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THE BRAVE JOURNEYS OF JENNIFER LEITHAM: “I STAND CORRECTED”

Jennifer Jane Leitham by Garth Woods

Jennifer Jane Leitham by Garth Woods

I first encountered the virtuoso jazz string bassist Jennifer Jane Leitham at the Sacramento Music Festival a few years ago — and was impressed by her eloquent improvisations.  Not only did she have technique, but she was a powerfully focused musician. Although I had never encountered the jazz string bassist John Leitham in person, I had heard him on recordings with Mel Torme, George Shearing, and other jazz notables. I STAND CORRECTED is a marvelous film documentary that traces the transition from John to Jennifer.  It is a deeply felt collaboration between Jennifer and filmmaker Andrea Meyerson. You don’t have to be a jazz fan to admire the film or its subject. It chronicles  the life-long journeys of Jennifer Leitham, who courageously exists in two simultaneous realms.  One story — more familiar — is how a young person born in Pennsylvania (not New Orleans, New York, or Kansas City) becomes a jazz musician in a time and place not all that hospitable to jazz.  Or perhaps not to larger kinds of improvisation. But I STAND CORRECTED is about much more than “becoming a musician”: early inspirations, good teachers, learning one’s craft, breaking in, getting a nationwide reputation, working alongside famous players and singers — with heartbreaks that keep the story genuine, not an unbroken climb to the top. I STAND CORRECTED is about a young woman born into a boy’s body who, early on, knew she was in the wrong place, in a society that would not admit such things might be possible.  It is a record of how John became Jennifer while not letting her essence be destroyed in the process.  For  John Leitham was a wondrous musician before Jennifer emerged in the public eye, and one of the sweetest aspects of this saga is Jennifer’s awareness and acceptance of both selves: this isn’t a film about an enraged, wounded adult trying to obliterate her younger self, but an adult who wants to emerge as the person she knows herself to be. I STAND CORRECTED offers that human story and more in a most moving film. For one thing, Jennifer is an exceedingly likable guide, honest but not pompous nor didactic or narcissistic.  I STAND CORRECTED is not a sermon telling us that we should all be tolerant.  There are no scientific or academic talking heads, no instant revelations. The film is a casual but strongly felt journal of one woman’s struggle to be the person she was meant to be.  Jennifer is both candid and light-hearted without ever undercutting the seriousness of her quest.  The film touches on emotional crises (a divorce, family members unable to accept Jennifer when they knew only John) and medical catastrophes, without becoming bleak. Of course, it helps that an audience has seen Jennifer onstage, ebullient and serious at the same time, playing at the highest level of her art, testing herself while having the time of her life.  And the film is generously leavened with musical performances where Jennifer shows off her prodigious talents as improviser, composer, singer. But the real story is more than a music video. Along the way, John-in-the-process-of-becoming-Jennifer is forced to be a spy in enemy country.  But she finds allies, friends, and supporters.  Some of them are genuinely unaffected noble people: Doc Severinsen is someone you would always want in your corner — gentle yet unwavering, both parent and friend to someone who strongly needs both.  “I hired a bass player, not a man or a woman,” he tells her.  Bless him.  Ed Shaughnessy is not far behind.  (Jennifer’s younger brother is a prize, too.) I was reminded that Doc and Ed were born n an era of drinking fountains labeled COLORED and WHITE outside train stations in many states.  But they and other jazz musicians learned quickly that it didn’t matter what you looked like on the outside.  It didn’t matter who your life-partner was.  Black, white, gay, straight?  Could you play?  What was your heart like?  How well did you love? Meeting these gracious, generous people is one of the film’s pleasures.  But they are only reflecting back something shining out of the film’s heroine.  Jennifer Leitham is gently making her way, as we all must.  Her courage is admirable, for she made the transition at the height of her career, when “coming out as a woman” could have ended her life as a performing musician. I STAND CORRECTED introduces us to a person for whom making music was a way to save herself, to define herself . . . and her music is a great loving gift to all of us.  The salvation young John found while playing the electric bass left-handed (a conscious choice, perhaps an early sly way of saying “I am different”) radiates through this film — a gift Jennifer gives to us.  And as she trusts herself, we trust her. We are all trying to become the person we feel we are meant to be, and some get close to that goal.  Jennifer Leitham’s quest didn’t end when she came out of the hospital after surgery.  It continues every time she performs or tells her story — a story that will give some other young person courage to be him or herself. I STAND CORRECTED is beautifully yet unobtrusively presented: the film shifts back and forth from the early life of John Leitham to the music of Jennifer Leitham to her voyage of self-discovery, the situations she must face and the oppositions that result — as well as the emotional rewards. At the end of I STAND CORRECTED, we feel privileged to have met a happy, realized, creative human being: a woman with four birthdays. And as we are slowly — too slowly — leaving behind the world where skin color or sexual preference determines identity and worth, I STAND CORRECTED will be understood as a small milestone on the way to a world where the idea of MAN or WOMAN is put aside as irrelevant in favor of PERSON, of BEING. It is a rewarding film both musically and spiritually.  Make every effort to see it.  Its heroine’s courage and perseverance are inspiring.  In a world where many people make judgments based on someone’s external presence, we need to be reminded that the truths lie within. Here is the film’s website — where you can see trailers and find out where it is being shown. May your happiness increase.

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