Next in our series of interviews with some of Central Ohio’s finest jazz musicians is vocalist and educator Kelly McLennan (photo by Rick Bennett). McLennan has over 30 years of jazz experience, including appearances with international stars like Louis Bellson, Jon Faddis, the Cab Calloway Big Band, and Frank Foster, as well as local legends like Hank Marr, Gary Carney, Gene Walker, Mark Flugge, Jim Rupp, Bobby Floyd, and Ed Morrison. She currently leads the Kelly McLennan +5 band, and makes appearances with outfits like Vaughn Wiester’s Famous Jazz Orchestra and In Full Swing. The +5 band plays Saturday, December 3rd at Dick’s Den and she has some great gigs lined up into the new year. Keep reading for more details on her schedule as well as insights into her background:
When and why did you start playing music and jazz?
Kelly McLennan (KM): My first private music lessons were on guitar in 4th grade (I dug James Taylor & John Denver); added trumpet in 5th grade (Doc Severinsen!) and my first singing “gig” was with the middle school choir, soloing on My Fair Lady‘s “Wouldn’t it be Loverly,” complete with my best N.W. Ohio cockney accent. 🙂
I had some exposure to jazz while playing in Jr. High & HS lab bands, but my focused interest intensified while at BGSU. I was fortunate to have wonderful teachers in Jeff Halsey (one of his drop-the-needles in Jazz Improv was Sarah Vaughn’s “Send in the Clowns,” a turning point for me), Dave “Dak” Melle & Chris Buzzelli. A great trumpet player, John Veneskey, had a large LP collection and hipped me to hours of listening to greats like Bill Evans, Ahmad Jamal, Miles, Coltrane, Duke Ellington, Clifford Brown, Don Cherry, Chet Baker, Frank Rosolino, Tom Harrell, etc.
Who are some of your main influences in your playing/performing?
KM: Wow…where do I begin? So many musicians & people have made me sit up and pay attention to their story! Early on, Aretha Franklin, Barbra Streisand, Steve Wonder, Michael Jackson, Linda Ronstadt, Judy Garland, Sammy Davis Jr.. I’m grateful to all my music educators, including my HS band director Vince Polce. Sometimes I would skip lunch and play duets with him and he would challenge me to think about the phrasing and playing the same passage in a variety of ways from different accents, meter, etc. Before I moved to Columbus, there were many in N.W. Ohio who impacted me, particularly: Lori LeFevre, Clifford Murphy, Dan Faehnle, Scott Potter, Jimmy Cook, Larry Fuller, Eric Dickey & Rusty’s Jazz Cafe. Also, national artists such as: Cassandra Wilson, Carla White, Ella, Carmen, Abbey, Billie, Sarah, Dinah, Anita, Karrin Allyson, Carol Welsman, Chris Connor, Shirley Horn, Elis Regina, Dianne Reeves, Ernestine Anderson, Joe Williams, Al Jarreau & Helen Merrill.
What is your fondest musical memory?
KM: Well, it might sound cliche but I am fond of all my musical memories, a lesson in each experience. How about three? 🙂 Singing in the junior high talent show – James Taylor’s arrangement of “You’ve Got a Friend” and my accompanist was my choir director/mentor, Mr. Bruce Deniston. Driving by myself up to Ann Arbor to hear Ella Fitzgerald. I sat in the very last row – nosebleed section of the balcony – and was surrounded by many “mature” people, who asked me how someone my age was so hip to all her tunes! I also have to throw in meeting and singing for/with Mr. Frank Foster. I was singing with Rick Brunetto at the time and Mr. Foster was in town to play a concert at Denison and Rick was able to have him come out to the regular Thursday gig and sit-in with the band. It was a thrill to meet him and hear some tales!
What are you listening to today? What’s on your playlist?
KM: At this very moment, I am listening to a Helen Merrill album with Oscar Pettiford, Jimmy Jones & Clark Terry. Currently my playlist includes: Dizzy G., Marian McPartland, Duke Ellington, Pink, Bruno Mars, Etta Jones, Maria Callas, Meilana Gillard, Kelly Price, Roberta Flack, Poncho Sanchez, Adele, Bessie Smith, Ethel Ennis, Eva Cassidy, Bud Powell, Gloria Lynne, Gerry Mulligan, Julie London, Etta James, Kandace Springs, and Barry Harris.
What inspires you about the Columbus Jazz scene?
KM: First, I’m just so thankful there is a scene! It starts with education and there are a lot of good teachers who are in the trenches laying out the programs and inspiring the students to carry on the tradition. There is a little something for everyone in this city. Free school concerts all the time at the local colleges; Vaughn Wiester and Rick Brunetto have long-standing gigs with their respective big bands; Bobby Floyd and Pete Mills jam sessions offer a place for players of all levels to collaborate & create. Venue owners like Aaron, Tim, Charlie & Becky care about the music. I am inspired by the wealth of talent, not just in the jazz community, but in the arts community as a whole.
What are you working on currently? Any new projects, exciting shows or releases?
KM: I am finally focusing on doing some recording of my own (or at least, if it’s finally in writing, put out to the universe, then it should finally happen). 🙂 I would love to get some tracks laid down with the talented guys in my + 5 group (Jon Eshelman, Zach Compston, Terry Douds, Alex Burgoyne & Tim Perdue). I am also working on some tunes for an upcoming concert through JAG at the Lincoln Theatre on February 18th.
Where can local audiences see you play in the near future?
KM: I will be at the one and only Dick’s Den with my +5 group on Saturday, December 3rd, from 10pm to 2am; New Year’s Eve (Saturday, December 31st), 7 – 10pm, with the Jacob Reed Trio at the Granville Inn; Ashland Jazz Series with Paul Martin’s small group on Monday, January 9th; Kelly McLennan Trio at the Black Point Restaurant on Saturday, January 28th, 7:30 to 10:30pm.