James Leigh

James “Jim” Leigh, an award-winning writer and internationally-noted jazz trombonist who performed for nearly 20 years with the Baldy Mountain Swing Band in Claremont, died on June 18 of an uncommon lung disease. He was 82.

Mr. Leigh was born on May 28, 1930 in Santa Monica to Lily King Westervelt, an artist, and Jack Leigh (born Leonardo Valles), a London-born actor and director who starred in a number of British silent films before relocating to the United States.

When he was 12, Mr. Leigh’s sister Barbara gave him a copy of American Jazz Music by Wilder Hobson. Soon, he began rifling through the offerings at the Jazz Man Record Shop on Santa Monica Boulevard in Hollywood.

As a young adolescent, Mr. Leigh snuck into a number of gigs at hopping Hollywood joints like the Jade Café, the Apex Club and the Swanee Inn. The first of these underage excursions involved taking a streetcar to Watts and tiptoeing in to the Tip Toe Inn to see legendary jazz trombonist and bandleader Kid Ory.

“Riding the streetcar home that night, I felt as if I had just celebrated a rite of passage—my first live jazz. The music had its hooks in me for keeps,” Mr. Leigh noted in an article he wrote for the Frisco Cricket. 

Mr. Leigh took a hiatus from jazz fanaticism while he turned his attention to high school, but the separation was brief. When Mr. Leigh became assistant sports editor for the Santa Monica Evening Outlook in 1949, he took his earnings to Jack’s Record Shack in West Los Angeles. He later recalled that while browsing through records there, “the fever hit me again, immediately and hard.”

When the Shack changed hands in 1950, its new owner, a pianist named Ellen Hertel, took it upon herself to start a house band. She gathered a group of green but eager jazz musicians, including Mr. Leigh who, having taught himself the ukulele, transferred the chords onto a 4-string tenor guitar.

The group played a few amateur shows at Georgia’s Playroom, billed as “Santa Monica’s Number-One Fun Spot,” before Mr. Leigh found his true instrumental calling when a friend was drafted, leaving his trombone behind.  Mr. Leigh, who was excused from service because he was supporting his mother and sister, borrowed the horn. With their new trombonist, the ensemble, dubbed the Costa del Oro Jazz Band, made its first paid appearance at a gig sponsored by the Southern California Hot Jazz Society.

In 1953, he married his first wife Carol, who would go on to become a noted jazz singer. Mr. Leigh, who by that time had moved to northern California, went on to become part of the San Francisco jazz scene, playing at venues like the legendary waterfront restaurant Pier 23 and with luminaries ranging from Turk Murphy to Bob Helm to a young Janis Joplin. Over the years, Mr. Leigh’s musical taste would expand to encompass many genres, but New Orleans-style jazz was his specialty and his passion.

When a musician friend advised Mr. Leigh to find a backup career so he could always put food on the table, he decided to go back to college. He enrolled at San Jose State University, where he earned a bachelor of arts degree in English and American literature in 1957. With the help of a Woodrow Wilson fellowship, he earned a master’s degree in English literature from Stanford University the following year. There, he made lifelong writer friends like Philip Levine and Bill Broder.

Some people just seem to have more energy. Mr. Leigh, whom longtime friend Leonard Gardner said was a cheerful and invigorating companion, was one of these. He had a rich teaching career, serving as a professor of writing at San Francisco State College from 1958 to 1964 and from 1972 to 1980. 

He also wrote extensively, winning the Joseph Henry Jackson Award for fiction in 1961, the Playboy Prize for Short Fiction in 1969 and penning 4 published novels: Downstairs at Ramsy’s, The Rasmussen Disasters, No Man’s Land and What Can You Do? The latter novel was made in to a feature film. Mr. Leigh also wrote reviews, articles and columns over the years for publications like the San Diego-Union Tribune and the Mississippi Rag.

In 2000, Mr. Leigh published his memoirs, Heaven on the Side: A Jazz Life. Of Mr. Leigh’s jazz-drenched life story, Michael Steinman of the Jazz Lives blog, wrote:

“The book is full of these brief moments of revelation, quietly persuasive but never self-congratulatory. Any of us might have encountered Herb Flemming, and perhaps with similar results, but only Jim Leigh would have come to understand that moment as he has…and only Leigh would have written of it in such a sweetly understated way.  What compels me is the steady, often amused, man and writer, experiencing his life and learning from it, every chorus, every day.”

One thing music and writing have in common is that they are portable professions. In 1965, Mr. Leigh traveled to Spain where he met his second wife, Ria Loohuizen, a native of the Netherlands who went on to become a writer of books on cooking with wild, gathered plants. The pair settled in Amsterdam for a few years before returning to San Francisco for Mr. Leigh’s second stint at San Francisco State, with 2 young children in tow. In 1980, the family moved back to the Netherlands.

There, Mr. Leigh became part of a jazz orchestra called the La Vida Band, which toured throughout the Netherlands and in Belgium, Italy, Switzerland and Sweden. The band’s performance at the 14th Annual Festival of New Orleans Music, held in Ancona in Switzerland and drawing 27 groups from 9 countries, was a highlight of that time period.

Mr. Leigh returned to the United States in 1988, settling in Claremont when he was offered a job as a visiting professor of writing at Pomona College. Soon after, while he was performing with a small jazz ensemble called The Real-Time Jazz Band at the now-shuttered Nick’s Café, a friend introduced him to Claremont artist Martha Estus. The pair hit it off and became companions for the rest of his life. 

Ms. Estus loved Mr. Leigh’s sense of humor and talent, and says her knowledge of music increased exponentially during their time together.

“He was an extremely bright person, always engaging, and always had something interesting to say about world politics,” she said. “He was certainly opinionated and very liberal. He really believed in the people on the bottom—he grieved for them.”

Music, though, always lifted Mr. Leigh’s spirits.

“He had an incredible memory for tunes and lyrics from years and years ago,” Ms. Estus said. “He would come out in the kitchen and sing me some little ditty.”

The Real-Time players expanded and eventually became the Baldy Mountain Swing Band, a staple for 20 years at The Press restaurant in Claremont.

Mr. Leigh spent the last years of his life doing what he loved most: writing prolifically and playing jazz. Along with performances with the Baldy Mountain Swing Band at The Press restaurant twice a month, he played with a traditional New Orleans jazz ensemble called Gremoli, which has played at the Montrose Farmer’s Market for many years as well as at an array of gigs and festivals.

Mr. Leigh had a send-off worthy of the lifelong jazz connoisseur that he was. After a memorial gathering at Oak Park Cemetery in Claremont, The Press restaurant hosted some 100 of Mr. Leigh’s friends in a celebration of his life featuring jazz played by musicians he knew.

“Baldy Jazz has always been part of the spirit of The Press,” said Robin Young, operations and entertainment manager at the popular venue. “Jim’s humor, talent and intelligence will be sorely missed.”

Mr. Leigh is survived by his partner, Martha Estus; by his son, Gabriel Leigh-Valles; by his daughter, Alissa Leigh-Valles; by his sister, Penelope Leigh; and by his grandchildren, Misha and Remy Leigh-Valles.

—Sarah Torribio


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