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George Kelly: 1915-1998
George Kelly
Saxophone, arranger, bandleader

Born: July 31, 1915 in Miami, Florida
Died: May 24, 1998 in New York City, New York

An Original Savoy Sultan

Copyright © 1999 

The Scotsman, 1998

Kelly, George George Kelly was one of the original members of the famous Savoy Sultans. Kelly was a tenor saxophonist, and joined the original version of the band at the famous Savoy Ballroom in 1941, where their high-octane jump band style established them as one of the most popular groups in Harlem's highly active war-time music scene, and made them formidable contenders in the "battle of the bands" contests popular at that time.

Although he made his name in New York, Kelly was born much further south into a family which had originally came from the Bahamas. His first instrument was the piano, and he was accomplished enough by the age of 12 to accompany blues singer Mamie Smith when she arrived in town without her pianist.

He received his first saxophone in his mid-teens from his grandmother, and a neighbour who was a part-time musician gave him his initial grounding in the instrument. He formed his first band, The Cavaliers, at the age of 17, and recruited one of his friends, David "Panama" Francis, as his drummer.

The band did well enough to tour regularly throughout the south even in the years of the Great Depression, but Kelly eventually opted to join another local band led by Zack Whyte in 1938. Despite sophisticated arrangements and fine musicianship, the band did poor business, and Kelly returned to Miami to work as an accompanist for a vaudeville act for a time, then made the move to New York in 1941.

Once in Harlem, he joined Al Cooper's Savoy Sultans, and spent three years with the group, considerably enhancing his reputation in the process. He served in the US Air Corps, then joined the band led by the former Ellington trumpeter Rex Stewart in 1946. At the same time, he began to expand his interest in the field of arranging and composition, seeing an opportunity to supplement his income both as a commercial arranger and in more substantial jazz projects.

Kelly combined a subtle melodic and harmonic sense with a powerful tone and projection (he used to say that "I think like Lester Young and play like Coleman Hawkins"), and continued to split his time between freelancing as a player and arranging during the 1950s. In the 1960s, he spent some time as a regular member of a quintet led by drummer Cozy Cole, and toured in Europe in the 1970s with Jay McShann, Tiny Grimes and Ram Ramirez. He spent six years from 1970 playing piano as the accompanist and musical director of the vocal group, The Inkspots.

In 1979, he was reunited with Panama Francis in the revived Savoy Sultans, a band which became a popular draw on the European festival circuit, and made a number of recordings, but eventually he had a difference of opinion with Francis over the band's musical policy, and joined the Harlem Jazz and Blues Band, another swing revival band which became a favourite on the festival circuit, where his strong, hard swinging style and considerable arranging abilities found an appreciative audience.

The Grove Dictionary of Jazz prematurely listed Kelly as having died in 1985, but the saxophonist was still going strong. Following heart bypass surgery in 1991, he curtailed his touring activities and concentrated on leading his own small bands in New York.

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