One of Knoxville's prominent jazz musicians has taken a new gig just in time for April's Jazz Appreciation Month.
Kelle Jolly, a musician and entertainer, is the host of WUOT's new Friday night segment: Jazz Jams.
The previous holder of the 8 p.m. slot was nationally-aired Marian McPartland's "Piano Jazz," but after McPartland passed away last July, NPR kept running reruns of the well-known host's shows. Todd Steed, jazz coordinator at WUOT, said the staff decided they wanted a segment that was more current as well as one that would bring in a local host.
"I had Kelle and her husband Will Boyd on 'Improvisations' as guests," Steed said. "Ten minutes into that interview, I knew Kelle would be a natural to host a show."
Jolly certainly has the history. While in high school, she started singing jazz because she didn't have a gospel or pop voice, and she ended up falling in love.
"Pop singers have popularity for a certain time period. But jazz singers sing until they die," Jolly said. "I felt like jazz fit my voice stylistically, and the topics of the songs, the poetry of the lyrics were attractive to me."
Jolly became well-practiced in jazz during high school, where her experience studying jazz led her band director to create a new senior recognition for her: the Billie Holiday Award. After studying at South Carolina State University and being inducted into their Jazz Hall of Fame, she and her fellow-musician husband moved to Knoxville in 2006.
Since moving to Knoxville, Jolly has made a name for herself locally by performing at many jazz venues as well as acting and designing her own clothes. She and her husband have also represented Knoxville in its sister city — Muroran, Japan — where they advocate for jazz in all of its forms.
For Steed, all this creativity and energy made Jolly a perfect candidate to host the show.
"She's just a real positive force of nature on top of all that," Steed said. "It's fun to work with someone who has all those great attributes. Maybe some of it will rub off on me."
Steed also emphasized the roots of Jazz in the South and the role of public radio to pick through the mass amounts of music in the genre in order to bring the best to listeners.
"It's a rich, incredible form of music that once people are exposed to it in the right ways, a lot of people really fall in love with it," Steed said. "It's just not something you hear a lot on commercial stations. And that's fine, but I feel like one of the values of public radio is that we'll dig a little deeper for you and find other goodies. We have a jazz department at UT; we have a very strong Knoxville Jazz Orchestra here.
"It's a great city for jazz, so we feel like that should be reflected on the radio, as well."
Jazz Jams premiered during April's First Friday in the Emporium, and it has already received "outstanding" feedback, Steed said. Jolly's first selection was from mentor and friend, Knoxville jazz and R&B artist Sharon Mosby, who passed away last year.
"Whenever my husband and I would have shows in Knoxville, she would always be there and she would always bring crowds with her," Jolly said. "She really supported us, so I felt like I wanted to start my new experience off with the memory of Sharon."
These firm roots in the Knoxville community and in the history of jazz fuel Jolly's vision to bring jazz to people who may have written off the genre.
"People may think they know what jazz is, and maybe they don't like it," Jolly said. "But then they find out that they can find something inside jazz that they do like. And it doesn't matter what label people put on it.
"Music is music. If it's a good song, it's a good song."
Jolly has big plans for Jazz Jams, from "Scooby-Doo vans with speakers" playing music in the park to a "Homemade Jam of the Month" give-away at listening parties. She aims to bring in guests local and remote, as well as potentially recording live performances in the future.
All of this in the name of bringing accessible and interesting jazz to listeners on campus and in the Knoxville community.
"My mind moves really fast," Jolly said. "I tell myself, Kelle, you got to slow down. You can't do everything from the beginning. But I'm always thinking -- where can we grow? What do people need? What direction should I go in based on how people respond to what I do?"