It was only when George Masso, who died in October at the age of 92, happened to hear a solo by the trombonist Lou McGarity on the Benny Goodman band’s version of Yours that he finally settled on the instrument that he would make his own.
Initially, Masso had tried to follow in his dad’s footsteps and had taken up the trumpet, but he didn’t warm to it. After hearing Yours, he announced his intention to switch to trombone – and he never looked back, establishing himself as an elegant and lyrical exponent of the instrument.
Dan Barrett was one, younger, trombonist who was influenced by Masso. He says: “George’s very personal approach could go from swinging and ‘gutsy’ to soft, sweet, and sensitive.” In addition to his prowess on the trombone, Masso was an accomplished pianist, vibraphonist, composer, bandleader and arranger.
Born in the town of Cranston in Providence, Rhode Island in 1926, Masso was the second of four children in a musical home. Not only was his bank clerk father Thomas a trumpeter who went on to lead his own band, but his mother, Helen, gave piano lessons.
Masso studied trombone with Walter St Pierre, the trombonist in his father’s band lessons (St Pierre’s son, meanwhile, took trumpet lessons from Thomas Masso), and taught himself the solo that had initially hooked him, along with every other McGarity recording he could lay his hands on.
But McGarity wasn’t the only trombonist who inspired him – listening to Jack Teagarden and Trummy Young also helped him find his own sound, and he cited such other important instrumentalists as the saxophonist Lester Young and the pianist Teddy Wilson as key influences, along with leading vocalists, notably Peggy Lee.
Having made his professional debut in his father’s band while he was still at high school, Masso was well established in Providence when he was drafted into the US Army in 1945. By the time he finished basic training, the war had ended so he was assigned to the 314th Army Special Services Band stationed in Weisbaden, Germany, serving as first trombonist and arranger.
He later said: “It was a marvellous experience. ‘A band,’ they called it, but it was an orchestra. I became the staff arranger in that band with a full string section and all that, and that was my laboratory. No pressure, just write.”
Singer Tony Bennett, who served alongside him in the 314th Army Special Services Band in Europe during the Second World War and remained a lifelong friend and collaborator, wrote in one of his memoirs: “George is one of the great orchestrators of all time. Whenever we played one of his arrangements, the whole orchestra applauded. His pieces were simple to play, and it just felt great to perform them.”
Masso then spent two years with the Jimmy Dorsey Orchestra on an extended tour which culminated in a residency at the New York club The Latin Quarter. After his marriage, in 1950, to Louise Levesque, he stopped touring, started a family and went into education.
In 1973, Masso quit teaching to hit the road with the Benny Goodman Sextet. He became a regular member of The World’s Greatest Jazz Band and by the time swinging jazz was beginning to enjoy a revival in the late 1970s, he was in constant demand for gigging, touring and recording with the new wave of likeminded jazz musicians.
During the 1990s, Masso regularly visited the UK, and among his notable recordings is the 1992 album Spike Robinson and George Masso Play Arlen, which features a British rhythm section, for Edinburgh’s Hep label. Another of his other highly-rated albums was recorded for the American label Arbors with fellow trombonist Dan Barrett.
Barrett recalls: “I was happy to get to record Let’s Be Buddies, an engaging album title that George himself suggested. He also contributed the attractive arrangement of that title tune. Late in the day of the final session, George suggested we have some fun. I switched to a cornet I’d brought with me, and George seated himself at the piano. We recorded a favourite song of mine: an oldie called Linger In My Arms a Little Longer, Baby. Of course, George knew it by heart. He knew literally thousands of songs, and knew them correctly.”
Suffering a Sunday morning hangover during a weekend jazz event back during his partying days, Barrett went to find the hair of the dog at the hotel bar – only to find it closed. Masso took him to the backstage area where he had left his trombone case the night before, and produced a bottle of whisky from it. He told Barrett: “I keep that bottle in my case but I try not to abuse it.” Pointing towards the stage, he added: “Still, you know how it is – sometimes you just don’t want to go out there ALONE!”
George Masso, jazz trombonist, pianist, arranger and classical composer, born November 17, 1926; died October 22, 2019, aged 92