Friends and Family Share Stories and Music During Tribute to the Late Lawrence Leathers

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Wynton Marsalis performs Monday in New York at Dizzy’s during a tribute to the late drummer Lawrence Leathers.

(Photo: Frank Stewart for Jazz at Lincoln Center)

Candy-colored lights illuminated the bandstand at Dizzy’s Monday night, the way they always do. Patrons settled into conversation by the bar. Now and then, a couple glimpsed Columbus Circle from the fifth-story window while servers weaved methodically through the room.

Nearly everything about the club felt the same as it ever was. Only the energy had changed.

Eight months earlier, the music scene lost beloved drummer and mentor Lawrence Leathers, who was killed in a 2019 altercation in the Bronx. He was 37. The show at Jazz at Lincoln Center was an opportunity for artists, friends and family from across the States and Europe to share their intimate exchanges with Leathers, each story uncovering a different layer of a complicated, influential and loving artist.

Featuring performances from Wynton Marsalis, Nickel and Dime OPS, George Delancey and Johnny O’Neal, and longtime collaborator Cécile McLorin Salvant, among other acts, the concert and fundraiser presented a snapshot of Leathers’ lasting impact on musicians and “civilians” from Harlem to Paris.

According to Leathers’ close friend, guitarist-composer JC Stylles—who cohosted the concert with WBGO’s Sheila Anderson—the event, which streamed live, served to “fill in some missing pieces” of Leathers’ life “in musical and chronological order.”

The drum throne unoccupied, pianist Aaron Diehl and bassist Paul Sikivie first took the bandstand with trumpeter Marsalis, who’d played a leading role in securing space at Jazz at Lincoln Center for the concert. Immediately, Marsalis stepped out of the stage lights and into the crowd. Silencing listeners with an exposed delivery of “Goodbye” away from the microphone, he and Diehl played together before Sikivie joined them on the bridge.

“I’ve never met anyone like Lawrence,” Diehl later told DownBeat. “The range of people present at Dizzy’s—you had uptown, you had downtown, you had all these musicians, who are normally placed in certain corners of the New York jazz scene, come together [for one night]. And that doesn’t always happen.”

The Michigan Lo Downs performed “A Night In Tunisia” and “I Thought About You,” the latter spotlighting vocalist Tiffany Toriumi, for a warmed up crowd. Throughout the evening, multiple organ acts—including the Nate Lucas All-Stars, the JC Stylles Quintet featuring Kyle Kohler and the Ian Hendrickson–Smith Quartet featuring Brian Charette—closely held listeners’ attentions. Speakers included Harlem resident Claude Beckford, eighth-grade teacher Jennifer Ochoa, Parisian artist Coline Chaloupe Chazaux, Smalls owner Spike Wilner and drummer Carl Allen, Leathers’ mentor.

Brandon Leathers addressed the audience to present his brother’s legacy, the L3 Foundation, an organization “providing opportunities for young artists to grow and develop their craft; increasing awareness for the arts in the community and abroad; and showing young artists it’s possible to make any dream a reality through the principles by which Lawrence lived: hard work, commitment and humility.”

While many speakers shared anecdotes about Leathers’ warmth, sense of humor and uncommonly deft hand at pool, poker, chess and dominoes, others simply shared the music. On stage, Salvant first faced the crowd, then gently shook her head, turning toward Diehl and Sikivie before delivering “Yesterdays” to a silent crowd. Tenderly, she touched both artists on the arm before leaving the stage without saying a word.

“JC manages Smalls, but he’s [also] a guitar player and leader,” Diehl said. “So, you have this event that he coordinated with Jazz at Lincoln Center. And you have Jazz at Lincoln Center going above and beyond with the catering, the space, the manpower. It was just beautiful to see that collaboration, because we can all be very territorial. How it all worked out was representative of who Lawrence was, bringing all these elements together. He was very, very special.” DB




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