Primary Instrument: Vocalist
Carolyn Leonhart has been surrounded by music her entire life. Born into a family of musicians, Carolyn was singing as soon as she could talk. As a young child she traveled with her father, noted bassist Jay Leonhart, to gigs and watched him accompany legends like Sarah Vaughn, Mel Torme, and Peggy Lee. On her own, she listened to recordings of Vaughn, Carmen McRae, and Johnny Hartman as well as Stevie Wonder, The Doobie Brothers, Earth Wind and Fire, and Steely Dan.
By the age of 9, the native of Manhattan's Upper West Side was singing on children's albums and doing jingles for TV commercials. Later, when it was time to choose a high school, it was music that helped inform her decision. I was on a tour of LaGuardia High School for Music and the Arts and suddenly the most beautiful music I'd ever heard was coming from a room down the hall. I broke away from the tour, ran down the hall and discovered it was their award-winning gospel choir, Carolyn recalls. That was when I knew I was going to that school. Carolyn was accepted into the voice program at the famed school and was a featured soloist in the choir for three years.
At home, she would spend hours working on jazz standards with her father and her brother, trumpeter and pianist Michael. There was practically a rhythm section in my house at all times. All I had to do was sing, she says. When Carolyn was sixteen, her father invited her to sit in with him at The Blue Note, where he was doing the weekly Sunday brunch. She jumped at the chance. My dad would start changing keys while I was singing just for the hell of it, forcing me to follow him, Carolyn says, now laughing about it. I was completely upset at the time that he made me do that, but I later realized how lucky I was to have had that kind of experience. He was testing me. You had to know what you were doing, or get off stage. That testing would pay off: In her senior year, she won The Lena Horne High School Jazz Vocalist Competition.
Although pursuing a career in music was never a question for Carolyn, she decided to attend the University of Rochester, where she earned a degree in Comparative Religion. While at college, she spent much time at the nearby Eastman School of Music, singing with jazz ensembles, big bands, and studio orchestras. While working toward her degree, she also completed two solo CDs for the Japanese record label, Toshiba EMI, one of which included young jazz stars Joshua Redman, Jesse Davis, Christian McBride, and Marvin Smitty Smith. And in her senior year of college, Carolyn was the recipient of The Downbeat Magazine Award for the Best College Jazz Vocalist.
After college, Carolyn returned to New York City and shortly thereafter won third place in the Thelonious Monk International Vocal Jazz Competition. At the Kennedy Center, on the last night of the competition, we were pulled into a side room to do an interview. One of the questions asked was, 'So tell me, do you consider yourself a jazz singer?' The other finalists immediately answered, 'Yes, of course!' I had grown up around jazz musicians and singers and truly loved singing the music, but I felt like I was often copying these original artists. And that didn't seem like jazz to me, she recalls. I also loved so many other styles of music, and didn't want to lock myself into any one style, so I answered 'NO WAY. I just consider myself to be a singer.' It's taken me a long time to understand why I had that response, especially during a famous jazz competition. But now I understand my reasoning completely. To me, jazz is not a particular style, and trying to define it is a waste of time. Jazz is a deep commitment to an ever-changing path of creativity that challenges you to combine your oldest, deepest love and inspiration with your newest ones, to find a way to feel it all and express it all at the same time. Jazz also means taking chances and now I have finally started to do just that.
Carolyn is no stranger to mixing things up musically, from performing with the hip-hop group The Real Live Show, writing songs for dance remixes with the group Liquid Solution, and touring as the lead singer in the electronica/lounge project Wax Poetic. In 1998 she recorded an album of music with the Swiss Percussion Ensemble, a group of four classically trained Swiss percussionists using mostly glass instruments.
When they asked me to be a guest artist on their album, singing with glass instruments, I really didn't think it would work, says Carolyn. But I immediately loved the combination of glass and voice, and this project has been a source of so much growth and a lot of fun for almost eight years. She and several of the members of this group began writing songs together and the band splintered off to become the pop/lounge group Lyn Leon. With Carolyn as lead vocalist and co-writer, the group has done several European tours and received critical acclaim throughout Europe. Their album Glass Lounge was released in Germany in 2004, and in the late fall of 2004 the band toured Europe with Al Jarreau, who brought Carolyn on stage every night to do a duet during the encore. Improvising with Al Jarreau was one of the most incredible experiences of my life. It opened me up to another level of creative awareness and expression, she says.
The bar had already been set high for Carolyn, who has worked as lead back-up vocalist with Steely Dan through eight years, three world tours, two albums, and four Grammys. I have always written songs, but I'm not a trained musician, she explains. I've learned everything by doing, and by watching my writing idols, Donald Fagen, Walter Becker and my father. Observing each of them in the moment, creating their magic, has been an intoxicating thing to witness and be a part of.
With her first Sunnyside release in 2000, Steal The Moon (a collaborative project with pianist and composer Rob Bargad), Carolyn proved that she could hold her own in the world of vocal jazz. Since recording that album, I've been listening to jazz instrumentalists more than singers. I've started to think more as an arranger and composer, rather than just a singer. Her main influences as of late have been Wayne Shorter, Woody Shaw, Ahmad Jamal, and Herbie Hancock, as well as the groups of Miles Davis and John Coltrane.
Since 2000 she has been performing regularly with her jazz group and started the Sunday Vocalists Series at New York City's Smoke Jazz Club. She has been a guest vocalist on several instrumentalists' albums, a featured guest with the house rhythm sections at Steamers and The Vic in California, as well as clubs in New York City and across the East Coast. The past few years have allowed her to develop her own group sound. In 2003, Carolyn was featured on the cover of Jazziz's women's issue, which spotlighted notable up-and-coming singers.
On her newest release, New 8th Day, Carolyn returns with a working band - tenor saxophonist Wayne Escoffery, pianist Rick Germanson, bassist Hans Glawischnig and drummers Donald Edwards and Jason Brown - who honed the material in front of live audiences. The album presents Carolyn's intimate and soulful voice and broad tonal palette in songs filled with rich textures. The title of the CD is a lyric in one of my original songs on the album, called 'Noneday.' I feel like the whole album represents a new beginning. I'm finally starting to bring all of my musical experiences together to create music that is wholly representative of me. This album is very meaningful to me because it marks the next stage of my career.
Carolyn Leonhart is a singer who works intuitively, with a voice that projects both strength and vulnerability. She tells her stories with instincts that come from a life steeped in music. My only goal now is to make music that I love, whether singing or writing, Carolyn says. I have gotten a lot of help along the way, and I am grateful to everyone who keeps inspiring me.