Jazz Diva Laurel Massé Celebrates 50 Years in Music

This year marks the 50th anniversary of a fateful cab ride in New York, during which a 20-year-old waitress named Laurel Massé got to chatting with the driver, named Tim Hauser. Fast forward a few years, and the Manhattan Transfer, the jazz singing group they formed with Janis Seigel and Alan Paul, shot to international fame and a boatload of music awards for their legendary retro stylings of popular (and often obscure) jazz classics of decades past.

In 1978, at the height of the group’s success, a serious car accident led to Laurel leaving the group (to be replaced by the wonderful Cheryl Bentyne). Many fans who may have lost track of Laurel’s impressive solo career can catch up here, thanks to a delightful and lengthy conversation recently, during which she recounted both high and low points of her time with the Transfer, her solo albums and projects, the nature of the music industry, and what separates the greatest jazz singers in history from all the rest.

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So, then, let’s begin at the beginning…

It can be argued that Laurel always had music and singing in her blood. “My grandfather sang for many decades for Fred Waring’s Pennsylvanians,” she explained, “and toured all over the country, sang at the White House eight times, that kind of thing. There was always music in the house, our family sang, my sister has a beautiful voice. I think I realized it early on that I could sing. My parents knew that I could. They annoyed me by asking me to sing for their dinner guests all the time. I took piano lessons, cello lessons, I played the guitar, and I sang—I never didn’t sing. What I didn’t realize for a long time was that there are people who don’t sing. Everybody I knew sang. I thought that was normal. It didn’t occur to me to make it an artistic quest ‘cause I was already doing it.”

She confesses to having had a different goal at one time. “I wanted to be the great American novelist. But singing was easier!”

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As for jazz itself, her first real taste of it came on her 8th birthday, when her parents took her to see Count Basie and his band perform in New York—possibly at the Rainbow Room in Rockefeller Center. Her memory is a bit fuzzy as to the venue, but she can clearly remember her father leading her to Basie as he sat at his piano during a break, getting his autograph, and having a little chat sitting next to him on the piano bench. Oh, and she also loved the band’s swing music.

She also credits the original Broadway recording of West Side Story as another early jazz influence, having worn out the grooves on the LP. “That recording, unlike the film soundtrack, swung so hard—again, it was the swing. I felt it, I loved it.”

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So, about that fateful cab ride in 1972:

“I was working as a waitress in a bar, and it was snowing, and I got off work early because there was nobody coming in, and the owners wanted to close early, and I had made enough money to take a taxi rather than get on public transit or walk. So, I flagged a cab, and Timmy was the guy driving the cab this time. He was wearing a cap with 1939 World’s Fair souvenir buttons, and we started talking, and started talking about music, and never stopped talking about music, really. And Timmy was extremely knowledgeable about a lot of different kinds of music, including jazz.”

It wasn’t long before she found herself becoming fully immersed in the music that was still largely new to her. “The first thing I ever did musically with Timmy was sing harmony vocals for a solo demo he was doing. And he gave me a solo in one of the tunes, and when I heard that back through the headphones, I loved how my voice sounded. I love how my voice sounds. I’m so lucky. A lot of people notice their flaws. I have flaws as a vocalist, but overall, I’m right pleased with the equipment I was given!”

Hauser met Janis Siegel after picking up another passenger who had conga drums with him. “He was going to a party and invited Tim to the party, and Janis was at the party. And then Tim called me and Janis to do his demo, and the drummer there, Roy Markowitz and I hit it off really well, and he was playing in the pit band of the Broadway show Grease. And when we started talking about putting a quartet together, he said, ‘you know there’s a guy in the show who’d be perfect.’ That was Alan. Luck, luck, luck!

“And that was how I first heard jazz and knew that it was jazz. And so I wasn’t really a listener of jazz until I was a singer. The first time I consciously had to learn a ‘jazz song’ was with the Transfer. Janis was much more steeped in jazz than I was. And Timmy was more steeped than Janis.” (Hauser passed away in 2014).

In the early days, their image was nearly as important as the music. “When the Transfer first started, Tim’s sister Fayette was dressing us. And we looked wild. Our clothes were insane! And we got a really good toehold in New York, with the underground crowd, the gay crowd, the punk crowd, all that. And then we started to get more successful, we started to do higher-end gigs, so by the time we played the Plaza Hotel, or the Waldorf, we were dressed in tuxedos and gowns. Our music hadn’t changed, our outfits had changed.”

A demo they recorded also caught the attention of Atlantic Records president Ahmet Ertegun, who loved the group. “He understood the music were doing, he got it. He understood the music, the image, he got it. He not only signed us, but we became a pet project for a while. That really helped us. I think for people who were young, what we were doing was something totally new. For people who were older, it was something they used to do when they were young.”

Extensive touring followed, as did a four-week TV variety show in 1975, as a summer replacement for Cher. Heady days, to be sure, but also exhausting.

“Before the four shows were over, Laurel says, “we had used up every song we knew. So, Janis and I started doing some solo numbers because we could learn them really fast, but those four weeks kind of ate us up! But we did it, it was an amazing experience. It was fascinating. Did it help us in the States? A bit. But primarily, our audience at the time was Europe.”

With each passing year, however, the Transfer continued to gain appreciation among American audiences.

“I would say one of the biggest things the Transfer accomplished…and maybe the TV show had something to do with it, there started to be jazz vocal departments in colleges and high schools where there had been none before. And a lot of them, as their first arrangements, did Manhattan Transfer tunes. So suddenly, for the first time ever, high school kids were hearing jazz in their curriculum—in the country where it started—and that had not happened before.

“And I’ve spent a number of years adjudicating at choral festivals and choir competitions, and there is almost never a time when the choir that I’m about to talk to and give a clinic to hasn’t just done a Transfer piece, and they didn’t know who I was. But they knew about the Transfer and knew the music, because their teacher [might be] more my age, or for whatever reason, but that didn’t used to exist, and now it does. And I think we had a big part of the impetus for that happening. And I’m really proud of that.”

All told, Laurel admits life in the Transfer was a mix of exhilaration and frustration. “There are times of great joy, particularly onstage, when the four of us open our mouths to sing, and the sound comes out, and its perfect. That is bliss. But there’s also the relentlessness of the road, there are differences of opinions, there are major differences in backgrounds, perhaps, there are major differences in energy levels perhaps, some people thrive on the road, some people don’t so much…

“We worked our tails off, and it was costly. It was costly economically, it was costly emotionally, physically, health-wise. But one of the reasons it all came together is that we were also very lucky. I hailed a cab. He picked up a passenger. He was lucky, too!”

The car accident in 1979 necessitated not only recuperation, but a dose of re-evaluation and soul searching. Laurel left the group and, after some time in New York, moved to Chicago and embarked on her solo career, with the help of jazz singer/pianist Judy Roberts. “She is such an extraordinary musician, beautiful interpreter of songs, and she took me under her wing, and introduced me to musicians who she knew were good people and good players and hounded a couple of the area clubs to book me for the first couple of times I got booked. She was so kind and so wonderful. So, I had this fabulous band in Chicago, headed up by a wonderful keyboard player Dean Rolando, and he’s a wonderful arranger and great partner to be working with. So Dean and I were performing around Chicago with this great band, and we started to get people asking, ‘when are you gonna make a record?’ So we sat down, and looked at the material we had, and put it into some kind of shape, and figured out where to record and who to record with, and then we recorded the album.”

At the time, bass player and arranger Rob Lashier was also in the band. “And I looked at the lyric of ‘Alone Together’ and thought this needs to be a harmony tune, because you’re alone, and you’re together, I’m gonna sing all the tracks myself. And Bob did the arrangement, and asked, ‘how high can you sing?’ and I told him, and he said, ‘how low can you sing?’ and I told him, and he proceeded to write a great arrangement that went higher and lower than what I had told him! But he turned out to be right.”

What followed was, to put it mildly, a painstaking process.

“Oh my gosh, yes, it was! There are 16 vocal tracks on that. By the time you layer everything in—and also because he wrote such dense harmonies—the arrangement made no sense whatsoever until I put the last part in, and it all came together. And it wouldn’t have mattered which part was the last part. That puzzle was not gonna come together until it all came together in a rush. I knew I could do it, being a harmony singer in church choirs and school choruses, and singing along every time the Beatles were so foolish as to only put two harmony parts in a song, I would always sing along and put in a third part, and with Crosby, Stills, and Nash, I’d add a fourth part. I’d always been doing that, so I knew I could do it. I loved doing all those parts. When you’re doing something that you love so much, as long as your body can do it, you’re gonna do it. As long as you have coffee or tea, or suitable caffeine infusions, it’s just joy, you’re not aware of how long it’s taken. And if you achieve that state in the studio where you don’t think about how long it takes, then you’re also not thinking about how much it’s costing! (laughs) which is really helpful.”

She and Lashier also worked out another complex vocal arrangement on “Ding Dong, The Witch Is Dead,” for her next album, Easy Living. “That’s pretty much my favorite one, I think. I don’t know why, it always makes me smile when I hear it. I’m really happy with all of those Chicago records (Alone Together, Easy Living, Again). They’re up on my Bandcamp site. I still love them.”

Laurel became enamored with the advantages of being a solo singer. “When you’re a group singer, you are part of a thing, and we had very intricately planned-out arrangements in the Transfer, we had very close harmonies, we had certain tempos that we had to do the songs at, we had certain keys we had to do them at—those things were not going to change in the course of a tour…As a solo artist, you have more latitude that way….I could change anything I want, any time. ‘I’m sick, I want to take the key down,’ great. ‘I want to do this faster,’ great. ‘I want to do this slower’ great. ‘Actually, I feel like singing this without any accompaniment.” Great. I could make all those choices myself. And that can be more in the moment, present tense. this only works if you’re picking good songs to begin with, of course.”

After moving to upstate New York, but finding few jazz musicians in the area to work with, she took a major departure from jazz with the album Feather and Bone, comprised of Celtic folk songs, hymns, and other rather obscure pieces—sung with minimal or no musical accompaniment.

“I started thinking of all the tunes that I wanted to sing, that I had been discouraged from singing in jazz clubs, because ‘the audience wouldn’t understand’ and ‘they won’t like it’ and ‘they’ll get confused’ and blah blah…so I never did it. And I made myself a little list of those things, and I realized how many could be done without needing musical accompaniment. And I booked myself a concert at the Adirondack Lake Center for the Arts—a regional arts center up in Blue Mountain Lake which is so beautiful—as an a cappella singer.

“And I didn’t know what I was going to do, but I booked it anyway because I knew that I would figure it out the day before I was supposed to be on that stage, which is pretty much what I did, and I just came out and did an hour and a half of singing, and telling stories about the songs, and things that had happened in my life that made me think of these songs; tunes I had loved all my life but had never performed in front of people because ‘that’s not jazz.’”

It sounds like a courageous move, but, she explains, “After the first time, it just felt so much easier. I didn’t have to sing any songs I didn’t like, which often happens to anybody who’s in a group, anytime I was driving from one place to another, I could stop wherever I wanted to along the way—that doesn’t happen when you’re in a group−and I could change my mind. I could pitch something in a funny place in my voice and I could make my own modulation on the spot. I could change my mind about what song was coming when. I could just make up songs, I could do whatever I wanted, as long as I was really focused on communicating the joy of doing it to the audience. And part of the joy of doing it was that they showed up at all…And I did that for several years, from about 1990 or so. I never thought of recording an album of that stuff, until somebody up there encouraged me to do so, and I decided to do the same kind of material I was doing in my live a cappella show, but then I would add an instrument to several songs.”

She had pressings made and sold copies at her performances, “then I got a call from a guy I knew in Chicago who had a record label called Premonition. It was a small jazz label, but he fell in love with that record, and said, ‘I know it’s not jazz, but I think I can do something with it. Are you interested?’ So I signed a little deal with him, and he promoted the heck out of it. We just had some bad luck with timing.”

In 2000, a choice guest spot on the NPR program All Things Considered was bumped not once but twice, due to the “hanging chad” and Florida recount controversy during the presidential election, and Laurel’s spot was never re-scheduled. “So, that had been the great hope for that particular, odd little record of mine. And it didn’t happen. But I did it ‘cause I had to do it, cause I was exploding with all these other kinds of music that I had never been able to do anyplace else.”

Next came an album of ballads she recorded with pianist/arranger Vinnie Martucci, “We never really did anything about getting that distributed, it was another ‘if you come to the gig, here’s this record we did.’”

She and Martucci have continued their collaborations. “If you’re singing something with a lyric by say, Johnny Mercer, there’s gonna be five different ways to approach what he might have meant in that lyric and what it might mean for you…the challenge is to do it a little differently every time. I am very well supported in this right now by working with Vinnie, who never plays anything the same way twice anyway. So we rehearse like mad and when we get up on the stage, everything is totally different.”

In 2009, Laurel reunited with Janis Seigel, along with Lauren Kinhan (of New York Voices), to form JaLaLa and record That Old Mercer Magic, a tribute to composer Johnny Mercer.

She also formed another collaboration with the late Tex Arnold, who had been a longtime music director for Margaret Whiting. “We worked together a number of years before he died, and we did an album called Once in a Million Moons.” The album resembles a cabaret set, which is no coincidence. “That’s exactly what it was. Tex and I had been doing live cabaret sets. But I listen to that and say, Good heavens, isn’t his touch exquisite!”

She still takes her relationship with any given audience seriously and strives with each performance to connect emotionally with the lyrics she sings, and forward that connection to those watching and listening.

“Any given member on an audience may not be musically sophisticated, or knowledgeable about whatever you’re doing onstage… But that doesn’t matter, ‘cause the audience as a whole is an emotional genius, and they know when you’re not present. They feel, I think, that if you’re not present for them, then they don’t matter to you, and they will shut down. The emotional connection is everything. Having a beautiful voice is extra, and wonderful, but not the primary thing. Nobody could say Billie Holiday had a beautiful voice, but boy, could you believe every word that came out of her mouth? Yes! When you have an artist who does that, that’s the emotional connection that’s very deep and profound, and you become a storyteller for the community.”

In addition to performing and recording, Laurel has been teaching every year, since 1997, at the Ashokan Music and Dance Camps in New York State, where she leads classes in swing and jazz vocal styles (she has also lectured and taught master classes at Yale and Dartmouth, as well as the Royal Academy of Music in the UK).

The COVID pandemic put a big dent in her performing schedule, and forced the Ashokan classes to go virtual in 2020. In 2021 and ’22, virtual classes were combined with limited live classes on site, with a number of health precautions in place.

Upon reflection, Laurel agrees that life can be satisfying even when she’s not living it in the spotlight.

“Yes, it can. That is very true. There’s not a single regret that I have about the work I’m doing now. I’ve been very lucky, over the last decades, to be working with musicians who are not only brilliant musicians, but really supportive, and they just assume that I could do anything, and they allow that to be. They write things that are hard, and they know I can do it, and they’re right there…Primarily, there’s something in us that can’t not do it. If you can not do it and can be happy doing something else, you’re gonna have a happier life. But if you’re called to do it, and can’t not do it, you’re just going to have to go for it.

“And I continue to feel—and I’ve had a lot of bad moments in the music business, and it’s really hard and discouraging a lot of the time—but I’m also aware that I’m very lucky. I’m still standing, that’s lucky! I am surrounded by wonderful, supportive musicians when I’m working, that’s lucky. It’s good! Or, in another language, I feel blessed most of the time.”

Visit www.LaurelMasse.com for Laurel’s discography and online shop.

For over twenty years, Garry Berman has written books and articles related to pop culture and entertainment history. He has contributed articles to Beatlefan magazineNostalgia Digest, and History magazine. In addition to his non-fiction work, he also writes comic novels and screenplays. He is also co-administrator of the Facebook group page Friends of Sant Andreu Jazz Band. Visit him online at www.GarryBerman.com.

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