Friday, 10 April 2015

The Longest Set - Peter Leitch's Jazz Guitar Gig at Walker's

NEW YORK CITY --- It is Sunday evening and Peter Leitch carries his guitar case and amp into Walker's on North Moore Street for what is the longest-running gig in the World Capital of Jazz.

"It gives me a chance to play with some great bass players, and great saxophone players.  And it's allowed me to develop musical relationships with different people that I might not have a chance to play with on regular basis," Leitch said.

It is always Leitch accompanied by the double bass (Harvie S, Ray Drummond, Sean Smith), or the tenor saxophone (Jed Levy). Like the man himself, it is soulful, spare and straight-ahead.

This classic American bar is in Tribeca --- the New York City neighbourhood with the highest rents, the lowest crime rate, and some of the best jazz guitar around.

Leitch started playing in this historic neighbourhood tavern in 1997, and he remains a vital, creative and productive musician as he prepares to turn 70.  His memoir, Off the Books: A Jazz Life is into its second printing.  Leitch recently released his 15th CD, "Landscapes," and sells recordings at his weekly gig, and online. The CD is on The Jazz House label.

"It is my own label, which is what most musicians are doing now unless they happened to be signed to a major label, and there are not many of those," Leitch said. "So people are releasing their own music, and at least they are having some control over it.  The Internet has actually opened up, kind of levelled the playing field a little bit."

Landscapes is toned down be-bop.  Leitch leads a trio through beautiful arrangements of standards and new material. He pays tribute to the great cultures that fused into America's 20th Century music - vaudeville, the Irish American experience and African America's blues. It is the work of a mature, virtuosic and creative musician.

Leitch played as a sideman for Oscar Peterson and Woody Shaw.  He's performed with a long list of jazz greats, including Kirk Lightsey, Rusus Reid, Al Grey, Jeri Brown, Pepper Adams, Pete Yellin and Dominque Eade. Even with that musical pedigree, Leitch is easy to approach and talk to while he enjoys a smoke between sets on a Sunday night in Tribeca.

Check out his website,
His memoir is a terrific read, an honest, unsparing and eloquent account of his life as a jazz guitarist in three cities - Montreal, Toronto and New York. It recounts his use of heroin as a young man in Montreal, his struggles with depression and his unrelenting dedication to the art of jazz. It is a hymn for jazz musicians.  It is a paean to New York City, past and present.
"When I first moved here in the early Eighties there were different clubs. A couple of them are still here like The Vanguard, which will go on forever. There were places like Bradley's.  I played there with a great pianist named John Hicks, and a bassist named Ray Drummond.  John has since passed away, but Ray and I still  play together at Walker's sometimes," Leitch said.

Bradley's was in Greenwich Village on University Place.  Leitch loved playing there. He loved hanging there.  He writes about it in Off the Books.

"There were places you would go after your earlier gig, places like Bradley's, Sweet Basil was another one, and you would hang out and just talk to other musicians.  Bradely's was almost like an after-hours office for musicians," Leitch said.  "Gigs were passed back and forth, and rumours, if anything happens, you would hear it there first.  That's all gone."

Unbelievably expensive rents for small  businesses is a big part of the problem.  It can easily cost $8,000-a-month for 1,000-square-feet in the West Village.

"At least in New York, part of the problem is, you can take it all the way back to the fact that there are no controls on commercial real estate in New York City, which makes just paying the rent on a jazz club incredibly expensive, and musicians have to be paid a decent amount of money," Leitch said.

"So if  you are running a jazz club you end up having to charge a lot of money at the door, and sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't," Leitch said.

 When Leitch first moved to New York in 1982 he lived in the East Village, on East 13th St. A one-bredroom apartment in that neighbourhood now rents for at least $2,800-a-month.

"Those apartments now are unaffordable," Leitch said. "That was a cheap place to live at the time, the East Village."

On page 96 of his memoir, Leitch describes the New York City he first moved to.

"New York in the early 1980s had no chain stores - no McDonald's, Gaps or Starbucks.  The city at this time was still recovering from its disastrous financial crisis of the 1970s.  The major approaches to the city - the Deegan Expresway, the West Side Highway, the FDR Drive - presented a surrealistic, almost post Armageddon view.  The shoulders of the roads were littered with abandoned vehicles, the burned-out shells of cars stripped for parts.  In the driving lanes one had to swerve to avoid mufflers, hubcaps, wheels and occasional trunk lid."

As he practised his guitar for hours a day beside an upper-floor window on East 13th Street, Leitch would watch a local crack dealer ply his trade.  of the three cities Leitch lived in he liked Toronto the least. Toronto was expensive and did not have enough venues for a jazz musician. A lot of musicians lived in tiny apartments.

"Perhaps this explains many of the Toronto musicians' abnormal obsession with real estate.  As I advised a young guitarist moving to Toronto: 'Be prepared to discuss real estate with enthusiasm,'" writes Leitch in Off the Books.

In addition to his music, Leitch is a photographer and specializes in capturing jazz artists on stage. He exhibited some of those photographs in a New Jersey jazz radio station in 2012. He had an earlier exhibit in his hometown of Montreal in 1999.  Last year he was back in Montreal for another visit.

"There are things that I miss about it, but I still love New York," Leitch said.   "New York is not going to change that much.  They try to change it, but these things go in cycles."
If you are in New York City on a Sunday night, head for Walker's.  Go through the front room with the bar and high ceilings, and step into the quirky back room where you will find Leitch playing his guitar, accompanied by a bass or a saxophone.  The food and drinks are decent and reasonable.  The music is amazing.

"In the future I am just going to keep on playing the guitar, trying to get better, and keep on doing it," Leitch said.

Hallelujah for that.