Leyda was born on February 12, 1910 in Detroit. He was a member of the Workers Film and Photo League in the early 1930s. He travelled to the Soviet Union in 1933 to study filmmaking at State Film Institute, Moscow, with Sergei Eisenstein. He participated in the filming of Eisenstein's lost film Bezhin Meadow (1935–37). When he returned to the United States in 1936 to become an assistant film curator at the Museum of Modern Art, he brought the only complete print of Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin. In the 1940s he translated Eisenstein's writings.
His The Melville Log (1951) was a day to day compilation of documents which he had painstakingly collected on the life of Herman Melville.
Leyda’s wife, Si-lan Chen, a ballet dancer of international reputation, was the daughter of Eugene Chen, a colleague of the Chinese revolutionary Sun Yat-sen. Leyda was invited in 1959 to work at the Film Archive of China in Beijing, where he stayed until 1964. His account of Chinese film history, Dianying, was the first full length treatment to appear in English. Although he could use the basic (and now outdated) Chinese scholarship only in summary translations, Leyda’s knowledge of film gave him still useful insights into individual films and techniques.
He was awarded the Eastman Kodak Gold Medal Award in 1984. He taught at New York University from 1973 until his death in New York on February 15, 1988 of heart failure. He was professor and dissertation advisor to noted film historian and theorist Tom Gunning. In 1981 he was a member of the jury at the 12th Moscow International Film Festival.
- A Bronx Morning (1931) (11 minutes, black and white, silent), in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art.
- People of the Cumberland (1937) (21 minutes, black and white, sound), co-directed by Sidney Meyers, also in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art. The film was a Frontier Film Group production. Also working on the film were Elia Kazan, Ralph Steiner, Erskine Caldwell, Alex North, Earl Robinson and Helen van Dongen.
- Leyda, Jay; Bertensson, Sergei (1947). The Musorgsky reader; a life of Modeste Petrovich Musorgsky in letters and documents. New York: W.W. Norton. OCLC 885379.
- Leyda, Jay (1951). The Melville Log: A Documentary Life of Herman Melville, 1819–1891. New York: Harcourt, Brace. OCLC 174510154.
- Leyda, Jay; Bertensson, Sergei; Satina, Sophia (1956). Sergei Rachmaninoff, a Lifetime in Music. New York: New York University Press. OCLC 344823.
- Leyda, Jay (1960). The Years And Hours of Emily Dickinson. New Haven: Yale University Press. OCLC 479248174.
- —— (1960). Kino: A History Of The Russian And Soviet Film. London: George Allen & Unwin. OCLC 468224244.
- —— (1964). Films Beget Films: A Study of the Compilation Film. New York: Hill and Wang. OCLC 186247574.
- —— (1972). Dianying/Electric Shadows: An Account of Films and the Film Audience in China. Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press. ISBN 978-0-262-12046-3. OCLC 241457.
- Leyda, Jay; Voynow, Zina (1980). Eisenstein At Work. Pantheon Books. ISBN 978-0-394-41262-7. OCLC 8493672.
- Leyda, Jay; Eisenstein, Sergei (1986). Eisenstein on Disney. Methuen Paperback. ISBN 978-0-413-19640-8. OCLC 19256739.
- Spark, Clare. Hunting Captain Ahab: Psychological Warfare and the Melville Revival. Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 2001. Paperback revised edition 2006. Includes Leyda's role in the "Melville Revival."
- Si-lan Chen Leyda, Footnote to History (New York: Dance Horizons), 1984 ISBN 9780871271341
- David Stirk and Elena Pinto Simon in Christie, Ian; Taylor, Richard (1993). Eisenstein Rediscovered. Routledge. p. 41. ISBN 0-415-04950-4. OCLC 252972811.
- Jay Leyda, Dianying: An Account of Films and the Film Audience in China (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1972), xii
- "12th Moscow International Film Festival (1981)". MIFF. Retrieved 2013-01-21.
- Jay Leyda (1931). "A Bronx Morning". Museum of Modern Art. Retrieved 2010-02-12.
- Sidney Meyers and Jay Leyda (1937). "People of the Cumberland". Museum of Modern Art. Retrieved 2010-02-12.
- Barsam, Richard Meran (1992). Nonfiction film. Indiana University Press. p. 148. ISBN 0-253-20706-1. OCLC 24107769.
- Jay Leyda at the Internet Movie Database
- Jay Leyda Papers, 1925-1956, at the UCLA Library; Collection Guide at the Online Archive of California
- Jay and Si-lan Chen Leyda Papers 1913-1987, Tamiment Library/Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives, New York University Collection Guide