Holli (Wasser) Ross, ‘Artist of Vocalese’

May 12, 2020

Shortly after Holli Ross recorded her first solo album, You’ll See, on the Mile High Records label in 2011, JazzTimes‘ Christopher Loudon reviewed it, saying “Ross’ voice suggests a star sapphire: deep, indigo-hued and immaculately pure, yet shot through with captivating smokiness.” 

Her band on that recording included Ted Rosenthal on piano, Rufus Reid on bass, Matt Wilson on drums, Dennis Wilson on trombone, and Claudio Roditi on trumpet and flugelhorn. Upon hearing word of Ross’ death on May 9, Rosenthal posted this message on Facebook: “I am devastated and heartbroken to learn of the passing of my dear friend of more than 40 years, Holli Ross. She fought a valiant and courageous battle with cancer. Holli, a kind and generous spirit, always so full of life, will be sorely missed. And, she was one swinging vocalist, too . . . May your beautiful soul rest in peace.” Ross died at Saint Barnabas Medical Center in Livingston, NJ. She was 63.

WBGO’s Michael Bourne posted a tribute on the station’s website the day after Ross died. “Holli Ross,” he wrote, “was one of my favorite singers and dearest friends. I first enjoyed her singing when she came on ‘Singers Unlimited’ more than 30 years ago with the group, Mad Romance. Holli was lovely, lively, and we were friends from then on.”

In addition to being a vocalist, Ross wrote lyrics to instrumental jazz compositions, was an Adjunct Professor of Jazz Voice at Montclair State University, and was a speech-language pathologist. Growing up in Roslyn Heights on Long Island, she was exposed to music at an early age. Her father was a classical bassoonist, and her mother was a classical guitarist. At age 11, her chorus teacher selected her to record a series of children’s educational songs. She earned a Bachelor’s Degree in Bassoon Performance from the Mannes College of Music in New York City. Since there was no major in jazz vocal studies at the time, she convinced jazz pianist Jack Reilly to let her join his jazz instrumental class at Mannes where she would accompany the other musicians as a bebop scat singer. She also earned a Master’s Degree in Speech-Language Pathology from Kean University in Union, NJ.

In the 1990s, she co-founded a female vocal trio called the String of Pearls with Jeanne O’Connor and Sue Halloran. When the group performed at Morristown’s Bickford Theatre in 2010, Jazzville NJ‘s Maria Miaoulis reported that, “For older audiences, the trio’s repertoire offered a stroll down memory lane of 1930s ‘girl groups’ and timeless jazz standards. For younger listeners, it was a chance to learn about the singers that paved the way for String of Pearls such as the Boswell Sisters and the Andrews Sisters. Even more amazing still was their distinct style, blending vintage with modern vocal jazz and adding elements of pop, bebop, and Brazilian. Highlights included a brief foray into the 1970s with a Carole King medley and a sensual, slow paced interpretation of the Ella Fitzgerald classic, ‘It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)’ with Ross doing a terrific impression of playing the trombone using her mic.” At NJJS’ JazzFest in June 2012, Ross guested with accordionist Eddie Monteiro’s trio, exchanging high notes with Monteiro on Antonio Carlos Jobim’s “Agua de Beber”.

At some point, Ross was noticed by legendary jazz vocalist Jon Hendricks, who invited her to learn the Lambert, Hendricks & Ross material with the possibility of her replacing his daughter Michelle, who was leaving his current group. That never happened, but Hendricks remained supportive of her career, once saying, “As a lyricist, Holli speaks from the heart, and she does it with relevance and quick wit.” Among the lyrics she wrote were words to Sarah Vaughan’s composition, “I Have Waited So Long”, recorded by Janis Siegel with the Count Basie Orchestra; and lyrics for Miles Davis’ “Boplicity” and Roger Kellaway’s “Step Right Up”.

In addition to String of Pearls and Mad Romance, Ross performed with Take 5 before becoming part of The Royal Bopsters quartet with Amy London, Dyland Pramuk, and Darmon Meader. When the group recorded The Royal Bopsters Project on the Motema Music label in 2015, DownBeat‘s Allen Morrison gave it 4.5 stars, calling it “Extraordinary. The Royal Bopsters Project vividly makes the case for the revival of the art of vocalese.” When the group appeared at the Newport Jazz Festival in 2019 (with Pete McGuinness having replaced Meader), JazzTimes reported that “New York’s Royal Bopsters bring a new and refreshing approach to the art of vocal jazz.” A new Motema album, Party of Four, is scheduled for release in August. According to a message on The Royal Bopsters’ website, the title was written by Ross.

When word of her death reached the New Jersey-New York jazz community, Facebook literally exploded with tributes. “I’m devastated to learn that our dear pal Holli Ross has just left us,” wrote bassist Brian Nalepka. “She was a woman of glorious talent and spirit who lit up any room she entered.” 

Tenor saxophonist Virginia Mayhew called Ross “a total pro on a musical level and a really sweet, smart person and good friend. Holli was a real musician and a great person. The way she dealt with the past three years is inspiring. I am so sad she is gone.” And, bassist Christian McBride added:  “I just learned of the death of Royal Bopsters vocalist Holli Ross, a wonderful singer, teacher, and friend to many.”

Ross, who lived in Maplewood, NJ, is survived by her husband, Daniel Gibbons; daughter, Hannah Gibbons; mother, Solna Kane Wasser; brothers, Ronald Wasser and Edward Wasser; and sister, Debra Wasser Kaplan. The family has requested that memorial donations be made to the Holli Ross Fund for Jazz Studies. Gifts should be directed to the Montclair State University Foundation, 1 Normal Ave. Montclair, NJ 07043, or, online, designated to the Holli Ross Fund for Jazz Studies at montclairconnect.org/make-a-gift.

Fellow Maplewood resident, Jeff Kunkel, who is Coordinator of Jazz Studies at Montclair State, posted this on his Facebook page: “My heart goes out to all of Holli’s family and friends, and I can state unequivocally that she will be sorely missed by all who knew her.”

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