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Jazz Upstairs: ‘An Evening of Gershwin’ with Leonhardt and Reed

If you love jazz, you surely love the music of George Gershwin.

And it is just as sure that you will love the way it is played by David Leonhardt and Nancy Reed.

“An Evening of Gershwin” with the David Leonhardt Trio and guest vocalist Nancy Reed was presented in concert, 7:30 p.m. Jan. 14, “Jazz OnStage” series, Main Stage, Miller Symphony Hall, 23 N. Sixth St., Allentown.

Leonhardt has done 50 concerts of Gershwin’s music.

“I joke with my audiences that I built my house with Gershwin,” Leonhardt says in a phone interview from his home in Williams Township, Northampton County.

Leonhardt performed a concert of Gershwin in 2015 in Miller Symphony Hall. The Jan. 14 concert will be his sixth performance there.

Of Gershwin (1898 - 1937) a composer from Great American Songbook era, Leonhardt says, “His music is easy to personalize, interpret and improvise with.”

He released “The David Leonhardt Jazz Group Plays Gershwin” on his Big Bang record label in 2000 with Reed on vocals. The Miller Symphony Hall concert will include music from the album, with a mix of instrumental and vocal numbers.

Leonhardt’s album depicts different sides of Gershwin’s music, including swinging and wistful, performed with varied rhythms while always respecting the composer’s intricate melodies.

Leonhardt, who grew up in Kentucky, did not begin performing as a jazz musician.

“I played in a roadhouse country and western bar when I was 16-years-old with guys who were in their fifties.” He also played in a southern rock band.

Later, he worked six or seven nights a week in the house band for a jazz club before moving to New York City. He played bass, keyboards and drums while in New York City.

After a year there, Leonhardt became the music director for a group that backed singer Jon Hendricks, with whom he toured worldwide for four years. He worked for 10 years as a member of the David “Fathead” Newman Quartet. He played on five of the quartet’s albums, including the final album by Newman, who died in 2009.

Leonhardt has worked for decades with the other musicians with whom he will share the stage at Miller Symphony Hall.

He has worked with Reed for 20 years, touring with her in the United States and Europe. “I call her my ‘road wife.’ Our kids grew up together.”

Leonhardt and Reed toured as a duo and as a member of his quintet. The quintet also toured with Leonhardt’s wife, Shelley Oliver, who led a five-woman tap dancing troupe.

Oliver retired in 2021 as Lecturer of Theatre & Dance at Muhlenberg College, where she led the tap program for more than 25 years. She and Leonhardt have collaborated on many concerts at Muhlenberg.

Leonhardt knew bassist Matthew Parrish from the beginning of his long career. “Matt used to come to my house when he was 15 or so for jam sessions.”

Leonhardt has worked with drummer Paul Wells for 15 years. Wells was a member of Leonhardt’s group for 10 years before moving to New York City.

Leonhardt’s discography is varied, including the classical music-based “Bach to the Blues,” three jazz for yoga albums. eight albums with music for dancers, a duet album with Reed, a Christmas album, an album of Cole Porter music, and other albums that include his original compositions.

Another is his “Jazz for Kids” recording, reflecting a program that Leonhardt has presented for years to an untold number of audience members. “I stopped counting at fifty thousand,” he says.

“I experimented for thirty years. When you are younger, you have to try a lot of different things to evolve into a style. I have settled into this one of improvisation and jazz. I found what seemed to work for me and the audience.”

All of his concerts and recordings reflect his love of jazz.

“It is complex, like a super crossword puzzle, at a high level of creativity, intricacy and improvisation. It gives you a creative buzz.

“It is art, not just show business. And it is different every time, fresh and exciting each time you play it.”

Tickets: https://www.millersymphonyhall.org; 610-432-7961

CONTRIBUTED PHOTO “An Evening of Gershwin” with David Leonhardt Trio and Nancy Reed, 7:30 p.m. Jan. 14, “Jazz OnStage” series, Main Stage, Miller Symphony Hall, Allentown.