Friday, September 6, 2013

Ziggy Kelly, the Firebird of Milford

By Chet Williamson

In fall of 1949, Down Beat writers Michael Levin and John S. Wilson sat down with saxophonist Charlie Parker to talk about the state of jazz. The focus of the conversation was: Where did bebop come from and where is it going?

Somewhere in the middle of the conversation the writers made this statement:  “It was on a visit to New York, in late 1942 after [Parker] had worked out his basic approach to complex harmony, that Charlie heard Stravinsky for the first time when Ziggy Kelly played Firebird for him.”
Charlie Parker
What? Ziggy Kelly? The trumpeter from Milford? Really? 

The statement came from the writers. It was not a quote. So the source is left to conjecture. Did Bird offer this? Ziggy was not introduced. They just dropped his name and left it up to the reader to figure out his status and connection to Parker. Not to mention the impact it may have had on the saxophone genius of 20th century.   

The reader is left with a series of questions: Who was this guy? Was he a fellow musician? Was he an academic, an expert on modern classical music?
Downton Milford, circa 1940

For those who knew him, Ziggy Kelly was a kind of musical firebrand who burned brightly in the jazz firmament, revealed flashes of brilliance, before a stroke at the age of 41 cruelly defused his once promising light.

Before sharing more on Kelly, a word on Parker, The Firebird, and modern classical music, and its relationship to modern jazz.

For most of Parker’s career, musicians and critics alike tried to figure out the origins of his advanced approach to harmony. Bird admitted to listening to classical music and was a fan of Stravinsky, Hindemith, and Bartok in particular, but he also found a great deal of the music had left him cold.

In the Downbeat interview Levin and Wilson pressed the saxophonist on the origins of the music he played. “After several evenings of arguing,” they wrote, “Charlie still was not precise in his definition…. The closest Parker will come to an exact, technical description of what may happen is to say that he would like to emulate the precise, complex harmonic structures of Hindemith, but with an emotional coloring and dynamic shading that he feels modern classical music lacks.”

Igor Stravinsky
It’s easy to see why a musician of Charlie Parker’s listening capacity would find the Firebird so enthralling. Written in 1910 it is the first of Stravinsky's great ballets. It is based on a Russian folk tale about fiery bird that if captured becomes both a blessing and curse to its captors.
Stravinsky was a fan of American jazz, so much so that he wrote the Ebony Concerto for Woody Herman. Bird would later meet the composer and often quote the Russian in his solos. Read Alfred Appel’s account between the two musicians at:

For Ziggy Kelly, a young jazz trumpeter from Milford, to be impressed with the Firebird is one thing; it’s quite another for him to play it for the most revolutionary jazz artist of his day. 

How and where did this happen? The only facts we know are that it was in New York. It was 1942 and Kelly was the instigator.

Okay, let’s break it down. In 1942, Parker was in New York as member of the Earl Hines band, one that also included Dizzy Gillespie. The vocalists in the band were Billy Eckstine and Sarah Vaughan. She has been quoted as saying, "[Parker] used to sit on the bus or train with Stravinsky scores. And then he'd get up on the stage and play something from Stravinsky, but play it his way." 

Kelly was a 20 year-old kid living in the Big Apple, who since graduating from Milford High, had already paid some serious dues. He spent time touring with the Tommy Reynolds band and was now in New York working with George Paxton. He would later become a trumpeter with Teddy Powell, Randy Brooks, and Stan Kenton. He also worked with the likes of Parker, Gillespie, and Lennie Tristano. 

Ziggy in the early 1940s
According to the late Leo Curran, former road manager of Stan Kenton, Kelly stayed in New York for quite awhile. In a 2004 interview Curran said, “I knew he roomed across the hall to Sonny Stitt, the great tenor and alto saxophonist. He knew Dizzy quite well. I think it was because of Sonny. That’s probably where [Parker and Kelly] met.” In a 1953 Down Beat article, the saxophonist was quoted saying, "I first began listening to [classical music] seven or eight years ago. First I heard Stravinsky's Firebird Suite. In the vernacular of the streets, I flipped." 

It’s conceivable that the hotel is where the listening session happened. It is also possible that this is where and when Kelly got involved in drugs. It’s common knowledge in the jazz world, that both Parker and Stitt were notorious junkies. And by most accounts it was a dirty secret that most fellow musicians, friends, and family members were loathe to speak about Kelly's involvement with drugs. Yet, most believe that it may have been a contributing factor to his cerebral hemorrhage.  

But, that’s getting ahead of the story. Who was Kelly?

He was born Victor Americo Minichiello in Milford, MA on August 19, 1922. He was one of five sons born to Michael and Susie (Trongone) Minichiello. He went to public schools in town and graduated from Milford High in 1939. His family was musical. His mother played in a mandolin orchestra and Victor began trumpet at a young age.

Boots and Ziggy 
He also had the good fortune to have grown up in Milford, a town filled with music and musicians, many would go on to popular and critical acclaim, including lifelong friend Boots Mussulli.

Young Ziggy Kelly with Boots Mussulli on clarinet 

In his high school yearbook, note that he was already called "Ziggie" [sic] and "Kelly," an Americanized shortening of his Italian name. Most townies say that he was nicknamed after Ziggy Elman, a popular trumpeter in the 1930s.

June Murray, now Rodriguez, was Kelly’s high school sweetheart and fiancé before it was eventually broken off. In a 2003 interview she recalled those teenage years.

“He started traveling right after high school,” she said. “He was gone a lot. He always dreamed about traveling with the big bands. That was his big goal. Music was everything to him. In fact, I think I was second to it. He practiced all the time.” 

When asked what Kelly was like as a person, she said, “He was a nice guy. Victor was very good to me. He never said a harsh word to me.”

However, Murray noted that, “his whole personality changed once he was on the road. He was changing, my friends saw it.”

She also said that Kelly would soon leave Milford. “He went to New York to be in music. After that, the small town boy was gone. The way he dressed. I knew he was changing. He started wearing the zoot suits with the long chain, the long jacket, and hat. Oh, god. It was awful. I told him: ‘You look like hell.’

Kelly was living the dream, playing jazz trumpet and in New York. When asked what he was like as a player, Leo Curran said, “He was a good jazz player. I don’t think his reading ability was as good as it could have been. He had a very definite ‘black’ feel. I don’t know where it came from.”

Curran as well as Kelly were part of a long line of Milfordians associated with the Stan Kenton band. Others include saxophonists Frank Tamagni, Mike Chichetti, and drummer Bob Varney. Curran says the connection all began with George Morte, who started as band boy, before becoming the road manager.

“He was the guy that got me on the band,” Curran said. “I went to a concert in Worcester and knowing George was there -- incidentally, he was my family’s paperboy. I went backstage to say hi. He says, ‘You are just the guy I wanted to see. We are going on a three-month tour and we are going to need help. So can you go on the band? Can you leave tomorrow night?’ So we left the next night. It was hard work but I enjoyed it. I was a Kenton fan. I made $125 a week, plus tips.”

Kenton conducting his band

After Morte left, Curran became the road manager and in turn, he hired Kelly to replace him. “It had to be 1953,” he said. “My wife was expecting our first child and I felt I really had to get off the road. In the meantime, we felt like we needed help. So who could I get to bring on this band? My friend Ziggy Minichiell0, he was working as a short order cook at George’s Lunch on Main Street in Milford. I would stop in when I was home and say hello to him.

Kenton trumpet section, top row, Kelly is second from left


“I said, ‘Zig you want to come on the road in the Kenton band, not as a trumpet player, but as my assistant? I’ll teach you how to drive the truck and you’ll have to do the gig that I’m doing. He said, ‘Yeah, man, sure.’ I had no problems with Zig. He did his gig and that was it.”

Kelly got the gig playing in the band by default. “In early September ’53 Stan Kenton was due to go to Europe,” Curran said. “Ernie Royal, the only black trumpet player [in Kenton’s band], for some reason didn’t get his passport in time. Stan knew Ziggy could play. He would sit in every now and then. ‘Why don’t you take the chair?’ He played the chair and stayed on the band [for] maybe a year.”

A partial list of players who went through the band during Kelly’s stint, include Buddy Childers, Conte Candoli, Frank Rosolino, Lee Konitz, Dave Schildkraut, Bill Perkins, Zoot Sims, Barry Galbraith, Stan Levey, and June Christy.

Although Kelly filled the bill admirably, Curran did offer this: “One thing with Ziggy: He couldn’t keep his mouth shut. I can remember we were on tour with Dizzy and Charlie Parker. ‘The Festival of Modern Jazz.’ We were in Philadelphia. Stan was sick and Dizzy took over kicking off the band.

“Dizzy would be out there running down the tune and Zig was telling Dizzy, ‘No man, it’s got to be a straight eighth note.’ Dizzy didn’t get mad, but some of the guys in the band were like, ‘Who is this guy telling the king how to do it?’” 

Local saxophonist Ken Sawyer concurs with Curran’s assessment of Kelly's assertiveness, but adds, “I know when Stan Kenton was rehearsing the band, Ziggy would sit out. He would listen to the conception that Stan wanted then go back and show those guys how to play it. 
"Conception-wise, that’s what he was good at. Listening. He listened to everything and paid closer attention than the average person.”

Sawyer, who led a band in which Kelly would later be a member, added, “I talked with Ziggy quite a few times at his house. We used to listen to records together. It was like getting free music lessons from one of the greats. I’d sit and listen to his comments.

Young Ken Sawyer
“One of the times, when I opened for Dizzy Gillespie one night at the Crystal Room, Ziggy taped it. We listened to it and he critiqued it. He’d say, ‘Ken, see where you rushed there? Let me play that back for you.’ And sure enough, I had. We’d listen to Bird and all the great horn players. I knew Charlie Parker was a big Stravinsky fan.”  

When asked to share his thoughts on Kelly’s playing, Sawyer said, “What came out of the end of his horn was the warmest trumpet sound you could hear. Whenever he played a ballad, that was pretty, he was fantastic. Even when he played a faster solo, there was the feeling and the warmth.”
As aforementioned by Curran, Kelly's stay with Kenton was short-lived. The reason he left? Curran relates the story: “It was Armistice Day. The band was on the road. We had played Boston’s Symphony Hall. I decided to take a weekend off and meet the band in Harrisburg. I was at home in bed. My wife woke me at 4 o’clock in the morning. It was Stan Kenton.

Kenton band, pre-Kelly, Mussulli at the far right

He said, ‘Leo you have to get out here right away.’ What’s the matter? ‘There’s been a bus accident. The driver fell asleep and drove into the back of a trailer truck. I got no band.’ Ziggy was one of casualties.  He got his lip banged up pretty badly."

George Morte and Leo Curran on the road

Curran also noted that by that time Kelly had gotten married and his wife was glad to have him home. After breaking off with June Murray, he later married singer June Barry. The couple had one child, a son Daniel. Curran is his godfather.

Bassist Joe Holovnia and singer Jean Barry
Kelly is heard in the trumpet section of such Kenton albums as Stan Kenton in Berlin, Concert in Weisbaden, Kenton in Paris, The Definitive Kenton, Stan Kenton Plays Bill Holman Live, Kenton, the European Tour, as well as a rash of bootleg recordings. Trying to pick out Kelly in a five-piece trumpet section is a futile exercise, and unfortunately, he is not well documented elsewhere on record.

Kenton band live in Sweden in 1953

Kenton live in Europe in 1953
Live in Germany --
Lennie Tristano and Buzzy Drootin

The only surviving recordings are a handful of live shows with various bands passed around by collectors. One such rarity finds Kelly captured live with pianist Lennie Tristano at a club in Lee, MA in 1959. 

Back home in Milford, his trumpet chops healed, Kelly gigged around town with old friends Mussulli and Varney as well as setting up a brass studio in the Opera House Building on Main Street.

By the early 1960s, Kelly was an active freelance musician, taking work where he could find it. Saxophonist Sawyer recalls how he began playing with the trumpeter. “I had a five piece band together,” he recalled. “Then I had some gigs for six and nine. And because I was friendly with Ziggy, why not ask the best guy first? Ziggy came to my home and we rehearsed in our cellar. At first some of the guys in my band were nervous, because we had a giant among us.

“It was great having him in the band. He was well known among jazz fans. He was our greatest trumpet player. And when he rehearsed with us he was like one of the guys.”

According to the January 17th edition of Milford Daily News, Kelly, at the age of 41, suffered a stroke from a cerebral hemorrhage while performing at a nightclub in Franklin. Writer Peter Castagnaro reported that Kelly was recuperating from an ailment that “may have ended his musical career as a trumpeter.” He also noted that a benefit concert had been organized by the Milford Musicians Union, Local #319 and the proceeds would help defray some of the costs of Kelly’s medical expenses.

The show was held at the Crystal Room in Milford and included a variety of bands and an all-star cast of musicians, including Herb Pomeroy, Boots Mussulli, Emil Haddad, Ockie Menard, Al Cass, Ken Sawyer, among others.

Under the headline of “Musicians Rally to Aid Ailing Member,” Castagnaro also reported on Kelly’s condition saying, “Because music takes care of its own…. The shock and sorrow which followed Ziggy first to Milford Hospital and then to final internment in Worcester City Hospital has a little faded. But his loss, even for a year, is seen as near catastrophic to those who know and enjoy his sound.

“Released from the hospital, he now lives with his brother’s family on Gibbon Avenue, recuperating and preparing for the battle which awaits him. It is only right and just that he should be supported in this. And he will be supported. Because music takes care of its own.”   

Kelly lost motor skills on an entire side of his body and had to learn how to play the trumpet with one hand. Ultimately, he never recovered to full prominence as a player. He stayed in Milford and worked closely with Mussulli and Curran in organizing the Milford Youth Orchestra, who at its height recorded an album and had the distinction of playing the Newport Jazz Festival.  

When Kelly died on February 28, 1990, it was reported in his obit that his music career became limited after he suffered his stroke. 
He died of severe uremia at age of 68. He is buried in St. Mary’s Cemetery in Milford.

Note: This is a work in progress. Comments, corrections, and suggestions are always welcome at:  Also see:  Thank you.

Special thanks to Steve Minichiello for his assistance in the piece.


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