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Up and Coming Jazz Guitarist from the Twin Cities, Kelly Blau



Jazz Guitar Today contributor Wayne Goins talks to a young jazz guitarist who definitely deserves wider attention.

A few months ago I was invited to spend a weekend with one of my favorite people, Dan Westmoreland, my jazz guitar student from the St. Paul/Minneapolis area. He arranged an invitation-only jazz party and wine-tasting event on the lawn of his home in Hopkins, Minnesota, where about fifty close friends and family attended. It was there that I had the privilege of meeting—and performing a deliberately unrehearsed concert (to enhance the spontaneity and the fun factor!)—with a talented jazz guitarist, Kelly Blau, a young man who definitely deserves wider attention. Here is his unique story.

Above photo: Gary Binger

Kelly Blau – Photo credit Kelly Jo Johnson

JGT: Tell me about your experience learning and developing your skills as a jazz guitarist—what’s your history? 

KB: Like most folks, I was fascinated with the blues at an early age which eventually led me to jazz. I really fell in love with jazz guitar when I joined the big band during my first year in college. After that, I started playing in combos and building my vocabulary. 

JGT: Who are some of your biggest musical influences in jazz—guitar or otherwise? 

KB: Well, I started playing guitar because of Hendrix, so he has to be number one. My major influences would probably be John Scofield, Herbie Hancock, Julian Lage, Brad Mehldau, and George Benson. 

JGT: Discuss your role as concert booking manager at the Hopkins Center for the Arts—how did it come about? 

KB: I had previously worked with festivals during college and lucked out with the timing. The previous concert coordinator was retiring and there was an opening! I’m very fortunate have a job I’m so passionate about.

JGT: Talk to me about the upcoming Taj Mahal gig on October 16—as his personal biographer, I have a personal interest in that!

KB: Me too! I’ve always loved Taj’s music and am very excited to have him perform here. I’ve always been fascinated by his ability to flow between genres. Everything from blues to soul to world. He’s one of a kind, that’s for sure! [author’s note: during this interview, I contacted Taj about this October date at the HCA, and he informed me that he will be performing with bassist Bill Rich, drummer Kester ‘Smitty’ Smith, and Hawaiian lap steel master Bobby Ingano!]

JGT: Talk about some of the people you’ve booked—how do you decide on such things? 

KB: We’ve had some of the biggest names in Jazz perform at the Center. (saxophonist) Joshua Redman, (drummer) Jack DeJohnette, (pianist) McCoy Tyner, (guitarist) John Scofield with (saxophonist) Joe Lovano to name a few. Our goal is to bring top talent to the West Metro. Why should folks have to drive to the Cities to see premiere talent?

JGT: You work at one of the most prominent record stores in the country—discuss what it’s like at Mill City Sound, and it’s long-lasting legacy in the community? 

KB: It’s an honor to work there. It’s amazing what we see come through the door. Records that have survived decades in a basement being brought back to life for someone else to enjoy. It’s truly a special record shop, and I encourage every music lover to visit it at some point. We’ve certainly established a community of regulars—many of whom have become friends through constant interactions at the shop.

JGT: Share with our readers your role in teaching guitar in the Minneapolis/St. Paul community.

KB: I don’t give lessons anymore.

JGT: Any particular reason why? Don’t you feel like you might be denying some young, aspiring student and opportunity to learn from an experienced player like yourself, not to mention a second income stream you could have in a time when our primary source of gigs all but dried up due to the pandemic…

KB: You’re definitely right! I know I should; but I work two jobs and they take up most of my time.

JGT: I totally understand. Still, do you think some young person in college around the Minneapolis/St. Paul area might really benefit from your skilled ability to develop chord solo arrangements—you’re really good at that!

KB: I’ll teach folks who already have a grasp on it, but not to beginners. I love when a student has actually practiced and seeing their growth. That’s very rewarding.

JGT: How did the recent COVID epidemic affect your personal life and your work schedule as programmer for HCA, the record store, the gigs, your teaching schedule? 

KB: It affected my life a great deal. My life is surrounded by large gatherings, so I was out of work for most of the year. We were able to have some socially-distant outdoor concerts, but not much else. However, the silver lining was that I got a lot more time to spend in the woodshed. I feel that I grew a lot as a musician during the pandemic and I’m very grateful for that extra time. 

Kelly Blau – Photo credit Kelly Jo Johnson

JGT: What kind of gigs are you involved with? How often and where do you play? Who are some of the more prominent jazz musicians you gig with? 

KB: I play with a few groups in the Cities. One is my jazz quartet, Constellation Band. I also play with Indie rocker Lydia Liza. I took lessons from local legend Zacc Harris of Atlantis Quartet, which was very beneficial. Before the pandemic I was gigging 5-7 times a month at places like 7th St. Entry, Turf Club, and Amsterdam Bar and Hall.

JGT: Share your thoughts about sight-reading, transcribing, playing by ear, using YouTube, garage band, etc… 

KB: I love sight reading! I was classically trained in college, and, while I don’t play it out in public, I love to learn pieces for myself. I transcribed a few Kurt Rosenwinkel and Julian Lage solos. I feel that even learning solos by ear improved my playing leaps and bounds. The best practice is stealing lines from your heroes. It’s also a very humbling experience.

JGT: Are you involved in the college/university scene in or around the Minneapolis/St.Paul area? 

KB: I am not.

JGT: What was your college experience personally?

KB: I graduated college with a music business degree and a minor in jazz studies. I went to Winona State University.

JGT: We recently did a duo gig together at the invitation of Dan Westmoreland, a mutual jazz guitarist and friend—I thoroughly enjoyed meeting you and playing with you for the first time, I’d love to hear your thoughts about what that was like from your perspective? 

KB: It was a blast! I always love playing with folks who are way better than me. I also learn something from other people’s approach. Part of what makes jazz so fun is that there are a few agreed-upon rules we follow, and everything else is up for interpretation. It’s that interpretation that makes playing with others so much fun. I definitely picked up some things from you that night!

JGT: In your playing—which I loved, by the way—I  hear shades of Larry Carlton, Jon Herrington, Wayne Krantz—is this a fair assessment of your style and approach to melodic playing? 

KB: Wow, those are some big names. Thank you! I’ll take it. For me, I always ask, “What would ‘Sco’ do?” I feel like he unlocked the secrets of the guitar, and he is my biggest inspiration.

JGT: Before our gig, I overheard you warming up with a bit of chord solo stuff—was it a Coltrane tune, or was it “In Your Own Sweet Way?” What was that, and how much of chord solo arrangement development have you invested in, time-wise? 

KB: That was probably “Emily.” I recently heard someone cover it, and it reminded me how lovely of a tune it is. I love making solo guitar arrangements. It’s what got me through the pandemic! I think it’s important to be able to play music by yourself, because it helps me better internalize the tune. While it’s very challenging, it’s also very rewarding.

JGT: Let’s do a bit of tech talk: What equipment are you using—guitar, amps, pedals, recording gear? 

KB: I keep it pretty simple. I use a 1×12 Fender Deluxe Reverb amp, a Way Huge Pork Loin pedal that I always leave on, and an Eastman Semi-hollow arch top. 

JGT: Where are some of the hipper places in Minneapolis/St. Paul to play? 

KB: The Black Dog Café in St. Paul is a great venue for jazz. Also there is the Amsterdam Bar and Hall, Jazz Central, and the Icehouse, to name a few. 

JGT: Do you do much traveling within the state of Minnesota, or much out-of-town gigs? 

KB: I used to in college, but haven’t in recent years because of my work schedule. I would love to though!

JGT: Thanks so much for taking some time to share your time and energy with our readers, I know they will enjoy getting to know you here in this forum.

KB: You’re welcome, Wayne—thanks for the opportunity!

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