Setting the music free
Film ‘I Stand Corrected’ follows jazz bassist’s transition, career trajectory into womanhood
By Sara Cardine 07/12/2012
For local jazz bassist Jennifer Leitham, music has always been the way in — a gateway to an inner state, where the clarity of sound fills her senses and leaves no room for the world outside.
Perfecting her craft for hours on end, first on a bass guitar and then on an upright bass, Leitham came one step closer to her true self with each and every note. Her career as a jazz musician took her to new heights, working with some of the best musical minds of the 20th century.
But even as Leitham’s career skyrocketed, she lived in fear, her back up against a seemingly insurmountable psychic wall. Her creativity, the music inside, was trapped by a lie, an identity that seemed so real but felt so wrong.
Leitham was a woman — she saw the world through a woman’s eyes, felt most comfortable in women’s clothes and being known as Jennifer. But for as long as she was stuck inside the body of one John Leitham, Jennifer’s vibrant personality, her ebullient, girly-girl nature, was nothing more than a closely guarded secret.
“I was scared to death people would find out and my career would end,” she says.
Leitham lived uncomfortably with this duplicity for more than 40 years before fully breaking free and transitioning into a woman in 2001.
Today, Leitham’s evolution away from John and his many career accomplishments toward an uncertain but authentic future as Jennifer is the subject of the new film “I Stand Corrected,” by LA documentarian Andrea Meyerson. The tale of Leitham’s personal transformation and how her passion and talent built a solid jazz career not once, but twice, comes Monday night to LA’s Outfest, an annual gay and lesbian film festival now in its 30th year.
“I really wanted to showcase her talent,” Meyerson says. “I didn’t want to make the movie about the transition. This story is about a woman who transitioned a long time ago, and I wanted to tell her story on the other side.”
‘Blame it on My Youth’
“I Stand Corrected” pays respect to Leitham’s musical roots, delving into how what began as a form of escapism actually led the young musician to the truth of her own self.
Though she recalls her first memories at age 4 being laced with confusion about why she was being treated like a boy, it was not up for discussion in her family.
“I tried to deflect attention away from the fact that I knew I was a girl,” Leitham says.
Music became the place where the young Leitham, growing up in Reading, Pa., went when things got rough, when bullying boys’ taunts turned into broken noses and cuts that required stitches.
Leitham had tried to fit in with the crowd by excelling at sports, especially baseball, but as puberty descended, it was clear her secret wouldn’t stay hidden on the playing fields. Eventually, she turned to music, joining the chorus in junior high school. When she found an old, cheap guitar at a garage sale, her fate was sealed.
“All the strings fell off but the bottom two, so I could only play the melody or the bass line,” Leitham recalls.
Those few strident strums of slender fingers against taut strings were baby steps into what would become a successful, decades-long music career. In high school, Leitham cut class, working at Arby’s by day and playing electric bass in a rock band by night.
Later, lessons in music theory and technique led Leitham to a mentorship under bassist Al Stauffer, who believed musicians only became great one step at a time. Through Stauffer, Leitham got a few club gigs in and around South Philadelphia and began to develop his chops.
Despite the joy of diving headfirst into a life of music, Leitham still felt her true self stifled inside the public persona of John Leitham.
“You’re looking with eyes that are a different body. You’re in here, and what you’re projecting outward is not what’s behind the eyes,” she explains, holding interlaced fingertips in front of her face and struggling to peer through them. “It’s like you’re looking through a mask.”
‘Left Coast Story’
A move to Los Angeles in 1983 marked an exciting new era in John Leitham’s career. He’d earned his musical pedigree as a member of the Woody Herman Thundering Herd, the band of the famed Swing-era clarinetist-turned-bandleader, and had developed a thirst for playing before large audiences, despite the sometimes uncomfortable living quarters.
“The idea of living in a bus with a bunch of guys was freaky to me. It was like a locker room; for a woman to break into that group, it was difficult,” Leitham says. “Women didn’t get the opportunities to play with people who were great. In those days, you just didn’t see it — so I went underground.”
Out of fear of being outed as a “cross dresser” (a misnomer in this case, since that refers to men who dress as women but still self-identify as male) and possibly derailing his career, Leitham guarded his personal life fiercely, confiding only in his fiancée and a few close friends.
Meanwhile, Leitham’s career in LA soared to new heights. Playing small clubs throughout North Hollywood and Toluca Lake got him noticed by larger musicians, who wanted him in their bands. In addition to playing bass behind legendary jazz pianist George Shearing, Leitham backed jazz crooner Mel Tormé and spent several years playing for Doc Severinsen, best known as leader of the NBC Orchestra on “The Tonight Show” from 1967 to 1992.
‘The Real Me’
The more John Leitham performed and connected with the music he played, the more Jennifer wanted to come out.
“My heart, mind, body and soul were all in those notes,” she says today. “There would be certain events as I got older, when I kept coming further and further out of the toothpaste tube and you couldn’t put me back.”
In 1997, while touring with Severinsen in Wisconsin, John was introduced to someone who asked upon meeting him, “So, what’s your real name?” His natural response was, “My good friends call me Jennifer.”
Leitham eventually decided life was more than just a career. The day she began hormone therapy officially marks the day a tired John Leitham handed the reins to Jennifer and let her decide what course her life would take from there.
Today, Leitham celebrates four birthdays, but the only one she’s coy about is her biological one. The others, just as important as the first, she’ll tell you down to the day and year. Nov. 21, 2001, is the official beginning of her transition. The third, Jan. 25, 2002, is the day she officially changed her name to Jennifer Jane Leitham, and July 19, 2002, marks the day she underwent gender correction surgery.
Among those dates are smaller, personal milestones — developing a style and mannerisms, learning how to sit and act like a lady and navigating the complex emotions aroused by the influence of estrogen on the brain.
Today, in addition to making the film fest circuit alongside Meyerson for “I Stand Corrected,” Leitham leads the Jennifer Leitham Trio, which plays all over the country. In 2006, she released her first solo album, “The Real Me,” which featured all original works.
Watching Leitham play is a mesmerizing experience, according to Meyerson, as she lets her body move freely with the music and the movements of the upright bass. It’s like her bass is part of her body, a living breathing thing.
“Before, all my angst and emotion would go up into my face. I really looked like a tortured soul,” she says. “Now, it’s better. I don’t care what I look like — I just let go.”
LA Outfest begins Monday and runs through July 22 in venues throughout Los Angeles. “I Stand Corrected” plays Monday at 7 p.m. at the Harmony Gold Theater, 7655 Sunset Boulevard, Los Angeles, and will be followed by a Q&A with filmmaker Andrea Meyerson and Jennifer Leithem. Buy festival tickets through outfest.org/fest2012. For upcoming appearances by the Jennifer Leitham Trio, visit jenniferleitham.com.