No one will accuse New York resident Arlee Leonard of being a member of jazz's laid-back cool school. A big-voiced hard bop/soul-jazz belter, Leonard has favored a full-bodied, passionate, gutsy style of singing. While the queens of the cool school -- Helen O'Connell, Chris Connor, Julie London, June Christy, Helen Merrill, Claire Martin, among others -- are known for their use of subtlety, restraint, and understatement, Leonard is just the opposite. She is an aggressive and robust singer whose influences (either direct or indirect) range from Dianne Reeves to Carmen McRae, Sarah Vaughan, and Ella Fitzgerald. Other singers Leonard has been compared to include Dee Dee Bridgewater, Marlena Shaw, Abbey Lincoln, and Nneena Freelon.
Leonard is not a jazz snob; she is primarily a jazz singer, but she is a jazz singer who has been influenced by R&B (classic soul more than high-tech urban contemporary), blues, and gospel. Though Leonard now lives in New York, the improviser was born in Oakland, CA, and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area. Leonard (who has a three-plus octave range and does her share of wordless scatting) started singing blues, jazz, and R&B as a child, and when she reached adulthood, the Northern Californian studied singing, dancing, and acting at the University of California at Santa Cruz. Sociology, however, was Leonard's major -- she studied the arts on the side -- and the singer graduated from UC Santa Cruz with a B.A. in that field. But having a sociology degree didn't prevent Leonard from wanting to pursue a career as a jazz singer. So, in 1996, she moved to New York, where she has since worked with trumpeter Marcus Printup and tenor saxophonist Don Braden. It was also in 1996 that she started working on her debut album, Wild Honey. Leonard finished recording the CD in 1999, and the following year, she released Wild Honey independently on her own label, Soulajazz Productions.