Meet the Musician: Lisa Gass
In a field mostly dominated by men, Lisa Gass is a pioneering woman.
In a field mostly dominated by men, Lisa Gass is a pioneering woman, working not only as a professional string bass player but also as a bass repair person. Though she did not set out to be a trail-blazer, it developed organically. Born in New York, Lisa grew up mostly in Pennsylvania. Her father was a professional trombone player and pianist, working as an arranger for the Air Force Band, later becoming a music teacher and a lawyer.
He started all four of his children on piano and to this day all have continued in music, on varying instruments, be it professionally or recreationally. Lisa started playing violin in Elementary School and in 7th grade was asked to play the bass. The school district didn’t have an orchestra; however, a bass player was needed for the High School Jazz band and so Lisa was asked to switch. She went to Kutztown University of Pennsylvania majoring in General Studies with a concentration on Anthropology and Russian, played bass in local orchestras such as the Reading, Harrison, and Allentown Symphonies, and worked on the archeology crew of a historical restoration company in the summers. Being a freelancer, she had concerns whether such a life would provide a secure way of making a living and she didn’t find sitting in a cubicle translating Russian to be very appealing. Fate would have it, that she always enjoyed and had a knack for woodworking. Not quite sure how it even came about, Lisa mused, “I just liked wood.” So her bass-teacher told her, “You could repair basses or horse-drawn buggies.” He happened to own both, so he would have benefitted either way. Lisa approached a famous bass repair person in New York City, who told her that she first needed to attend violin making school. So off she went to Salt Lake City where she completed the four-year course at The Violin Making School of America, even building her own bass in her humble apartment workshop. After this legendary feat, she set out for Los Angeles, where the Thomas Metzler Violin Shop in Glendale needed a bass repair person.
Thus, Ms. Gass began her career as one of the go-to contrabass surgeons in town, getting to know all the classical and jazz players, as well as students who she eventually would watch grow up and move on to successful careers. “It’s nice to see them succeed,” she says, though unfortunately, she also witnessed careers not working out.
On April 1st, 1997, Lisa Gass opened her own shop, The Los Angeles Bass Works in Silverlake. “Make of that date what you will,” she jests. The operation has since moved to the historical Granada Building in Lafayette Park, where she tends to the instruments belonging to LA’s top bassists, while continuing her orchestral career playing in the Pasadena Symphony, the Pasadena Pops, The Riverside Symphony, Long Beach Symphony and of course, the California Philharmonic. She also has played in the pit as a hired “ringer” for musicals at the University of Southern California. Having been mostly a classical upright bass player, she found herself required to play electric bass on Grease and Evita, which proved to be a fun new experience. “One good thing about being a bass player is you get to play all kinds of music,” she says, especially having enjoyed the Bulgarian and Hungarian music she played back in Salt Lake City.
As a repair person, she has seen basses in all sorts of conditions, particularly those instruments that have to travel. There was a time when a musician would have to buy an extra seat for their bass or cello, but now many airlines don’t allow that, so the instruments are put in bass trunks in cargo. However, often TSA agents don’t close the cases properly and the instrument can be damaged. Fortunately, in LA, people have Lisa Gass to go to. “It’s quite rewarding,” she says of the work, “and bass players are nice people to work with, laid-back, and appreciative.” Fortunately for Lisa, most of her travelling is recreational, so she and her husband Oscar, also a bass player, can leave their behemoth instruments behind. They enjoy vacations in Europe, namely France, Spain and Italy, as well as in South America.
Lisa appreciates the California Philharmonic summer seasons and the opportunity to play in the Walt Disney Concert Hall. “Victor’s programming is really fun,” she says regarding the mix of classical and pop, “introducing audiences to music they might not have heard before. It opens doors to other orchestras,” she perceptively observes of the Cal Phil’s accessible repertoire and inviting concert experience. Just as the California Philharmonic is opening doors for concert goers in the community, Lisa Gass, together with her other female colleagues are opening doors for women bass players in the symphonic world.