Joelle Leandre started playing recorder but quickly moved to piano and from the age of 9 to 14 studied both piano and double bass in her home town of Aix-en-Provence. Her double bass teacher, Pierre Delescluse, encouraged her to apply to the Conservatoire National Superieur de Musique de Paris where she won first prize for double bass. In 1976 she received a scholarship to the Center for Creative and Performing Arts in Buffalo, a time that was to prove particularly influential due to encounters with Morton Feldman, and the music of Earl Brown, John Cage and Giacinto Scelsi. At the same time, she was able to experience the downtown New York music scene and continue her involvement in improvised music.
Joelle Leandre has continued to be involved with contemporary 'straight' music, not only as a member of contemporary music ensembles such as 2E2M, Itineraire and l'Ensemble Intercontemporain but particularly through the works of Cage and Scelsi, several of which have been recorded by her. Of Cage, she told Machart (1994):
He will always be my spiritual father. I had already read For the birds before meeting him. It is an important book. John made me listen to the world around me: 'Let sound be what it is'. He opened up a field of possibilities; he gave me confidence; he cooked for me (he was a very good cook), with his friend Cunningham; he was good. A friend. He was the first to smile when I played my piece Taxi in the hall at Columbia UniversityI can still remember it!