For most of her life, the internationally renowned transgender jazz bassist Jennifer Leitham was forced to live in two completely different worlds, quietly slipping back and forth between them without anyone knowing.
In her mind, the first world — the heterosexual, homophobic boys’ club that was jazz — could not mesh with her private life. Born a male, at home she secretly lived her life as a woman, which she had always known was her true gender.
While it might sound difficult to juggle both realities, for Leitham each was equally freeing in its own way. “Music was a pole to me, much like my gender identity,” she says. “My draw to jazz was just as great as my draw to be who I really was. At home, I was able to display my true gender, while also being able to have a career doing what I love. I was able to subvert myself and live that double life.”
The powerful, intimate and engaging documentary I Stand Corrected, part of this year’s Tampa International Gay and Lesbian Film Festival, shows how Leitham — born John — was able to bring these two worlds together and make the difficult but freeing decision to pursue gender reassignment surgery decades into an established career as a musician.
Growing up outside of Philadelphia in the ’50s and ’60s, John Leitham felt the pull of these polarizing forces from a young age. “I knew early on something was amiss,” she says. “My gender role just did not connect with me, but I couldn’t put my finger on it. I always felt I was lumped in with the wrong gender. But there wasn’t a lot of information about gender issues available in those days.”
She first picked up the bass to take on the role of Paul McCartney when she and her friends mimicked their heroes, the Beatles. This is how Leitham’s trademark left-handed playing style, though she’s right-handed, came about.
As a teen, she sang in chorus until the teasing began. “My voice was so high that I was embarrassed,” Leitham remembers. So she simply stopped singing. “I wanted to eliminate any chance people would think I was a girl and not a boy.”
In the early ’70s, Leitham began playing electric bass, forming a rock band with friends. During a time when gender-bending rock icons — think David Bowie, Alice Cooper — were popular, glam rock seemed like a good fit. But her knack for improvisation drew her to jazz, and she began formally studying it. “I had an ear for music,” Leitham says. “It’s always been my solace. It was a solitary task where I was able to shut off the rest of the world.”
As Leitham’s reputation as a left-handed double bass player grew, she moved to the West Coast to further her career. At the time, she was married to a woman who supported and encouraged her true identity early on and even gave her the name Jennifer, and the young couple headed to Los Angeles.
Leitham performed on more than 100 jazz recordings, but became known for long-term gigs touring with legends Mel Torme and Doc Severinsen, who was very supportive during Leitham’s transition. While touring with Torme, she’d often fill in with Severinsen’s Tonight Show band, eventually joining Severinsen full-time when Torme could no longer perform.
The life of a traveling musician, as well as Leitham’s increasing desire to live as a woman full-time, took a toll on her marriage. As the couple tried to work out their issues, Leitham’s now ex-wife jumped the gun and outed her as transgender to family, friends and co-workers. Needless to say, damage control was necessary, but, says Leitham, “I almost thank her for it now. She ripped off the Band-Aid for me.”
Then, in 2001, while in her 40s, Leitham decided to undergo gender reassignment surgery. The effect on her music has been profound. While much of the jazz world has shunned Leitham since her transition (“I’m a joke to a lot of the community,” she said), it actually gave her more control over her music. She books her own gigs, leads her own band, and even started singing again. “It forced me to delve more into my own art and my own presentation on stage. I’m completely at ease and love putting on a show. I’m more immersed in the music, and worry less about what people think.”