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Trumpeter, inspired Broadway hit "Side Man"by Todd S. Jenkins
Copyright © 2004 Todd S. Jenkins
Trumpeter Donald Leight, whose life inspired his son's Tony-winning play "Side Man", died of pneumonia and complications of Parkinson's disease on January 3, 2004. He was eighty years old.
Leight's grandfather, Harry Gurovitch, was a Russian immigrant who played classical trumpet and passed the gift down to Donald and his brother Larry. Leight served in the Army during World War II and became a jazz journeyman upon his discharge. From 1948 to 1950 he worked in Buddy Rich's band, then moved on to work with Woody Herman, Claude Thornhill and other New York bandleaders.
In 1956 Leight began booking singers like Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr., and Lena Horne at downtown hot spots like the Persian Room and the Copacabana. That was his principal gig for about a dozen years. In 1968 Leight side-stepped into the Broadway pit band of "Hair", playing with the show for its full four-year run.
Following "Hair" Leight resumed his freelance career, often to the detriment of his family life. His itinerant ways finally inspired his son, Warren Leight, to write a play about the unpredictable, difficult life of a jazz sideman. When "Side Man" opened off-Broadway in March 1998 it cast new light on the jazz life and garnered instant acclaim. That summer the play hit Broadway, and in 1999 it won the Tony Award for best play, along with a Pulitzer nomination. Although the play wasn't entirely favorable to its lead subject, Donald Leight was pleased with his son's portrayal of career sidemen and the disrespect they faced within the business.
Leight retired in the 1990s after several years performing with the Masters of Swing. He was preceded in death by his wife, Timmy. He is survived by his son Warren, daughter Jody, and brother Larry.
Todd S. Jenkins
Todd S. Jenkins is a member of the JJA, author of Free Jazz and Free Improvisation: An Encyclopedia (Greenwood Press, 2004) and I Know What I Know: The Music of Charles Mingus (Praeger, 2006), and a contributor to Down Beat, All About Jazz, American Songwriter and Route 66 Magazine.