Doris Mason reflects on a remarkable career at the forefront of Nova Scotia’s live music scene
Doris Mason has had one non-musical job in her life. As a teenager, she was assistant manager in a jeans store in Halifax. When she quit, the district manager pleaded with her to stay on.
“‘Where’s this music thing gonna get ‘cha?’” recalls Mason, now 59.
Since then, music has taken her around the world and back, to Europe, across Canada and the United States, and the Caribbean, performing as a solo act and as a leader of Canadian tourism musical and multimedia presentations. She continues to travel where the music takes her.
Mason and her “heavy-duty” RD700 Roland keyboard are a well-known duo at the downtown waterfront pub Stayner’s. With a broad repertoire (R&B, jazz, boogie-woogie, pop, rock ‘n’ roll, Celtic, and folk) she has a big and loyal contingent of fans.
Mason has also shared a stage and recorded with American R&B and gospel great Mavis Staples, performed with Cape Breton legends Matt Minglewood and the late John Allan Cameron, and teamed with the late, great blues master, Dutch Mason, to name only a few musical giants.
“No, I am not related to Dutchie,” Mason smiles. It’s the most-asked question of her musical life. But they played music together for decades, beginning when she was a teenager. Mason also acted as musical director for Dutch’s 60th birthday concert, which packed the Metro Centre back in 1998. “Dutch arrived in a limo, with his 80-year-old mother,” she recalls. “We had a 30-member mass choir singing and a big horn section playing as he came in.”
Born and raised in New Glasgow, into a musical family of nine, Mason started on the piano when she was three. Her father, William Norbert Mason, played the fiddle and saxophone; all four daughters accompanied him on piano. Mason’s mother, Beatrice Marguerite Mason (née Faulkner), loved to sing and dance.
“I eat, sleep, and breathe music,” Mason says. “And I’ve always been obsessed by melody.”
Mason was composing by age seven and was soon performing original material on regional television. By 17, she had earned Grade X (the penultimate certification level, after associate diploma) from the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto.
In her 20s, she explored R&B, jazz, and funk. By 22, she had founded the Mason Chapman Band with Halifax’s Bruce Chapman and recorded a self-titled LP.
Then came Mason’s entrée into musical theatre, starting in 1985 with The Rise and Follies of Cape Breton Island, a light-hearted look at life in Cape Breton, followed by a 10-year-stint as band leader and contributing writer with the beloved comedy and musical production, The Cape Breton Summertime Revue.
Mason’s longest musical involvement has been as the musical director for Drum, a touring show that blends music, dance, poetry, video, rhythm, and song. The tour de force features 20 musicians, dancers, drummers, and singers from the four principal cultures of Atlantic Canada: Aboriginal, Black, Celtic, and Acadian. A Brookes Diamond production, the show has now run for almost 20 years.
“We started Drum in 2000,” says Mason. “It’s toured the United States, in London, England, and twice, by request, on Parliament Hill, in Ottawa, on July 1. We also performed at the Olympics in 2010, and for the Queen in Halifax, also in 2010.”
For Drum, Mason arranges all the music, writes some of it, organizes the vocals, decides on the timings of the pieces, and schedules rehearsals. She also sings, plays three keyboards, and does some percussion. “Everyone plays percussion as well as their main function, whether it’s singing, dancing or playing an instrument,” says Mason. “I make sure everyone is hitting all their notes and coming in at the right time.”
Mason also performed in Denny Doherty’s hit show, Dream a Little Dream, between 1996–2006. Doherty, born and raised in Halifax, was a founding member of the hugely popular 1960s folk band, The Mamas and the Papas. “Dream or Drum: I went back and forth with the two shows,” says Mason. “I could have done that show forever. I loved the harmonies.”
Sadly, Doherty died in 2007, age 67.
The uncertainties of the musical life are not for everyone. “I learned a long time ago, you have to trust what comes next,” says Mason. “You don’t know where music is going to lead you. One minute you’re chopping ice in your driveway,” she laughs, “the next, you take a phone call and you’re off to New York City for six months.”
Composer and musician Scott Macmillan met Mason in New Glasgow in the mid-1970s. “We were on the road with our rock band of the time, and our lead vocalist had flu,” he recalls. “Doris came in. We did one tune after another. She knew all the lyrics; she was ready!” He laughs. “She was 16 years old. The bartender looked the other way.”
Since then, Halifax-born and-raised Macmillan has played on stage with Mason many times, sometimes they perform as a duo. Mason has three albums, one of which (Photograph) she co-produced with Macmillan. That album features 12 original songs performed by 17 musicians, including horns and strings.
“She is a gifted songwriter,” says Macmillan. “She’s written hundreds of songs.”
Mason, says Macmillan, is that rare vocalist known as a coloratura soprano: a type of operatic soprano noted for vocal agility. “Her vocal range is astounding,” he adds. This includes when she sings “scat,” improvised jazz singing where the voice imitates an instrument.
“She did a wonderful tribute for Ella Fitzgerald,” says Macmillan. “She called it Ella-vation. She also performed at the jazz festivals in Sydney, Cape Breton, and in Halifax. Basically, Doris does everything. And she can read music like crazy. She’s aces… In all the years I’ve played with her, I’ve never heard her play a wrong note. That right hand flies over the keyboard.”
Jennyfer Brickenden is married to Macmillan and manager of their business, Scojen Musical Productions Ltd. She tells people what to look forward to when they see Mason perform. “You’re in for a really good, high-quality music presentation, and humor,” she says. “Doris has so much confidence. She has the chops to deliver.”
Being a solo act and a single woman in the music business is hard.
“Doris is a tough cookie,” says Brickenden. “You have to be, as a solo female in the music business. She’s also a musician’s musician. She can really look after herself musically.”
Mason seeks balance. “You have to be tough as nails to withstand this business physically, mentally, and emotionally,” says Mason. “But you also have to be soft, sensitive, and creative… When I worked at the jeans store, I could tell what size you wore when you came in the door. But I always knew music would be my life.”