For Singer Laurel Massé, Success Was No Accident

By the time she was in her 20s, singer Laurel Massé had it all.
She'd helped found the close-harmony, swing-jazz group The Manhattan Transfer, a quartet created with the humble notion they'd be "the best singing group ever." She had become the tall, slinky, red-haired soprano whose stratospheric voice could cling to a lyric and sing every bit of life into it.
She had toured with MT all over the world, recorded five albums, appeared on television specials, and heard over and over, "You're great, you're great, you're great, baby, and if you ever leave the group, just give me a call."
In short, Laurel Massé was a star.
Until one evening in 1979. Masse (pronounced Mas-say) fell asleep at the wheel of her car after a gig in Washington D.C., resulting in an accident that left her with injuries that included a broken jaw. After months of hospitalization, Massé was discharged with her mouth wired shut and the bleak news ringing in her ears that she'd never sing again.
Masse's success as a jazz vocalist who is in the process of producing a third album did not come easily or quickly. There was that little matter of the broken jaw. "I lost a lot of mobility in my jaw, so the technique I had learned for hitting those high notes -- you know, drop your jaw, the higher the note, the bigger the opening? I can't do that," she said. "But Marge Rivingston in New York, who had coached Linda Ronstadt and Maureen McGovern, helped me work that out."
"The musicians taught me what real life for musicians is like," she says. "It's not like it is in People magazine. It's not glamorous or effortless. I think people think stardom, in itself, means something. In some ways it does; but when you're alone, if you're a nice person, then you're a nice person, and if you're a jerk, you're a jerk. Being a star has nothing to do with anything."
Masse's first album, "Alone Together" was released in 1984, followed by "Easy Living" in 1986, both produced in Chicago. She combines a sweet clarity and 3-1/2-octave range with the languid phrasings of a jazz singer, one schooled in scat singing and the vocalese Eddie Jefferson originated and Lambert, Hendricks and Roth popularized.
"Scat is wordless syllables. We're talking what Ella (Fitzgerald) and Mel (Torme) do," Massé explained, "improvisation on the spot, as if they were a horn player. Vocalese is the setting of a lyric to a solo that someone else has improvised. If Ella or Mel sings, say, `Paper Moon,' they sing the song and then go into their solo chorus. When I sing `Paper Moon' and I get to the solo chorus, I sing (saxophonist) Lester Young's solo with Eddie Jefferson's words. So, it's kind of a classical approach."
"Jazz should be listened to and treasured and supported," she says, "and not analyzed too much. We need to claim it in the schools and claim it on the radio and claim it as our own throughout the world. Because it's good music. And big fun."

May 4, 1990