I Stand Corrected: Jennifer Leitham and the New Spirit of Jazz
The documentary I Stand Corrected—screening as part of the Seattle Lesbian & Gay Film Festival (Oct 11–21)—is about Jennifer Leitham, a highly regarded and talented jazz bassist. Until around the middle of the previous decade, Jennifer Leitham was John Leitham. A decade before this transformation, John was the bassist for the Velvet Fog, Mel Tormé. If you go to the Wikipedia page for Mel Tormé, you'll find a picture of him, Benny Goodman, and Teddy Wilson. Goodman is on the clarinet, Wilson is on the piano, and Tormé (who is mostly known as a crooner) is on the drums. The picture was taken in the late '40s. Why bring up this image? What does it have to do with the documentary about Jennifer Leitham's life? Wilson is black, and Goodman and Tormé are white. And why is this significant? In those days, jazz groups were pretty much segregated. Black musicians played with black musicians, and whites with whites. By playing with Wilson, a great and elegant pianist, Goodman and Tormé were breaking the rules and opening doors to new worlds, new possibilities for American music.
With that in mind, let's turn to the '90s, to the period when Jennifer was John and performing with the elderly Tormé. True, John at the time wasn't open about being transgender and, during performances, dressed like a guy, but as the documentary explains, working with Tormé gave John a great deal of prestige in the jazz world, and this prestige certainly made his transformation into Jennifer much easier and less controversial. Sure, some jazz musicians were surprised, but many others were not; many got used to the fact that John was gone for good and Jennifer was here to stay and play music. Today, when Jennifer performs with trios or quintets, we are seeing something like the spirit of Wilson, Goodman, and Tormé. Northwest Film Forum, Wed Oct 17 at 7:15 pm.