by Thomas Staudter
For some people, a strong, abiding creative impulse remains dormant or frustrated while life gets in the way until, suddenly, the spur of a decision or an event propels the artist toward fulfillment and actualization.
That’s Judy Kass in a nutshell. She wears the mantle of the late-blooming musical artist proudly.
After a broad series of successful career stops while also raising a daughter and inaugurating a not-for-profit organization, the singer-songwriter and longtime Tarrytown resident returned to her early training as a musician and began to find her voice in the tuneful arts as a way to address both her personal sorrows and wonderment of life. Stalwart fans of sublime, jeweled folk-pop are the lucky beneficiaries of Kass’s efforts, which include two CDs, Better Things and the just-released Beyond the Ash and Steel.
In the last few years, Kass has been performing regularly at coffeehouses and modest-sized venues around New York City and Westchester. This July will find Kass co-headlining the “On Your Radar” showcase hosted by WFUV’s John Platt at Rockwood Hall in Manhattan.
Kass was born in Brooklyn and raised mostly in Pearl River and New City over in Rockland County. The middle child of three, she grew up in a musical family: both of her parents were cello players and members of the Rockland Symphony Orchestra. The family’s piano received attention from all of the family members, and Kass’ lessons on the instrument began when she was five.
Even though Kass was making weekly visits to Music House in Nyack for her piano lessons, singing was her real passion.
“My parents tell me that I was singing before I learned how to talk,” said Kass by phone from her home. “I truly do not remember any time in my life when I was not singing or listening to music. It is as natural as conversation for me and has always been part of my language.”
Kass said that one of the pivotal moments of her musical development occurred when she was eight years old and her mother brought her to see Pete Seeger perform at a concert held at the Unitarian Society of Rockland County in Pomona. Soon, Kass was learning how to play guitar and widening her horizons with music by The Beatles, Joni Mitchell and Laura Nyro, like many fledgling musicians coming of age in the late 1960s.
Kass graduated from Clarkstown South High School but spent her senior year in England, playing music regularly and writing songs while attending West London College as part of an International Baccalaureate program.
After returning home to study psychology at Pace University, Kass was off to Hunter College for a master’s degree in social work, specializing in gerontology and receiving her clinical training as a psychologist. She married Osvaldo Moscovich, a veterinarian originally from Argentina who also plays trumpet, and gave birth to their daughter, Kyla, now 24 and a freelance trumpet player in Manhattan who occasionally sits in with the band on “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.”
Interested in seeing what a corporate career life might be like, Kass switched gears and began what was supposed to be an experiment that would last only a year but ended up running over two decades long. She became a human resources specialist at a subsidiary of Marsh & McLennan, the global professional services company, and steadily advanced in the HR department and into the executive ranks, commuting daily to her job in the World Trade Center and traveling frequently as well.
Her work life caused her to spend a good deal of time away from her husband and daughter, and when Kyla began fourth grade in 2001 Kass said she felt a need to bring a balance back to her family life. She decided to work from home on the fateful day of September 11—“I was determined to put Kyla on the school bus that day and be there when she got off the bus in the afternoon,” said Kass—and watched on television with horror as the Twin Towers collapsed from the terrorist attacks and 297 of her Marsh & McLennan colleagues perished.
While Kass noted that she never really put the guitar down or stopped playing piano in her free moments, the trauma and despair of 9/11 sent her back to music for solace, and she began to write songs again. After a few more years of work, she decided to return to social work, updated her medical licensing and retrained to become a psychotherapist, starting her own practice in Tarrytown.
Also, Kass co-founded with her friend Alison Paul a program called MusicWorks, which provides private musical instruction to students wanting to burnish their talent. The program is run now in cooperation between the Tarrytown public schools and JCC on the Hudson.
In the meantime, more and more songs accumulated, and finally Kass decided to start performing them for audiences at coffeehouses and songwriting circles. In 2013, she went into the studio with producer Jay Mafale and recorded Better Things, an album of ten originals and one cover, a gorgeous reading of the late pianist-composer Rob Morsberger’s song “Details,” which she performed later at his memorial service.
The brilliance of Better Things rests on Kass’s expressive singing, gifted storytelling and sterling musicianship. She has an impeccable finger-picking style on guitar that grounds most of the songs, but turns to piano for “Details” and the album’s closer, “River,” which intertwines themes of time passing and following one’s dreams.
Many of Kass’ lyrics mix memories and yearning with fresh reportage, illustrating that she has a sharp eye and an acute understanding of human bonds. Blessed with a beautiful voice just this side of soprano, Kass easily touches listeners with her songs, and lets us clearly hear her stories and feel the emotions in them.
Kass employs a full backing band on Beyond the Ash and Steel, her new album, which has been receiving a great deal of airplay on folk and Americana radio stations around the country. The redemptive title track, which Kass began to write soon after 9/11, stands now in finished form, she said.