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David Leonhardt’s passion is to bring the jazz and creative music experience to as many people in the world as he can in a way that allows them to be transported to a higher plain of thought and emotion.

David Leonhardt, jazz pianist and composer, is a highly skilled and versatile artist. His forty five years of professional experience has included recordings, T.V. and radio, concerts and festivals, night clubs and stage shows. He has appeared internationally throughout North and South America, Europe, the Middle and Far East with some of the biggest names in jazz. He leads his own concert ensemble The David Leonhardt Jazz Group and is the founder and president of Big Bang Records with twenty five CDs as a leader. Mr. Leonhardt is on the roster of The Pennsylvania Arts On Tour and gives educational clinics worldwide.

David Leonhardt pianist and composer bio -Career Highlights

Twenty plus years with saxophonist David “Fathead” Newman: arranging and playing on five CDs, international tours. 1988-2008
Four year as musical director for jazz vocalist Jon Hendricks: international tours, jazz festivals, radio and TV broadcasts. 1983-1987
President and founder of Big Bang Records with twenty five CDs as a leader. 1993 to present.
Twenty leading The David Leonhardt Jazz Group a concert ensemble with hundreds of performances: theaters, Universities, Colleges, festivals, arts organizations US, Canada and Europe. 1993 to present.
Twelve years freelance experience in New York City. Broadway to the Today Show, jazz clubs to dance halls, Bar Mitzvahs and weddings to cabaret clubs and Lincoln Center, jingles to jazz records. 1980-1992
Twenty years performing with legendary Tap Dancers. Musical director for Manhattan Tap and The Shelley Oliver Tap Dancers including National and European tours, television and DVDs. 1987 to present.
Decades of experiences as a jazz educator in universities, colleges, clinics and workshops. Fifteen years of presenting “Jazz For Kids” an interactive children's program.
First jazz experience playing piano as a teenager with jazz educator Jamey Aebersold in concerts, clubs and school presentations in Louisville, KY. 1974-1980
First professional engagement at the age of 14 in a teenage rock band. First road experience with a southern rock band touring Dixie age 16. 1970-1976

Performing and studying as a teenager in Louisville, Kentucky with noted educator Jamey Aebersold, Mr. Leonhardt acquired his skills backing such diverse jazz talents as Buddy Defranco, Dave Liebman, and Buddy Tate. After moving to New York City in his twenties Mr. Leonhardt established himself as an international performing artist when he toured for four years as musical director for jazz legend Jon Hendricks, accompanying vocalists such as Diane Reeves and Bobby McFarren. Joining The David "Fathead" Newman Quintet he furthered his reputation as a burning jazz pianist and made his name familiar on the New York jazz scene. He went on to form his own band performing in the U.S., Japan, and Europe. In 1991 he founded Big Bang Records and released his first CD "Departure" to great critical acclaim as well as his popular CD "Reflections".

Mr. Leonhardt has produced, arranged, and performed on numerous recordings with jazz stars Stan Getz, Slide Hampton, Jon Hendricks, Eddie Henderson, Robin Eubanks, Ray Drummond, and Lewis Nash. His compositions have been recorded by such jazz greats as Stanley Turentine, David "Fathead" Newman, Hank Crawford, and Claudio Roditi. He has written arrangements for The Art Blakey Big Band and been guest conductor and arranger for The Benny Carter Orchestra.

At present Mr. Leonhardt is leading his own band with successful appearances at the International Arts Festival of Shenzen in China, the Winnipeg Jazz Festival, The French Maison de Dance in Lyon, as well festivals and concerts throughout the United States. His all star group has been heard at The Apollo Theater, The Blue Note, and Birdland. He is the musical director for The Shelley Oliver Tap Dancers a popular all female dance group.

What The Critics say about David Leonhardt

"David Leonhardt, an intense and swinging artist alert to every mood."
Leonard Feather, Los Angeles Times

"The David Leonhardt Trio provided first rate jazz."
Village Voice

“Leonhardt’s deft and airy piano touch, always romantic and brightly swinging”
Jazz Times

“Leonhardt is an inventive stylist”

"The superb David Leonhardt Trio...."
New York Post

"Mr. Leonhardt on piano is also musical director. The troupe is fortunate to have him."
New York Times

"...David Leonhardt, who played with ease, respect, and good cheer."
San Francisco Chronicle

"Leonhardt explored the piece in a solo that showed his understanding of space as well as notes."
New York Newsday

The Early Years

David Leonhardt started piano lessons as an eight year old in a small town in Kentucky from the neighborhood teacher. At fourteen his interest in music led him to forming a local rock and roll garage band and the start of his professional career. Quickly becoming a popular local band they played gigs from rollerinks to high school dances to southern road house saloons. As a teenager his interest in jazz led him to the University of Louisville where he studied theory, piano, and string bass. At sixteen a mentorship with noted jazz educator Jamey Aebersold started him on the road to a jazz life. With Mr. Aebersold he gave concerts, educational presentations to children, and studied at the feet of a master teacher. At seventeen David Leonhardt left home and began performing steadily in Louisville, Kentucky. He played organ in a country western band, piano in a southern rock band, and string bass in a jazz trio. He played electric keyboard in a modern jazz quintet and toured the south. At twenty Mr. Leonhardt became the house pianist at local jazz club in Louisville where he sharpened his skills backing such diverse jazz talents as Buddy Defranco, Dave Liebman, and Buddy Tate.

The New York Years

After moving to New York City in his twenties Mr. Leonhardt played for two years in the heart of Greenwich Village at The Surf Maid where the thriving music scene of the Eighties influenced him and established his reputation as a jazz pianist on the rise. When he toured for four years as musical director for jazz legend Jon Hendricks he became recognized as an international performing artist. This opportunity to play at the top festivals concert stages and night clubs in the world with the best jazz musicians seasoned Mr. Leonhardt and led to the start of his own recording career. Ten years as a member of the "Fathead" Newman Quintet furthered his reputation and made his name familiar on the New York jazz scene. During this period he freelanced as well and accompanied singers, played TV shows, did radio broadcasts, recorded jingles and jazz records, and began his career as a record producer. He became a regular performer at the jazz clubs including The Village Vanguard, The Blue Note, Sweet Basil, Birdland, and The Village Gate.
Mr. Leonhardt became a favored vocal accompanist in New York and backed up such luminaries as Diane Reeves, Annie Ross , Bobby McFarren, Michele Hendricks, and the vocalists from Manhattan Transfer. During this time he became musical director for the tap dance group Manhattan Tap a seminal dance troupe that helped spark the resurgence of interest in tap dancing. He performed with the foremost names in tap and became a favorite with the old time legends of tap dancing. He has wrote arrangements for The Art Blakey Big Band and was guest conductor and arranger for The Benny Carter Orchestra for a Japanese tour.

An Artist On His Own

In 1993 after moving to Pennsylvania David Leonhardt founded Big Bang Records and released his first CD "Departure" to great critical acclaim as well as his popular CD "Reflections". He formed The David Leonhardt Jazz Group and began touring and giving concerts world wide. He has since produced twenty CDs as a leader and also recorded a series of Tap Music for Tap Dancers CDs. The David Leonhardt Jazz Group has made successful appearances at the International Arts Festival of Shenzen in China, the Winnipeg Jazz Festival, The French Maison de Dance in Lyon, as well festivals and concerts throughout the United States. His all star group has been heard at Lincoln Center, The Apollo Theater, The Blue Note, Birdland, and Sweet Basil.

“Leonhardt andassociates are serious artists. When they sink into a groove and let the music carry them away, the audience is transported!”
Star Ledger

"...a stellar rhythm section , featuring David Leonhardt on piano."

"Backed by the superb David Leonhardt Trio, with expert and sensitive piano work by Leonhardt."
Back Stage

"... a fiery solo by pianist David Leonhardt."
Washington Post

"Leonhardt is doing just fine in the jazz world."
Louisville Courier Journal

What The Critics say about
David Leonhardt’s CD “Bach To The Blues”

Leonhardt’s arrangements are delightful, as poetic as one could hope for, the improvised sections only carrying the poetry further.” Pamela Espeland

”. Leonhardt’s crisp, taut trio …tasteful, heartfelt, elegant embellishment.Bach to the Blues works because Leonhardt is an
appealing pianist with enthusiasm, polish and wit.” Allaboutjazz Sept 20, 2010 by Thomas Conrad

“...the trio lets the creativity flow. Somewhere, Mozart is certainly smiling.” Ernest Barteldes

“a fine testament to Leonhardt, a pianist of great finesse and an arranger of some imagination.” Ian Patterson

“Leonhardt’s improvisation on Satie’s well-known Gymnopedie No. 1 an impressive take on this lovely and moody piece.””
John Henry Audiophile Audition

“the music is timeless and carries a unique fingerprint” German jazz blog

“If you love jazz and classical - and have ears that are open improvisation on some of the great classical works, this one’s for you” .Ken Franckling’s Jazz Notes

“Leonhardt fuses two of the greatest art forms of all time to make some of the most beautiful music of the year. “
~Jon Norton, WGLT Normal, IL

“ Leonhardt takes the starch out of traditional fixtures in classical pieces and opens them up… dazzling frills and eloquent trimmings… a master craftsman, explores his abilities with the will of an adventurer.” Jazz Times Susan Frances

“Zapping classical music into the jazz arena may have been done before, but probably rarely so effectively and tastefully.”

“ Classy stuff, presented with style... The result is strangely inviting...”

“Fun stuff that’s a first class diversion from the mainstream… jazzed up classics after hours style.” MIDWEST RECORD CHRIS SPECTOR

“Discs like this offer endless entertainment to both jazz and classical- heads alike. Happen to be both? All the better.” All About Jazz C. Michael Bailey

“…it decides to settle into a Friday evening groove and one wishes it would last forever…, and it sounds great.
“…a dangerous thing to do, inviting the ire of both classical and jazz listeners but with just enough improvisation and musical personality to appeal to jazz listeners. Leonhardt does it with class.”
“The performances are wonderfully conceived and executed, resulting in an album that will satisfy listeners who love jazz or classical music…” Joe Lang -Jersey Jazz

“Pianist David Leonhardt presents a tasteful marriage of classical music and jazz, sprinkled with a touch of the blues, an improvisational statement on classical themes that is surprisingly entertaining.” Edward Blanco All About Jazz

, they are a very tight jazz trio that will hold your attention and inspire you with their way of doing these tunes. Rotcod Zzaj-IMPROVIJAZZATION Nation

. With Bach to the Blues, David Leonhardt uses the jazz imagination to reinvent classical themes, and in doing so, creates new and delightful music. Andrea Canter

“…lovingly interprets Bach preludes, Chopin Mazurkas, and music by Beethoven, Schubert, Satie, and Pachelbel into a jazz idiom. What is amazing is not that it works so well, but how right it all sounds.” Steve Siegel The Morning Call

This is a thoroughly enjoyable album, the musicianship is very good indeed and should appeal to jazz and classical music listeners alike. ~John M. Peters, The Borderland (Musicwatch column)

“ David and his trio pull it off, a good transformation. ” -- D. Oscar Groomes O's Place Jazz Magazine

“Leonhardt has a strong sense of a basic blues, well informed and smoothly released. It's a nice little romp –“ Adam Greenberg

“ ..a fine pianist!” Keynotes Don Albert

What The Critics say about
David Leonhardt’s CD “Explorations”

“Leonhardt looms as a vivid storyteller.. a superfine effort...with a melding of eloquence and passion. “ Glenn Astarita

“Leonhardt's piano work as remarkable as ever... trio jazz in its finest form...Leonhardt's own "Winter Waltz" would make Dave Brubeck smile...
The Run Off Groove John Book

“Simply superb piano from David Leonhardt..., you've NEVER heard interpretations as spirited as these! ...MOST HIGHLY RECOMMENDED!” Rotcod Zzaj

“this is cool, hip stuff that is sly, musical as well as lyrical, and zesty, snappy and tasty throughout.....sounds like a spiritual tribute to the original Ramsey Lewis Trio in their pre-”In Crowd” era.” Chris Spector

“Leonhardt and his able trio swing with an easy, dancing and playful swagger.... Leonhardt has a light airy touch that traverses the keyboard with a dance-like quality....A solid piece of straight-ahead piano trio work.” Ralph A. Miriello

The David Leonhardt Trio... exceptional...."Explorations" puts a new twist on classic songs....a great sound. ...highly recommended!” Metro Spirit Augusta Ga RICH MCCRACKEN II

“As honest, balanced and flexible a musician as there is in jazz, Leonhardt and this truly excellent trio needs to be heard....a gorgeous, near perfect interpretation of Horace Silver's "Peace...” by Michael G. Nastos

“Leonhardt's strong keyboard lead, paced by the fiery play of both Garnett and Parrish,... Late Night Blues," a driving piece with an insistent, almost addictive beat...” geezermusic club Big Geez

“A man for any and all seasons, David Leonhardt has demonstrated on many occasions his expertise on piano as well as that of composer and arranger.... “ All Music Guide David Nathan

“Pianist David Leonhardt, who gigged for years with saxophonist David "Fathead" Newman, is a rare top-flight jazz player....” Philadelphia Inquirer Karl Stark
“The kind of musical intensity heard on the best Keith Jarrett sessions!” Cadence Magazine

“This new CD will enhance not only his reputation but his trio as well… heartfelt playing. Overall, this is a CD for music lovers who think they can't relate to jazz music. Jean Timmons

What The Critics say about
David Leonhardt’s CD “I’ll Be Home For Christmas”

What the critics say:
“The former David "Fathead" Newman Quintet pianist David Leonhardt and his swinging friends, perform X-Mas evergreens with an engaging spirit and an abundance of musical intelligence. The makeover of "We Three Kings" is particularly fresh, and the dramatic focus on "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" is as impressive as a prize ornament on the tree.” DownBeat Magazine Frank-John Hadley

“If you could rate CD reviews by kisses, I would have my
lip marks all over this disc. David Leonhardt has created something special for us”
The Musicians' Ombudsman- George W. Carroll

Jazz aficionados will flip for the David Leonhardt Jazz Group's I'll Be Home for Christmas . It's a classic! Christmas Carol Swanson

“ songs with a welcome jazz spirit...The pianist brings a warm glow to each song. He fashions each interpretation so that it stands out as an improvised work that the group can explore thoroughly.” All About Jazz .com- Jim Santella

“In the humble opinion of this reviewer, I'll Be Home For Christmas is the tastiest holiday album in recent years.” - Richard Bourcier

“A pushing the speed limit “Sleigh Ride”. ...The ensemble’s tight, rhythmically vibrant sound......a newfallen snow freshness to “Let It Snow” They know just how much to twist a tune to brighten it up....solos that glide gracefully along...” Cadence Magazine

“The best in this genre I’ve heard this season so far. Leonhardt’s enjoyment comes thru” Audiophile Audition - John Henry

“I am loving the new CD, "I'll be Home For Christmas"...The arrangements are brilliant. Wonderful job from start to finish. The Jazz Nation- Albert Khalis Pride

“It’s a pleasure to come home to The David Leonhardt Jazz Group’s Santa’s bag full of traditional and familiar musical presents delivered in this far from ordinary CD. Hang I’ll Be Home for Christmas on the tree, top or bottom, or just wrap it up. You can forget the bow though; it’s pretty enough by itself.” JazzImprov Magazine Bob Gish

“He fashions each interpretation so that it stands out as an improvised work that the group can explore thoroughly. together, they turn over clusters of brightness that come surrounded by a hearty rhythmic foundation.“ Radio Jazz Josylyn Tillar

“Jazz lovers will have a ball with I'll Be Home For Christmas, it is the kind of album that you might even want to pick up outside the Holiday season” Greenwich Village Gazette Ernest Barteldes

“This helped erase the holiday cynicism better than eggnog and brandy.” JazzTimes Magazine-Tad Hendrickson

“A cozy combo album perfect for hearing as those chestnuts roast on an open fire. Creatively jazzed up!” Hot House Magazine George Kanzler

“It’s the arrangements, they are killer! This one’s getting stereo time at my place well after the holiday season, it’s that good! It is David Leonhardt’s arranging that brings out the magic in these holiday originals. Rating 10 out of 10” Jazz Exodus Magazine Steve Laury

“BRILLIANT....Absolutely brilliant.....your holiday record I'LL BE HOME FOR CHRISTMAS is a joy to play”. Eric Cohen - Music Director--WAER Radio

“Leonhardt has created a musical context that's as large with possibilities as his appealing piano playing.....the entire CD is a great reappraisal of holiday classics that you're sure to enjoy. Paula Edelstein

“David Leonhardt has some Guaraldi in his playing and a lot of Leonhardt. It’s a jazz piano workout... good solid music.” Senior Life Magazine- Kirk Silsbee

“Saxophone and vocals add to the David Leonhardt Jazz Group, but it is still Dave's excellent work on the keys that puts "I'll Be Home For Christmas." in the “recommended” category“ Post Crescent, WI - Gerry Grzyb

“The David Leonhardt Jazz Group delivers some solid traditional sounds in “I’ll Be Home For Christmas” a most tasty collection of familiar carols and songs. Leonhardt’s arrangements are are lively and frequently whimsical....Leonhardt’s solid keyboard chops are evident on every track.” The David Enterprise-Derrick Bang

“"I'll Be Home for Christmas," a sensuous holiday disc sure to warm up the coldest winter night. ...Leonhardt's incredible piano playing...” Rosemary Pratka- The Morning Call

What The Critics say about
David Leonhardt’s CD “Plays Gershwin”

The release of an all-Gershwin record when played as lovingly as David Leonhardt does surely is welcome.

David shines on the piano, the tenor soars, and you've got a great rhythm section that cooks. By picking a tasteful vocalist such as Nancy Reed, David Leonhardt allows the listener to enjoy some easygoing pleasurable Jazz.

I find that his new CD The David Leonhardt Jazz Group Plays Gershwin is charming and lighthearted, and it lifts my spirits
Speaking my Piece -Texaco and the Arts

In addition to his technical mastery of the instrument, jazz pianist and
arranger David Leonhardt is a creative soloist and an intuitive and
sympathetic accompanist.

The David Leonhardt Jazz Group Plays Gershwin appealed to me in a way that few other jazz recordings do. Featuring Nancy Reed on vocals and excellent side men, I can’t explain why it enchanted me so.

It is the lyrical pianism of David Leonhardt and the articulate vocalizing of long time collaborator Reed which lifts this album. This is outstanding work!
All About Jazz
William Livingstone,
"Leonhardt himself enchants me."

Portland Jazz Reviews
"Leonhardt is an engaging pianist on his own. "

Lucy Galliher,
"David shines on the piano, and you've got a great rhythm section that cooks"

Mark Corroto,
"Gershwin when played as lovingly as David Leonhardt surely is welcome."

Herb Young, International Association of Jazz Record Collectors
"This compact disc can rank up there with the best of them. "

Daniel Shearer, Time Off
"We got a great response from the album..."

Bill Falconer,
"David Leonhart is a creative soloist and an intuitive and sympathetic accompanist."

Dave Nathan, All About Jazz
"It is the lyrical pianism of David Leonhardt which lifts this album."

Vol. 32 No. 3 March 2006
The Review of Jazz & Blues: Creative Improvised Music

David Leonhardt Interview
Taken and Transcribed by Ludwig Van Trikt

CADENCE: What was your early beginning like?
DAVID LEONHARDT: My first professional job was at the age of 14 in Louisville, KY. I was playing organ in a teen rock and roll band and that job was for a basement make-out party for teenagers when the parents were out of town. I knew from that moment I wanted to be a professional musician. What could be better than being the center of attention to all my peers? Having the girls think I was cool didn’t hurt either. Also, I sensed from the start that when the music is playing and the best is happening, the moment has been lifted out of the ordinary. Even then that feeling of being part of something larger than myself was powerful and profound. That band went on to be popular in central Kentucky and we did a lot of high school dances or roller rink dances where the kids would roller skate for two hours then dance for two hours. We were so young that we could not even drive so our moms would load us into their station wagons with all our amps and PA equipment; they would take us all over Kentucky. We played every weekend for a few years. In those days we called it “playing”. Later when I started playing with older musicians for more money, we called it “working”. Somehow, that change in wording made us feel more grown up.
My first girlfriend was a teenage groupie who would follow us around from gig to gig and my next girlfriend was the singer in the band. That pretty much set the pattern for the next twenty years of my life as far as relationships went. That band won a big local battle of the bands and we were awarded a big expensive PA system that was our downfall. Once we had assets we started to argue over them and eventually broke up.
After that I joined a southern rock band that copied Allman Brothers songs. I was 16 and the other guys were in their 20’s and we were playing Blues bars and nightclubs, playing till the wee hours of the morning. They nicknamed me “The Kid” and I had to lie about my age to play in the clubs. I was the only one in the band that could read music. I would say that sex, drugs, and Rock and Roll was their mantra so it gave me a real education. Back then my audience was bikers and drinkers and people looking to hook up and get high. A real discerning crowd. I loved every minute of it and moved out of my parents house when I was 17. By then I was playing a Wurlitzer electric piano and a Hammond organ.
After a year of that I joined a roadhouse country and western band that played six nights a week for a couple years at a country dance hall. The bar owner was the worst. He hated the musicians and made our life hell. But that was where I learned to belly up to the bar and order a drink. We were playing for middle age country dancers who would crowd the dance floor all night long. The music was loud and fun. By this time I had a four keyboard setup adding a clavinet and a fender Rhodes. We lost that gig and went to a real country dive where we played for alcoholics, losers and prostitutes. The smoke was so thick that my eyes would water all night and I finally quit the gig over that.
CAD: You must be very familiar with the chitlin circuit, having played for ten years with David “Fathead” Newman?
D.L.: When I first started playing Jazz I was 17 years old and knew nothing but had heard two Miles Davis records. One was A Tribute to Jack Johnson, which is a fusion record of rock vamps that knocked me out, and a compilation that included “Seven Steps To Heaven” and “Four”. I dug that as well but had no frame of reference to understand about the different styles in Jazz. Luckily for me Jamey Aebersold lived near me and I started hanging out with him at his house and he would show me things on the piano. Jamey is the number one Jazz education/clinic thing so it was great for me to be around that. There were no pianists in town then who would jam with him so he taught me so he could practice with a live band. It wasn’t lessons though, it was more like “learn these chords so next time you come over we can jam or Blue Bossa”. It was really a lot of pressure because everyone else in his basement at these jam sessions knew what was what and I was still coming out of the rock and roll sensibility. They murdered me! I did everything wrong that was possible and the other musicians couldn’t stand it. Jamey must have sensed my desire to play Jazz and hung in there and soon I could at least stay out of their way. I eventually started doing gigs with him at schools and concerts. During this period I moved out of my parents house, lived with a series of older women and started practicing seriously hours and hours every day. I was young and wanted to play music more than anything. It was an overpowering urge. Between Jazz and women I had no time for school or anything else. I was young and don’t regret a minute of it.
At the same time in Louisville there was a real divide between the White musicians and the Black ones. I lived in the east end, a mostly White area, and the west end was mostly Black. Right away I figured there was a lot more fun to be had in the west end. I used to go to a club in the west end that had a Jazz/funk band and sit in. They would let me because they knew I played with Jamey and respected him. This was a real chitlin circuit club. It was another world for a skinny White kid with long hair. Little did I know that I would spend years of my life in clubs just like that one, with soul food and flashy dressing pimps and the only White face anywhere around being me. Most of that is gone now except for a few places like Trenton. I was doing gigs with soul bands as well and these guys would hip me to what was going on in the Jazz world. This was where I got used to being the only White guy in a band-a pattern that would last for decades.
When I was nineteen I played acoustic bass in a Jazz trio at a club for a year. This was a sophisticated, expensive New York-type supper club and was great for me to learn a lot of Jazz songs. At that point I had to decide what my main instrument would be. I chose piano and worked six nights a week for three years at two different gigs leading my own trio. This was where I really learned how to be a Jazz guy. At one of the clubs we were the house trio and we would back headliners from out of town. I got to play with guys like Buddy Tate, Dave Liebman, Buddy DeFranco and a host of others. Sometimes I would split sets with people like Helen Humes and Barney Kessel. We were the happening place in town for a year and I thought I was something. Next stop Hollywood! This was where I learned the reality of the club scene when it turned out the manager stole all the profits, committed insurance fraud, and left town in the middle of the night. The club closed and I was such a jazzer that I couldn’t find another gig. That is also when I learned that Jazz is not popular in a commercial sense. All the clubs were playing disco. After six months of not working I moved to Brooklyn.
CAD: I would imagine that two of the highlights of your career would be the work that you did for the Art Blakey Big Band and The Benny Carter Orchestra. How did you land those gigs?
D.L.: Those were nice opportunities. I co-led (c. late ‘80s, early '90s) a band with Michele Hendricks, the Jazz vocalist (Jon Hendricks’ daughter). The bassist was Ray Drummond and the drummer was Marvin “Smitty” Smith who is now the drummer on “The Tonight Show”. We played all over New York and did a series of CDs together for the Muse label in the 80s. Those three CDs really helped a lot in my development as an arranger and record producer. The bands were top-notch and we really put our hearts into them. We toured for about three years in Europe, Japan, and the U.S. so we got various chances to do different concerts with some great players.
We toured Japan with Benny Carter and his Orchestra. Lots of fun and a really top-notch band from LA. Benny was great and let me lead the band when we did our part of the concert. He was the kind of guy that wasn’t afraid to share the limelight. Very supportive. He used to say the reason he was well known was because he survived longer than any of his contemporaries. I am sure it was more than that but that gives you an idea of what a gentleman he was. Not an egotist like so many young Jazz so-called stars.
The Art Blakey gig was similar although on that one I wrote arrangements and did not play. Michele Hendricks and I were on tour in Japan and she was asked to sing at the Mt. Fuji Jazz Festival with Art. So I wrote a few arrangements and got to rehearse the band. Art was a trip! When it was time to go on, a sweet little Japanese girl said, “Mr. Blakey, this way to the stage,” and Art growled at her, “Honey, I been finding the stage for fifty years!”
CAD: Has the revival of the electric piano in Jazz over the past few years affected your own playing? What do you attribute it to?
D.L.: My first gigs were on organ and electric piano so I am very familiar with the different ways to play electric versus acoustic. In fact, I didn’t play an acoustic piano on gigs very much until I started playing Jazz, and then not very much. In the ‘70s almost all the gigs were keyboard gigs unless you were doing a cocktail piano solo gig. Even the Jazz clubs were going to keyboards. My first keyboard was a Farfisa organ, a Fender Rhodes. Then in the ‘80s synths came in and I got a DX7 and then a Korg. They all basically sucked, to be honest. But they were loud so I could play as loud as the guitarists. When I moved to New York most were out of tune but at least I didn’t have to carry around a back-breaking box. I used my electric for a few years in New York until it was stolen out of the back of my car in the middle of the day on Broadway and Houston Street. For years I didn’t have a keyboard but now I have a few. They really are much better now. I can actually do a Jazz concert on my keyboard without hating it. The way things are now, a good keyboard sounds close to a bad piano. Many concert venues, especially outdoors ones...the way they mike the piano and use monitors to hear everything, a keyboard is not that different than an acoustic grand. I also use a keyboard when I do organ gigs as opposed to Hammond B3 just because I don’t want to carry a big organ around.
CAD: Describe your “Jazz for Kids” program.
D.L.: When I learned to play from Jamey Aebersold, as soon as I could play well enough he had me go on gigs with him at schools and demonstrate Jazz to kids. So it is something I have been doing for over thirty years. The first thing he said to me was to smile when you play for kids so they can see how much fun it is to play music. That aloof jazz guy thing doesn’t work with kids.
My Jazz for Kids program is a fun way to get young children to hear and enjoy Jazz. We play songs they know and take them apart and blow on them. Some nursery rhymes, some Disney songs, and some TV themes. We demonstrate the instruments and get the kids singing and clapping. We make it seem cool to play Jazz and show them how much fun it is. We present it in schools for students or in theaters as a family show. The parents always like it as well, so it makes for a great experience for a family. Very seldom can a whole family find music they all like, so this serves a purpose to bring them together.
Some songs we will have the kids sing while we improvise on top of them so that they become part of the band and the experience of being in the moment of creation. I always scat for them and they like that, and we will do call and answer with rhythms and little Jazz phrases. We stress the creative side of Jazz and let them feel that they could improvise with just a little practice. It really excites them and we get letters and drawings from children all the time, saying how they want to be Jazz players. We have done the show hundreds of times for thousands of kids and I am sure that there are a lot of budding Jazz musicians out there because they saw how great it is to play and improvise Jazz. We feel so strongly about this stuff that we did a CD, Jazz For Kids that is one of our best sellers. I always make an effort when we tour to do some kids show in the area to build an audience for the future.
CAD: What was New York City like when you first arrived there?
D.L.: When I first got to New York I moved in with a bunch of young musicians from Louisville. About a dozen of us moved to New York at around the same time. So many of us moved to Brooklyn that they used to call it the Louisville ghetto. We pretty much killed the Jazz scene in Kentucky by all leaving at the same time but we all had eyes to make it in the Big Apple. The first day in New York I got three parking tickets and got mugged the second week so I learned fast that it’s not all fun and games. I spent all my money in six months going to Jazz clubs every night to see all the guys live that I had only heard on record.
I didn’t have a piano then and was lucky to get a six-night-a-week gig playing a Jazz duo in the village at the Surf Maid, a club that Joanne Brackeen had played at for years. We played two hours, from 7:00 to 9:00, and got dinner and $5.00. Afterward I would hang at Jazz clubs. On the weekends we would play until 3:00 in the morning, splitting the set with a sing-along pianist. He would bring in the crowds and they would sit around the piano and sing “Those Were The Days My Friends” and junk like that and then we would get up and play Bebop and run them out. That way they would turn over the house and make more money. He would bring a new crowd back in and we would run them out...I was happy to have a piano to play on and a chance to practice. The bass player was a guy that had played with Charlie Parker and had his picture in the book Bird Lives. He was bald, had no front teeth, wore a Muslim skull cap, carried a copy of the Koran and Bird Lives with him. He had spent time in jail for heroin and at that time lived in a flophouse on the Bowery. It cost three dollars a night and he would save his two dollars left over and every three days buy a nickel bag of pot, eat at the club, and that was his life. I did that gig for a couple years.
I was also freelancing and got to do all kinds of gigs all over New York: weddings, parties, nightclubs, Jazz gigs - anything to survive. I really learned my craft then. Not just Jazz playing but how to be a musician in the real world.
After a few years I auditioned for the Jazz vocalist Jon Hendricks. His was one of the few full time road gigs around then so everybody wanted it. They held an open audition and there were at least fifty Jazz pianists there and everybody got to play one song. We all played well, but I was the only guy there in a three-piece suit and I think that was why Jon hired me. I stayed with him as his musical director for four years touring the world and playing all the clubs and festivals.
CAD: What was it like to work with Jon Hendricks and then his daughter, Michele Hendricks?
D.L.: The gig with Jon Hendricks was when I really learned how to be on the road as an international Jazz artist and how to do concerts successfully. At the time I had a choice between music school and traveling with Jon performing at Jazz clubs and festivals with one of the most creative Bebop singers ever. So my four years with Hendricks was my university. Our first tour was in Israel for a series of concerts. Marvin “Smitty” Smith was the drummer and there were four singers including Jon and a bassist. The first gig we had no rehearsal and we were outside in an ancient Roman amp theater in Northern Israel near the border of Lebanon. This was during the war between Lebanon and Israel so there was a lot of military everywhere. Why they had a music festival at that time I will never know. We were playing opposite Airto, the Brazilian drummer, and his band from LA, and John Pattitucci, on bass, so we had to sound good. I was sight reading all the arrangements and they were difficult and demanding. A lot of really up tempos and difficult keys with a lot of blowing for the piano chair. Just as we started the first song a huge gust of wind blew all the charts across the stage so I had to play the show by ear. Nice! We were there a couple weeks and then flew back to New York, drove to San Diego in three days in a van and did a concert with Dizzy Gilespie that night. We toured California and then across the U.S., getting back to New York three months later and did a week in a club there. It really changed my life. For four years after that we were on the road more than we were home and I got road tough. Sometimes Jon Hendricks and I would travel and pick up rhythm sections and sometimes we would take a band. We went to Europe, South America, Canada, all over the U.S. and played regularly in New York. We played with symphonies, did TV shows, festival, clubs, and radio-really everything there was to do. We played opposite everybody from Miles Davis to Count Basie. It was one of the few full time touring Jazz gigs in the 1980s and I loved it. After about six months Jon was nice enough to give me billing and they would announce us as Jon Hendricks and company with David Leonhardt Trio. Musically Jon is a super-talented guy and scatted better solos than most horn players so the pressure to be really top-notch was intense. I knew that if I let him down he would fire me and get the next young piano virtuoso coming up. That is probably the best motivation to be excellent you can have.
Jon and his wife, Judith, who also sang in the group, loved to go to gourmet restaurants and they would often take the whole band. So there was a lot of four-star meals in Europe with fine wines and all that. We would go to France for three months at a time and they would rent a villa for the tour and then do concerts and gigs throughout Europe. A lot of flying and trains and then back to the South of France.
After a while I formed a band with his daughter, Michele Hendricks, who is a great vocalist. We toured for a few years picking up bands in Europe, Japan, and the U.S. We would get gigs in cool places and vacation after the gig was up as long as we could. I had no kids or real obligations so it was like a fantasy really. Being on the road and having people treat you like an artist, staying in resorts at exotic places, playing Jazz all the time, going back to New York and then doing it all over again somewhere else. Between Jon and Michele it was really eight years of Jazz heaven.
CAD: During the past several years we have seen an unprecedented increase in self produced efforts (recordings) by Jazz musicians. What is the history of your own label? Do you view the recordings as being successful both artistically and financially?
D.L.: I started Big Bang recording in 1991 when I moved out of New York. It was a transitional time in the recording industry and records were out and CDs were in. I was able to be in the vanguard of the self-producers, labels by musicians who wanted to take control of their recording life. I had played on and produced a bunch of recordings in the ‘80s and really had no desire to work on anymore projects that weren’t totally under my control. I needed the freedom to pick the musicians, the songs, the studio, and the musical direction or I couldn’t work. I was tired of having someone else look over my shoulder. It really was an awakening for me in terms of understanding what a product music can be and where the benefits go from that. My first two CDs, Departure and Reflections, transformed my career from being sideman to a leader. I got reviews and airplay and was able to use them as a way of starting my touring life as a leader and getting recognition for having my own voice. I now have fifteen under my own name and they all make money and continue to sell. Each has accomplished something concrete artistically as well as being vehicles for me to book concerts around.
Now I sell them on my web site and through various distributors and at my concerts so it is another income stream which helps. My CD Reflections is a trio CD with Peter Washington and Lewis Nash, who I played with in New York. This is one where my trio style was noticed. It is the one that a lot of young musicians at the time listened to. In fact, my bass player now, Mathew Parrish, says it is one of his favorite CDs and I think it is why he plays with me now. My vocal and piano CD A Time for Love enabled me to book an eleven concert tour of Italy with the vocalist Nancy Reed. My Gershwin CD led to about twenty concerts of Gershwin in a modern Jazz interpretation that my band does and I am still booking that. I did Jazz For Kids because we present a Kids concert that is really a blast. There is nothing like playing for hundreds of enthusiastic children and letting them in to the experience and excitement of a Jazz concert. I hope that I am building an audience for the future as well with that.
CAD: The traditional trajectory for many mainstream artists is a ballad date, big band session and strings - are any of those settings in your future?
D.L.: I would like to do a ballad date at some point. The idea of putting together an album where the listener can relax and be transported to a state of trance-like appreciation appeals to the communicator in me. A big band session probably will not happen as I feel more comfortable in small groups of musicians. I did a string album with Fathead a few years back and would like to do one of my own sometime in a more modern vein, not standards but improvised classical/romantic/Chopinesque.
CAD: What was your impression of the portrayal of “Fathead” in the movie Ray?
D.L.: When I play with “Fathead” now it is really like family. I have been on the road with him and his wife on and off for 16 years. We have done Jazz cruises together, stayed in European hotels together, flown together, driven together, stayed for weeks on end in apartments together, recorded together and had countless magical musical moments together. As much as I enjoyed the musical segments in the movie Ray there was nothing in the portrayal of David Newman in that movie that I recognized. That was a totally made up Hollywood version of what some writer thought would make a dramatic friend and musical cohort for Ray Charles. My sincere hope is that the real “Fathead” get a much deserved career boost from the movie.
CAD: One of the more interesting projects that you are involved with is collaborating with a tap dancer...
D.L.: I have been lucky to play with a lot of the older Tap dance masters before they died. It is really like playing with a great Jazz drummer because they know all those rhythms so well. When I was with Jon Hendricks we did a lot of shows and he would bring in these great tap dancers to perform with us-Honi Coles, Buster Brown, Cookie Cook, Sandman Sims. We also played with other dancers, jitterbugers, Lindy Hoppers, and once we did Atlantic City with comedian Redd Foxx and he had two Korean dancers. Later I played with others like Savion Glover and Jimmy Slide, Diane Walker, and also a lot of younger guys. I helped get Manhattan Tap off the ground in the ‘80s when there weren’t any young groups doing tap. I was their musical director and we did a lot of shows in New York and toured Europe, China, Canada, and the U.S. doing concerts. That is where I met my wife, Shelley Oliver, who was one of the founding members of Manhattan Tap. She is an incredible dancer and choreographer and now I tour quite often as musical director with The Shelley Oliver Tap Dancers, her group of five female dancers. Shelley and I have produced seven tap dance CDs Tap Music For Tap Dancers for dancers to jam with for dance classes, and are well known in the tap world.
When we first met in 1989 we were on tour in China with a group of thirty American performers, Jazz dancers, singers, tap dancers, and I had my trio. We were there for about five weeks during the Tienemen Square uprising and got to experience that whole thing. Everywhere we went there were demonstrations that kept getting bigger and bigger. Of course we had no idea what was going on because there was a news blackout in China. We were traveling through the mainland partying hard and performing for huge crowds of thirty thousand people at stadiums and such as guests of the government and then all of a sudden there was no government. They cancelled our performance in Beijing and packed us off. As we left the city the troops were moving in. Then we flew home and found out what had been going on down there.
Now we have been married for thirteen years and have two kids, nine and eleven, and take them on the road with us in a 31-foot Winnebago. We travel with ten performers, five dancers, and five musicians, two kids and two pugs.
CAD: Certainly two of the most intriguing personalities that you performed with were Stan Getz and Woody Shaw. Both men seem to embody musical creativity but were fraught with personal minefields...
D.L.: Both of those guys have notorious reputations but I can’t speak to that as when I played with each they were as nice as can be. I recorded an album with Stan Getz and he acted just like a regular musician. We went over the material in the studio and he even was asking me the changes on the bridge of “Prelude To A Kiss” because he hadn’t played it for awhile. A lot of “Stars” would not be that forthcoming but he just wanted to do a good job and make good music. That session was one of the highlights of my career. As soon as Stan started playing, it was amazing to hear his sound; it was right to me because I was so familiar with it from records. I saw him a few months after that in Italy backstage at a concert and he introduced me to Dexter Gordon and recommended me to him. Stan really was a sweetheart at that point in his life. He was older and seemed to have found a calmness about being who he was.
When I played with Woody Shaw I was playing in a New Year’s Eve gig at a club in New York and it was being broadcast live on NPR coast to coast. They recorded all three sets and anyone who sat in got a check for a hundred dollars. After the first set the word got out in the other clubs and a lot of guys showed up to pick up some quick money. Art Blakey was hanging out with Wood that night and so they both came and sat in for a set. It was a smoking set - all off the cuff, unrehearsed, but amazing music. Wood and Art both were as nice as could be. We were just hanging out and playing. So my take on them was that they were musicians first and emotional human beings second.
CAD: Looking over your sideman work with Herbie Mann, George Benson, Wynton Marsalis and Manhattan Transfer - would you agree that those gigs were generally high paying?
D.L.: To be honest the only time I ever make really good money is when I am the leader. A sideman can make a good living but there are only a few real Jazz gigs that you can live as well as someone who works for a corporation. Maybe three in the world. as you move more in to pop Jazz the money goes up. But I got into music for fun not for money. (And for the chicks when I was younger. You do meet a lot of women as a traveling Jazz artist. Or at least I did when I was single.)
Herbie Mann and I did record Celebration and a live video at Birdland with him and Ron Carter. That paid well as I remember but it was a one-shot deal. Herbie also produced a few records that I was on and always paid double scale, which was lucrative as well. When I played with the singers from Manhattan Transfer, we did a series of concerts at different times but not under the Manhattan Transfer name. We did one tour of the West Coast with them and Bobby McFerrin, Dianne Reeves, and Jon Hendricks with my trio. I don’t remember the money but I am sure it was respectable. Really, when I do those kinds of gigs I don’t care about the money, I just enjoy the music.

David Leonhardt Jazz Group Shelley Oliver Tap Dancers website by immuexa
Shelley Oliver Tap Dancers David Leonhardt Jazz Group