Janis Siegel: Answering the Calling of Vocal Jazz

A conversation with the renowned vocalist and member of the Manhattan Transfer

Janis Siegel
Janis Siegel

At first glimpse, this petite songbird easily blends into almost any scene comfortably, always aware of her surroundings, quietly observing. You wouldn’t know you’re chatting with one of the most recognizable voices in vocal jazz/pop history. She sings with laser precision when softly purring a classic ballad. When it’s time to rock in her upper register or swing out, she blows your mind, then casually slips into scatting a bass line or solo, always offering thoughtful improvisation.

In an industry not known for longevity, Janis Siegel has defied the odds, spanning decades as a highly skilled performance artist in one of the most celebrated vocal jazz groups in the world today: the Manhattan Transfer. She applies intellect and heart through her voice and arranging capabilities, weaving sonic beauty while navigating a world of different styles in music through the prism of her vision, an inner knowing. At this stage in her illustrious career, you might find her performing with her Requinte group or leading one of the hottest singing shows, Vocal Mania, along with gal-pal, Lauren Kinhan of the New York Voices.

Whether she’s in an evening dress with high-top basketball shoes or posting photos of one of her mouth-watering new dishes, she’s just whipped up after a tour, Janis Siegel is a stand-alone classic. She’s a warm and wise female jazz guide on the world scene, graciously lending her wisdom whenever called upon to teach or judge a choral group or festival of singers. Wherever you find Ms. Siegel, you’ll find good food, hip people and interesting music.

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Roseanna Vitro: At what age did you know you wanted to be a singer?  Was your family musical?

Janis Siegel: My family was not especially musical, although my father loved to sing and it was in the car with him that I first discovered I could sing harmony. He would croon some Bing Crosby standard and I would harmonize with him, not really knowing what I was doing, but “feeling” where the harmony was going.

When did you begin your studies in music? Were you a disciplined student?

I was a nursing major in college, on a scholarship. Before medicine, I thought I might want to be a marine biologist. I was always something involving science. As a girl, I took piano lessons at home with a teacher named Eleanor Wheatland. My first original piano composition was a short piece dedicated to my grandmother Anna, after her death. I taught myself rudimentary acoustic guitar at age 12, and along with two close girlfriends started a harmony group called the Young Generation.

I would say I really began my studies right after I met Tim Hauser. We decided to form [the Manhattan Transfer], and I started studying privately with a genius in Queens named Bob Bianco. Bob was teacher to Eddie Palmieri and both Brecker brothers. From him I studied the Schillinger system of musical composition. Bob is the one who suggested that we voice the Transfer like the Count Basie horn section, anticipating our predilection for vocalese.

Who were your earliest mentors?

In the early years, Dianne Davidson, Tim Hauser and Bob Bianco. My inspirations included Aretha, John Coltrane, Peter, Paul & Mary, all Motown, Elmo Hope, Big Mama Thornton.

In later years, the list included Jon Hendricks, Fred Hersch, James Moody, Gene Puerling, Ella, Clifford Brown and most harmony vocal groups, especially The Pied Pipers, Merry Macs, Four Vagabonds, Mills Brothers, Hi-Los ,Four Freshmen, King Sisters, Boswell Sisters, Brox Sisters, Bing Crosby & Rhythm Boys, Mel-Tones, Singers Unlimited  and Lambert, Hendricks & Ross. 

I know you were in an all girl group as early as 12 years old. Tell us a little about that experience. Certainly, it laid the groundwork for what was to come in your vast and amazing career.

As I look back on this, it really was an extraordinary experience. It was like leading a double life. On one hand we were normal high school girls, doing homework, hanging with our crowd, angst-ing about boys, fighting with our parents; on the other hand, we were recording. Richard Perry was our producer. We rehearsed and did gigs and we met all kinds of characters in the Brill Building and around the NY music business scene at that time.

Our label was Red Bird Records, the legendary label run by George Goldner, after that, Kapp Records. I learned how to sing in the studio, [create] rudimentary vocal arranging by ear and on the fly. I learned about the emotional dynamics of group singing, how to rehearse, be on time, how to blend with other voices – all skills that served me well later in life.

Were you a natural entertainer? 

I was not a natural performer. Even though I’ve been singing professionally since age 12, I didn’t really commit to being a singer until I was about 18 years old. I had other dreams and was not particularly encouraged from my family to be a professional musician.  

When did you first study voice technique and who were your favorite voice teachers? 

I started studying vocal technique in 1980, because I was getting in trouble a lot. And by trouble, I mean hoarseness and losing my voice. I stopped smoking around that time, stopped other bad habits, and dedicated myself to learning technique that would help preserve my voice and even improve its range and elasticity.

I am eternally grateful to my first voice teacher, the late Roland Wyatt, for teaching me valuable lessons about breath and conservation. I had to learn to belt in a way that would not injure my chords. One of my functions in the Manhattan Transfer was to do those balls-out, big, belting numbers every night.  

Alan Paul, Cheryl Bentyne, Janis Siegel and Trist Curless (from left) are the Manhattan Transfer (photo by John Abbott)
Alan Paul, Cheryl Bentyne, Janis Siegel and Trist Curless (from left) are the Manhattan Transfer (photo by John Abbott)

I also studied with Seth Riggs and David Collier. My favorite voice teacher is Joan Lader in New York. I still go for lessons, especially when there is more of a “legitimate” piece of music I want to master, or a tricky fast bit in a vocalese. Joan helps me with choices in my vocal tone, depending on the style of music I am singing. She also observes my body language and my alignment while singing and makes suggestions.  

When did you study vocal arranging? 

I never studied vocal arranging. I learned by ear, by asking questions of more accomplished musicians and by knowing what lines and harmonies “sing well.” I was very aware that harmony produced physical and emotional reactions in people.  My earliest arrangements for the Manhattan Transfer were done by ear, my first one being “Candy,” which I did in conjunction with my friend, pianist Fred Thaler. 

My process for doing a vocal arrangement is fairly simple. I do a lot of thinking beforehand and start by sketching a schematic of how I want the arrangement to evolve. What is the style? R& B? Vocalese? Swing? Bebop? Country? Gospel? Are there solos, and who do I want to sing them? What style or styles of harmony do I want?

Only then do I start to put pencil to paper. Yes, I’m old school. I don’t necessarily start at the beginning and work sequentially, but rather I start where I have the most certainty or passion. The rest will come. After the rough sketch, I go over everything carefully, and try to ensure that the parts “sing” well, tweaking things here and there. I am in close contact with whomever is doing the instrumental arrangement – unless it is an a cappella piece – to make sure chords jive together. Occasionally, if the piece calls for it, I might do a “head” arrangement and just try and sing parts, record them and THEN write them down. I’ve done a few arrangements that way.

I admire your ability to perform many different styles of music with conviction and authenticity – for example, pop, folk, jazz, rock and blues material.

I credit all to growing up in New York and my obsessive listening to a wide variety of styles that I enjoy singing. I am essentially a pop singer who grew up with Motown, folk music, soul music, the Great American Songbook and especially pop music.

I started listening to a lot of jazz in my senior year in high school, but I didn’t listen to vocalists, just mainly instrumentalists. The first records I bought when I graduated high school were Blues Bash by Jimmy Smith and [Walter Carlos’] Switched-On Bach. I was starting to get interested and excited about jazz voicings and harmonies towards the end of my stint with [my early folk group] Laurel Canyon –  that was Dori Miles, Anita Ball and myself – but I didn’t really start singing jazz until we formed the Manhattan Transfer.

I felt that being a jazz singer was a high calling and for me, the most expressive and sophisticated conduit for communicating feeling. But I don’t look at any style as being less than another. I enjoy singing “Boy from New York City” or “Mystery” to this day, as well as something like Clifford Brown’s solo on “Joyspring” or “Luz do Sol” with my group, Requinte Trio.

Tell me about your early memories of the late Tim Hauser? What was he like? 

I first met Tim when he was driving a cab in Manhattan. This was about 1971 or 1972. I was finishing up a run singing with Laurel Canyon, backing up an amazing young singer/songwriter/guitarist from Nashville named Dianne Davidson. 

I learned so much from Tim – not just about music, but also about history, art, architecture, and economics. His whole apartment was furnished with boxes of 78s, 45s and vinyl albums of everything from obscure vocal groups, doo-wop and folk music to wild, experimental and electronic music from Varese and Stockhausen. That’s where my real listening began. He was one of the most creatively generous and supportive people I ever met in my life. His vision is the one that still drives the Manhattan Transfer to this day. 

What advice would you give to younger or older singers regarding technique and, most importantly, practicing?

It is essential to warm up before singing live or in the studio. Good technique learned early in your career will save a lot of heartache later on and help preserve the delicate vocal cords. As far as practicing, for me there is the rehearsal process with my vocal group or the instrumentalists I may be working with as a soloist. This is a process I love, almost more than anything. This is where there is relaxed, yet concentrated work on shaping a piece.

Then there is private solo practice – figuring out the elements of the craft, working through the difficulties and striving, always striving, for a higher place. The thing about jazz and certainly harmony singing is that I find it to be a collaborative process – so my real “practice” comes on the bandstand or in the rehearsal room. 

Winning a Grammy for your arrangement of “Birdland” must have been a particular thrill. 

The Grammy for “Birdland” was a complete shock. I won the first Grammy in the afternoon at the pre-awards (and tripped over my dress going up to the podium)  and we won the group Grammy for the recording after performing it live on television at Radio City Music Hall. It was presented by Al Jarreau and Woody Herman. What a thrill! 

Learn more about Janis Siegel and the Manhattan Transfer here.