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A Fireside Chat With Greg Kelley

AAJ Staff By

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I found a Naked City record with John Zorn and there is a quote on the front talking about how they were mixing classical and jazz and hardcore. I got that and that was a new thing for me.
If the music is to move forward, it will move forward on the wings of warriors like Greg Kelley. Kelley is not a trend or a term or a magazine cover. Kelley is however, a player and I dig players. Kelley's trumpet is not for everyone. But neither was Ayler and neither is Braxton. But that doesn't take away from his ability to challenge the listener, convention, and stretch the envelope. If you have never heard of Kelley, allow me to introduce Greg Kelley, unedited and in his own words.

FRED JUNG: Let's start from the beginning.

GREG KELLEY: In the fifth grade, they sent around a form asking if kids wanted to play instruments. I thought it was the thing to do, so I brought it home. I wanted to play the drums, but my mom didn't want me to play the drums because they would be too loud. My mother suggested clarinet and my sister made fun of the clarinet and so I ended up picking the trumpet. That is basically how it started. It wasn't too intentional on my part.

FJ: If not for a little ribbing from sis, you could have been a modern Benny Goodman.

GK: It is possible, but I don't think I was all that into that idea either. The trumpet just seemed like a happy median between drums and clarinet. At that time, I was in fifth grade so I was just hearing things on the radio. I didn't start listening to instrumental music at that point. I think that is what prompted me. Once I started playing the trumpet, I started seeking out any trumpet player just to see what you were supposed to do with the thing. Before that, probably just random cassettes of whatever I was hearing on the radio. I was into mostly classical stuff. I got this really bad cassette of trumpet music. It had a bunch of things on there, but that pointed me out to a few people. I really like Maurice Andre for a while and Wynton Marsalis too, but more of the classical stuff than jazz. After a while, I bought some jazz stuff, but for the most part, it was classical music early on that I ended up listening to. Right after I started, I started to really enjoy it and actually sought to take private lessons outside of the school system. Within a year or so, I got pretty serious about it. Then we were in a situation where my school system was not good at all. The high school bands didn't have enough people in it, so they were recruiting people from the junior high schools to play in the marching band. I think just being a younger person and getting to play with older folks, at least they seemed older to me at the time, was encouraging. The group of friends that ended up doing that got really serious about it and we ended up playing the in high school jazz bands and concert bands before we were in high school. By the time I was in high school, I thought it was something that I wanted to do. Little did I know that I would choose a form of trumpet playing that would make me not be able to make a living (laughing) off of it, but that will come later.

FJ: How did you go from Wynton Marsalis playing Purcell to playing what "critics" have termed "alien?"

GK: There were a bunch of things going on at the time. I was listening to, I got into punk rock when I was in junior high school. I got into bands like Sonic Youth and Butthole Surfers. For the trumpet, it almost seemed like another world. I enjoyed the music I was listening to, especially baroque music, but it seemed like they were two different kinds of things. I slowly bridged the gap when I found modern music like Stravinsky and Schoenberg were the first ones I heard because they were the most accessible. I kept trying to find more common ground between this experimental rock music and the music I associated with the trumpet. Eventually, I came across George Crumb. One major thing was I was just looking at jazz cassette tapes in the jazz section of the local mall. I found a Naked City record with John Zorn and there is a quote on the front talking about how they were mixing classical and jazz and hardcore. I got that and that was a new thing for me. I saw that he had written classical music pieces and so I started investigating that. He has always been one to name check a lot and so that is how I first discovered European improvisers like Evan Parker and Derek Bailey and that whole scene and that is when it all started to come together. By the time I got to college, I still thought that maybe I would play chamber music or even symphonic music. But then I began to find more and more gray areas I guess between this new improvised music that I was hearing that you could do on a trumpet as well and people like John Cage. It was pretty gradual. As far as the trumpet, at first, I really had no clue that anyone was doing anything besides Haydn or Hummel or bebop.

FJ: In the mainstream, bebop and it stepchildren are all there is.

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