As a young teen playing the banjo, Jay Leonhart saw no future playing that instrument. He even noticed that the banjo’s sound “irritated people.”

That wasn’t the case with the bass.

“Everybody loved the bass and as soon as I heard it I started loving the bass,” Leonhart said during a telephone interview earlier this week. “It seemed like an instrument that grown-ups could play. It was an instrument you could have a career on. The banjo didn’t seem like much of a career to me.”

“I’ve never looked back, and I’ve been playing the bass now for 50 years,” he said.

During those last 50 years, Leonhart has played several gigs in Maine while traveling with various jazz trios or big-band ensembles. This time, he travels alone, bringing his unique one-man show on the stand-up bass to Lewiston as part of L/A Arts’ Cabaret Series at the Ramada Inn.

He calls his show “The Bass Lesson.” But don’t expect a scholarly evening. Instead, be prepared for an evening of laughter. “Imagine if Victor Borge played the bass,” is how the Miami Herald described the show.

“It’s a bass lesson gone awry,” Leonhart said. “It’s talking about the bass, teaching people things about it, stories about this instrument, about me and my life playing it. It’s hardly a lesson. It’s more humor and fun, and songs about the life of a musician.”

Leonhart, 64, was born into a family of musicians in Baltimore. He toured and played the banjo on local television. He studied music at several schools, including the Berklee School of Music in Boston before starting his career as a bass player for the big bands of the 1950s and ’60s.

He eventually settled in New York and became an integral member of the city’s vibrant jazz community. An often requested studio musician, Leonhart has backed musicians across the spectrum, from Tony Bennett to Ozzy Osbourne.

The idea for the one-man show came to him from observing his audiences while playing an occasional solo tune as part of a trio.

“I noticed when I did songs myself, people paid a lot more attention,” Leonhart said. “They really stopped and listened, provided you had something to say. So I said, ‘Gee, why not have a whole evening like that.’ So I constructed a show where, hopefully, it’s interesting enough that people stay tuned in.

“It’s a one-man show where the guy happens to have a bass in his hands and plays it. It’s not a prop. It’s a serious accompaniment to my show.”

The Leonhart musical chops have continued for another generation. His son, Michael, plays the trumpet and piano, and daughter, Carolyn, is a singer. They have both toured with the band Steely Dan. Occasionally the two children join Leonhart and his wife on stage as a foursome. Two days after the L/A Arts show, the family plans such a performance in New York, something Leonhart hopes to do more often.

Besides several planned recording sessions, Leonhart will tour Japan with his trio in April and will perform next week at renowned Carnegie Hall.

The bassist is excited about the current state of jazz. New York recently opened the three-room Jazz at Lincoln Center, which he calls “sensational.” Even jazz’s small market doesn’t worry him.

“It used to be the predominant music in the country in the ’40s,” Leonhart said. “But now it’s down to maybe three percent of the people in the country are aware of it or know what it’s about. And we sell about three percent of the records. But it’s still a real business.”

“People say that Macintosh sells five percent of computers, but that’s still a lot of computers,” Leonhart said. “We still sell our share of records. We do a lot of concerts and lots of people make a living off it. I think jazz is in pretty good shape.”


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