She is many things: pensive and effusive, delicate and determined, eloquent and straightforward. She is also very talented and she has a vision which she intends to see through. “What I’m doing this moment has to be good. I’m not waiting for good,” she told me when I sat down with her recently. As we sorted out her journey to this point and her goals for the upcoming festival, I got to know an interesting and vivacious woman who is on a jazz mission: The Women in Jazz Jam Festival.
It was at the Jazz Connect Conference she attended in New York last year that the idea for a festival began to take form. Mayor Michael Nutter of Philadelphia exhorted the crowd to “go back home and advocate for jazz.” The word “advocate” struck home for Kelle. She and husband/saxophonist Will Boyd feel they are ambassadors for jazz where ever they go including, for example, a recent trip to Japan where they connected with their extended jazz family. Still, after the conference, she felt she should do something to demonstrate the importance of jazz.
Jolly has certainly served as an advocate before. She was instrumental in getting a declaration from the mayor recognizing Jazz Day. With the help of Nelda Hill, she held a public reading of the book, Sweet Hearts of Rhythm, about a WW II era all-female integrated jazz band, at the Lawson McGhee Library, hosting author Marilyn Nelson for the event.
She hosts Jazz Jam with Kelle Jolly every Friday night on WUOT (media sponsor for the jazz festival) giving her, she says, “another way to expose artists to a larger audience.” The show focuses on Jazz vocalists of which she is an exemplar. That’s not to mention the plentiful shows she plays with a shifting rotation of fellow musicians often including her husband. Still, she wanted to do more.
Originally from South Carolina, her formative years passed in Decatur, Georgia. She longed to be in the high school jazz band, but her instrument of choice at the time (it is now ukelele), French Horn, didn’t fit the format readily. Realizing the songs played by the band had lyrics, and with the help of mix tapes passed to her by the high school librarian, she learned the catalogs of artists such as Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday and Sarah Vaughan.
By the time she finished high school she’d made such a contribution to the band that they awarded her the first Billie Holiday Award. From there she attended college at South Carolina State University where she studied music education, and continued to sing with bands, focusing on early jazz standards. It was at South Carolina State she first met Will, though they wouldn’t become a couple for a number of years.
After college she moved to Chattanooga where she sang with various of bands, crossing genres as she went. After a stint as a waitress at Melanie’s restaurant she began a steady run as a vocalist there working with keyboardists Butch Cornell and David Anthony. She worked an extended stint performing covers with The Malemen Show Band, but jazz always called her name. It was with that band she first performed in Knoxville.
Her final year in Chattanooga she landed a job teaching music while continuing to perform and had, by that time, re-connected to Will. They played joint gigs at 46-20 and the Beck Cultural Center where Michael Gill organized monthly jazz nights. She and Will decided they needed to be together and she was ready to leave Chattanooga, so she moved here and they were married seven years ago. Together they won the 2015 Martin Luther King, Jr. Art Award.
The festival is still taking shape, but it will be held March 18-20 on the leading edge of festival season in Knoxville. The purpose, Kelle says, isn’t to exclude men but rather to support women in music who work in a male-dominated industry. Partners in the festival include the Knoxville Girl’s Rock Camp, Rhea Carmon of The 5th Woman, Debra Dylan and Knoxzine, Margo Miller and Kathy Johnson of the Appalachian Community Fund, Kim Bumpas and Visit Knoxville, County Commissioner Amy Broyles, Michael Gill and Alive After Five, Barbara Nicodemus and Hawa Ware.
Venues for the festival will include the Knoxville Museum of Art, Red Piano Lounge, the Emporium and Scruffy City Hall. The artist list is fluid with other potential announcements in coming weeks, but confirmed as of this date are Dara Tucker (of Nashville), Jeanine Fuller, Kukuly Uriarte, Kayley Farmer, Amy Simmerman, Bethany Hankins, Deidre Ford, Kady Robbins, Maria Williams, Katy Free, Lettie Andrade, Sarah Clapp Gilpin and Yasameen Hoffman-Shahin.
Some collection of artists will perform on the Blue Plate Special on the 18th and later that night, Alive After Five will feature an all (or almost all) female jazz band. The Emporium will be the site of activities Saturday morning with a reprise of the reading with music of Sweethearts of Rhythm and other performances and events running from 10:00 AM to 2:00 PM. That evening the fun will shift to Scruffy City Hall for an as-yet unannounced line-up. A final concert at 3:00 PM Sunday at the Red Piano will conclude the festival.
Tickets have yet to go on sale, but there is something you can do right now to help. You have a chance to help make this festival happen at the highest possible level. An Indiegogo campaign is attempting to raise $10,000. So far, twenty people have responded there with $1200 while others have given directly through the Appalachian Community Fund to bring the total raised to $4,000. It’s tax deductible and anything you can give will help. The money all goes to artists and publicity. Click here to make a donation and support this fun and important event.
As Kelle emphasized, “Don’t leave the women behind.” I’ll give her the last word and I hope you’ll go ahead and mark your calendars. I’ll try to pass along ticketing information as it becomes available.