Lansing’s jazz community was devastated by the death Sunday of drummer Lawrence “Lo” Leathers, a home-grown talent and generous spirit who made it to the top of the New York jazz scene but never lost his affection for his home town.
Leathers, 37, was killed in the hallway of an apartment building on East 141st Street. The New York Times reported Monday that two suspects are in custody.
Leathers was best known in international jazz circles as the stalwart, fire-keeping drummer in Grammy-winning vocalist Cecile McLorin Salvant’s band, and as one-third of cerebral pianist Aaron Diehl’s trio, with bassist Paul Sikivie.
In the early aughts, Leathers studied with drummer Randy Gelispie, bassist Rodney Whitaker and the stellar MSU jazz faculty.
“Those years back home at MSU gave me my armor and my sword,” Leathers told City Pulse in an interview in 2015, when he returned to Lansing to play a gig at the Wharton Center with Salvant.
MSU Saxophone Professor Diego Rivera played hundreds of times with Leathers at Harper’s, Villega’s, the Temple Club and other local spots during a two-year span in the mid-2000s.
“We kind of grew up together musically,” Rivera said. “We were figuring out a lot of music together at the same time. We listened to a lot of music and played a lot of music together.”
When they met, Rivera was an MSU student and Leathers was still going to Sexton High School, where he was already tearing up the drum kit.
Leathers spent a year in Kansas City before moving to New York in 2007. Rivera joked that he threatened to fire Leathers to encourage him to swim in deeper waters.
“He had out-grown Lansing,” Rivera said. “He was ready to get out there.”
Drummer Jeff Shoup, impresario of Moriarty’s long-running Jazz Tuesdays, first met Leathers in 2000, shortly after Leathers graduated from Sexton High School.
“It was obvious even back then what kind of talent he had,” Shoup said. “He came in playing new shit every week and I was playing the same old thing.”
Besides his hard-swinging drums, Leathers had wicked keyboard skills, played a bad hand of poker and was unbeatable at the “Halo” xBox game.
“He was everybody’s best friend, very laid back, but whatever he was into, he was great at,” Shoup said.
Soon after moving to New York in 2007, Leathers was involved in multiple groups and became a go-to drummer for the city’s top jazz musicians.
“New York is the big show,” Leathers said in 2015. “It’s always been my goal to come out here.”
But Leathers didn’t forsake Lansing. Rivera invited him back in 2014 for the Summer Solstice Jazz Festival.
“That was special,” Rivera said. “His whole family came out. He sounded great and he was real happy.”
In 2015, Leathers sat in at Moriarty’s in Lansing, surprising Shoup, who hadn’t seen him in 10 years, and a delighted hometown crowd.
“It was like, not a day had passed,” Shoup said. “We hung out and had a great time.”
Leathers was a supportive, solid musician who didn’t go in for showboating.
“He had so warm and generous,” Rivera said. “He had this way of making you feel he already knew you.”
“He was the first to say he didn’t play a lot of flashy stuff,” Shoup said. “The important thing for him was to make the music feel good. He was just a great listener.”
Leathers’ bandstand generosity was integral to his nature. Shoup remembered piling into the car with Leathers and other musicians in 2015 to eat lunch at Aladdin’s Restaurant in Frandor. As they left the restaurant, a homeless person wandered up to them.
“It was kind of intrusive, the way he snuck up on us,” Shoup said. “Everybody just kind of wanted to avoid him, but he went right up to the guy and gave him every penny he had on him.”
Leathers met a key collaborator, pianist Aaron Diehl, at a gig at Mackinac Island’s Grand Hotel.
Along with many other jazz greats, trumpeter Wynton Marsalis sat in with the Diehl trio during its long residency at Small’s in New York. (Leathers was scheduled to play a gig at Small’s Sunday night.)
In 2010, when rising-star vocalist Cecile McLorin Salvant won the prestigious Thelonious Monk competition and tour offers started pouring in, Marsalis advised her to hire Diehl’s trio. It turned into Leathers’ most high-profile, lucrative gig and led to two Grammy-winning records.
In the past several years, Leathers had so many irons in the fire he had to be careful not to double book himself.
“I was talking with Aaron (Diehl) about having good problems, having to turn down work,” Leathers said in 2015. “There’s always going to be opportunities if you do the right things.”
Rivera found his friend’s New York success totally unsurprising.
“He was doing exactly what he set out to do, what he wanted to do,” Rivera said. “He’s a follow-through guy.”