James Leary: A Solid Bass Brick In The Foundation Of Jazz

(Jan 25, 2015, 11:41 AM PDT)

James_Leary_1
James Leary

“People like James Brown, you know, he and his audience recognized that everybody listens to the bass. Well, you know in the South, bass was always something that people loved. When the bass solo came or the bass voice, everybody shouted ‘Yeah’.”

James Leary is a mild mannered, soft spoken, humble bassist with a well documented history in jazz. Not one to toot his own horn, he’s remained a solid brick in the foundation of several iconic bands including Bobby Hutcherson, Earl Hines, Nancy Wilson, Dizzy Gillespie, and the Count Basie Orchestra. He played with Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Johnny Hartman, Rosemary Clooney, Max Roach, Esther Phillips, Eartha Kitt, Eddie “Cleanhead” Vincent, Major Lance, Red Garland, Randy Weston, John Handy, Don Shirley, and many more. I’m honored to say he even played on my recently released CD entitled, “Storyteller”.

His big bass sound is majestically performed on a Bernedel upright bass built in 1834, or on his English Panormo bass built in 1909. He also plays an electric Fender bass and entertains around the Los Angeles area and beyond. Surprisingly, his first jobs in music were as a rhythm and blues pianist in Little Rock, Arkansas. Leary played piano in bands featuring Teroy Betton, Ben Pruitt, Thomas East, Robert Trezvant, David ii, Jimmy Mayers and York Wilborn; groups that worked all over the Arkansas area.

JAMES: “My mother’s brother, Cornelius Torrence, who later moved to Chicago, played great boogie-woogie piano. My father’s brother played a little boogie-woogie piano. They both played by ear and I learned from both of them by watching their hands. All of my grandparents owned pianos. My mother’s mother, Ethel Torrence, is the one who bought a piano and my mother was kind of a musician. She played trumpet, bugle and a little piano.

I grew up in the South end of Little Rock, down below Roosevelt (aka 25th St). That was the black area. Above 25th was the white area. Then there was a conclave of white folks below 25th on Broadway, a beautiful neighborhood that stretched down into the hood. Little Rock was really strange. It had enclaves of white and black. They could be up the street from each other, but without interaction. There was a street called West 9th Street that had black businesses – grocery stores, drug stores, pool halls, cleaners, the Gem Movie Theater, etcetera. We didn’t even deal with white folks at all because of Jim Crow and segregation. If you wanted to get a job, all the bus drivers were white; all the municipal workers were white. After a while that stopped, but maybe the first ten years of my life I never saw a black postman. They probably were the first ones to integrate. My grandmother knew some of her white neighbors, but I don’t think they ever had a friendship.

“My grandmother bought a piano when I was six or seven and I took lessons. My cousin, Pat (Mpata) and my sister Barbara played piano. They were so much better than me that I quit and decided to be a football player. I was really a good football player too, until at the age of fourteen I broke my leg. I had to stay home and a visiting teacher came to the house. At that point, the piano became my best friend.

“At fifteen, I had a teacher named Art Porter, Sr. who was the Horace Mann High School choir director and also a jazz pianist. He would sometimes have his jazz trio play at Horace Mann and I was already trying to be a piano player, ’cause I had heard Ahmad Jamal and I was trying to play ‘Poinciana.’ And also I played on talent shows behind different people including ‘the Lyrics’ because my name was Leary and sounded a little like lyric, they named the group after me. My neighborhood friends, Jack Gay and Tomas East were very interested in music. Jack Gay’s brother-in-law had a record collection and we would go over and listen to it. I had been listening to Ahmad Jamal and I would put my ear to the speaker to hear that bass. I was already leaning towards the bass, when I heard this piano player named Charles Thomas playing and I said, I’ll never be able to do that. He sounded like Wynton Kelly. So, even though I was making gigs as a pianist, at fifteen I found myself loving the bass. When I heard Art Porter’s trio and the bass player, I think that pushed me over the edge.

“At the time, I was a working pianist. I think I was making $30 a week playing piano with a rock and roll or rhythm and blues band. But I went down to the music store and bought this bass. I had been down there looking at it 3 or 4 times. I decided, ok that’s it. I’m getting that bass. It cost $135, was painted black and had a hole in the side. So that’s when I became curious about playing the bass; around the tenth grade.

“Israel Crosby is the one who was playing with Ahmad Jamal and if you played piano, you had to play Israel Crosby’s bass line and rhythm. So Israel Crosby was my first inspiration. Then my English teacher gave me the record “All Blues.” When I heard Paul Chambers it was over. It was Israel Crosby and Paul Chambers. I didn’t know about Mingus until a little later on a Columbia sampler album I heard, ‘Mingus Ah Um’ (Leary starts singing the bass line to me in his rich baritone voice) and on the same sampler album, Dave Brubeck with ‘Blue Rondo A La Turk’. You know, I started listening to the bass as a piano player.

“Art Porter, my choir teacher in the eleventh grade, started a big band. It was the first time my high school had ever had a big band. So I played bass in the big band and I didn’t even know where F was. I was starting to learn. I sang baritone in the choir. I wasn’t really good enough to step out there as a soloist (he mimics the famed Leon Thomas jazz yodel) and I probably would have had to work really hard to be a solo singer, but I was a good ensemble guy.

“One guy who played trumpet, a great musician; his name was Teroy Betton and he embellished my piano playing. Teroy taught me the changes that Hank Crawford played on ‘Misty.’ He (Crawford) had an arrangement on Misty that ‘swung’. So then I started analyzing Hank Crawford while I was still playing piano. I didn’t play bass then. Later, when I played the bass, I would always figure out what the rest of the chord was from what was played in the bass line, because that’s how I played piano.

“Art Porter gave me a five or six night a week job on my new bass with the hole in the side. So I quit my rhythm and blues gig, which really pissed off the R&B band leader because we had jackets printed ‘York Wilborn and the Thrillers’ and I was their reliable piano player.

“I’m saying that the bass is half of the music, the way we like to hear the music. In the gospel church you hear that organ bass rollin’. You know I used to go to the sanctified church just to listen to that organ. We always paid attention to the bass. People like James Brown, you know, he and his audience recognized that everybody listens to the bass.
Well, you know in the South, bass was always something that people loved. When the bass solo came or the bass voice, everybody shouted ‘Yeah’ (Leary sings to me the 1951 hit record by Billy Ward and the Dominos, ‘Sixty Minute Man’ and we laugh).

“When I left high school and Art Porter, I went to North Texas State. I had my first bass lesson with Alan Richardson. I also met guys who were mentors and who were students. One guy’s name was Mike Lawrence. Mike Lawrence showed me quite a few things, mainly chords. I was learning melodies to some of the Art Blakey tunes. And another musician there was Billy Harper, the saxophonist who played with Lee Morgan. He was with Lee Morgan when Lee Morgan got killed. We (Harper) would go play gigs with folks like Fathead Newman and people who were coming through like Marcus Belgrave (trumpeter) and the guy that played tuba and baritone saxophone, Howard Johnson. This is when I was a freshman in college. I’d be with all these musicians and learn all these other tunes. I also took an Improv class. That’s when I started realizing there was more than standards. There was this other music over here. And that’s when I started learning other kinds of harmony. I knew hundreds of standards, but then I started learning the music that the beboppers were playing. You know, Coltrane and all those kind of songs.

“I later met Pharaoh Sanders in the driveway of my Little Rock home where my mother had moved. Pharoah was visiting relatives in North Little Rock and was leaving to join John Coltrane. He lived in New York and encouraged me to move there.

“I left North Texas State and I spent 3 years at a black college in Pine Bluff, Arkansas. It was called Arkansas A&M but now it’s known as UAPB (U of Arkansas, Pine Bluff). Then, I didn’t have a real bass teacher and I reverted back to keyboard playing with various R&B bands. But I played bass with jazz groups. I would listen to records, transcribe things off records, and … sometimes guys would have sheet music from other professional groups and I would study those. I studied intensely. There was another guy named John Stubblefield who played tenor saxophone and another piano player named Sonelius Smith, although I think I showed him more on piano than he could show me. Sonelius Smith is still a pianist right now in New York. And there was Joe Gardner, a trumpet player who used to take songs off of Lee Morgan records and we would play all this music. 1967, our group participated at Intercollegiate Jazz Festivals in Little Rock and in 1968 (in St. Louis) I met George Duke. He was with a group from San Francisco State. I graduated from UAPB in ’68 and remembered that conversation with George Duke about San Francisco. In addition, my maternal Aunt Lois and Uncle Scotty lived there. That made it easy to move to San Francisco where I reconnected with George Duke. The second day there, I met local musicians Bill Bell and Mike Nock. Mike recommended me to John Handy, who was using Mike White, a violinist. Nock and White had started a band called Fourth Way. We rehearsed daily and finally we played a night at Both/And. After that, I started playing with major artists at the Both/And Club after Delano Dean, (the owner) found out about me. To my amazement, the first group was the Bobby Hutcherson/Harold Land quintet.

“I also worked with Thelonius Monk from 1970 into 1971. John Heard had moved to Los Angeles in 1968 and George Duke started to hire me. I enrolled in Grad school at San Francisco State during that time studying Bass with Charles Siani at SF State and a virtuoso bassist named Ortiz Walton who lived in Berkeley. Independent of Siani, Walton guided me thru some technical aspects which helped improve my tone and musicianship.

“In 1972, I was working with the great vocalist, Joe Williams at The Boarding House with local piano master Bill Bell, the great Eddie Marshall and me on bass. I also was working with the great swinging pianist, Martha Young, at a Berkeley, Ca Marina hangout, 2 days a week; a large restaurant with a piano bar area called Solomon Grundys. John Heard was subbing with the Basie Band and had to split back to LA. I was called for a rehearsal as a temporary, one-time sub (so I thought) with Basie’s Band at the Fairmount Hotel Ballroom. Their run was over at the hotel. To my surprise, Basie asked me to see his wife about something. I thought it was to be paid for the rehearsal. Mrs. Basie offered me the Basie gig and hired me after that rehearsal. Six months later, in May of 1982, I was given notice from the Basie Band. I was told Cleveland Eaton came off of temporary leave. That was not the understanding I had, but that’s the music business, so I returned to the Bay area. During the next period of time I freelanced around San Francisco and did a recording session with Jon Hendricks and Company, featuring Michele Hendricks. About a year later, I rented a U-haul truck and moved to Los Angeles to study Film scoring privately with the great Nobel nominee, Orchestrator/Composer and former UCLA professor, Albert Harris. I started working with Maxine Weldon playing Fender Bass. My friend, Randy Randolph was her pianist and versatile Washington I. Rucker was the drummer. Randy also got me on a gig with Jake Porter. Jake Porter auditioned me for his regular Sat/Sun Brunch engagement at the Bonaventure Hotel. That was 1983 and into 1984. Hank Crawford had hired me on Electric Bass during that time in 1983 and in April of 1984, I quit Jake Porter’s gig at the hotel. I asked my good friend, bassist Al Mckibbon, (father of beautiful Allison Mckibbon) to fill the required two weeks notice as a favor. I then played a two week engagement in Oakland ,Ca. with Hank Crawford featuring drummer Jimmy Smith and Calvin Newborn, a great guitarist from Memphis, Tennessee. I always played Fender bass with Hank.

“I returned to Los Angeles and got a call from conductor, George Rhodes. In March of 1984, I started my 5 year stint with Sammy Davis Jr. Life is movement!!!

Dee Dee: Tell me about your latest project – the “James Leary Tribute Choir Recording Project.”

JAMES: “Art Porter taught his high school choir how to be great for competitions and all kinds of stuff. So I already realized the depths and the sound and the sonority of a choir. I decided to go all out for this project when I was subbing with the Luckman Orchestra and we were playing “Shout,” Mary Lou Williams’ music with the Los Angeles Master Chorale and the Albert McNeil Jubilee singers, featuring Carmen Lundy and Cedric Berry. With those 250 voices behind me in that ensemble, well I had never heard anything like that before; perfectly in tune; flowing with the pauses and all the dynamics. That’s when I knew I had to compose for a choir.

“I like big band music too. I started writing music for the big band in college. I didn’t start writing for choir until later. When I got the Finale Software Music Notation program, I was subbing for Phyllis Battle (the vocal instructor at Billy Higgins’ World Stage music space) and this is maybe ’95, around that time. Before that, I was writing for a small vocal group. Even in high school I wrote for voices, because usually I arranged the songs for a small group of guys in a singing group. But later on, somehow it morphed into writing for a choir. I knew the depths of a choir. When I heard the Los Angeles Master Chorale and the Albert McNeil singers together, that pushed me into wanting to get that caliber of performance from a choir.

“I’ve been a composer ever since I was fourteen years old. So, I would just hear something and I would arrange it for choir, because I had Finale Software, where you could actually hear the voices back at you as you write them. I started writing more and more, because I like the sound of it. Sometimes I would write something for instruments and then transfer that to choir. At times instrumentalists say, man – your music is challenging, and singers have said the same thing. But I want to have a certain sound.

“In order to get that, I needed a person who could read and sing it right then; the first time down. I tried to get some of my original music sung, asking this conductor, Dwight Dickerson’s brother, Charles Dickerson to help. We went over to Nolan’s studio (the No Sound Studio in Pasadena) and these singers Dickerson recommended arrived. But I had to go one by one and teach them the music, even though they could read. So Carmen Twillie, a friend of Nolan’s, (the studio owner/engineer) saw me toiling line by line to teach them and recording everybody one-by-one. She said, oh no – no – no. I’ve got some people who can do this right now. So Carmen Twillie called these three people that I never heard before and they were studio session singers. They walked in the studio and they were standing in the middle of the studio with my written music when I heard all four voices sung together masterfully. I worked with this group because I could afford four people. They were super pros and made performance suggestions from time to time that enhanced the music tremendously. So that’s when I was determined to try and get a larger choir with the caliber of the Master Chorale. Because my music is challenging and also, these master singers don’t really have time to stop and donate their services. They’re excellent and they deserve to make the paper.”

James Leary recently concluded an Indiegogo effort for his “James Leary Tribute Choir Recording Project”. You can hear samples of this music at www.jameslearymusic.com. You can also enjoy his YouTube performances with greats like Sammy Davis Jr. and George Rhodes, the Count Basie Orchestra, 5 Basses play Mingus’ “Boogie Stop Shuffle” with Donald Dean on drums and John Clayton & Nedra Wheeler among the featured bass players and more.

When he’s not composing, performing or producing, you’ll find Leary teaching and inspiring children at the Vision Theater in Leimert Park as part of MusicLA, a community arts outreach program. He provides piano lessons to local youth. Here is another jazz icon living here in our Los Angeles community, deserving of our adoration and support.

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