Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians

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Mitchell, Leon

Mitchell, Leon, composer; b. North Philadelphia, PA, 16 August 1934.

He attended public schools and was an honor graduate from Northeast High School in 1951. He has been immersed in music since he turned pro as an alto saxophonist immediately after graduation.  Leon's parents Roy Mitchell (3-5-1908 to 4-18-1973) and Minnie B. Mitchell (1-29-1912 to 9-26-2001) although not musicians were big fans of Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Fletcher Henderson, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Billy Eckstine, etc. The house where Leon and his younger brother LaMonte were raised was constantly filled with music. Leon continued his music studies in the years that followed with Romeo Cascarino at Combs College, Jimmy Heath, and Bill Barron, the older brother of Jazz pianist Kenny Barron. Very early, his musical interests leaned toward composition and arranging, and he focused on developing his skills in these areas. During the early 1950s, Leon was convinced by trumpeter John Splawn and others to show his compositions to the big-name Jazz musicians who played in Philly at The Blue Note, Pep's, and The Showboat. In 1956, Art Blakey made Leon a professional Jazz composer when he recorded Leon's song entitled "Late Spring" with his Jazz Messengers. Leon commuted between Philly and New York subcontracting arranging work from arranger friends in many different projects. His musical career was interrupted in 1957 when he entered the U.S. Army. Leon actually enjoyed his Army hitch because, as a member of the 434th Army Band of Fort Gordon, Ga., he had the unprecedented opportunity to hear any music that he wrote played. Leon also learned a lot about conducting from his band director Warrant Officer Vittore Primo. In 1959, Leon returned to civilian life and moved to New York where Gigi Gryce became his mentor and his publisher. When Billie Holiday died, Leon wrote a tribute to her called "To Lady" which was recorded by Max Roach's group while her funeral was proceeding up in Harlem on July 21, 1959. In 1960 a good friend Stanley Turrentine, who was with Max Roach's group at the time, was living in Philly. Stanley recommended Leon to Blue Note Records' Alfred Lion and Leon became that company's first A&R director who wasn't signed to the company as an artist. He supervised many Blue Note recording sessions at Rudy Van Gelder's Studio that featured Stanley Turrentine, Horace Parlan, Donald Byrd, Johnny Griffin, Kenny Durham, Jackie McLean, etc. Many recordings also featured Leon's Jazzy compositions like "Oh So Blue," "Fine Li'l Lass," and. "Ray C," etc. "Ray C" was also recorded by The J.F.K. Qui ntet out of Washington, DC, under the title "Coltrane Lane." During that time, Leon signed a childhood friend, Paul Williams A.K.A Billy Paul, to a management contract and got him a recording contract through Gigi Gryce on Finch Records in New York. Billy's first recording "There's A Small Hotel" was his first hit. Leon's arranging credits include 3 arrangements on an "On-loan to Impulse Records" Art Blakey & The Jazz Messengers album. The album received 4 Stars in Downbeat and the tunes arranged by Leon were, "Invitation," "You Don't Know What Love Is," and "I Hear A Rhapsody." Art didn't give Leon any arranging credits in the liner notes because of a dispute about money, but Leon still has his original scores from the session. Featured on the album were 3 of Leon's Philly Jazz family, Lee Morgan, Bobby Timmons, and Jymie Merritt along with Art , Wayne Shorter, and Curtis Fuller. In the early 60s, Leon became disenchanted with the New York rat-race and moved his musical focus back to Philly where he formed a music publishing firm with Morris Bailey, Jr. (bassist Victor Baileys's dad and drummer Donald "Duck" Bailey's brother) called Sharsnock Music Co., Inc. He returned to the band at The Uptown Theatre where he had worked some under his cousin Harry "Doc" Bagby in the late 50s. Leon, playing alto sax, and mostly piano, remained at The Uptown in some capacity until it closed in 1974. Leon was the Uptown's House Bandleader and Chief Arranger for most of the last 10 years that it was open. During that time, he worked with "everybody who was anybody" in Rhythm and Blues. Among his notable arranging students are Superstar Philly Sound arranger/writer/producers like Thom Bell, Norman Harris, Ron Kersey, etc. Another of Leon's arranging students was the fabulous Donny Hathaway who started lessons with Leon while coming into Philadelphia to fulfill a recording contract with Curtis Mayfield's production company. Leon was also the Contractor for Musicians who backed concerts presented by Georgie Woods Productions and Jimmy Walker's SherJam Concerts from the late 60s to the middle 80s. He played piano on many tours with The M.F.S.B. Orchestra, The Salsoul Orchestra, The Redd Foxx Orchestra, and The Jerry Butler Orchestra.
Leon wrote R&B arrangements for recordings by The Four Tops, Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes, Fantastic Johnny C, Evelyn "Champagne" King, The Dramatics, Curtis Mayfield, Billy Paul, Dee Dee Sharp, The First Choice, Barbara Mason, Five Special, and Linda Christian. He also wrote stage arrangements for The Three Degrees, "Cat" Anderson, The Stylistics, Stevie Wonder, and Billy Paul.

From 1963 to 1991, Leon also ran a full-service, one-man, commercial printing company where he trained many youngsters, preparing them for jobs in the Graphics Arts Field. His company specialized in high quality Entertainment Business printing. Since closing the Leon Mitchell Printing Service in 1991, Leon has put all of his energies into music, and in 1993, he became the Musical Director of the Philadelphia Legends of Jazz Orchestra, a position that he still holds today. He is the orchestra's chief arranger and he has also dedicated a large portion of his time to building the career of his Jazz vocalist wife, Ella Gahnt whose CD "Immaculate Union" was released in the Spring of 2002 and still receives a lot of play on Temple University Public Radio's WRTI-FM in Philly. Since 2000, many of Leon's Jazz compositions have been re-released mostly in Mosaic Records box sets. Leon, who has spent most of his musical career promoting others, decided to do some self-promotion by distributing a compilation CD of those and other Jazz releases from 1957 until now. Since 1999, Leon and his Jazz vocalist wife Ella Gahnt have produced a series of Big Band Jam & Revue Concerts to benefit The Clef Club of Jazz & Performing Arts, Inc. 501(c)3 in Philly. The concerts feature the Philadelphia Legends of Jazz Orchestra and guests and the most significant were appearances at The Clef Club during the 2000 and 2001 Mellon Jazz Festivals.

It's surprising how many fill the improvisation specifications but are not good readers. When Leon encountered this problem while in the Army in 1958, he developed an original rhythm perception system that was very helpful to the members of his band who were not skilled in playing Jazz and swing music. His system, now entitled, "Solving Syncopation and Other Rhythmic Anomalies" is currently being taught by Leon as a part of Lovett Hines' Music Education Program at the Philadelphia Clef Club of Jazz & Performing Arts, Inc. A book that teaches the system will be published in the Summer of 2003. The Clef Club program has a definitely Jazz orientation and Leon's goal is to make sure that the youngsters and adults who go through the program are well versed in all aspects of reading music as well as music composition and arranging. Leon also makes sure that his students become aware of the names, extensive history, and influence of Jazz musicians from the Philadelphia Area. Leon also plans to publish a book of proverbs in 2003. The title is "Common Sense Isn't Common, Unfortunately" and one of his proverbs is his advice to every reader, "Treat Yourself Better Than Anyone Else Ever Will."

Compositions and arrangements:
Late Spring - on Art Blakey's Jazz Mesengers: Hard Drive (1956); To Lady - Max Roach Plus Four (1959); Oh So Blue - Horace Parlan: Speakin' My Piece (1960); Fine L'Il Lass - Stanley Turrentine: Comin' Your Way (1961); Ray C - Horace Parlan: 2T's + Us Three (1961); A'Keem (Brothers) - Cullen Knight: Looking Up (1978); Here Comes Billy - Cullen Knight: Looking UP; Pshalom - Cullen Knight: Looking Up; To Lady - Ella Gahnt and The Dr. Jay Trio: Immaculate Union (2002); Oh So Blue: Ella Gahnt and The Dr. Jay Trio: Immaculate Union (2002)

Radio and film:
Over the years, Leon has proven to be a favorite interviewee on Temple University Public Radio's WRTI-FM's Jazz shows. The interviewers were Bob Perkins, Harrison Ridley, Jr., Jeff Duperon, Chuck Miller, and Dr. Frank Johnson. Leon's full-cover photo appeared in The Philadelphia New Observer's June 19, 2002 issue with an extensive profile article. He also appeared in a Temple University documentary called "Mother Dot's Philadelphia." Mother Dot is Dottie Smith, a Philly singer, whose experience goes back to Louis Jordan's "Tympani Five" in the 40s and 50s. Leon credits Louis Jordan with giving him his first professional arranging assignment.
A very satisfying arranging project occurred a couple of years ago when Philly trombonist Nate Davenport enlisted Leon's aid in developing his presentation "Billie Holiday, Your Music Lives On." Leon wrote all of the arrangements for the show which also features an instrumental version of his original composition, "To Lady."

Leon also wrote a monthly column called "The Jazz Corner" for Philadelphia's
Showcase Newspaper from 1997 until 2002 when it closed.

Contact information:
Leon Mitchell
1436 No. 25th Street, Suite 7
Philadelphia, PA 19121-3845
Voice 215-763-2819 Fax 215-765-7576

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