Kellye Gray is cool. Not Miles Davis cool, though certainly she has some elements of that. It's more like your best friend kind of cool. The kind of cool that makes you feel at ease. You want to shoot the breeze with her because she's engaging, and you'll laugh your ass off. Kellye Gray is also a jazz singer. A good one at that, which is no small feat considering the standards set by her predecessors. Raised on R&B and the Motown sound, Gray was turned on to jazz by her parents. First it was singers like Sarah Vaughn and Chris Connor. Then it was instrumental monsters Thelonius Monk, Miles Davis, The Modern Jazz Quartet and John Coltrane. "I didn't discover Ella or Betty Carter until much later on," she adds.
A Dallas native, Gray was a fixture in Houston for several years before moving to San Francisco in 1993. During her tenure in Houston, she racked up a few Jazz Vocalist and Jazz Band of the Year awards. No surprise there. She's a solid interpreter of standards and pop songs with a sensual voice. In Houston, she worked with some of the area's top players, including Sebastian Whittaker, Eric Avinger and the late David Catney. But even for those with critical acclaim, the economic rewards weren't great.
"Why jazz has never been completely accepted in the United States, but has been completely accepted in every other part of the world, I don't know," Gray says. "I think that's the big, giant mystery of jazz. I don't think we'll ever have an answer. Jazz in general in the United States is still struggling."
One need look no further than Houston to study the jazz mystery. The town has a rich jazz history. Important jazz players such as Illinois Jaquet, Eddie "Cleanhead" Vinson, Joe Sample, Wilton Felder and Hubert Laws all cut their chops in Houston, while nearby Galveston can take credit for fusion pioneer Larry Coryell. Popular smooth jazz artists Kirk Whalum and Everette Harp are also products of Houston.
Yet, despite its history, the Houston jazz scene is not exactly flourishing. That's not to say there aren't some talented cats in town. Guys like Joe LoCassio and Sebastian Whittaker have received national attention; Conrad Johnson is something of a legend; and many other Houston players have solid credentials. Houston also has a non-profit organization and web site (www.jazzhouston.com) dedicated to the area jazz scene. But the fact is, when Cezanne and Sambuca's became full-time, seven-nights-a-week jazz clubs a few weeks back, they tripled the number of full-time jazz clubs in Houston. Until late October, Ovations, under the musical direction of pianist/composer Paul English, stood alone as Houston's only full-time jazz club, and it only started that format this spring. The jury is still out on whether Houston -- the 11th largest media market -- can support three full-time jazz clubs when it doesn't even have a full-time jazz station.
Gray, who moved to San Francisco because the city has a larger and stronger jazz base, has an almost optimistic view of the situation. "When I moved from Houston, the jazz scene was very small but very strong. We had our niche audience. The audience in Houston is so supportive of jazz. I think Houston has a unique advantage over other cities in Texas in that they have their international jazz festival. It also has Da Camera, which brings in wonderful world-renowned jazz acts. Houston, compared to Dallas or Austin, has it hands down.
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"Houston also has one of the better jazz educational programs in Texas. That's one of the reasons I had such a great time when I lived there. All of the players that I worked with, practically, were young musicians who were just playing their butts off and were coming from a really, really wonderful, serious place. That still exists to this day. The jazz education that they get over at HSPVA (High School for the Performing and Visual Arts) is outstanding. That makes a difference. There are some world-class musicians that come out of Houston, and some of them get lucky and go on and play with some world-class talents. Some of them don't ever get over the hump."
Gray may be getting over the hump herself. She's performed at festivals throughout the United States and in London and Paris. She has two releases under her own name and recorded with the group Big Money In Jazz. No, she's not selling records like Diana Krall, yet. She has to fight for gigs with major label acts and plays the occasional less-than-jazz-savvy club. "One place," Gray recalls, "they liked us, but they didn't know what to do with us. Every time we went on break the DJ would play like 'YMCA.' After we spent a whole hour setting up this ambient space for people to be in, they smash a truck in it. It was crazy."
But, if some clubs don't understand Kellye Gray, it seems the jazz audience does, probably because Gray is a jazz fan herself. "I had a woman come up to me the other night, and she said, 'I never liked jazz. I never understood it, and I didn't get it. But you just opened the door for me.' I was like, 'Whoa ... Thank you (laughs).' That's deep."
Kellye Gray at Cezanne. Located above the Black Labrador restaurant at 4100 Montrose between Richmond and Alabama. 21 and older only. 522-9621. Thursday, November 19, 8 p.m.; Friday, November 20, 8 p.m.; Saturday, November 21, 8 p.m.; Sunday, November 22, 7 p.m. $12 on Thursday, Friday and Saturday. $10 on Sunday.