Celebrated jazz singer Nancy Kelly continues to wow public in a career that spans several decades
By Margaret McCormick
Club owners usually reach out to Nancy Kelly about potential bookings. But in November, the singer contacted the owners of The 443 Social Club and Lounge in Syracuse about doing a regular monthly gig there.
The 443 is an eclectic space with a small stage, careful attention to sound and lights, comfortable seating, a bar and food — everything a performer and her fans could want. On the evening of Jan. 29, dozens of guests paid $12 at the door and packed in to see Kelly, one of Central New York’s most high-profile and enduring jazz artists.
The singer, attired in flowing black pants, animal print jacket and ballet flats, took the stage with drummer Jimmy Johns and keyboardist Rick Montalbano. For some in attendance, it was like traveling back to the dark, smoky clubs where Kelly established a following in Central New York more than 30 years ago. For others, it was their first time seeing the celebrated singer of jazz, swing and scat. All were treated to a two-hour set of jazz standards, heartfelt ballads and vocal improvisation, up close and personal.
“It was an amazing night. She’s amazing,’’ said Jamie Ann Owens, 40, who grew up in a family of jazz lovers and has been seeing artists like Kelly and Ronnie Leigh since she was a kid. She attended the concert with her mother and a couple of friends.
“What a night… Sometimes, pure magic happens in this room,’’ Julie Briggs Leone, co-owner of The 443, said after the show. Kelly was equally enthusiastic. “Everything was right about this,’’ she posted on Facebook. “Everything.’’
Kelly has performed all over the country and the world, so that is no small praise. Before the coronavirus pandemic put live music in clubs on pause, she was scheduled to travel to Denver, Los Angeles and Miami, as well as perform at The 443 and at the Marriott Syracuse Downtown, as part of CNY Jazz Arts Foundation’s Jazz at the Cavalier series. When the outbreak hit, all engagements were canceled until further notice. Kelly has been working from her home in Fair Haven, on Lake Ontario, and taking time for some much-needed self-care, which includes giving her vocal cords a break.
“Quite frankly, I’m really enjoying being home and not driving 400 miles a week,’’ Kelly said in March. She answered questions for this story by email. “I teach. Work on new tunes. Relax. Cook. Catch up on things that needed attention in my home. I’m more rested than I’ve been in a very long time. I’m really kinda diggin’ it. We will pick up with local and national gigs when the threat has passed.’’
Kelly, who will turn 70 in October, grew up in the Rochester area. Music came to her naturally and she started piano lessons at the age of 4, later adding instruction in clarinet, drama and dance. After high school, she enrolled at the Eastman School of Music, where she studied voice. By 16, she formed a combo and performed at clubs around Rochester. In the early 1970s, she joined a rock band as lead singer. She liked it but felt a powerful pull to jazz.
“I was drawn to the freedom and ability to be very creative,’’ Kelly says today. “I love the rhythms of swing and the fast pace of be-bop and the space of deep ballads. The harmonic structure is more sophisticated than pop or rock. In that respect, I enjoy the intellectual side of it. It’s a very democratic kind of music. Everyone gets in on the conversation. I love the freedom of knowing what I’m doing and sometimes not and getting lost in the creative process. I love seeing the guys smile when I do something hip. I love its deep American history. Jazz is America’s gift to the world.’’
Kelly appeared on the Syracuse music scene in the mid-1980s, drawing crowds to restaurants and small clubs like Farone’s Café, Phoebe’s Garden Café, Soo-Lin and, perhaps most memorably, Sakura, a Japanese restaurant on West Fayette Street that also served up jazz.
Briggs Leone of The 443 Social Club and Lounge remembers those days well and says Kelly was her first real introduction to jazz. “She expanded my musical horizons in the best possible way and soon I was adding CDs from Dianne Reeves, Billie Holiday, Stanley Jordan, Miles Davis and John Coltrane to sit alongside the rock and hair metal albums I listened to in high school.’’
Around the same time, Kelly began her recording career. Her first album, “Live Jazz,’’ was released in 1988 on Amherst Records. It reached No. 11 on the Billboard charts. Her sixth (and latest) CD, “Remembering Mark Murphy,’’ is a tribute to the late, Syracuse-born jazz singer, who grew up in Fulton and spent summers in Fair Haven with his family. He recorded more than 40 albums and was known for his innovative vocal improvisations. Kelly has called Murphy her favorite singer and credits him with sharing with her what it means to sing “from inside the song.’’
Kelly has received numerous accolades and awards. She was twice named “Best Female Jazz Vocalist” in the Down Beat magazine reader’s poll. She is a three-time Syracuse Area Music Awards winner and was inducted into the SAMMY Hall of Fame in 2006. She is scheduled to be inducted into the Rochester Music Hall of Fame later this year.
In addition to performing, Kelly serves as a teacher and mentor to both up-and-coming and experienced performers, working with them on repertoire, song delivery, audience interaction and more. She has a studio at SubCat Studios in Syracuse, travels to Rochester to teach several days a week and works with aspiring singers as part of CNYJAF’s Nancy Kelly Vocal Jazz Jams and Stars of Tomorrow Cabarets. Others might be new to Zoom, but Kelly has been using the online app to teach students from a distance for years.
With her spikey platinum blonde hair, stylish eyeglasses and signature red lipstick, Kelly commands attention in a room and on stage. She is relaxed and conversational, chatting back and forth with her accompanists, the sound engineer and the audience.
In concert, she leans into her vocals, perches on a stool from time to time and uses a reader attached to a microphone stand to assist with song lyrics. “The older I get,’’ she tells the audience, “the more I can’t remember all the lyrics.’’
“She sounds great,’’ Jamie Ann Owens said after seeing Kelly at The 443 Social Club. “I think her voice has become more seasoned.’’
In her leisure time, Kelly enjoys cooking healthy meals with a minimum of meat and lots of vegetables, which she enjoys with wine. She’s an avid walker and works in a weight routine when she can. “I am not a sedentary person and never will be,’’ she says. “As long as I can keep moving, I will.’’
Kelly considers Fair Haven a sanctuary and loves living there, although it has been a challenge at times to manage the touring and performance side of her career from outside of a major metropolitan area. Her sister, Lynne, and brother, Gene, live nearby, and she sees them often. Kelly was married briefly many years ago. Her daughter and son-in-law, Kellie and Greg, live in Rochester. Thirteen-year-old grandson Graham is “a piano virtuoso’’ and attends The School of the Arts.
“They are all my world,’’ Kelly says. “We all love music.’’
Kelly says she has no plans to retire and looks forward to touring again when it is safe to do so.
“I was planning a European tour when the pandemic struck,’’ Kelly says. “Hopefully we will pick that back up.’’
Follow Nancy Kelly
For more information on Nancy Kelly and her performance schedule, follow Nancy Kelly Music on Facebook www.facebook.com/NancyKellyJazz/and visit her website, www.nancykelly.com.
A Music Venue for the Times
What does a jazz singer who usually has a full calendar of live gigs do for fun during the coronavirus shutdown?
She brings jazz to an audience via webcasting.
On May 6, Nancy Kelly performed as part of a “Zoom Cocktail Hour” on the teleconference and distance education platform. The hour-long event, hosted by entrepreneur and former Constellation Brands executive Howie Jacobson, also featured Rochester-based pianist and music educator Andy Calabrese.
Calabrese opened the show, playing piano from his home, before introducing Kelly, live from her home. She sat down in her sunny music room and sang to three piano tracks Calabrese recorded earlier in the week. She kicked off her set with “Summer Wind,’’ noting she and fellow Fair Haven residents can’t wait for the season that gets everyone outside. Next was Mark Murphy’s “Sunday in New York,’’ featured on Kelly’s latest album, “Remembering Mark Murphy.’’
New York on Sunday,
Big City taking a nap!
Slow down, it’s Sunday!
Life’s a ball, let it fall in your lap!
If you’ve got troubles,
Just take them out for a walk.
They’ll burst like bubbles
In the fun of a Sunday In New York!
She closed her set with “God Bless the Child,’’ a song written and originally performed by the legendary Billie Holiday.
Kelly told the audience that her thoughts these days often turn to New York City, where she once lived and has performed often, now ravaged by coronavirus. “I hope to get back there when this is over,’’ she said.
By Margaret McCormick