If Jay Leonhart were only a master bass man, his performances would be a pleasure for any jazz fan. As an entertainer, this widely-admired veteran musician brings considerably more than his instrumental craft. He is also a talented singer/songwriter with a dry and often hilarious sense of humor.
The Napa Valley Jazz Society presents Leonhart in performance with pianist Tomoko Ohno this Sunday at Silo’s.
On the phone from New York City last week, Leonhart talked about his early discovery and passion for his instrument. After a guitar/banjo phase and some early experience with the bass in a dixieland band, his musical life changed when he first heard Ray Brown on an Oscar Peterson recording.
“My jaw dropped,” Leonhart said, “and I realized I wasn’t playing the bass at all. I was fooling with the bass. I quickly started asking myself how am I ever going to play like Ray Brown? The answer, of course, is I won’t. But I will take as much as I can from his playing and apply it to my own, and that’s been my lifelong goal.
“I worked at it, and I got to know Ray, studied with him and we became lifelong friends. I met him when I was 15. He was 27 and he died at 76 in 2002, I believe. I knew him all the while, he was a great inspiration to me.”
Leonhart has had a long respected career, performing and/or recording with a star-studded roster of artists including Judy Garland, Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Bucky Pizzarelli, Lee Konitz, Louie Bellson, Gerry Mulligan, Carly Simon, James Taylor, Sting and many others. In three different years, he was named the Most Valuable Bassist by the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences.
The bassman talked about how he began integrating songwriting and singing into his performances well after he established himself as an instrumentalist. “I had been singing in choirs when I was very young,” he said, “but didn’t really think about singing again until I had children of my own.”
“I was in my early 30s and I started listening to Sesame Street. I was a professional bass player in New York working in studios and every gig you can imagine, trying to earn a living to support my family. I decided one day to write a song based on a Sesame Street thing. I wrote it and it was okay, and that hooked me. I thought, ‘This is fun.’
“I started writing poems and putting them to music, and learning to sing them, trying to make them sound relevant. And to make my voice sound at least like I was actually singing. With time I’ve gotten better at it, I hope.”
Over the decades, Leonhart has developed a large catalog of songs, mostly personal and observational storytelling, almost always witty, occasionally laugh-out-loud funny, layered over the cool jazz voice of his bass.
“I’ve always had a sense of humor,” he said. “I always could make funny comments without even trying. When I graduated from high school, I was voted most humorous in the senior class. I didn’t know I was funny, I didn’t think I was funny. I wasn’t a clown, but I had a funny point of view. And every time I started to write about something, I found that there was something funny there.”
“I’ve got songs that you won’t hear that are very funny, some of them are a little off color, but it’s some of my best work. I confess that some of it is a little perverse. I’ve got one song about a guy in Baltimore who sculpted a penis out of a potato.”
At Silo’s, Leonhart will be performing with Ohno, including selections from their recent album, “Don’t You Wish.”
“We began teaming up six, seven years ago on a jazz cruise,” he said. “Tomoko is so disciplined. She keeps me on the straight and narrow, making sure the chords are correct and this and that. She’s a wonderful working partner, and she plays great. She’s indispensable to me now.”
Sunday, July 22, 4 p.m., presented by the Napa Valley Jazz Society (NVJS). $45 ($25 for NVJS members). Silo’s Napa, 530 Main St., Napa. Purchase tickets at nvjs.org or 707-224-5299.