The Legacy of Lawrence "Lo" Leathers Lives On in a Joyous Tribute, and a New Foundation

Feb 5, 2020

Lawrence “Lo” Leathers was a drummer much beloved in the jazz community, in his adopted home of New York City as well as his hometown of Lansing, Mich. He was vividly remembered in song, in stories and in spirit on Monday night, during a memorial at Dizzy’s Club.

JC Stylles and WBGO's Sheila Anderson, co-emcees at a memorial for Lawrence Leathers on Feb. 3, 2020.
Credit Frank Stewart / Jazz at Lincoln Center

“It was very uplifting,” says WBGO’s Sheila Anderson, who served as co-emcee of the evening, along with guitarist JC Stylles. “It wasn’t sad – it was actually joyful. Everybody showed up.”

Leathers, who died last summer under tragic circumstances, was best known for close associations with singer Cécile McLorin Salvant and pianist Aaron Diehl, both of whom performed on the memorial.

Wynton Marsalis during a memorial for Lawrence Leathers at Dizzy's Club, Feb. 3, 2020.
Credit Frank Stewart / Jazz at Lincoln Center

The evening began with a poignant scene, as Jazz at Lincoln Center artistic director Wynton Marsalis joined Diehl and bassist Paul Sikivie for an intimate version of “Goodbye.” Playing Gordon Jenkins’ plaintive melody on trumpet, Marsalis moved slowly through the club, in semidarkness; the emotional depth of the moment was clear even for those watching it on a live web stream.

“Wynton kind of set the tone when he opened up with ‘Goodbye,’ and went through the audience,” says Anderson. “It was absolutely beautiful.”

The memorial went on to include dozens of musicians connected to Leathers, performing and often sharing their recollections. Among them were pianist Spike Wilner, the owner of Smalls Jazz Club, where Leathers was a trusted fixture; organist Nate Lucas, whose quartet provided the young drummer with some of his early opportunities in Harlem; and the Captain Black Big Band, whose leader, pianist Orrin Evans, wrote a song in Leathers’ honor. (It ended with the full band singing a heartfet coda, a cappella: “I’m / So glad I got to know you.”)

Spike Wilner, at the piano, with Peter Bernstein and Frank Lacy, during a memorial for Lawrence Leathers, Feb. 3, 2020.
Credit Frank Stewart / Jazz at Lincoln Center

More than a few of the musicians who performed were also eager to share memories of Leathers, describing small kindnesses or acts of mischief, along with an overriding generosity of spirit. Trumpeter Dominick Farinacci — who wrote a stirring song for the occasion, and performed it as a duo with Diehl — recalled one passing moment on the road, when Leathers led the crowd in a roadside restaurant in singing “Happy Birthday” to a total stranger.

“What seasoned musicians and people all throughout his life did for him, by sharing and opening up opportunities, Lawrence has sought to do for others,” said his brother Brandon Leathers, announcing a new philanthropic effort, the Lawrence “Lo” Leathers Foundation for Altruistic & Performing Arts Opportunities. 

Brandon Leathers at a memorial for his brother, Lawrence Leathers, Feb. 3, 2020.
Credit Frank Stewart / Jazz at Lincoln Center

“Our desire at L3 will be to do the following. 1: To provide opportunities for young artists to grow and develop their craft. 2: Increase the awareness for the arts in the community and abroad. And 3: Show young artists that it is possible to make any dream a reality through the principles through which Lawrence did – hard work, commitment, and of course, humility.”

Cecile McLorin Salvant, with Paul Sikivie at a memorial for Lawrence Leathers, Feb. 3, 2020.
Credit Frank Stewart / Jazz at Lincoln Center

Salvant, appearing near the end of the program, seemed about to say a few words in Leathers’ honor, but began to choke up. So there was no preamble for her version of “Yesterdays,” which she performed with Diehl and Sikivie, leaving the drum chair unoccupied. Otto Harbach’s lyrics for the song – in particular, the plainspoken phrase “Sad am I” — rang with despondent feeling.

That acute sense of loss cohabited with a spirit of celebration, befitting the light that Leathers brought to so many musicians and fans. Anderson recalled her last encounter with him, a typically lively conversation during a dinner party at Stylles’ apartment in Harlem last summer.

“Lawrence was a good friend,” Anderson affirms. “Every time I talked to him, he listened, he responded. He was really attentive. Of course, he was funny, had a great sense of humor. Somewhat silly at times, which was endearing.”

She laughs. “He was definitely charming, and he had a way of connecting with folks. Very deep guy. I miss him.”