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The Manhattan Transfer on their final performance

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Manhattan Transfer
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The Manhattan Transfer (from left to right: Trist Curless Cheryl Bentyne, Alan Paul and Janis Siegel)

Gathering backstage at the McCallum Theater in Palm Desert, California last week, the members of The Manhattan Transfer paused for a brief moment to consider their trajectory. They were about to deliver what they say was one of their final performances.

This legendary vocal quartet was formed by the late Tim Hauser over 50 years ago. It took a few years and various early formations before they settled on what is their most recognizable configuration of the group, featuring Hauser, Janis Siegel, Alan Paul and Cheryl Bentyne.

Lately, Bentyne has been trying to make sense of the group’s contribution. She says, “I’ve suddenly realized what a huge impact we’ve had on music.”

The Manhattan Transfer has won 11 Grammys, been elected to the Vocal Group Hall of Fame, collaborated with everyone from Phil Collins to Bette Midler, and revolutionized the way people think about the possibilities of the human voice. And they achieved a kind of commercial success largely unknown to jazz artists, connecting deeply with audiences around the world and coming to define a genre defying sound that incorporated an array of influences.

Janis Siegel considers that breadth of influences to be one of their great innovations. “I think that we were pioneers in the area of not boxing ourselves into one genre.”

Along the way, they formed a deep personal bond. But, as Alan Paul says, the realities of life on the road finally caught up with them. “We’re a family,” he says. “But the schlepping just got too much. We just came back from a European tour where everything that you could think that could go wrong went wrong.”

So the group decided to make this their final world tour. As it comes to an end, they are coming to terms with what that means. Janis Siegel is still processing. She explains, “It’s alternately thrilling and terrifying. I’m feeling a kind of grief. It has stages.”

The group’s founder Tim Hauser passed away in 2014. Singer Trist Curless has replaced him ever since, and he says he hoped to help the group to finish what they had set out to do: “I’m here to help continue this thing that I loved as a fan first. I can be a part of helping see its vision through to the conclusion the group wants.”

Now, as they approach the end of the road, the members of The Manhattan Transfer are thinking about their legacy, something that is reinforced by their multiple generations of fans. Siegel says, “I see the legacy in action with these young vocal groups that are coming up and say we listened to you, my parents listened to you, my grandparents listened to you…”

Tonight, after over half a century together, The Manhattan Transfer takes the stage for their final performance. And although longtime followers of the group might expect it to happen at Birdland in New York city, it will actually take place at the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles.

Leo Sidran is a Grammy winning multi-instrumentalist musician, producer, arranger, composer, recording artist and podcast host based in Brooklyn, New York.