Jacksonville’s First Couple of Jazz
When a hot horn man who once led the Dukes of Dixieland married a velvety-voiced Southern belle with exceptional musical breeding the resulting couple clicked like a metronome set on swing time.
The trumpeter is J.B. Scott, and the singer is his wife, Lisa Kelly.
On October 8, the Jacksonville husband and wife brought their sextet to the Charlotte County Jazz Society’s 2018-19 season opener at the William H. Wakeman III Cultural Center Theater, and they dazzled the crowd of 200 with a set extending from classic New Orleans jazz to Great American Songbook to modern swing, Latin and bebop. Kelly—who was born in North Carolina—crooned “Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans?” and belted “Exactly Like You,” her finger-snapping left hand often punctuating the rhythm.
The rhythm section—pianist Jeff Phillips, bassist Jay Mueller and drummer Clyde Connor— kept the pulse driving when speed counted and shifted to slow, easy cooking on ballads. Veteran trombonist Dave Steinmeyer, former leader of The Airmen of Note, blew dynamic, deep-toned harmonies to Scott’s high-ranging horn parts on tunes such as “The Saints.”
Steinmeyer’s a technically adroit trombonist, but he’s glad to get down tailgate-style and did so stunningly on “Basin Street Blues” and “Bourbon Street Parade,” which also showcased Scott’s golden-toned trumpet.
An intriguingly dreamy version of “How High the Moon” shone brightly on the strength of Kelly’s sultry contralto and Steinmeyer’s harmonic horn.
Florida jazz critic Ken Franckling was in the audience on October 8, and he came away impressed by the musicians’ improvised interaction. “On ‘The Days of Wine and Roses,’ Kelly supplemented the lyrics with some trombone-like scatting to create a call-and-response moment with Steinmeyer,” Franckling blogged. “Scott did something similar when he used some drum-style scatting to mix it up with Connor—formerly formerly of the Navy Commodores—on ‘Sweethearts on Parade.’”
Although it had been a No. 1 hit in 1928 for Guy Lombardo, “Sweethearts on Parade” (composed by Carmen Lombardo with lyrics by Charles Newman) is rarely heard these days. In December 1930, Louis Armstrong recorded a longingly slow swing version with his New Sebastian Cotton Club Orchestra. Now J.B. Scott—who led the Dukes of Dixieland from 1990 to 1992—gives a nod to Pops by kicking it off with a New Orleans street beat c/o Clyde Conner’s snare before swinging into an instrumental workout pitting his trumpet against Steinmeyer’s ’bone.
“Steinmeyer was a great fit in this group,” Franckling wrote. “His trombone artistry was filled with fluidity and clever counterpoint to Kelly’s vocals and Scott’s horn solos.”
Scott shifted between trumpet and flugelhorn as the material required, and the burly bandleader added vocals on several staples such as “Lady Be Good.” Scott’s trumpet took center stage again on Armstrong’s signature song, “When It’s Sleepy Time Down South,” and he and Steinmeyer went to town on “The Saints,” the traditional set-closer bolstered by a spirited vocal duet by J.B. and Lisa.
Theirs is certainly a marriage made in jazz heaven, and no wonder. Family means everything to Lisa Kelly. Her father, Frank Warner, is a world-class harmonica player and her mother, Shirley Pinner Warner, was a talented opera singer. Her grandmother played saxophones.
Frank Warner, who’s now 85, has toured the globe with the Harmonicats, the Harmonica Masters, and the Harmonica Rascals and he has accompanied singers such as Julie London and Peggy Lee. Well known for his versatility as well as his virtuosity on all sizes of chromatic harmonicas, whether he’s playing “Twelfth Street Rag” or Tchaikovsky’ 1812 Overture, Franklin Warner wails.
“He goes to many of my gigs with me, my biggest fan,” Lisa told The Syncopated Times. “After several recent heart-related procedures, he plans to pick up playing harmonica again.”
Last December, Lisa’s mother, Shirley, passed away, but her legacy lives on in her daughter’s music. “When I sing,” Lisa wrote in a remembrance addressed to her mother, “I’ll think of you and your gift of music. When I hug my husband, my children, my siblings, my father, I will do so with an abiding love, the way you always loved us.”
Over the years, Shirley encouraged her husband and children to sing with her in Emmanuel Baptist and Parkwood Baptist churches, in Opera-A-La-Carte, and in the Opera Repertory Guild of Jacksonville.
No wonder that when Lisa attended the University of North Florida in the 1990s, she fell in love with trumpeter James Boger Scott.
Scott is coordinator of jazz studies at the UNF in Jacksonville, where Lisa earned both her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in jazz vocals and jazz studies, respectively. Raised in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, J.B. became UNF’s first-ever jazz program grad, studying under the legendary Rich Matteson.
While in college, J.B. performed with groups such as the Jimmy Dorsey Orchestra, the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus Band, and worked regularly at the Walt Disney World theme parks. After graduating, he spent three years in New Orleans where he was mentored by trumpeter Al Hirt and became musical director of the Dukes of Dixieland. That incarnation of the Dukes—which featured musicians such as pianist Tom McDermott and clarinetist Tim Laughlin—was showcased on the PBS-TV special, Salute to Jelly Roll Morton.
In 1996, J.B. earned a master’s in music education at Florida International University while studying with Cuban-born trumpet master Arturo Sandoval, and the following year he was leading a new band fronted by vocalist Lisa Kelly. Four years later they were married, and in 2016, Lisa completed her master’s degree all while raising three children. Her eldest daughter, Tiffany, played violin her youngest daughter, Adrienne, played flute, and her son, Sgt. Jeremy Smith, became an all-state drummer and appeared in Bruce Broder’s 2007 jazz documentary Chops before serving four years in the U.S. Marine Corps and playing jazz drums in New Orleans. Jeremy still gigs with Lisa and J.B. while he works toward a business degree.
In earlier years, Lisa sang with the Larry Elgart Orchestra, the Chris Riddle Orchestra, and the historical St. Johns River City Big Band. As an undergrad, she won an unprecedented five DownBeat magazine “Best” awards, four vocal, one original composition and was the 2000 IAJE Sisters In Jazz Combo Vocalist Winner performing at the 2000 IAJE Convention in New Orleans, the Kennedy Center’s Mary Lou William’s Women in Jazz Festival, and the Vienna State Opera House in Austria. As a graduate student, she added three more DownBeat awards, two for vocal and one for original arrangement.
“Now that my kids are all grown, I was able to get my master’s degree and play full time again,” Lisa said. “I got my degree so I can take college opportunities and to increase my writing and arranging skills. But performance is priority.”
She realizes that she’s blessed to have a husband who knows the music biz inside and out.
“Working with J.B. has been great,” Lisa said. “He’s a superb player and teacher. We understand each other’s drive and musical passion and are a good, musically entertaining partnership. I tried it before with someone who didn’t understand. J.B. and I support and encourage each other.”
Orlando trumpeter Charlie Bertini considers J.B. and Lisa good friends as well as colleagues.
“I’ve known J.B. since he was in high school,” Bertini said. “We’ve played a lot of gigs together over the years. Lisa is a first-class singer, performer and educator. They are both terrific artists and make a great team.”
In various formats from trios to big bands, the couple plays clubs, corporate events, festivals, and jazz societies throughout Florida, nationally and internationally. They’ve appeared throughout the US, Europe, Canada, and in China, and last year were featured at the Pescara Jazz Fest in Italy.
Veteran trombonist Bill Allred applauds the couple’s range of material and ability to communicate. “One of J.B. and Lisa’s real strengths,” Allred said, “is just how effectively they work together, addressing any style and type of jazz, swing or whatever, and molding it into a very entertaining package.”
Lisa and J.B. are the only musician mentor couple to be individually inducted into the Jacksonville Jazz Festival Hall of Fame—Lisa in 2013, and J.B. in 2017—and they are each profiled among 323 world-class artists in the book The New Face of Jazz by Cicily Janus.
For artist info including six recordings, visit kellyscottmusic.com.
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