New information, no answers.
I’ve written about the wonderful and elusive Fran Kelley here and here. I had hoped that her connections to Charlie Parker and Duke Ellington would have stirred up more research, but little has come to light. (I thank Brian Kane, Nick Rossi, Paolo Alderighi, and CB Datasearch for invaluable finds.)
Let me reintroduce this remarkable person.
You would think that the producer of this concert [advertised in the Los Angeles Times, June 23, 1946] would be as famous as Norman Granz or George Wein:
For those who have forgotten, this was her first concert at UCLA:
These are the beautiful sounds she made possible.
The other side:
The Fran-Tone “waxery” was mentioned in the March 25, 1946 BILLBOARD:
I know that at least four copies of 2004 exist. But I have no evidence that 2005 has ever been issued. It’s clear that Fran-Tone did not thrive as a money-making proposition because Fran sold the eight masters she had recorded to Capitol, and Capitol did nothing with them, as far as I know, which amazes me. Do any readers have access to a comprehensive Capitol discography, and do the Fran-Tone sides appear there?
You would want to hear more about and more from this writer, writing her own condensed autobiography for the liner notes of Jimmy Rowles’ first session as a leader, RARE — BUT WELL DONE, on Liberty Records:
Fran Kelley is strictly from Pisces and New York. Her love and understanding of music just comes naturally, stemming from her father, whose distinguished voice was heard in leading concert centers both here and abroad. Fran’s musical background is varied: as an arranger-composer [one score was accepted by Duke Ellington], as a producer [she worked with Lester Horton and Duke Ellington to stage jazz-ballet], as an impresario [Fran presented the first jazz concert ever held at the University of California at Los Angeles which presented Charlie Parker, Lester Young, Nat “King” Cole and Benny Carter], and as an expert in the field of musical therapy. Fran is currently West Coast Editor and Representative for Metronome Magazine.
Here is evidence (from BILLBOARD, February 24, 1958) of what might have been the start of a new brilliant collaboration:
The end of the story is told by Ellington himself, in a few lines in MUSIC IS MY MISTRESS: “And there is one more person–Fran Kelley, musician, poet, songwriter, singer, orchestrator, manager, executive. This great woman with all these talents gave up running a radio station and record company in Los Angeles to pursue her spiritual quests in San Francisco.”
When I first bought Fran-Tone 2004, I was captivated by the music and intrigued by its guiding genius. Surely, I thought, she would have merited an essay if not a biography — multi-talented, one of very few women operating at this high level in the boys’ club of jazz at the time. But no. Because I have friends who graciously do research, the twenty or so clippings that are the basis of this research were offered to me. But Fran seems absent from any book on Bird or Duke. Why?
Thanks to Brian Kane, a lead opened up — an audible one — because four sides recorded by Fran for her label, with arrangements by Tom Talbert, were preserved and issued on Hep 22, “Memphis in June: Boyd Raeburn and his Orchestra.” That’s a vinyl issue; the CD (Hep 95) contains only the two Allyn vocals:
Vince DeRosa, French horn; Lenny Hartman, English horn; Harry Klee, alto saxophone, flute; Sam Sachelle, bass clarinet; Hy Mandel, baritone saxophone; Ray Still, oboe; Erroll Garner, piano; Leonard “Lucky” Enois, Allan Reuss, guitar; Harry Babasin, Red Callender, string bass; Jackie Mills, drums; David Allyn, vocal; Tom Talbert, arranger. AFRS Downbeat, Los Angeles, early 1946
BLACK NIGHT AND FOG (David Allyn vocal) / C JAM BLUES / PLEASE LET ME FORGET (David Allyn vocal) – [also known as PASTEL] / CARAVAN //
Note: Following from “The Most Happy Piano – Errol Garner Discography” by James M. Doran : “According to Jack McKinney, the following personnel are definitely not Raeburn’s, even though these performances were released under his name on Hep (E)22. This studio session was produced by Fran Kelley, probably in conjunction with her Swingposium concert of June 24, 1946, which was to be released on her Fran-tone label. This never happened.”
I’ve obtained a copy of Hep 22, and those four sides are gorgeous. Guess whose name is absent in the detailed notes by Jack McKinney? And, for a chance to compete in the bonus round, guess whose name . . . in the biography of Talbert?
And two nearly irrelevant postscripts. Fran Kelley was married to the trumpeter Clyde Reasinger, who lived until 2018. Reasinger turns up twice in a data-search in the Sixites, two gossip-column entries. In a 1962 entry, “Stripper Titian Dal is will shelve her career in favor of marriage to trumpeter Clyde Reasinger,” and a year later Reasinger is playing trumpet for the show NO STRINGS and is married to Karen, who is not identified as a stripper. I don’t know what that says about the Reasinger-Kelley marriage, but twenty years later, the two parties were apparently living in very different worlds.
As I wrote at the start, no answers. Speculations, yes. I could understand that the secular world has taken little notice of someone who chose to leave it, decisively, perhaps in 1958. And I hope that moving into the spiritual realm gave Fran Kelley the satisfaction that “the music business” did not. Our choices are mysterious to others, and often they are mysterious to us as well. So I cannot offer more evidence about why Fran Kelley seemed to disappear. I can wonder if there was a connection between music therapy and spiritual work, but it is only a speculation. Did she go underground to write poetry in an ashram? Did she become a nun ministering to the wounded in a Catholic hospital?
I was ready to publish this post and end on a somewhat despairing note: “I am baffled by the lack of reportage devoted to her, and even now — can I and my little band of research-friends be the only ones on the planet fascinated by who she was, what she did, and where she went?”
But before ending my quest for information, I posted inquiries on an online jazz-research group I belong to, not expecting much, and then Patricia Willard, long-time jazz scholar and writer, emerged like a blessed apparition, and wrote this, which I reprint with her permission and with gratitude:
Re: Fran Kelley, Duke considered her a genius, in 1958 signed her to a contract specifying that anything she produced–music, poetry, spoken ideas et al would be owned by him in exchange for continuing financial support. They both told me this but I never saw the actual contract or knew the precise terms. Among her talents that Duke found most intriguing was that she always knew what time it was–to the second–but never wore a watch (nor did he). Their collaborations were largely on the West Coast during a time when Strayhorn was East. The last times I heard from her (several years hence) were letters, always written on music ms. paper with a San Francisco hotel return address. She had a daughter whose name I unfortunately cannot recall. I met her in the mid-1980s at the invitation of my L.A. neighbor Benny Carter. The daughter was searching for Fran or any of her work and trying to find out if she were still alive. The daughter remembered that Fran had spoken often about her friend Benny. Benny had no recent knowledge of her activities or whereabouts. Two years ago I asked Hilma Carter, Benny’s widow, if she remembered the daughter’s name, and she didn’t. I only recall that it wasn’t Kelley.
Fran Kelley is a novel, although I am no novelist. But fascinating books are on the horizon. Patricia Willard is completing three of them — one on Ellington, one on Sinatra, and one a memoir. I can’t wait to have them on my coffee table, at this desk, and on my nightstand. I will let you know when they appear.
May your happiness increase!