A Velvet Touch with a Glimmering Horn: Jimmy Leach Sings Chet Baker

Inspired by the songs of the great Chet Baker, Oklahoma-based trumpet player and vocalist Jimmy Leach has reimagined some classic tunes (Jimmy Burke’s “It’s Always You” or “The Thrill is Gone” by Lew Brown) and added his own flair. Leach, who has played the Star-Spangled Banner at two Red Sox games in Fenway Park, performed with the Boston Classical Orchestra and the Grand Rapids Symphony, and served as a conductor for school band programs, shows his learned chops on horn in “Autumn Leaves” and nails the vocals (in French, first) with a sweet, round tone that so fits the song. “Besame Mucho” is likewise colorful, easy on the ears, bittersweet. With Chet’s catalogue, Leach comes in straightaway with a slightly off-kilter beat on “My Funny Valentine” where the bass tips the balance back. It’s a love song that opens up to this light-and-dark treatment. And in the track “There Will Never Be Another You,” his tight and bright intro brings on the swing, and he sings it into life when he comes off the horn.

What was the first jazz song you recall hearing?

The first jazz songs I encountered took place when I was in the 7th grade as I got to school early and naturally hung out in the band room where the 8th and 9th grade jazz band was rehearsing. I was invited to sit in where I encountered higher notes than I ever saw in 7th grade concert band music.

Why did you become a musician?

Both my parents were church musicians, and my two brothers and sister played band instruments. We had both a piano and organ in our home, so I was surrounded by all these instruments and music plus guitars and ukuleles and singers, plus my mother taught piano students every day after school.

Why trumpet? And why vocals? How do you decide which to favor in a song, or do you switch off?

I was singing in church and school up until I was 11 when I joined band. I chose the trumpet probably because an older kid at church brought his trumpet for a bit of show and tell during a Sunday school class. While performing a song, it varies whether I sing first or play the melody on trumpet first. In 1930s recordings, the singer typically came in after an initial instrumental chorus.

Besides his talent, what do you admire most about Chet Baker that has inspired you?

Besides his prodigious talent and personal challenges, he had an amazing work ethic that allowed him to record many albums and work with many great musicians. Even after serious health setbacks and personal demons, he would always figure out a way to return to productive music making. 

Why an album about his music?

While I wrote my dissertation on Louis Armstrong and will make an album that features songs that he is known for, Chet’s singing and playing were an easier door for me to walk through. Chet Baker Sings is an album with tracks that are very compact like little miniatures. It takes great discipline for jazz musicians to compress their ideas inside of three minutes. 

What parts of your early training were the most useful?

Like Chet growing up in Oklahoma (and Louis Armstrong in New Orleans), I grew up first as a singer before I took up the trumpet. Having that sensibility as a singer makes a person’s trumpet playing a bit more lyrical.

Talk about teaching. What do you tell them about the music business?

The great challenge in teaching jazz is that most young people don’t grow up hearing it, so it’s like a foreign language to them. Once they find a performer or a jazz era they love, they can begin to figure out the dialect of early jazz, swing, bebop, etc. and incorporate it into their playing or singing. As a business, musicians must realize that they are in sales, if they are to become part of a jazz community. Headliners must make it happen by contacting venues; sidemen must make sure that band leaders know about them.

What is the jazz scene like where you live?

In Dayton, Columbus, and Cincinnati, jazz venues come and go. I prefer to be on concert series like at churches, art museums, the Levitt Pavilion, and libraries. 

What were some of your favorite collabs?

Some great milestones along the way included a summer playing with other college musicians at Disney World in Orlando. I got to play lead trumpet for Johnny Mathis for a couple of shows in Memphis. Two summers at Opryland in Nashville playing shows. Playing trumpet for the show band; playing piano and singing in a trio for Holland American Line in Alaska, South Pacific, and the Western Caribbean. A summer at the Aspen Music Festival playing both classical and jazz.

Do you prefer performing in a small ensemble or a big band and why?

I love big bands, although they are financially harder to support as time goes on. Small groups are easier to book, manage, and assemble charts for, and the money is better per musician.

What is the single most challenging part of being a musician today?

Just making sure that you have enough income streams. Most all musicians have day jobs as teachers or music-related services.

For more information, visit www.jimmyleach.com.

Photos courtesy of and with permission of the artist.

© 2023 Debbie Burke

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