Regarded as the “First Lady” of jazz guitar, German born composer Leni Stern has become a respected force on the global music scene, earning the Orville H. Gibson Award for Best Female Jazz Guitarist for five consecutive years from 1996 through 2000. With songs ranging from the delicately melodic to bebop and funk, Stern has won accolades for both her compositions and her guitar skills from the world’s most respected music critics and publications. Guitar Player once described her work as “a case study in the interactive properties of composition and improvisation,” while Jazz Times likewise applauded Stern’s music, calling it “crisp, confident and bursting with energy.”
In addition to her achievements as a musician, she also ventured into the business side of the recording industry. In the 1990s, Stern established her own record label, Leni Stern Recordings, and handled most of her own business affairs. “I have this rule,” she told Andy Ellis of Guitar Player in 1998. “Whenever I get bad news—like I didn’t get a gig—I don’t get up from my chair until I’ve attempted to avoid the bitterness. I translate the energy into a phone call to try and get another gig.” Moreover, Stern expressed that dealing with business is a necessary evil for every musician. “But it’s a separate art,” she further explained, “and you have to keep it in proportion. You need to admit that you’ll probably never be a great businessperson. I’m sure my lawyer and accountant friends double over laughing at my business sense. But its about being part of the game, if you don’t want to be treated like a child and used like a slave, you have to become a grown-up, sit at the table, and establish a level playing field. My awareness of this is probably heightened by the fact that I’m a woman. I had to get my shit together, because it was too frustrating to be ignored.”
Born Magdalena Thora in Munich, Germany, in 1952, Leni (pronounced “Lay-nee”) Stern was drawn to music early in life. A child prodigy, she discovered the piano at age six, started taking classical piano lessons at the age of seven, and after finding an old guitar in the attic of her home, picked up that instrument and began teaching herself jazz at age eleven. Even as a child, Stern realized she possessed a natural gift for composition. “I didn’t think of it as composing at the time, but I was always sticking chords together and putting a melody on top,” she recalled to Bill Milkowski and Jesse Gress in a 1993 interview with Guitar Player. “What I learned from studying composition was how to make that process go faster. I used to randomly search for something I liked. When you study composition, you learn to look in better places for what you like. You eliminate choices and get right to the heart of the matter. And then you also learn to analyze what other people do—and steal.” Back then, Stern’s primary influences included Keith Jarrett, Bill Evans, Ralph Towner, and Pat Metheny, whose “Bright Size Life,” she said, later “changed my whole life.”
In addition to music, Stern held aspirations in other areas of the arts, namely acting. A drama major at Falckenberg Schauspelschule, the young performer went on—upon graduating from school at the age of 17—to found her own theater company, for which she also served as musical director. Before long, Stern and her radical productions sold out houses across Europe, gaining the young artist considerable press and television coverage, especially in France and Germany. As Stern’s reputation blossomed, she started attracting more job offers, for both composing and acting, and by the mid-1970s, she had written two film scores and was appearing regularly on the television hit Goldener Sontag, a popular German show that spoofed soap operas.
In 1977, Stern left behind her successful career as an actor and relocated to the United States, where she enrolled as a composition major at the renowned Berklee College of Music in Boston, Massachusetts. Here, she met and befriended guitarist Bill Frisell, who accepted Stern as a private student and also introduced her to her future husband, fellow guitarist Mike Stern. “I had asked Frisell to show me some rock and blues licks, so he took me to see Michael play at a club in Boston … and he had the chops of doom,” she recalled to Milkowski and Gress. “He made all the other guitar players in the audience turn green. So I asked
For The Record…
Born Magdalena Thora in Munich, Germany, in 1952; married Mike Stern, a jazz guitarist. Education: Graduated as a drama major from Falckenberg Schauspelschule in Germany; attended Berklee College of Music in Boston, MA, as a composition major; also studied guitar with Bill Frisell, Jon Damián, and and Dave Tronzo.
Started playing piano at age six and guitar at age eleven; founded own theater company at age 17; acted in hit German television show Goldener Sontag; moved to U.S. to study composition at Berklee, 1977; moved to New York City, 1980; formed own band, 1983; released debut album, Clairvoyant, 1985; established Leni Stern Recordings and released first album featuring vocals, Black Guitar, 1997.
Addresses: Record company —Leni Stern Recordings, 143 Charlie Parker PL, New York, NY 10009, phone: (212) 979-8221, fax: (212) 673–6817, website: http://www.lenistern.com. Tour information and merchandise —Leni Stern Recordings, 143 Avenue B, #10D, New York, NY 10009, above phone and fax numbers.
him if he would teach me, and that was that. Two weeks later, he brought his amp over to my place, and soon after that we were married.”
While at Berklee, Stern also studied with Jon Damián, who taught the aspiring guitarist to listen and play with an open mind. “He really understands how music works, and he knows the connection between playing notes and pure sound,” Stern explained to Ellis. “And he can bring you to that place. To Jon, everything is music. I think he’s a genius—or the closest I’ve come to it. My main teacher was Bill Frisell, who also studied with Jon. Along with my husband, Mike Stern, these are my major influences.”
In 1980, the couple moved to New York City when Stern’s husband landed an eventful gig playing with legendary trumpeter Miles Davis. Meanwhile, Stern herself played with various rock and jazz groups before forming her own band in 1983 with Frisell and drummer Paul Motian. Two years later, in 1985, Stern arrived with her debut, Clairvoyant, for the now defunct Passport label. Produced by Hiram Bullock and featuring Frisell as second guitarist alongside Stern, as well as Motian, bassist Harvie Swartz, pianist Larry Willis, and tenor saxophonist Bob Berg, the album won considerable praise.
Since then, Stern continued to form associations with some of the jazz world’s leading musicians. “I’ve always hired the guys who were better than me,” she informed Milkowski and Gress. “Michael Brecker once told me that it was the best way to learn.” Her follow-up recording, 1987’s The Next Day, featured the same lineup as her debut with producer Bullock substituting for Frisell on rhythm guitar. Secrets, her energized 1989 debut for the Enja label, employed a three-guitar front line, with Stern’s tone contrasted against slide work by guitarist David Tronzo and superb saxophone playing by Berg, while third guitarist, Wayne Krantz, supplied the rhythm. Other featured musicians included percussionist Don Alias, drummer Dennis Chambers, and bassist Lincoln Goines—all top-notch players. Her next record, 1990s Closer to the Light, returned many of the same sessionists, including powerhouse drumming by Chambers and Zach Danzinger, and a special guest appearance by saxophonist David Sanborn.
Ten Songs, released in 1992 on the Lipstick label, also saw Stern employing a cast of renowned players, such as Bob Malach on tenor saxophone, Gil Goldstein on keys, Badal Roy on Indian percussion, Zawinul Syndicate drummer Rodney Holmes, and bassist Alain Caron from the Canadian fusion group Uzeb, as well as Chambers, Goines, and Krantz. Collaborating with the best over the years evidently paid off for the album, and critics noted Stern’s expanded technique—with Stern additionally playing Spanish and slide guitar—along with her always noted compositional skills. “That’s the Dave Tronzo influence,” she said to Milkowski and Gress, referring to her slide guitar spotlight for the fusion track “Trouble.” “I love the sound of it—it’s so swampy and emotional.” Following the release of Ten Songs, Stern returned as a sole guitarist on 1993’s Like One, which featured Didier Lockwood on violin; teamed with keyboardist John Askew for a more stripped-down sound on 1995’s Words; and reunited with Krantz for an album of guitar duets for 1996’s Separate Cages.
In 1997, Stern arrived with her first recording for her own label entitled Black Guitar, which brought the musician’s musical vision into sharp focus. The highly acclaimed work also reached out to a new audience, moving away from strictly jazz elements and adding surprisingly effective vocals alongside some of her most confident guitar playing. Although Stern had previously experimented with singing during her live performances, she had never tried recording her soft, somewhat breathy voice before until Black Guitar. “Be advised that Black Guitar is not a jazz album with some songs thrown in for balance,” Jon Andrews concluded in a review for Down Beat in 1998. “Here, we venture into the introspective domain of the singer/songwriter, where hushed, somewhat confessional vocals and storytelling are central to a low key, intimate experience.”
Stern’s next release, 1998’s Recollection, looked back on the guitarist’s previous work, featuring vintage material as well as new songs that again showcased Stern’s singing ability. Stern and her husband have continued to reside in Manhattan in New York throughout their careers, and each guitarist prefers to keep their professional lives separate. As for possible collaborations with her husband in the future, Stern remarked, as quoted by Milkowski and Gress, “We play together around the house, but it’s so private. But I do have this vision of when we’re old and grey, sitting on the stage of Carnegie Hall playing ’Body and Soul‘ in rocking chairs.”
Although Stern has enjoyed an accomplished recording career and has earned the reputation as the world’s leading female jazz guitarist and composer, one of her most significant triumphs was of a more personal sort. In 1989, at the same time Stern was making great strides with her music, doctors diagnosed the guitarist with breast cancer. “I’m not the kind of person who worries and suffers in silence, who turns inward and consumes herself,” she explained to Milkowski and Gress. “So I found a need to turn my amp up to 10 after I was diagnosed, to let the feedback sing for a while.”
Determined to defeat the disease, Stern fought back, and following surgery, chemotherapy, and various alternative treatments—including vitamins, improved nutrition, and even magnets—she won her greatest battle and was soon in remission. “I was really afraid that this thing was going to take over my life,” she admitted to Milkowski and Gress. “So I really tried to return to normal as soon as I could. I was out of the hospital for three weeks when I went right back to playing just to prove to myself that I could still do it, even though I couldn’t really lift up my arm after surgery. I was deathly afraid that I wouldn’t be able to move my hands. That’s the first thing I told the surgeon: If you have to cut any tendons or nerves that affect my hands, I’d rather die. Don’t do it. Don’t mess up my hands.’”
Clairvoyant, Passport Jazz, 1985.
The Next Day, Passport Jazz, 1987.
Secrets, Enja, 1989.
Closer to the Light, Enja, 1990.
Ten Songs, Lipstick, 1992.
Like One, Lipstick, 1993.
Words, Lipstick, 1995.
(With Wayne Krantz)Separate Cages, Alchemy, 1996.
Black Guitar, Leni Stern, 1997.
Recollection, Leni Stern, 1998.
Stern, Leni, Composing and Composition, CPP Belwin, 1995.
Swenson, John, editor, Rolling Stone Jazz & Blues Album Guide, Random House, 1999.
Down Beat, August 1994, p. 46; April 1998, pp. 49-50.
Guitar Player, March 1993, pp. 95–104; April 1995, p. 129; August 1998, pp. 78–85.
Village Voice, July 13, 1999, p. 71.
All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (April 22, 2000).
Leni Stern Recordings, http://www.lenistern.com (April 22, 2000).
“Leni Stern,” Jazz Corner, http://www.jazzcorner.com/stern/bio.html (April 22, 2000).
“Leni Stern,” IUMA, http://www.iuma.com/IUMA/Bands/LenLStern/index.html (April 22, 2000).
"Stern, Leni." Contemporary Musicians. . Encyclopedia.com. (February 16, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/stern-leni
"Stern, Leni." Contemporary Musicians. . Retrieved February 16, 2019 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/stern-leni
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