Slated to be inducted into the Rochester Music Hall of Fame this year, singer talks about music, local roots, COVID-19 and the urge to perform
By John Addyman
Spend a little time with Nancy Kelly.
Ask her to explain a song from the Great American Songbook. Listen while she talks about the lyrics of the song, about the rhythm of the music. Let the rhythm touch you. Think about the meaning of the words, and apply your own life experience to them. Decide how you’d speak those words to someone. Then watch as Kelly steps into a room and sings that song … and you’ll never think about a song the same way again.
Nancy Kelly, 70, is a jazz singer and her voice, personality and verve serve to construct a New York treasure. She is on deck to be inducted into the Rochester Music Hall of Fame, whenever that body can meet again.
She’s been waiting a year. COVID-19 has erased a lot of her plans.
“How can you plan anything when 40% of the country won’t get a shot, much less put a mask on?” she said from her home studio in Fair Haven.
When COVID-19 fell on us, it erased the Hall of Fame induction and Kelly’s booking a European tour.
Singing since she was 13, playing a piano since she was 4, and picking up a lot of other instruments along the way, Kelly has built a career that criss-crosses the state, the country and the globe.
And she’s done it her way, with six acclaimed CDs, a wall full of awards, including Downbeat magazine’s Best Female Vocalist (twice), Hall of Fame recognition from the Syracuse Area Music Awards, many more individual honors — even an Unsung Heroine Award from the National Organization of Women.
Looking back, she couldn’t help herself from being thrust into a world where an audience would focus on her for an evening.
She was raised in a Rochester home where dad, Orville “OP” Kelly, was a Honeywell engineer who was into acoustics and built his own high-definition speakers to listen to jazz. Mom, Ruth, played the piano and loved Fats Waller tunes. Granddad had a society band in Rochester. Uncle Charlie played music for a living. Sister Lynne and brother Gene watched Kelly develop.
“There was always music around me, all the time,” Kelly said. By age 3 or 4, “I would hear my mother play something on the piano and just go over and play it … play it by ear. They hooked me up with a great piano teacher. I took lessons from a woman who had been at Julliard — she was wonderful. She took me as far as she could. They told me I was at college level at age 13.”
But then things changed dramatically. The teenage Nancy Kelly fell under the spell of John, Paul, George and Ringo. Her mom bought her a guitar and Kelly learned to play it. And drums. And bass. She got together with three girlfriends and started a band.
“We were horrible, but we were cute,” she said. “I got bamboozled into singing.”
Bandleader Bill Hooper saw her at one performance and asked her to jump bands.
“That was the start of my journey. I wanted to play tunes my way. I never wanted to play what was on the sheet of music — I wanted to play my own stuff. Everyone knew early on I wanted to be an improvisational musician.”
Her independence led to a young marriage and daughter, Kellie, but her career was starting to sprout. The young family moved to Scottsville, where Kellie could get a lot of attention from family.
“I chased around after a band called October Young, a Rochester rock band. I wanted very much to play for them, which never happened. They broke up and we formed our own group ’Crackers.’ Then came a second group, ‘Pearl Alley.’ We toured up and down the East Coast, the Midwest; I was singing light rock. We were all kids.”
She and Kellie moved to the Albany area when Kelly was talked into singing for Merlin’s Minstrels.
“They were very, very popular,” Kelly said. “It was not uncommon to have 1,000 people at the show. We played up and down the corridor of Saratoga, Troy and Albany. It was a real, working band.
“One night I was in the club, a pianist came in and said to me he had just come off the road with the Jimmy Dorsey orchestra. He said to me, ‘You know, you could sing jazz. You have great ears.’
“I said ‘OK,’ and came back to Rochester, where he proceeded to teach me all the standards. That’s when I sang with Jim Richmond’s band, Saratoga, with Oliver Wiggins. I did my Rickie Lee Jones thing and sang ‘Chuck E’s in Love’ and people went crazy.”
That was in the late 1970s, said Richmond. “She is a true talent and one of the best jazz vocalists anywhere! She was a real crowd favorite. We have remained friends and stay in touch with each other and being a board member for the Rochester Music Hall of Fame, I am thrilled that she will be inducted as soon as this COVID leaves or dies down.”
Hire on the spot
In her music progression, Kelly found another mentor, Joey Santora. “He got me going with jazz,” she said. Now in Philadelphia, she and Santora started a new band, ‘Rage,’ that toured in the Philly-Atlantic City area. Then again, Kelly found herself back in Rochester, eventually meeting two guys from Syracuse to begin the Nancy Kelly trio that nailed down a four-year weekend gig at Sakura’s Japanese Restaurant in Syracuse. “It was standing room only on weekends,” she said.
She had also settled for almost the last time in Fair Haven, in what had been the summer home for her grandparents. The house was the former Portmaster’s House, the old North Fair Haven Post Office. “I love it here,” she said. “It hasn’t been good for my career, but I love it. I’m close to my family, my grandson, Graham, is here. You have to choose between your family and your music sometimes.”
By now she had started to develop a career that was thriving in Rochester and in Syracuse, but another trip to Philadelphia really opened things up. “I met a fellow who was up here summering. We moved to Wilmington, Delaware, and I went looking for work. I marched my little butt straight into a jazz club in Philly, a Black jazz club, ‘Jewels.’ And I found something out. Here in New York, we’re used to diversity. I didn’t realize the further south you go, the more segregated things get. I didn’t know that. I walked right in the club. Anybody who knows me knows I’m a little fearless. And then I asked the organ player if I could sit in. If I had a picture of the look on his face, it would be worth millions. ‘Yeah, right – she wants to sit in,’ he said. And I did, and I became the house singer for four years. I was hired on the spot.”
That was 1986.
Someone sent a cassette tape of Kelly’s singing to Jeff Tyzik, who was producing records for Doc Severinsen and would become familiar to Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra fans later on. Tyzik shared the tape with Lenny Silver of Amherst Records in Buffalo.
“Lenny adored me,” Kelly said. “He put a lot of money in me. We went out to Hollywood to produce my first record. It was a thrilling, thrilling thing. My first album is called ‘Live Jazz’ and that’s what Lenny wanted to do. I’m one of those singers who’s better live than recorded. Some people just do better live. Lenny wanted to put an audience in the studio and make it feel like it was being recorded live. There was very little editing on that record — what you heard, happened. I was very young, courageous.”
People connected with that young, courageous voice and the album reached 11th on the Billboard charts. Charlie Graziano, the manager for the Spyrogyra jazz group, was tasked to get Kelly jobs.
“It’s a timing thing,” she explained. “As your record goes up, you have to be working, but he never got me any work. That whole record climbed and fell. I’ve been struggling ever since. I’ve been groveling to get back where that was. Lenny did two more records with me (‘Singin’ & Swingin’ in 1997 and ‘Born to Swing’ in 2006) but didn’t put the money in those that he did on that first record.”
But her songs were getting played, and Kelly started touring. Two three-month residencies in Japan followed where she sang in the country’s jazz clubs. She sang in Hong Kong, Indonesia, Turkey, Switzerland, Thailand…and was planning that European tour when the coronavirus changed everything. She traveled with a pianist who chose the other accompanist by location, filling out Kelly’s trio. That was Dino Losito’s role over a period of 30 years.
Three more CDs came out — “Well, Alright” in 2009, “B That Way” in 2014 (eight weeks in the top 50 Jazzweek charts), and most recently, ‘Remembering Mark Murphy’ in 2019 on the Syracuse-born SubCat label.
Studios in East Rochester
Singing in person, Kelly is a force.
Losito saw it first-hand. “She has a big personality, an eye-catching stage presence. She’s not a docile little woman. Lots of singers have wonderful voices, but what’s different with Nancy is what she brings to the music. She has more of a raw approach, a little more on the cusp, spontaneous, on-the-edge excitement.”
Kelly’s singing, as described by pianist Rick Montalbano, is “big, swinging and flashy, then suddenly thoughtful and intimate. Always warm and humorous too. She loves doing it and it’s the best thing she knows how to do. Her music spurs people on and in turn they spur her on further. Nancy moves people. She seeks sounds that are fresh to her ears and of course, it’s a lot about the spaces, because you’ve got to play those too. But at its best, it’s about her heart.”
That approach to music is something Kelly teaches to a couple dozen vocal students each month. She has studios in East Rochester and SubCat in Syracuse, and can easily log 500 miles of highway a week getting to the lessons.
She teaches technique and heart and listening — and urges experience. “I’ve learned so much from black musicians who couldn’t read music,” she said. “Jazz is a conversation between instruments,” and her voice is one of those instruments.
“It’s no different than standing in a room with four people,” she explained. “They all have read books on a certain subject. They’re well-read. Then you get together and discuss that in a democratic, peaceful way, while voicing your opinions that complement the conversation: that’s what jazz is. We study the music all our lives. We have renewed the language when we get together with similar musicians.
“There are all kinds of jazz musicians – not everyone feels the music like I do. I find people who feel the same way about the subject but have their own life experiences that they bring to the table when we play. When I’m recording a record, I know who belongs on that record. Who fits.”
For her students, learning dialect begins with one song, “Route 66.” She teaches familiarity with 12-bar blue progressions, then how to do speech singing, because you don’t sing “Route 66,” you speak it. Then she helps students understand all the options there are for improvisation — real jazz singing.
“My main focus with students is teaching them to listen to the chords. ‘Where are you?’ I ask. ‘What’s in the room with you? What are those chords doing? Where are they moving? Where are you going to find your note in that chord?’ Getting people to listen is big to me, really big. Be aware of your music surroundings.
“The song is a room, an environment. You’re in a virtual environment, things are going on. ‘What do you hear? What do you feel?’ There is so much to that, it’s almost another dimension,” Kelly said.
Her students investigate all the roots of American music.
She talks about lyrics, telling the story. “When I go off on a riff, I do it because that’s what the lyric did to me,” she said. And in her students, she instills the truth in a song — what the composer was trying to do, and what the singer can do from the heart. As an example, she listed Billie Holiday’s “God Bless the Child,” and how that same tune has been handled by so many others, each with their own imprint (for example, Whitney Houston, Annie Lennox, Stevie Wonder, George Benson with Al Jarreau and Jill Scott, Aretha Franklin, Sonny Rollins, Steve Miller, Oleta Adams, Tony Bennett, Anita Baker and David Peaston – among many others).
Right now, with her explosive laugh and sanguine good humor, Nancy Kelly is itching to perform and worries about how long she’ll have to wait for the next opportunity. Her calendar, beyond the vocal lessons, is empty and COVID-19 is the villain.
“Nancy and I are both big on making the music feel good and swinging,” Losito said. “She’s great to play with in that regard. She is very sensitive to that. We all play off the energy of the crowd, especially in jazz. Swing music is built for dancers to get up and have a good time. When we’re doing something they like, they holler out. That keeps us playing. We’re missing out on people and their feedback.”
That pandemic thing.
“People are afraid to do things,” Kelly said. ‘We just don’t know how this is going to unfold.”
Zooming With Nancy Kelly
By John Addyman
While trying to set up an interview with Nancy Kelly for this cover story, it became obvious that distance, weather and COVID-19 were going to be issues. After a week of trying to make arrangements, we settled on a Zoom interview — the first I’ve ever done.
As a rookie Zoomer I was pretty concerned about some technical thing blowing up in the middle of the interview. I always try to be as prepared as possible to make the interviews go professionally and quickly — people’s time is valuable — and I didn’t want to look like a hoo-hah bumbling through the thing while I tried to fix a technical issue I couldn’t begin to understand.
No worries. Nancy was not only a vivacious interview, she is technically proficient, and promised that if I screwed up, she would save me. God bless capable, charitable women.
In the hour and a half we spoke, she searched the internet, took pictures, checked email and kept the conversation light and informative — and Zoom never wavered, never hiccupped. I even managed to record the thing. Marvy.
To commemorate my departure from rookie status, Nancy grabbed screen shots of our interview: she in her Fair Haven home, and me in my Newark home. And here they are.