Peter Leitch’s Off the Books Is Off the Hook
Guitarist Peter Leitch‘s Off the Books: A Jazz Life is not your usual jazz autobiography. Every time the narrative threatens to get bogged down in a litany of tour dates or recording sessions, Leitch zings you. This is one hilarious memoir. Leitch’s withering cynicism is matched by a caustically insightful intelligence: he’s a big-picture guy, and his coping mechanism is gallows humor. Here’s one typically acerbic passage: “It was so wonderful to play with superb bassists like ‘Bookie’ [Walter Booker] and Ray Drummond, especially in an era where there were so many bassists whose technical proficiency superseded their intelligence, and whose playing ignored the bass function. Yes, there was a lot of cocaine around in those days.”
There’s an argument that outsiders make the best artists because they have an objectivity that comes from not having a horse in the race. They tell the truth because they have nothing to lose. Leitch grew up in the 1950s as an English speaker in Francophone Montreal, so he was an outsider from day one. From time to time, throughout this disarmingly honest narrative, he wistfully ponders how he might get out of the “guitar ghetto,” as he calls it. Of course, his fellow guitarists and fans of guitar jazz don’t see it as a ghetto at all: to them, Leitch is a cult hero with a body of work on the level of Jim Hall and Joe Pass, two fellow icons whom Leitch frequently resembles. At this point in his career, Leitch is now close to seventy but playing at the peak of his subtle, eclectic, purist power. A recent Sunday night gig at Walker’s in Tribeca, where he’s had a weekly residency for years, saw him moving from plaintive to animated to absolutely rapt, in a conversational duo performance with bassist Dwayne Burno, playing a mix of originals, a lively Strayhorn medley and an absolutely chilling, Lynchian take of Kenny Burrell’s Moonflower.
The book’s title is telling: from his early years as a schoolboy outcast, Leitch sees himself on the fringes of society, yet this isn’t a pity trip. Largely self-taught, he downplays the difficulty in honing his craft as a jazz-addicted teenager, playing along with and transcribing from vinyl albums at 16 RPM instead of 33 in order to figure out the most difficult passages. Touring some of Canada’s vacation backwater with both jazz and R&B bands back in the 60s was a colorful way to make a living, and Leitch has some cruelly funny stories from that era as well. After a brief, frustrating stop in Toronto, Leitch arrived in New York in 1982, which has been his home base ever since.
Perhaps owing somewhat to his Canadianness, Leitch is candidly critical of many aspects of American society. His take on the often unspoken racism that still oozes poison throughout both the the jazz world and the country at large is telling, influenced by the insights of the great pianist John Hicks, with whom Leitch shared a long association. Having been in New York and witnessed the events of the morning of 9/11, he has some particularly savage observations on post-9/11 American paranoia and the Bush-era assaults on human rights. Leitch has nothing but contempt for the music business, quick to acknowledge the many supportive venue owners he’s known while saving some of his most side-splitting commentary for record labels: his take on the widely hyped young would-be major label jazz stars of the early 90s is priceless. Likewise, the critics don’t get off easy: “Musicians should take their own poll of critics and journalists. You could give out awards in various categories such as ‘Most consistent misuse of musical terminology’ and ‘Best regurgitation of a major label press release’ and ‘Best autobiographical essay in the guise of a review,’ etc. The awards themselves could consist of dog shit or broken glass.”
Drugs – especially opiates, but also coke and opioids – make frequent appearances here, along with plenty of booze. Leitch cops to a regular if not incapacitating dope habit in the 70s, which he acknowledges he was lucky to be able to quit. Surprisingly, there’s less about his actual music here than there are anedcotes about Leitch’s long career playing and interacting with luminaries including Oscar Peterson, Pepper Adams and Jaki Byard, although there are frequent and often unselfconsciously profound insights into composition, phrasing, touring and simply being a good bandmate. The result is a complete lack of jazz-insider cliches: no laundry lists of influences, no pseudo-spiritual musings, no self-aggrandizing. If anything, Leitch doesn’t give himself enough credit as either a player or photographer (much of the latter portion of the book deals with his mid-career side gig as an art photographer with a noir streak a mile long). Along the way, we get a fascinating look at the vibrant 1950s and 60s Montreal jazz scene; a thoughtful and ceaselessly amusing tour of New York as gentrification takes its toll; a panoramic view of how the jazz scene here changed, with the waves of recent music school grads edging out much of the old guard, and the sad demise of venues like Bradley’s (which for Leitch, like so many in the jazz community in the 80s and 90s was home away from home) and Sweet Basil.
Leitch also has a new album, California Concert, a live bootleg of sorts recorded at a Fresno festival in 1999 with both Leitch and Hicks at the top of their game alongside bassist David Williams and drummer Billy Higgins throughout an expansive mix of Ellington tunes plus Hicks and Leitch originals.
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