A wave of shock and sadness moved through the jazz community on Sunday, with news of the death of Lawrence Lo Leathers, a drummer with a steadfast presence in the modern jazz mainstream.
Leathers was 37. He was killed on Sunday in the hallway of an apartment building on East 141st Street in the Bronx neighborhood of Mott Haven, according to Detective Martin Brown of the NYPD. The police have arrested a suspect in connection to the incident.
According to police sources, Leathers was involved in a dispute with his girlfriend when he was assaulted by another individual, who put him in a chokehold. He lost consciousness and was later pronounced dead.
E.J. Strickland, a drummer who served as a big brother of sorts to Leathers, remembered him on Instagram as “one of the most musical, swingingest, honest drummers out here. Whenever I saw him play, I learned a great deal more about accompaniment, feel, & touch.”
Leathers is best known to the global jazz audience for his affiliations with pianist Aaron Diehl and singer Cécile McLorin Salvant. He won two Grammy awards backing Salvant, as a member of the Aaron Diehl Trio; the most recent was in 2017 for Dreams and Daggers (Mack Avenue), much of which was recorded live at The Village Vanguard in New York. You can hear him take a characteristically crisp drum solo on Bob Dorough’s “Devil May Care,” beginning at 4:25.
Speaking with me in 2017, Salvant recalled the circumstances of the recording: “I was feeling really overwhelmed by the venue, and on Tuesday night I was really nervous and shy, and not doing anything. Wednesday got a little more relaxed, Thursday got a lot more relaxed. And then they started recording on Friday — so it was back to Square One, being so aware of the recording, which is horrible.”
With one set left in the run, the band gathered in the club kitchen. “Lawrence Leathers, the drummer, he kind of pulled us all together and gave us a Snakes on a Plane type of speech,” Salvant said. “Like: ‘We gotta do this! What have we been doing? Let’s get to our s***!’ ”
That exhortative quality is one thing musicians may miss about Leathers, who was also a pillar of the informal but musically vital scene in New York, presiding over late-night sessions at Smalls Jazz Club and Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola. The SmallsLIVE website lists 277 archived shows that include Leathers, most recently with the JC Stylles Organ Quartet in late April. (Leathers was scheduled to play there again tonight, in an after-hours jam session.)
“He had an acute social awareness,” Diehl tells NPR Music. “He knew how to observe situations and people, and because of that he knew exactly how to engage. This directly translated into his musicianship. He was always aware of everyone and everything around him, with the objective to be supportive, to groove, and to simply lift the bandstand with euphoria. Every time I played with Lawrence Leathers, there was some kind of levitation going on.”
Singer and WBGO announcer Lezlie Harrison worked with Leathers on multiple occasions, and considered him a dear friend. “He always greeted me with a stately bow, a beautiful smile and that mischievous twinkle in his eye,” she says. “Lawrence was fiercely passionate about the music and the tradition. His swing was full of so much soul and fire. He was one of the best cats to hang with on and off the bandstand.”
Lawrence Lo Leathers was born on Nov. 23, 1981 in Lansing, Mich., where he began banging on the drums as a toddler. He encountered his first musical mentor in the gospel church: Joe Lane, who was playing in services, and soon became his first drum teacher.
“I’ve never seen anyone in my life pick up any instrument he wanted to and play it almost instantly,” says Lane, who remained close with Leathers. “And not just music. He did that with everything. Anything that he wanted to. The hardest thing about this whole thing is, he was a guy who was very difficult not to love.”
Leathers was playing professionally by 15. He moved to New York to attend the Juilliard School, where he met Diehl and bassist Paul Sikivie, along with other future collaborators. (Juilliard also brought him into the orbit of trumpeter Wynton Marsalis; here’s amateur footage of Marsalis jamming on “Cherokee” at Smalls in 2011, with the Aaron Diehl Trio as a rhythm section.)
In a 2012 interview with the variety web series Capsulocity, Leathers gave a brief rundown of his journey, as well as a précis of his style. “I don’t play a whole lot of flashy stuff,” he reflects. “Listening, that’s one of my biggest assets.”
He also reflects on the total commitment required of a jazz artist: “You have to have this feeling — you know what I mean? — that it’s your life.”