996 album "Lefty Leaps In" but this version came from the new release "The Real Me"

You've perfomed with a who's who of notables, including Mel Torme, George Shearing, Peggy Lee, Doc Severinsin, Gerry Mulligan. That's pretty amazing success. Looking back on those years does anything stand out to as a crowning moment?

Oh my goodness, there are many. There were several with Mel Torme that I'll just never forget. One of them was playing the Bumpershoot Festival in Seattle, which was quite an exciting venue. It was a giant arena. It was filled with about 55,000 people and the Bumpershoot Festival is interesting in that there's all kinds of music happening on the same stage. So it's not just jazz acts on the big stage. We were the opening act for the Ramones and Mudhoney…and it was Mel Torme, and it was right around the time that he had done the Mountain Dew commercial and MTV was paying attention to Mel, and I had been on a "Night Court" show with him, and he was riding a wave of popularity. The people just went crazy for us. I felt like a rock star. You know it was the time when mosh pits were a big thing and crowd diving and everything, and all of that was going on while we were singing "Stardust," and it was really quite an interesting experience. That was a high point.

Also the first time we played Carnegie Hall was quite an exciting experience. I played that ten times with him. And it was always you got goose bumps just being back stage and knowing the history of the place you were in and being called to perform on that stage where all these amazing historical concerts took place. That was a big thrill.

Have you done much television?

Ah, yeah I've done a fair amount. With Doc I did a…with Doc Severinsin we did a number of TV things. I was on "The Tonight Show" one time. I was on a lot of PBS specials with Mel. The last television thing that Mel did was the week before he had his stroke, was for the Arts & Entertainment channel, that was one of them. I've been on a number of shows.

In recent years you've gone from playing with other bands to having your own trio, could you tell us about that?

I've always kept a group. I was leading groups back in the 80's but after transitioning I was in kind of a state where the jazz community per se wasn't calling me. I was being totally avoided. And I was…at one time I was going to give up. I was going to play music anymore. But I just couldn't go without playing music. It's just who I am. And leading my own band as been sort of my salvation as far as putting it out there that I'm still a capable player and I'm a fairly well-adjusted human being, and I think it's broken down a lot of the walls that people put up after I transitioned. Wherever I get booked…when we're booked at your normal type jazz festivals with all your average type people around people dig the music, and that's what it's about.

On your new album is a track called "The Altered Blues." Could you tell me about that one?

Oh, that one is a deep one. That one…I wrote that one for my surgeon. His name is Dr Alter, and I wrote the song that tries to deal musically with the subject of gender dysphoria or gender identity disorder or whatever the medical profession wants to call it. This notion of having something in your brain that will just not go away. You don't want it there. Nobody asks for it, but it won't go away. And the whole key to dealing with it and having a decent enough life is to learn how to make music with it. And I tried to do that musically through "The Altered Blues" where these two notes, D and G, oh, they're notes that are in every chord and they won't go away. And so the idea is to take those two notes and the chords change all around but those notes stay, and just try to make some kind of coherent musical beauty out of it. And it's a challenge, but I think we made it work.

Jennifer Leitham - The Altered Blues (2007)

Could you make maybe some more observations about the changes in the way people treated you after your surgery.

Well, the jazz world you would think would be a very creative environment, like very artistic people who would be pretty open-minded, you would think. But unfortunately the commercial jazz world is populated at the entrepreneurial level by very conservative people, and they are not, they were just not willing to give me a shake, to…several of them fulfilled their contracts after I had transitioned and they had booked me for festivals and things…I fulfilled the contracts. I did the jobs competently. The audiences seemed to really like what I did, but I wasn't asked back, in a lot of cases. And so that's been very difficult. The jazz musician world…I kind of learned who my friends were, who were really my friends and respected my musicianship and those who were just shining me on. So it sort of weeded out a lot of the dead wood as far as my career goes, and I've formed new circles and some of the old people from my previous existance are still in my career and in my life. But I've made a new path, I've got away from the negative people who were pretty much shunning me and I just didn't even try to win their approval. But gradually the more I stick my nose out there the better it's getting. If I shirk away from them, I let them win. So I just sort of do what I do and the more that I show people that I'm okay with everything then they become a little more okay with me.

You've had about five years to observe this. Do you think the jazz world in general is more accepting now than previously?

Well, I've created my own little corner of the jazz world. I by no means feel that I'm of an echelon that I can go out and book myself at major festivals yet. That's what my goal is someday is to be an entity that can tour with my own group. I don't know that that's ever going to be possible, but whatever I'm going to do I'm going to forge my own path, whether it's in the jazz world or whether it's in another kind of world. I don't know.

I imagine you had a lot of fears about the impact of transitioning on your career?

Totally. Like I said, I was ready to walk away from a musical career. I didn't think it was going to be possible. It took me a long time to get over that fear that I was going to lose my career. It's one of the reasons it took me until I was 48 years old to transition. I was scared to death…I love to play music, it drives me more than anything, and I was afraid I was going to lose that. And it took me a long time just to be able to face the fear, and go through with it. And again, I was ready to walk away. I thought I would have to at one point, but leading my group again, that's been the thing that kept my head up, and…

It's probably empowering, too.

Quite, quite, cause I can control what I say. I can control what I look like and it's really been a great forum for me.

Well, from your photos you look pretty good.

(laughs) Well, thank you. You should have seen me when I was a teenager.

Let's get to another song from your new album. I think "Beat the Meetles" is an inspired track. Could you tell me about that?

I wrote that song on my computer. I wanted to do a tune on "The Real Me" that harkens back to my days in elementary school when I was a Beatle freak. But I just wanted to do a little tribute to The Beatles, so I took just snippets of Beatle melody and Beatle background figures and I started messing around, I'd write like a little phrase, a bar phrase, like a bar and a half phrase and I would just like make a quilt out of it on the staff. I would put Beatle things underneath from other tunes and juxtapose melodies on the top staff and I just kind of sewed together this quilt of Beatle stuff, and I gave it that title. It's a nonsense title but it's fun.

Jennifer Leitham - Beat the Meetles (2007)

What advice would you give other trans musicians?

Oh, boy. Well, as with everybody in life all of us are so different. It's hard to lump us all together. There are so many different styles of music and so many ways of approaching being a transperson. I never think of myself as a transperson. I don't know if that's the right thing to say or not, I mean I'm certainly reminded of it all the time but I'm just a person, and in approaching my music and my career I'm a musician first. The music is what is important. My being transsexual is not the major focus. It's not the think I want to project as the main thing. Obviously people are paying attention to me because of it, but the point I want to get across is that the music and my competance is far more important, and that's the thing I want to get out there more than anything, is the fact that I'm a competent musician. And anyone who is approaching a career as a transperson, you've got to be as strong a player and a strong individual and just put your best foot forward at all times. Of course you're going to be judged for being a transperson but if what you're putting out there is as your art is not the strongest possible thing, you'd be like a wounded fish in the water with a bunch of hungry sharks.

Since you're so out about your transition, do you have and feelings that at points you're an activist?

Ah, goodness. Well I'm an activist in that I am…I guess you can say because I'm open, but there are really so many people who are really true activists, that go to lobby Congress and they take on Court battles and…they're far more activist than I am. If I can be an activist in any way it's just to prove the point that transpeople are no different than anyone else. I don't ask for any special favors because I'm a transperson. I want people to think of me as a good musician, and really good at what I do. That's far more important to me.

Good answers. I want to ask some questions about particular songs. Is there a song that seems to be the biggest crowd pleaser?

That's a good question. "Studio City Stomp" is my big hit and people always react to that but I think gradually…I wrote this song a long time ago called "Split Brain," and it's on my very first record. And at the time my ex kind of labeled it "Split Brain." Ah, I was married to a woman for a long time. We were married close to twenty years, and she had a degree in experimental psychology and this was…we met back in 1980. And she thought that at the time my problem was that I had a split brain, like one side wasn't communicating with the other. Actually I'm ambidextrous so that kind of proves that I have an integrated brain, not a split brain, because you have right-left issues with your brain controlling one side of your body, and all that. So my being ambidextrous proves I don't have a split brain, but anyway as I'm doing "The Real Me" I'm throwing in little pieces of my original music from different periods and that tune just stuck out as something I wanted to speak to. And I wrote a lyric to it and I sing now, and now it means something completely different. I'm very proud of the lyric I wrote for that song.

Jennifer Leitham - Split Brain (2007)

I think this is the first CD that you've sung on. What prompted that?

Well, it's stereotypical that a woman that plays the bass has to sing and I figure, hey, I'm in this genre, I better sing. And I used to sing, I'm just being serious, when I was in high school I didn't play an instrument I sang in the choir. My singing voice was actually my first instrument. And at that time I was very serious about it. I developed a fairly good singing voice. My voice was really high in those days and I was singing solos in the choir and whatnot and rock and roll bands noticed my high singing voice and I was recruited by some of these rock bands to have me sing lead vocals and high harmony parts.

And I sort of started playing the bass because I picked up the electric bass and I had a knack for just noodling around on bass lines. I could hear a thing on record and play it on the electric bass. And I played it left-handed because it just felt good, never realizing it was going to become a life-long thing. And at that point I started to take string bass lessons as well, and the string bass sort of became dominating in my life and at that time I was nervous about my voice. My voice was always really high back then, even higher than it is now, and when I sang, I sounded like a girl. My paranoia kind of got the better of me and I stopped singing, for close to 30 years I stopped singing. And I've always sung in the shower, you know, sung along with my records, particularly my Joni Mitchell records. I've always sung along with her stuff. And now I'm singing along with my Indigo Girls records, and it's always women vocalists I sing along with. I just like singing and it just seemed like a nice time to break out my voice again.

"Lefty Leaps In" seems to be one of your standards.

That comes from…that was from the CD of the same name, that was the name of my third CD "Lefty Leaps In" and that was one that got played on the radio back in the day a lot, so I wanted to re-record that one as well, and Josh plays the heck out of that, my piano player, so I wanted to put that one out again, and get the right name on it.

Jennifer Leitham - Lefty Leaps In (2007)

Any future projects you'd like to talk about?

Oh, there's so many things I want to do. I want to write more original music. I have a few things that I'm working on. I have so much music that's written, of other people's music that I've been writing arrangements for for years. About twelve years ago I did a small group treatment of "West Side Story" that's never been recorded, and my trio performs that stuff and we get a lot of requests for it, and it's quite popular, and I'd like to record that some day. I'd like to record a record of all vocals, oh many things, and I've had a lot of people bugging me to record solo bass. I did a solo bass tune on the tune called "Out of this World" on "Two For the Road," and then I did "Keni's Song" on "The Real Me." And I've had people bugging me, the bass geeks want me to put out an all bass record. Yeah if I had unlimited funding I could put six records out next week. You have to sort of plan ahead and get the finances in order before you decide to go ahead with anything. It's hard to decide.

Are there any questions that I should have asked you?

Goodness, well, one thing that I have not really talked about too much…you were asking me about trans, what I could offer to trans musicians, and I think in a general way trans people who are dealing with the media…when a trans person transitions it seems that all the media people want to talk to that person that's in the early stages of transitioning or just before surgery and once a person has transitions and has been living successfully and has pretty much assimilated and is fairly well adjusted it seems the media doesn't want to pay attention to those people. And part of it is that trans people who have assimilated, most of them want to be stealth and they don't want you to know about their past. But there are more and more people who are coming out who just don't even want to bother with trying to be stealth, and who frankly who aren't ashamed of any of it and don't care to hide it.

And those folks are not getting the same kind of media attention as, you know, the Susan Stantons of the world and it seems like the mass media wants to jump on the angst. They feed off of that angst about it. And they're not showing that this can be a really happy story. They want to focus on the broken families and the job loss and the discrimination. But when somebody gets to the other side and they've successfully transitioned and the hormones take their full effect and you've had the surgery and you feel so much better, and you feel great….that doesn't get covered very much. So unfortunately the whole subject matter of the transsexual in the media, they generally cover more the court battles and the custody battles amongst parents and the job loss and all that. They don't tell the happy stories.

We're winding down the interview, and by the way, you can find out more about Jennifer Leitham and her music at www.JenniferLeitham.com, and Leitham is spelled L-E-I-T-H-A-M.

Leitham QMH ID

I'm down to the last song, but before I get to it I want to thank you all for listening, and I want to especially thank Jennifer Leitham for the wonderful interview. And there was much from that interview that I could just not fit in the radio version of this show, so my internet listeners can hear a little longer show, with a lot more comments and additional music. That of course can be found at www.queermusicheritage.com. And, as always if you have questions or comments about any of the music I've featured, please write me. This is JD Doyle for Queer Voices on KPFT in Houston.

We talked earlier about how the album "The Real Me" is the first to feature Jennifer on vocals as well as bass, and one of my favorite tracks from the album gives you an excellent taste of that. Closing the show is Jennifer Leitham and "Stick It In Your Ear"

Jennifer Leitham - Stick It In Your Ear (2007)