A show of bass essentials

Jazz: After leaving to make a name for himself, Jay Leonhart comes back to Baltimore with `The Bass Lesson.'


January 10, 2002|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

The double bass was Jay Leonhart's ticket out of Baltimore, and now the instrument has temporarily brought him back to his hometown.

In four decades as a jazz bassist in New York, Leonhart has played for a Who's Who list of singers - Tony Bennett, Rosemary Clooney, Barbara Cook, Judy Garland and her daughter Liza Minnelli, Peggy Lee, Frank Sinatra, Mel Torme. The list goes on and on. He's played in trios and quartets and big bands.

But now he's gone solo with a one-man show called The Bass Lesson, which recently premiered at the second-floor studio at Bertha's in Fells Point, where it continues every Wednesday night this month. (The show also has two January bookings at New York's Firebird Cafe.)

In the hourlong show, the 61-year-old Baltimore native shares songs he's written over the last 30 years - songs about everything from Gasparo da Salo, the 16th-century Italian luthier who developed the bass, to Leonhart's chance encounter with Leonard Bernstein as his seatmate on a cross-country flight.

Leonhart's vocal style essentially is sprechstimme, a blend of speech and song that suits the rather limited melodic capabilities of the instrument. The show includes a number of bass jokes ("let me see you fit that underneath your chin") and tales of carting around such a large instrument on airplanes and the subway. But a few more autobiographical reminiscences would be welcome.

Back home in New York the day after The Bass Lesson's premiere, Leonhart spoke about his life and career. His musical training began with piano lessons at the Peabody Institute when he was 6. "I didn't do very well," he says. "I realized I liked rhythmic music rather than classical." By the time he was 8, he was playing guitar and banjo, and a few years later he and his older brother, Bill, had a steady gig on local TV.

By age 13, Leonhart was playing with Baltimore's Pier Five Dixieland Band, but his interest in the banjo began to wane. "My brother was always dominating me," he recalls. "He was the lead banjoist. I was the accompanist."

That's when his head was turned by the double bass. "I saw the bass and I loved it," he says. "I loved the sound of it. I liked the way it looked when you played it. I liked its function in the band. I just had a million reasons, and I could play the instrument very easily."

Except for a couple of years in the 1960s when he returned to Baltimore and tried to make a living at various jobs, including working for his father's re-insurance business, Leonhart has carved out a comfortable career as a performing and recording artist. (His two grown children, Michael and Carolyn, are musicians with Steely Dan.)

Even the years he spent back in Baltimore were not without occasional musical adventures. For example, there was the time he got a call to fill in for an ailing bass player in the orchestra accompanying Judy Garland at the newly built Merriweather Post Pavilion. Leonhart says to this day he has never seen "such utter adoration for a performer as [the audience] had for Judy." The experience that brought him back to the bass full-time came when Baltimore's Ethel Ennis asked him to accompany her. "I played as if I'd never put the instrument down," he recalls. "I said, `I'm going to New York. I can sell this and I can make a living at this.' " And, that's what he's been doing ever since.

Show times at Bertha's Studio, 734 S. Broadway, are 8:30 p.m. Wednesdays, through Jan. 30. Tickets cost $20. Call 410-456-6158.

`Fantasticks' ends run

After nearly 42 years and 17,162 performances, The Fantasticks will ring down its final curtain on Sunday. Most theater lovers know it's the world's longest running musical. Less well known is the role a former Baltimorean played when the show was in its infancy.

As Donald C. Farber and Robert Viagas recounted in their book, The Amazing Story of `The Fantasticks,' Baltimore-born actress Mildred Dunnock was running a summer theater at New York's Barnard College in 1959 when Fantasticks director Word Baker introduced her to a young composer named Harvey Schmidt and a librettist named Tom Jones.

After hearing the pair perform most of the score, including such songs as "Try to Remember" and "Soon It's Gonna Rain," Dunnock (who died in 1991) gave the project her blessing. The Barnard production was a one-act version of the musical. But there was enough to catch the eye of Lore Noto, who later produced the show at Greenwich Village's 153-seat Sullivan Street Playhouse.

Interestingly, one actor in that initial Barnard incarnation, William Tost, returned to the cast in the 1980s and has continued for 19 years in the role of one of the two fathers. (Loosely based on a little-known play by Rostand called Les Romanesques, the musical is about two fathers who devise a fake feud as a reverse psychology ploy to get their children to fall in love.) Tost has said he views the closing "with a heavy heart."

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