The musical journey for young local pianist Noah Kellman continues with his Saturday gig alongside sax great Antonio Hart
By Jessica Novak
Noah Kellman speaks softly and laughs often, cracking quick jokes as he talks about his love for the band The Bird and The Bee and taking 27 credits in one semester at SUNY Purchase, which he currently attends. Behind big, brown-rimmed glasses his green eyes are bright and youthful, but at the same time his vocabulary and way of describing his love of jazz, especially through his experiences at the Brubeck Institute in California and his performances with artists like Terence Blanchard, make him seem far older than his 20 years.
Kellman, a pianist, was asked by Northeast Jazz and Wine Festival producer Larry Luttinger of the Central New York Jazz Arts Foundation to lead a backing trio for world-class saxophonist Antonio Hart, set to perform on Saturday, July 30, 6:30 p.m., on the main stage of the Clinton Square festival. Kellman quickly agreed, remembering Hart’s 2007 performance and a workshop clinic he conducted through a CNY Jazz Arts program.
“I thought he was very intelligent and outgoing and I was really impressed with his ability to teach us, loosen us up and make us play differently,” Kellman says. “Then I was also really impressed later that evening by his actual saxophone playing as well. I still remember that as one of the best concerts I’ve seen put on by the CNY Jazz Arts Foundation.”
Kellman had already accomplished a lot by 2007, but much has changed in the young pianist’s career. He graduated from Manlius Pebble Hill High School in 2009, performed at the Vail Jazz Festival, Syracuse Jazz Fest, at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., and won awards including the Outstanding Musicianship Award at the Berklee College of Music High School Jazz Festival, the Betty Carter Jazz Residency, ASCAP Young Jazz Composers Award and eight DownBeat awards. He was a member of the Grammy Jazz Ensemble in 2009, where he performed with Blanchard. And in addition to two summer stays at the Brubeck Summer Jazz Colony Program in 2005 and 2007, Kellman completed a year in the Brubeck Fellowship Program in 2010, a fullscholarship individualized jazz program for only five graduating high school musicians per year.
Kellman has come a long way since he first sat down at a piano at 5 years old, plinking away at tunes he learned completely by ear with the help of his father, Robert. “I remember sitting countless times in my living room listening to my dad playing classical music,” Noah says. “My dad would teach me everything by ear.”
While learning by ear catapulted Kellman’s ability to understand music audibly, it hindered him when it came to learning to read music, which his teachers demanded. “All the teachers I studied with for the most part forced me to play what I could read,” he explains. “Rather than play at my ear’s level, I had to play at my reading level, so I was bored because it was all these dinky little first-grade piano pieces. But I was used to playing classical music like ‘Fur Elise.’ It actually led me to quit piano for a year.”
Kellman dabbled in clarinet and saxophone, but didn’t latch back onto playing music until his discovery of jazz. He was in fourth grade at the time the 315 All Stars played at his school. The 315 All Stars was the former award-winning high school band led by Manlius Pebble Hill music educators Howard Potter and Joe Colombo, and composed of talented music students from Central New York’s 315 area code.
“They just looked so awesome and I loved the music they were playing,” he remembers.
“They played Duke Ellington, I’m not sure what piece, but I’m sure it was that. Right then it hit me and the music sounded so great.”
Kellman dove back into piano and became active with the CNY Jazz Arts Foundation with friend, trumpeter and now fellow Brubeck graduate Nick Frenay. They attended the Scholastic Jazz Jams put on by the organization and eventually Luttinger convinced Kellman to attend the CNY Jazz Camp. Kellman was 11 years old when he and Frenay made it to their first camp with many of the 315 All Stars.
“I remember I was so nervous at the first audition at the camp that I made my mom go stand behind a curtain, so she was there when I played,” Kellman says.
The fear faded and Kellman could play jazz tunes well enough to make it into the 2005 Brubeck Summer Colony Program, but he still hadn’t learned to read music by the end of the program.
Joe Gilman, who would later become one of Kellman’s instructors at the Brubeck Fellowship program in 2009- 2010, led the big band for the summer program. It was the day of the concert when Gilman asked to hear just Kellman, the bass and drums on one of the songs.
“He counted it off and I just couldn’t play any of it,” Kellman says. “He was so incredibly mad. So he yelled at me and sent me to go practice the music. I literally sat there with the director of the program, who came in and helped me because he knew I couldn’t read the music. So he would play it for me and I would memorize it. I spent at least two hours memorizing the song I was about to play. So after that it was kind of a jolt and I started working on reading more.”
Kellman still claims he’s only a sufficient reader, but his extensive training in theory, composition and currently, orchestration, would suggest he has more than an average handle on the skill. “Composing has helped my reading a lot because I have to figure out how to write out the things that I hear,” he says. “I think, in general, my composing has been more true to me than anything else because I have that time to really think about what I really want to put on the page and what I want the music to sound like in the end.”
Kellman’s exponential growth is impressive to many, but means even more to Luttinger, who has watched his transformation through many of the CNY Jazz Arts’ programs. Placing Kellman on the stage as a professional is just the next step for the aspiring musician.
“I’m as proud as Noah’s uncle,” Luttinger says. “It’s been great watching him grow and discover jazz. Putting him on the stage with Antonio Hart is part of the professional mentoring system that helps careers move in jazz. It’s the way young musicians, especially pianists, develop their careers and become known.”
Luttinger would like to make this an annual opportunity to bring other young musicians to the professional stage. Kellman was his ideal choice for the start. He’ll lead a trio composed of bassist Kate Davis who performed at last year’s Jazz and Wine Festival, and drummer Kevin McDonald.
Kellman is excited about the upcoming performance, but mostly grateful that the show was made possible at all. Luttinger received a donation from Excellus Blue Cross Blue Shield, but it wasn’t enough. Kellman emphasized that individual contributions from family members and friends helped make the concert possible, as well as some funds from local NPR radio station WAER-FM 88.3.
“There was a large family of company and individual donations that made this show possible,” Luttinger says. “The goal of this performance is to present Antonio with an added bonus to help Noah’s career. Noah is performing like an adult professional now. To hear him play. . . it’s incredible.”