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Life is funny for Kellye Gray, who made switch from comedy to jazz singing

Parry Gettelman
Kellye Gray got her start doing comedy before discovering her talent for jazz and moving to San Francisco. Now back in Texas, she performs each month at Sullivan's Steakhouse.

Perched on a South Austin porch, swilling bottled water on a lovely Indian summer afternoon, Kellye Gray seems utterly at home. However, her career as a jazz vocalist doesn't let her spend too much time enjoying her treetop view of the skyline or visiting such favorite places as Red Bud Isle and Mount Bonnell. She's just returned from yet another trip to San Francisco, where she appeared at one of the country's premier jazz clubs, Yoshi's. Gray has been a regular there, having spent a decade in the City by the Bay before moving back to her native Texas.

"I was freezing to death!" Gray says with a throaty laugh. After getting chilled to the bone in Northern California, she briefly tried Los Angeles, but ultimately felt pulled back to Austin.

"I respond to the vibrations in Austin. It's a place of healing, and I think that's why music flourishes here," she says, sounding maybe a tad New Agey, but looking every inch the edgy urbanite with her bold glasses and a short, high-contrast hairstyle that emphasizes her cheekbones.

Born in Dallas, Gray got her start in Austin — but not as a singer, initially. She performed in a comedy troupe whose members also included Bill Hicks and Sam Kinison, back in the '80s heyday of the Comedy Workshop on Lavaca Street. However, she had always loved to sing, and as a teenager took guitar lessons for six months, until her teacher informed her that she was done. He had imparted all his knowledge, so she was left to make up her own songs, experimenting with some of the interesting chords she'd heard on her parents' records.

Eventually, somebody asked her, "When did you start writing jazz songs?" to which her response was: "Oh, I'm writing jazz songs?"

While trying to make it in stand-up, Gray kept writing and singing, and began putting on one-woman shows she describes as "Laurie Andersonesque." A guitarist friend, Scott Cain, asked her to sing with him at a concert, and just as they stepped onstage, he reeled off a set of instructions in jazz jargon, which she found incomprehensible. He tried to explain he just wanted her to scat — you know, like Ella Fitzgerald. A little light starting to dawn, she ventured, "Like Al Jarreau?"

Gray sailed through the performance, and Cain encouraged her to continue singing jazz. Although she protested that she didn't know anything about it, when presented with a book of the standards, she found they were all songs she remembered from childhood. And a skill she had learned as a technical director for the comedy troupe, making sound effects, helped her develop her distinctive improvisational style, going beyond the ordinary role of a frontwoman to use her voice as an instrument in an ensemble.

Gray went on to conquer Sixth Street with the Kellye Gray Band, aka the KGB.

"Your Party Comrades," Gray remembers, laughing again. She would sing Prince and Madonna covers, and then sneak in a Charlie Parker composition. As her reputation grew, rising Houston saxophonist Kirk Whalum frequently asked her to sub for him when he was on the road, and she moved to Houston in the mid-'80s, building a devoted following at the Blue Moon. The attentiveness of her audience helped her persuade the owner to transform the club into a true listening room, moving the bar into a separate area so that fans could enjoy the kind of experience patrons of East and West Coast jazz establishments expected.

By 1990, Gray's star seemed on the ascent with the release of "Standards in Gray" on Justice Records. The album scored high on the Gavin Report and other jazz charts, but the relationship with the label didn't last. She kept making records, however, and has won raves from national publications. In 2008, JazzTimes swooned over her "Live at the New School" and "Live at the Bugle Boy," the reviewer rhapsodizing, "Think of a layer cake with a dense Carmen McRae center, iced with swoops, dollops and occasionally wide swatches of Nancy Wilson and Billie Holiday, then dotted with Etta James bluesiness and Tina Turner wail. Gray's is an impressive, indeed frighteningly vast talent."

Vast talent won't necessarily get you very far in today's music business, but Gray went the indie route long before it became a popular escape hatch. And while Austin is not exactly overcrowded with genuine jazz venues, where musicians do not have to compete with the clinking of beer bottles and chattering of bar-hoppers, Gray is starting to carve out her own space for "taking jazz out of the background." This summer, she began hosting a monthly concert at the Ringside Room at Sullivan's Steakhouse, which might not be Yoshi's, but has a good piano and a sophisticated supper-club atmosphere conducive to listening and experiencing what Gray calls the "bright moments" of a performance.

"People should be able to feel the energy when it takes off," Gray says emphatically. "That's what makes it for me."

Featuring both a 90-minute set by Gray and a performance by a guest artist, the event was originally called the All That Jazz Series, but has been retitled Kellye Gray's the Jazz Party, better reflecting the festive nature of a program that concludes with a jam session. Gray hopes this gig can become a more frequent occurrence, giving younger Austin jazz musicians a chance to gain experience playing with top-level professionals. And, of course, allowing her to spend more time in Austin, and to collaborate with musicians she hasn't worked with before.

"It raises my game," she says. "I need to always be challenged."

Kellye Gray's the Jazz Party