© Gary Carner. Copyright Protected. All rights reserved.
How many times do you come across a book so good you want to read it twice? That perhaps best describes my feeling about Peter Leitch's dazzling new memoir, Off the Books (Vehicule Press). It's simply the best jazz book I've read in many years, and it's been a joy to "play" it again.
I've known Peter since his 1984 Uptown date with Pepper Adams, and I've listened to his recordings many times over the years. Apart from interviewing him about Pepper many years ago, hearing him at a very memorable late-1980s gig at the Willow in Cambridge MA with pianist James Williams, and running into him once at the New York jazz club Visiones, and I hadn't spoken with him in a very long time until last year's Pepper Adams Week in New York City. During that amazing series of concerts promoted by Motema records, I took a bunch of friends to Walker's to hear him play a few Pepper tunes. Thankfully, in a way, reading his autobiography makes up for not staying in touch.
I've always admired Leitch as a player. His A Special Rapport date on Reservoir, to name one recording, is sensational! But reading his autobiography gives you a whole different sense of this wide-ranging, very important artist. Besides being a great musician, who has performed with many of jazz's most influential players, Leitch is also an accomplished photographer, a keen observer of the world, and a great writer. Leitch's book is beautifully crafted, gripping, a real page-turner. His observations about jazz, life, politics, drugs, the music scene, and, in some ways most importantly, about himself, are sincere, direct, funny, touching, poignant.
The book is divided into three sections: "Montreal in the 1950s and 60s," "Toronto 1977-1982," and "New York 1982-." I will discuss each part individually over the next three weeks to, in my way, give tribute to Leitch's very important contribution to jazz history and life writing.
Generally speaking, chronologically presented biographies or autobiographies are the norm, and, as such, quite cliched. But in Leitch's memoir, the format works well for three reasons. First, the content is so fresh and alive, and the prose is wrought in such a concise, forward-moving style, that the format becomes meaningless. Second, helping the narrative are the author's flash-backs and flash-forwards to themes throughout the book, unifying it in that fashion. Third, the three sections of the book correspond to major shifts in Leitch's life, so they make sense as an overarching organizing principle.
Part One of the book is a discussion of the author's first 23 or so years based in Montreal. The author immediately emerges as a sympathetic figure, as he establishes the contradiction of being an English-speaking Protestant in a French-speaking, Roman Catholic town. This dichotomy, beautifully developed like one of his solos, serves as a metaphor for his alienation in working class Point-aux-Trembles, the refinery area of Montreal's east-end.
Although Leitch learned to speak French by osmosis, his early education took place in English-speaking schools, and by high school, he was bussed downtown for two years--a welcome relief from the neighborhood. As an outsider, he coped, despite being bullied by gangs. He discovered his nihilism quite young, and this reinforced his detachment, as well as his growing confidence and individuality, amid the pressure of not conforming to the prevailing culture.
Some poignant stories about his family are included, and perhaps it was decided that, in a 200-page memoir, less is more. Still, I was left wanting to know more about his parents. The lack of information about them only reinforces Leitch's sense of alienation, wandering the city's underbelly, making sense of things on his own.
Always the photographer-observer, really memorable are Leitch's descriptions of his neighborhood: multi-colored industrial waste running down the street on his walk home from school; smokestacks burning gases "like religious icons;" sidewalks "caked with thick ice," Catholic priests in long black robes spitting on the sidewalk; the hegemonic, gray stone, mental institution with the red watchtower and chain link fence.
Just as poignantly, Leitch teases the reader on Page One with a hint of his future heroin habit that the author picks up midway in the chapter. But first, Leitch writes about his early exposure to jazz and how difficult it was learning how to play jazz in this milieu. A few record stores had the current Prestige, Riverside, and Blue Note releases, but there weren't many method books available, and his neighborhood prepared kids to work in the factories, not as aspiring jazz musicians. Leitch, self-taught, spent hours transcribing solos, often slowing them down an octave to 16 rpm, and if necessary, putting coins on the tonearm to slow them down even further.
Fortunately, the Montreal of his youth was still on the "jazz circuit," so all the major players came through and Leitch played hooky and heard as many as possible. Implied is that Montreal was a cosmopolitan, open city that, unlike Detroit, for example, didn't restrict minors from visiting jazz clubs. Leitch befriended the legendary guitarist Rene Thomas, who lived in Montreal from 1957-1962, and he studied with trumpeter Herbie Spanier. From there he met aspiring players like himself and other jazz elders living in town.
Leitch's descriptions of his early gigs, relationships, and growth as a Canadian musician is an important contribution to the jazz history of Montreal--really fascinating to read and loaded with amusing anecdotes. Importantly, Leitch writes about the black jazz scene that was centered around Mountain and St. Antoine streets. Here, Leitch heard the influential guitarists Nelson Symonds and Sonny Greenwich, among many other great musicians.
The second half of Part One discusses Leitch's use of heroin, begun in the mid-1960s. Leitch was a user until 1973, when he relocated to Quebec City for two years to work full-time for a CBC TV talk/variety show. Leitch describes this aspect of his life in vivid detail, focusing on how he coped with the habit while growing as a musician. His first wife was also a user.
During the mid-60s, Leitch noticed the difference between how many blacks and whites approached jazz:
Among the black musicians, even the not-so-good ones, there was a
sense of the music being a matter of life and death, which it was. With
some of these old guys if you played the wrong chords, you might get
a trumpet blown in your ear (or worse!). On the bandstand it was
serious. With a lot of the white musicians, even though they might be
really proficient musicians doing a really great job, you sometimes got
the feeling that they were thinking about their mortgages, or dinner, or
I pre-ordered Off the Books because I knew that the author would discuss Pepper Adams. I wasn't expecting to read the book, but I wanted the Adams references for my work on my Pepper Adams biography. Quite frankly, with a day job, I only have time to seek out books that help me understand Pepper's life, because time is so limited, and I'm trying to work my way through a Pepper Adams screenplay, then get to the full-length biography. Leitch's memoir was impossible to put down, and it has given me several important things that help me understand Adams' life in greater detail:
1. The description of Montreal's Stanley Street Beat Scene in the late 1950s- early 1960s--surely an important contribution to jazz scholarship in its own right--gives me a sense of that place where Pepper performed, mostly notably at the Little Vienna.
2. Pepper denied using heroin, kind of the way Bill Clinton denied having sex with Monica Lewinsky. Pepper did, however, have a few experiences in New York shooting up, and Leitch's in-depth portrayal of the physical and emotional effects of heroin help me understand why Montreal pianist Keith White talked about heroin and the way it leads to insight.
3. Playing unusual gigs, like strip clubs puts into relief the very strange gigs Pepper worked too, when coming up, including gigs at strip clubs with Roland Hanna in New York City, soon after they arrived in the mid-50s.
4. As I expected, specific descriptions of Pepper are very memorable, especially the passage that Leitch "was in awe of him" and why that was so. More about that next week in my second installment of this review.