RIP: Laura Kass Remembered

(June 6, 1947-January 22, 2020)

Laura Kass Remembered

By Deborah Layman

Laura KassLaura Kass passed away January 22, 2020 at the age of 72 after a four-year battle with cancer.

Laura and I became friends when we were seven years old. Our families were next-door neighbors at a bungalow colony in the Catskills. We spent summers there until we were teenagers. Between the summers, I lived in Queens and Laura lived in Brooklyn. We wrote letters to each other all year long. We stayed friends through all the years, with me in Provincetown, Richmond, and Birmingham, and Laura in New York, Kentucky, and LA. In December, when the cancer became untreatable, I moved to LA to care for Laura, and I stayed with her until she died, peacefully, on January 22. I tell her story here, through my own recollections and through Laura’s own words (in italics), as revealed in emails she sent to a long-time friend who shared excerpts with me to share with others.

Laura was born in Brooklyn, New York on June 6, 1947, the oldest child of Murray and Charlotte (Berlin) Kass. Her brother Martin was five years younger. The family lived in Flatbush throughout Laura’s childhood and spent the summers at Cold Spring Cottages, in Accord, New York.

Laura studied ballet as a young girl and continued dancing into her twenties. She had the beautiful posture and grace of a ballerina all her life.

Laura started playing the violin at eleven, mainly to avoid having to take piano lessons from her mother, and continued to play until she was sixteen when she put the violin down for many years.

Laura was adventurous, headstrong, and independent as a teenager -- and as an adult. In her twenties, Laura began a career as a film editor in Manhattan. At the time, Laura was married to Jeffrey Lesser, a music producer. Her film credits are under the name Laura Lesser. Notably, Laura worked on films with John Lennon and Yoko Ono and with the Rolling Stones:

The first job I did for John and Yoko I got because their producer heard about me from someone I had worked with. It was when they were finishing up their film Imagine. Yoko had the lab make a black and white work print to save money and then had a color work print struck so she could see it in color. My job was matching the color work print to the black and white rough cut. They were living in the St. Regis Hotel at the time and I had a room across the hall where there were rewinds and a synchronizer set up on this very fancy desk. The rewinds were attached using C clamps. Needless to say, the work was tedious but hell, I’d have swept their floor just to be there.

The next time I worked for them was in Yoko’s loft on Broome Street in Soho. I cut some music videos of John doing new songs with a band called Elephant’s Memory (I think), and a short film of Yoko’s which was very funny.

I also cut a film of a benefit concert John was involved in “Ten for Two” which included sets by Stevie Wonder, Bob Seeger, the Lost Planet Airmen, Alan Ginsburg, Jerry Rubin, Abbie Hoffman, Bobby Seale and assorted other musicians and political types.

Then I cut another concert film for TV which was a benefit show John organized for children with mental disabilities. It was the first film to be simulcast on the radio in stereo. That was Sha- Na-Na’s first time on TV. It also had Roberta Flack, Stevie Wonder, John and Yoko. It involved Geraldo Rivera (a total suck-up) who had made a campaign of helping these children.

Then came the Stones film which came about because Robert Frank needed some concert footage for his backstage film Cocksucker Blues. We had thousands of feet of film (4 shows of 4 cameras each) and Frank only took about two minutes of it. We decided to make a film out of what we had left over. Marshall Chess, who was the Stones’ manager at that time, came over with Mick Jagger and spent a couple of nights looking at the dailies before we started work. It was a dream job for me because I loved the Stones and I got to spend long days with them all to myself. I’m very proud of how it came out.

[View the film Ladies and Gentlemen: The Rolling Stones on YouTube and Amazon Prime Video]

That’s the whole story. Oh - one more thing - I of course included Sha-Na-Na doing the song “Tell Laura I Love Her” in the simulcast film. When I was first introduced to John Lennon, he sang that to me.

Film editing brought Laura to California in the seventies:

I moved to California to work on a film with one of John & Yoko's former producers and ended up staying. In 1982, I took a job in Kentucky cutting a documentary about a tobacco farmer. I lived there for about two years and took up Appalachian fiddling. I lived in a very small town in Southeastern Kentucky, population 1,200, and didn't have anything to do after work so I went to a fiddler I had heard about [Marion Sumner] and asked him to teach me. He asked me to play something so I played a scale and he said, "You won't be no problem,” then he played something and from that moment on all I wanted to do was play like him.

He loved Western swing and taught me a lot of Bob Wills and Spade Cooley numbers. He taught me melodies and played harmonies. Besides knowing an endless number of traditional tunes, he loved swing especially Bob Wills, Stefan Grappelli, and Joe Venuti. After a week or two he stopped charging me for lessons and I went to his trailer every day and we played twin fiddle for hours. It was a wonderful experience.

[View a seven-minute segment of Laura and Marion playing together at https://appalshoparchive.org/Detail/objects/10829, beginning at 13:55]

The first tune he taught me was the Bob Wills song Faded Love and he played a harmony with me. A week after I started playing he had me on stage with him. He brought me with him to a bluegrass festival and got me on stage to play Faded Love with him.

During those days I learned a Grappelli solo from a cassette – In My Solitude. I played some other gigs with Marion and a couple of other bands in the area and I actually felt more at home on stage than I did in social situations.

When I returned to LA, I couldn't get a job [in film editing] because while I was away everybody switched to digital and although I had learned how to do it, I didn't have "experience.”

I got work playing with a few bands. My favorite was a Western Swing band called the Radio Ranch Straight Shooters. I first joined an all women band, Old Mother Logo, playing old time music (tunes like Cluck Old Hen, Arkansas Traveler and a few western songs like I’m an Old Cowhand). Then I started playing with Radio Ranch Straight Shooters and learned about Charlie Cristian and other great swing players. So anyway, I love the music of the swing era and I loved being on stage with Radio Ranch especially.

I also worked in a health food store, at a tile company glazing tiles, as a laborer at a sprout farm, and finally started teaching violin at a music store called McCabe's Guitar Shop and also working behind the counter. Now I play classical music as well and teach whatever style the student wants to play.

For a while, I lived in Topanga in a cabin that was built by Will Geer and Woody Guthrie on the grounds of Will Geer's Theatre, Theatricum Botanicum. They had plays during the spring and summer as well as a drama camp for kids. I got to see all the plays and I was even in a couple. They did a stage adaptation of The Hunchback of Notre Dame and I was a Gypsy street musician. I got a kitten that summer and named her Esmeralda after the beautiful Gypsy dancer.

I took jazz improvisation lessons from a saxophone player for a while but didn’t study that as much as I should have. I transcribed a Lester Young solo from the song All of Me and also learned one of Joe Venuti’s solos from Sweet Georgia Brown. I never got the hang of all those modes and when I improvised it usually sounded more like swing and blues. I was going to learn Take the A Train in all twelve keys but never got around to it because I was busy practicing the music I was playing with orchestras and bands and working with my students. I much preferred being part of a band over playing all by myself but all in all I enjoyed playing a lot. It’s nice looking back at all that.

Laura played with the following local orchestras: Culver City Symphony Orchestra, Marina Del Rey Summer Symphony, Peninsula Symphony, Topanga Symphony, and Beach Cities Symphony.

In recent years, Laura took up pottery-making and created many beautiful and unusual pieces that today grace the homes of her friends near and far.

Laura had many good friends – because she was such a good and generous friend. She cared, she listened, she helped, she encouraged. To the very end of her life, Laura’s quirky sense of humor brightened every day I spent with her. Her sincere and endearing smile was uniquely Laura. She will be missed and remembered.