© Gary Carner. Copyright Protected. All rights reserved.
Peter Leitch's great autobiography, Off the Books, concludes with a lengthy chapter about his time living in New York City. Leitch moved there from Toronto in 1982 and found it to be a liberating experience. "New York," Leitch wrote, "was the city of my dreams." Leitch loved the dirt and grime, the energy, and above all, the music scene.
Leitch and Sylvia Levine moved to East Thirteenth Street, between First and Second Avenue. Leitch's description of the neighborhood is terrific and cinematic in scope:
The streetscape was one of jacked-up cars, baseball on televisions and
music on radios connected to lamp posts, and people playing conga
drums on the sidewalk. People on the street communicated with their
families and neighbors by shouting back and forth from the street to
their apartment windows. In summer the fire hydrant across the street
was always open, providing cooling refreshment for kids and dogs.
Although it is illegal to keep farm animals within the city of New York,
some mornings we would awaken to the unmistakable sound of a
rooster crowing somewhere in the neighborhood.
The embodiment of life on Thirteenth Street was Tony, a car mechanic. Tony, the unofficial Mayor of Thirteenth Street, had the cops and town officials in his pocket.
Leitch describes 1982 New York City in rich detail, with an historian's eye for context and nuance. He shapes his discussion with fascinating asides about earlier and later New York, such as the establishment of the city's grid system in 1811, the unsuccessful attempt by Mayor Fernando Wood to have New York succeed from the Union in the 1850s, the fact that there were as yet no chains stores of any kind in the city when he first moved there, and that pre-9/11 New York City "didn't even seem like a part of the United States."
In 1982, New York was a city still rebounding from the financial crisis of the 1970s, with streets riddled with potholes and littered with car parts and abandoned vehicles. This chaotic landscape appealed to Leitch's anarchic spirit. In New York City everything goes, everyone is hustling to get ahead, "the rules were 'on hold,'" yet, somehow, it all worked. As Leitch summarized,
New York City is first and foremost a resource, in fact a collection of
resources. The very best of everything, from music to art to technology,
is available, and often quite cheaply. There is a kind of energy, an edge,
that one doesn't find anywhere else. . . . The city was an entity unto
itself, a sort of free trade interzone. And much of the trade was in ideas.
There were improvisational aspects to living here, especially as an
illegal alien, that were analogous to the music and appealed to me.
In this new and exciting environment, though virtually broke, Leitch began to get established as a musician. His first gig was with Pepper Adams at an Edgewater, New Jersey club, Struggles. (Peter gave me his cassette copy of this trio gig many years ago.) Soon afterwards, Leitch heard John Hicks and Ray Drummond play at Bradley's and he was deeply moved by their consummate artistry. Bradley's was one of a handful of Manhattan clubs where you could listen to small groups without paying a cover charge.
In his first months in New York, the author was also spending a lot of time with Robert Walker, who was assembling his first book of photography for publication. Leitch was just beginning to formulate his penchant for photojournalism, and Walker's library was a great resource.
In 1983 Leitch toured with organist Jack McDuff, then received a grant from the Canadian government to write and record music for octet, assisted by a letter of recommendation by Oscar Peterson. He also joined a group, the New York Jazz Guitar Ensemble, that performed transcriptions and reharmonizations of Wes Montgomery solos. The group recorded for Choice Records in 1986.
It was a dizzying time for Leitch. Besides gigging and writing record reviews for Cadence, he was practicing as much as six hours a day:
There were so many fantastic musicians in the city doing so many
different things. I decided that I needed to become a better guitar
player. New York was a whole other esthetic and required an
adjustment. Things that sounded great in your hometown didn't
sound as good here. You would walk down the street in New York
and hear people playing for spare change who were playing so
much music that they'd send you right back into the woodshed.
In 1984 Leitch recorded his first date as a leader in the States with New York musicians. The project began as a Thelonious Monk dedication and originally was going to be self-produced. Ultimately, Uptown Records signed Leitch and the recording date featured several Monk tunes as well as some standards and originals. Exhilaration--a title exemplifying Leitch's feelings about life in his new-found hometown--featured the all-star band of Pepper Adams, John Hicks, Ray Drummond, and Billy Hart. About Pepper Adams, Leitch wrote,
I was in awe of him. He was amazing. He knew so much about so
many things--all areas of music, visual art, literature, you name it--
and he could carry on an intelligent, informed conversation about
any of it. And Pepper was a hockey enthusiast, frequently attending
games at Madison Square Garden. He was a staunch New York
Despite liking "the outlaw aspect" of being an illegal alien, Leitch was still gigging in Canada and it took a lot of time planning on how to successfully cross the border. After marrying Sylvia in 1985, Leitch initiated immigration proceedings, ultimately getting his Green Card in 1987.
Over the years, in some interviews I've conducted, a number of musicians have spoken about Pepper Adams having been the recipient of racism, that it adversely effected his career. Not once has anything concrete been offered by any interviewees, but the implication has always consistently been that he was marginalized for playing with black bands. In Off the Books, finally I've learned of something specific, as in this description of reverse racism in jazz:
I've never been able to fathom this, but it's OK to have one white person
in a black band (in fact, people like it), or one black person in a white
band, as long as it isn't the leader. Apparently, Buddy DeFranco, Pepper
Adams, and several other white bandleaders who hired black sidemen
experienced this phenomenon to some degree. In fact, on a couple of
Pepper's first albums the company wouldn't put his picture on the cover
because he was white!
A quick look at Pepper's first six released albums as a leader indeed shows this to be true in half the cases. No cover photograph of Pepper exists on The Cool Sound of Pepper Adams (Savoy) or on Motor City Scene (Bethlehem), and the two thumbnail photos with Pepper on them on the cover to 10 to 4 at the Five Spot are somewhat ambiguous. Not knowing Pepper's race, and the lack of putting photographs of him on his own record covers, might be one reason why jazz fans were surprised he was white when he first traveled to Europe in 1964 and later. More than that, of course, was Pepper's style of playing--hardly in the mold of Gerry Mulligan.
Leitch is equally hard-hitting when it comes to jazz critics, something that Pepper Adams was most vehement about:
A lot of what was written about jazz in publications like the New
York Times in the '90s was obviously bought and paid for by the
big record companies. You could see these "jazz journalists"
appear at major label record dates like cockroaches coming out
of the walls, anywhere there was a chance of a free drink, or a
hot dog or a few crumbs of free food. It gave new meaning to
John Updike's definition of critics: "pigs at the pastry cart."
Echoing something I once heard Ron Carter tell me and my fellow classmates in a jazz history class at City College of New York, Leitch continues:
I have always felt that musicians should take their own poll of
critics and journalists. You could give out awards in various
categories such as "Most consistent misuse of musical
terminology" and "Best regurgitation of a major label press
release" and "Best autobiographical essay in the guise of a
review," etc. The awards themselves could consist of dog shit
or broken glass. Most musicians, black and white, feel this
way, although very few of them will admit it publicly.
Although the writing about music has become somewhat more democratic with the advent of the internet, I'd certainly be very interested to hear what musicians think of today's jazz critics, if they have the courage.
Leitch is also very critical of the "Young Lion" movement of the 1990s and how corporate interests changed things:
Since the early '90s, due largely to the emergence of Wynton Marsalis
as a major figure, both as a great trumpet player and as a symbol of
the "Young, Gifted and Black" syndrome, the major corporate record
labels had been trying to sell jazz. But instead of selling the music and
its rich legacy of in-the-moment creativity, they decided it was easier
to sell an image. They bought all the press money could buy, and
started signing and recording a lot of very young musicians, most of
them black, all of them under the age of twenty-five, and dressed them
in very expensive suits. . . . Some of these kids could play, but most
were in their early or transitional stages of development, and were
about as ready to make a major label jazz record as I am to fly to
Mars. Maybe not as ready! These records, made with huge budgets
(for jazz) and produced for the most part by people with degrees in
marketing rather than a knowledge of the music, were mostly terrible--
they mostly didn't sell. When they didn't sell the expected number of
units, the CDs were deleted from the catalog, returned to the company
and actually physically destroyed. This was done so that these items
would not take up space in the record stores that could be used for new
releases. So much for continuity and back catalog. I called this
"disposable diaper music."
Throughout the memoir, Leitch is unflinchingly honest with himself too, and this makes him even more of a real and sympathetic figure. He discusses his bouts with depression, panic attacks that marked a "crisis of confidence" after 50 years as a performer, and an extra-marital affair and its implications.
One such theme woven throughout the narrative is Leitch's disinterest with material possessions. When his Gibson L5 guitar slipped out of his hands, for example, and smashed to the floor, Leitch was unmoved:
Time to let go. . . I have never had any kind of romantic attachment
to guitars. In fact I never really liked them at all. They were simply a
tool, and if they worked well, were fairly comfortable to play, and
suited the musical purpose at hand, that was enough. Most good
guitars are overpriced anyway. I felt the same way about cameras
later. I remember playing someone's Benedetto guitar. What a great
instrument! But not thirty or forty thousand dollars great.
The last fifty pages of the book charts Leitch's ascent as a photographer, beginning in about 1996. This was somewhat of a healthy reaction to the change in the music business, that was becoming more monopolistic, and fostered the growth of a handful of "stars" that could be surrounded with promotional dollars--subsidizing tours and even club owners. It was hard for musicians of Leitch's generation to get work in this climate.
Leitch was mentored by his close friend Robert Walker and, by 2000, he began taking photographic field trips to the Deep South, Los Angeles, and elsewhere. A 1996 Museum of Modern Art retrospective of the work of Roy DeCarava made a tremendous impression on Leitch. A beautiful passage in the book, comparing music and photography, is written on Page 149-50, where the author discusses treble, bass, mid-range, melody, rhythm, form, and other musical concepts.
Part of the appeal of reading Off the Books is learning of the ascent of Leitch. In a way, the book serves as a romance, because Leitch triumphs over his environment and life circumstances to become a major player. As I've always said about Pepper Adams, one of the ways you can tell a player is great is by the company he keeps, and Leitch is no exception. What might seem at times as a travelogue or discographical essay sustains interest because of the musicians with whom Leitch worked. Apart from Adams, Hicks, Drummond, and Hart, Leitch's gigs and recordings discussed in the book are a Who's Who roster of some of the greatest players in jazz: Gary Bartz, Mickey Roker, Jesper Lundgaard, Marvin "Smitty" Smith, Kirk Lightsey, Woody Shaw, Jed Levy, Lewis Nash, Sonny Fortune, Bobby Watson, James Williams, Neil Swainson, Al Grey, Buddy Tate, Jimmy Forrest, Jack McDuff, Don Patterson, Phil Nimmons, Don Thompson, Oscar Peterson, Jaki Byard, Sonny Fortune, Ron Carter, Kenny Barron, Renee Rosnes, Rufus Reid, Rein de Graaff, Lew Tabackin, Mulgrew Miller, Billy Higgins, Terry Clarke, and Freddie Waits.
Off the Books is a work of tremendous depth. Please read it and pass the word. What a great book!