The Steely Nerve of Carolyn Leonhart

Fusing Jazz and Pop into one legendary sound.

Carolyn Leonhart is one of the most celebrated vocalists of her generation. From acclaimed solo releases and sold-out shows, to over two decades anchoring background vocals with pop legends Steely Dan, there’s little this vocal phenom hasn’t done. We caught up with her after a run of sold-out shows opening for the Eagles. Don’t miss her next Django performance on Tuesday, May 14. Reserve tickets here.


You come from a musical family – tell us about growing up with other musicians in the house.

My mom always had the radio on or singers playing in the kitchen. My car was my happy place, where my dad would play Stevie Wonder, Quincy Jones, Aretha Franklin, Steely Dan, Earth Wind & Fire, and The Doobie Brothers. My dad was touring with Liza Minnelli when I was a young kid. Liza was very supportive of him bringing his family on the road whenever possible. And I loved her shows. I spent so much time on the side of the stage that I knew her act backwards and forwards. He was also working with Tony Bennett, Mel Tormé, and Peggy Lee. We were taking a lot of trips to Atlantic City at one point, and I’ll never forget one afternoon, watching a soundcheck. A woman, a jazz singer, was duking it out with the sound man who wasn’t listening to her requests for more volume in her monitors. Exasperated, he got on stage, took her mic, and demonstrated why she didn’t need more volume. She waited for him to finish, then demonstrated that she doesn’t “eat the mic” (she in fact, was pulling far away from it), nor does she shout when she’s singing. He shut up AND complied! She walked off stage for a moment, and my dad called me over. He introduced me to Sarah Vaughn, and whispered in my ear “you will never forget this moment”. He was right!


Earliest musical memory?

Bouncing a ball while singing the shout chorus to Stevie Wonder’s “Sir Duke.” My dad said I was 4 or 5 and bounced the ball in time.


First gig?

In elementary school, I sang on some children’s albums and a few jingles. Very self-conscious, I was comfortable in recording studios. I went to LaGuardia High School and did a lot of performing with the Gospel Choir and the jazz groups. My first solo gig was at 18, at the iconic restaurant Elaine’s (RIP), singing jazz standards with my dad playing bass and Mike Renzi on piano.


When did you know you’d make a life in music?

I’m still not sure about that one… All I know is that I love making music and have no plans to stop.


What’s your favorite thing about singing with Steely Dan some two decades later?

The grooves are always so tight. It doesn’t matter how many times I’ve heard this music, it never gets old. The depth of Donald’s phrasing and feel always blows me away. And, I get to sing with some of my favorite singers. We’re like an old family at this point.


Desert island discs?

Hmmm. Tough one. This changes every day. In no particular order: Eastern Rebellion’s “Eastern Rebellion,” Hank Mobley’s “Soul Station,” Stevie Wonder’s “Songs in the Key of Life,” Michael Jackson’s “Off the Wall,” “Still Life Talking” by the Pat Metheny Group, “Midnight Mauraders” by A Tribe Called Quest, “No Net Nonet” by Lucas Pino, “Things Fall Apart” by The Roots, the McCoy Tyner Trio’s “Inception,” and on and on.


Hardest song in your repertoire?

I don’t underestimate any of them. Freshly finished tunes or arrangements are always a challenge, yet exciting. Multitasking leading everyone through a new chart while trying to perform is always a navigation. But I’d say that singing standards can be the biggest challenge, as I aspire to be a great improviser but can’t do most of the things I hear. Sometimes I try, and inevitably humble myself.


What can people expect to hear on you upcoming Django show on April 7?

Amazing musicians. Standards, a few originals, and a few arrangements of pop tunes.


Weirdest music you’re listening to these days?

I’ve always listened to a variety of styles, so it’s hard to plug any music into the category of “weird”. Though I’ll say my son’s ever changing taste in music can get a little “out there”. Though I admit I don’t always  know the artists he’s listening to. (Note to self: hijack his music apps)


What’s in store for your 2024?  

Steely Dan just finished touring with the Eagles, so I’m really  happy to be back in town. I’m finishing 2 albums, developing a project I’ve been thinking about  for a while, and doing lots of teaching. And hoping for more Steely Dan shows soon!