Nancy Kelly: A Dynamic And Determined Voice

(Photo credit: Janis Wilkins)

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Written by Scott Gudell

Nancy Kelly has been singin,’ swingin’ and scattin’ for a long time. Her first musical path took her into the world of classical music when she started playing by ear at age three and her mother guided her to piano lessons by age four. The Beatles arrived a decade later and she abruptly shifted her allegiance to rock. But Ms. Kelly eventually followed the musical breadcrumbs that lead her to the world of jazz and American Standards which is where she developed, progressed, blossomed and found her true love.

Nancy Kelly and I talked in the fall of 2020 shortly after she celebrated her 70th birthday and over six months into COVID. The first thing she shares with me is about her early start in music. “At age four, I started playing piano and taking piano lessons. I was a classically trained pianist and I was at ‘college entrance’ at age thirteen. At that precise moment, the Beatles arrived. I threw it all away to be ‘a Beatle'” she says with a hearty laugh. “I got a guitar and I started a band…I started a band at around 14 or 15… and I was the only one in the band that would sing. They were all too scared to sing” Ms. Kelly says kiddingly. “So I was the singer! That’s where I started singing. From there, I was asked to front a rock band in Rochester, New York and one thing turned into another.”

She eventually realized that she could develop to a higher level if she got a little extra professional training. “After ten years of singing with very loud bands, I had trouble controlling my voice so I signed up with what is now called the Community School” remembers Ms. Kelly. The school was and still is affiliated with one of the definitive music schools in the United States—the Eastman School of Music—in her hometown of Rochester. “I studied with a wonderful classical teacher there, Nancy Kennedy, and she was tremendous. She got me straightened out in a jiffy.” Although Kennedy taught classical singing, she eventually told Kelly “‘I have to let you go because I’ll ruin you.’ In other words, to instill classical singing on a ‘stylist,’ it’s so hard for them to undo it… She was very smart, a very hip woman and I learned so much from her. I’m so grateful to her for her insight.”

By now Kelly had embraced ‘speech singing’ which, as she tells me, “all jazz is pretty much ‘speech singing,’ done with your speaking voice. (Kennedy) didn’t want to take that away from me.” Ms. Kelly was drawn to singers who would incorporate spontaneous, improvisational scat singing into their presentation including Louis ArmstrongElla Fitzgerald and, later in the mid-1950s, Annie Ross and Mark Murphy. She was also inspired by other greats including Billie HolidaySarah Vaughan and Nancy Wilson. Ms. Kelly believes that “in every training but voice, classical training is essential. Especially in today’s environment. The stakes are so high and the competition is high.” With so many students having the opportunity to play-out, Ms. Kelly believes, “There’s got to be a balance between the bandstand and the book” as she put it. “I learned jazz on the bandstand with a lot of black musicians that often didn’t even read music.” At the same time, she cautioned that students sometimes get it backwards by learning in school before actual, real life experience.

So how and when did she decide it was time to see the world? She pauses for a moment to reflect and then mentions her friendship with arranger, conductor and Grammy award-winning producer Conductor: Jeff Tyzik who was, and still is, based in Rochester. “I became friends with Jeff Tyzik. Jeff took some little recording of me—I don’t know where he got it from—to Lenny Silver at Amherst Records in Buffalo New York. He had a revered independent record company” Ms. Kelly recalls of Silver. “He put Spyro Gyra on the map…(and) Tyzik, he signed me” she says, naming off the artists that come to mind. The label also released albums by other important artists including saxophonist Ernie Watts, big band leader/trumpeter Doc Severinsen and blues singer/harpist Paul Butterfield. “Lenny was responsible for getting me started in the jazz world…that got me going, I got out and I did gigs. I got an agent. And, of course, this business is basically networking. When you nationally and internationally release records out, people call you. You get hired to do things. When you’re young and you have a popular record out, the world is yours.”

The album, Live Jazz, was produced by Tyzik and released in 1988. “It was recorded in Hollywood California— can you imagine how exciting that was— when you open the door of the studio and look down and see Paramount Studios was right there and you could see the big arch—oh my little heart was all a flutter -it was great. The record did really well. I was Number 11 on Billboard” Ms. Kelly remembers. Ernie Watts kicked things off with his potent sax. Drums and percussions were handled by former Weather Report alumnus Peter Erskine. Kelly effortlessly moved from a potent remake of “Twisted” to a romantic “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” other American standards and more. She had arrived in style.

But as work offers began to come in, Ms. Kelly conceded that she did not tour as much as she would have wanted. She chose to remain based in Western New York since she had, and still has, a daughter and family in the area. When her daughter was older, Ms. Kelly and her daughter were based in Philadelphia for several years. “It was one of the best parts of my career…Philly was very cool” Kelly reminisces. She also lived in Albany New York, just a couple hours north of New York City. “I always played in New York. Johnny Valenti, who owns Birdland, has always supported me and still does to this day. I spoke to him not too long ago but, of course, nobody is open or doing much. And I was booked right before the COVID thing” she laments.” Valenti has pledged to honor the date, as a way to help keep her visible in the city. As with so many artists born to perform Ms. Kelly longs for the days when someone would reach out to her and invite her to perform in a far-off place such as Japan where she has been popular for years. “Yeah, I’ll be right there! Send me a ticket in the mail” she says with a knowing laugh.

It took almost a decade but when it came time to release her second Amherst Records album, 1997’s Singin’ and Swingin’, Ms. Kelly was even more involved. She was co-producer, chose many of the musicians and, as the liner notes proclaim, it was mostly ‘her selections, her arrangements and her musicians.’ “Funny how the public loved that record the most. There was an awful lot of ‘poppy’ stuff on there but it is what it is” she remembers. One of the people she wanted to record with was Buffalo native and veteran saxophonist Bobby Militello. “Bobby, who of course as you know, toured for thirty years with Dave Brubeck, started out with Maynard Ferguson. (Militello) is another one of us—the ones we call ‘The Upstate Burners.’ It just means all the ‘burnin’ cats’ who live up there. There are so many great jazz musicians who live in what we call ‘The Thruway Circuit,’ Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse.” Kelly remembers that “Bobby had my record—he somehow got his hands on Live Jazz—and said ‘man I gotta work with this lady.'”

Together, Militello and Ms. Kelly played a number of gigs at the Bijou, a club he owns in Buffalo. “We put together a lot of arrangements -which is what we do— which is the beauty of having a group of people that you see every week. You start developing arrangements on the bandstand, live, and that was a lot of what we put on Singin’ and Swingin’. Ms. Kelly opens the disc with a confident snap and just a touch of sass. Militello stays for the first two cuts, takes a break, comes back for two more and tag teams with saxophonist Joe Carello for several other selections. Her voice is in top form as she moves from dynamic songs such as a brisk “The Joint is Jumpin” to an elegantly melancholy “Stormy Weather.” As for Militello, he and Kelly continue to work with each other to this day.

Looking back at records such as Singin’ and Swingin’, Ms. Kelly says: “I put my records together like I do a set in a show. That’s the way I do it. I want a flow. That’s assuming…a jazz listener listens to a recording from top to bottom.” While conceding that more and more people select ‘singles,’ she is still committed to offering the complete package to listeners. When it came time to start focusing on a new CD, she immediately thought of friend, mentor and Syracuse native Mark Murphy. When Murphy first started recording in the mid-1950s, his first record producer stated that he was “every bit as good as (Mel) Torme, and that first record he made would scare Frank Sinatra.” Murphy went on to win Downbeat Magazine‘s ‘best male vocalist’ several times and was also nominated for a Grammy several times. “I was talking about putting together a little Mark Murphy tour. Mark is probably my favorite male jazz singer of all time. He influenced me very heavily” Ms. Kelly acknowledges with conviction. “Well, If I were going to do a show, what tunes would I do? Then I went, wait a minute, if I’m going to do a show, I gotta have a record to go along with it. It’s all in that same span of time that Mark passed away” she sighs.

Increasingly, many of the major record labels of the 20th century were competing with either boutique labels or a growing number of self-released discs. Ms. Kelly ultimately raised part of the money to launch the Murphy project herself and then, at a certain point, simply said “That’s enough, let’s go! Let’s book the studio time, man!” Now confident that the rest of the funds would materialize, she proclaimed with a smile “God will provide!” She enlisted an A-List of collaborators including Militello and trumpeter Randy Brecker and released Remembering Mark Murphy in 2019. The result was a collection of songs Murphy either co-wrote or was associated with. The album itself is reverential and lower key than earlier discs in Kelly’s career. She succeeded in creating a passionate homage to a musical mentor.

Beyond the applause of a live audience or strong record sales, there are various other ways to acknowledge success. For example, early in her career, several Downbeat Magazine readers’ polls put her into their Top Ten for several years. More recognition followed in the 1990s including from the regional music hall of fame in Syracuse (her adopted hometown where she maintains one of her teaching studios in addition to her Rochester studio). To bring things full circle, she will be inducted into the Rochester Music Hall of Fame in 2021. In the decade that the Rochester Music Hall of Fame has existed, it has inducted a variety of artists including Eastman School alumni Tony Levin and Ron Carter, native-born giants including Cab CallowaySteve Gadd and Lou Gramm, as well as longtime resident, the late Son House.

As for the Rochester Music Hall of Fame honor, Ms. Kelly says “I was born in Rochester, my mother was born in Rochester. I love Rochester. Rochester formed who I was. Rochester is known all over the world for their music school and the people who have come out of it. The people whose lives have been affected by it—me being one as well.” When I mentioned that vibraphonist Joe Locke had talked about his ‘Rochester sound,’ Ms. Kelly agrees. “There is a sound that comes out of Upstate New York. We have a completely different sound…we tear it up. Rochester formed who I am. A tad more aggressive” Ms. Kelly states with pride.

So, what is next? Ms. Kelly has pledged to continue teaching. “When I look at how many people’s lives I touched with teaching, it’s a stunning, stunning thought that just fills me with joy,” she proudly states. Her ‘to do’ list also includes a return to the recording studio. “When I was very young, late 20s/early 30s—that seems very young to me now —I was writing a lot. I was very much influenced by one of my heroes—Joni Mitchell—(plus) Al Jarreau, Roberta Flack—those people were so influential to me. I’ve got all these originals that I’m trying to bring forward, freshen them up, shine them up and see what I got. I’ve got a label that wants to hear them” she says with confidence. She also continues to do live shows on Facebook and is looking forward to the next time she parts the stage curtain and bursts into the spotlight in front of an audience of friends and fans.