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.