An Interview with Kathy Kelly

Conducted August 27, 2000
by Laura Bleiler
Q: How Long have you been playing the vibes?

A: About 26 years. I was studying percussion at Southern Illinois University, and everyone was playing marimba. In the basement of the music building was this old, beat up vibe that was in very poor shape. I played around with it and loved the sound. Nobody was using it, but I fell in love with it. I thought it was the most beautiful instrument. So I started arranging classical pieces for the vibes. From there I got turned on to jazz.

Q: What qualities of the instrument appealed to you then, and still do now?

A: It's very bell-like. I was enthralled by the sound, it has a pure tone. It wasn't something I had been familiar with. So maybe I was attracted because it sounded so different from the other instruments I had heard.

Q: Was there a time when you were trying to decide between the vibes and another instrument?

A: Yeah. When I was in college I didn't know for sure that I wanted to be a musician. I thought I might not be "good enough". I had actually studied classical guitar and percussion in general, as well as recorder. A friend turned me on to jazz. I was really attracted by the fact that in jazz there's so much room for expression. In classical music, everything's written down, and I felt constrained. Jazz emphasizes interpretation, so I was attracted to the genre. And vibes was the jazz percussion instrument. It was that or drums, and I wasn't destined for the drums.

Q: When did you decide on vibes as your instrument?

A: Around 1976. I bought a Musser Pro Vibe and in 1977 I decided to move to Chicago to study jazz.

Q: Who did you study with?

A: There weren't many vibists in Chicago. First I studied with someone to learn more about jazz improvisation, he was a saxophonist. Then I studied with Hal Russell, a drummer who played vibes. I ended up playing in his group, the NRG ensemble, for about a year. I spent short terms studying with several other vibists. The person who I learned the most from was Bunky Green, whom I studied with for about a year and a half. He's an internationally known jazz saxophonist. He did the most for me in terms of the improvisation component of playing. I had background in playing the vibes in college, and the vibists I studied with were more players than teachers. Bunky got me into the Chicago State University Jazz Band, and the band went to perform at the Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland. That was a great experience. I started playing professionally in Chicago in 1979. I studied briefly with vibist Dave Samuels, in New York, in 1986 as part of a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. That really helped me. He was such a high caliber vibist. I learned more from standing next to him, hearing him play the vibes. Mostly I learned how to improve my sound on the instrument. He would play something, then I'd play it, and I could hear the difference. When I knew what I was going for, through his example, it was easy to imitate it and fill in the areas where I was lacking. Overall I think my relationship with Bunky Green had the most impact on me. He was very encouraging and that's powerful coming from someone who's well-respected and well-known.

Q: How is writing tunes for the vibes different from writing tunes for other instruments?

A: I write my tunes on the vibes, some people prefer to write on piano or other instruments. But I think it's good to write on the vibes; I can find ways to highlight the instrument's qualities. When you play music on the vibes that's written for other instruments, some things don't work out as naturally. When I write on the vibes I can come up with approaches that showcase the instrument. That's one objective of my writing. But my tunes still stand alone, they can be played on other instruments.

Q: What do you think is the biggest challenge of writing for the vibes?

A: Just writing is hard. Coming up with valuable ideas, not repeating yourself. The more you write, the harder it is to write something new. One good thing about writing on the vibes is that it does give you the opportunity to find things your hands aren't familiar with. I start off just playing, and trying to play things that are different, not with any idea, just taking off with the sound and refining it. It usually takes me a month or more to write a tune, even if it's just 32 bars. It's time I use to digest the ideas and refine them. To me that long period helps clarify... If I write a tune in one day, the ideas don't seem to be at their optimum. I go back to it and see weaknesses. I continue to refine it. I like to take my time and play with it. The end result is much stronger. Over time, a tune develops a character that seems natural, and all this happens before I begin the melody. Sometimes the melody is the easiest to write. Sometimes the chords seem to suggest a melody themselves.

Q: Explain your concerns when you write the chords.

A: The chords, or changes, are what musicians improvise on. They're really important. When I write, I ask, "Will this be interesting to improvise on?" and "Will it be easy to improvise on?". If it's too hard to play through, you can't be free in your improvisation. But if it's easy to play through, that can suggest a lot of ideas.... That's the important difference in writing for jazz. You are writing for improvisation, you want it to suit improvisation. Having a great melody is good, and having a fancy composition is interesting. But if it's not easy to improvise on it's not fun.

Q: Does your CD have a theme?

A: One thing that's a theme in a lot of my compositions is that many are written for people who have died. The tune Dancing Bears was written after Jerry Garcia died. What I liked about him as a person was that he did so many live performances. He played for the people and had an effect on their lives. Anybody who can give so much to somebody through his or her music is worthy of respect. A couple of other tunes are influenced by jazz musicians I like. I had heard Eddie Harris play and met him once. I was really impressed with his music and openness as a person. I wrote Calling Eddie Harris after he died. I guess that is a thread.

Q: Do you have a favorite tune on your CD?

A: One of my favorites is Gary's Good Advice, which was kind of inspired by vibist Gary Burton's playing. His style changed the way people play the vibes.

Q: What have you learned about the instrument in your years of playing it?

A: It's an easy instrument to play right from the beginning, not like the violin. The difficulties come because it's a limited instrument in tone. It can be hard to connect with musically because you don't touch it with your body (except the pedal). There's a difficulty as you become a more advanced player in making the instrument sound more human. You want it to sound personal. How do you make the instrument sing? That's something I'm always learning more about. Also, learning how to make it work musically in certain situations. Because the instrument isn't as common as some jazz instruments there's a bit less recorded material to learn from. There's still a lot of ground to break with the instrument.

Q: How does this CD reflect your growth as a musician?

A: It's a good reflection of where I'm at now as a composer and player. I've been focusing on writing for the last several years. The CD made me focus on my playing, the technical, nitty gritty aspects of it.

Q: What does the CD say about you as an artist?

A: I want it to say that I have something to add to the jazz literature as a composer. That I'm not just repeating what has come before. I hope people can hear that it's rooted in jazz history. I've been influenced by a lot of jazz players, and I hope those influences come through. I've also been influenced by African, Brazilian, and world music in general. The people who have influenced me have very much been with me in spirit as a composer. I also hope it shows that I've developed my own style as a musician.

Q: What do you hope listeners carry with them after listening to your CD?

A: I hope they enjoy it and want to listen to it again. If is makes someone feel good for a little while, that would be nice.