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Michael Leonhart: A Fortunate Son

Telly Davidson By

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For most musicians, writers and actors, making the final decision to go against the grain and pursue a paycheck-to-paycheck, month-to-month career as a performing artist is one of the harder choices in life. Yet for trumpeter Michael Leonhart, a life in jazz and art is "all in the family": his father is the noted jazz bassist, studio musician and humorist Jay Leonhart; and his sister is the sprightly, sassy, and torchy alt-rock and jazz singer Carolyn Leonhart. And after a three-decade hiatus as a wife and mom, his mother Donna resumed her career as a singer in 1999.

Born in 1974 in New York City, the youngest member of the Leonhart family started his trumpet playing at the age of 10, after stabs at keyboards, violin and drums (most of which he also still plays) starting at age seven. The trumpet prodigy was playing his first professional gigs by the time he was all of 12 and 13 years old, backing his father at The Blue Note, and by 16, he was the star pupil at New York's legendary Fiorello LaGuardia High School of the Performing Arts (where the movie Fame was set), when no less than Wynton Marsalis personally invited the 16-year-old "serious swinger" to dinner to compare notes.

The following year, Leonhart became the then-youngest winner a Grammy award in his own right, for Outstanding High School Musician. That accolade made him a "Person of the Week" on ABC TV's "World News Tonight with Peter Jennings," and got him a personality profile in The New York Times.

That fall, Leonhart was accepted on full scholarship to the Manhattan School of Music, then moving on Columbia University, where he "studied anything that interested him," especially literature and filmmaking, along with music. Also and even more fatefully during his Columbia years, a young singer named Jamie Obstbaum—his future wife—first entered the picture. Before Leonhart even finished, he was signed to a contract at Sunnyside Records, where he released the avant-garde trumpet album, Aardvark Poses (1995). Then in 1996, Leonhart received the biggest break of his career when the 22-year-old was recruited to work with Steely Dan as they returned to live touring for the first time in over 20 years. The "ever enigmatic Michael Leonhart" will hopefully be returning to back Donald Fagen on tour later this year if all goes well.

Ahead of the release of his new CD on Truth and Soul Records (where he is known as the "house" trumpet player on studio recordings) with his longtime band, The Avramina 7, Seahorse and the Storyteller, Leonhart spoke with AAJ. He had just celebrated his 36th birthday May 5th with a CD release party hosted by Sean Lennon at The Mercury Lounge in Greenwich Village, and spoke about growing up in a family of artists and musicians, where he came late to the notion of becoming a professional musician.

"At one point I was really interested in neurology, like Oliver Sacks," he said. "When I read his books as a young teenager, I thought there was just something so poetic and mathematical about it, going deeper into the mind. I messed around with painting, and I always had an interest in filmmaking. But by the time I was 13, I knew how music could provide such a fantastical escape. Even when it feels bad, like a few times a year when my trumpet chops are utterly exhausted on a long gig, you don't know if you can make it but you just have to keep going... there's a rush about that. Where is fantasy and where is reality... drawing those lines..."

Leonhart has a reputation as being an athlete, something not uncommon since the trumpet is a very athletic instrument. Despite his busy schedule, he said he still plays a lot of sports.

"I think trumpet players push themselves very hard—we're almost all drawn to things that involve coordination and the machismo," he said. "My dad was always great at sports, and when I was young, I really got into sports. But by the time I was in high school and I got into music, I began to notice that the women I was interested in were infinitely more attracted to musicians than to jocks, so screw sports! But then I missed sports so I'd play on the weekends.

"Yet all it takes is spraining your finger once, and then you can't play, so I gave up on it for a while," he added. "But of course, I eventually got back into it again. Although I am only 5-foot-9, so I'm not exactly a giant on the field."

Growing up in a Jewish family in the heart of the New York arts scene, Leonhart's mother and father were both musicians and artists, and his older sister was a budding singer—almost parallel to the movie The Squid and the Whale (2005), about growing up in a novelist's home. Leonhart admits the movie "was really close to some" of his early memories and experiences.

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