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Kelly’s basement

November 11, 2013

by johnlyden

Sitting next to Jimmy Kelly Sr., 73, in his spacious dining room decorated with Irish décor, it is hard not to notice the picture that rests on a piano in a back corner by the door that leads to the basement. The picture shows Kelly in the 1960s, drumming with his Irish music band The Galway Blazers. A framed poem about the power of music penned by Kelly nearly 10 years ago, sits adjacent to the photo. These items are tangible representations of the indescribable love Kelly feels for an art that has made him who he is today. Kelly’s basement is not a typical American family’s basement.

Kelly and his wife, Ann Leonard-Kelly, host an event that they like to call a “house concert” once a month. Some of the foremost Irish musicians in the world have performed in Kelly’s house in the Pine Hills since the couple started their concert series in 2003. Kelly’s basement has become the localized version of Carnegie Hall, with musicians from across the Atlantic expressing a desire to add the basement to their already impressively expansive resumes.

Jimmy Kelly at home/John Lyden

Jimmy Kelly at home/John Lyden

“Quite honestly, when they leave the next morning, they’re shocked they’re going to get paid on top of everything else,” said Kelly. To pay the musicians, Kelly charges $20 a person for the concerts. Providing food and beverages for the musicians and the audience are expenses the Kelly family is willing to incur for the event.

The venue is intimate in Kelly’s basement. No more than 60 people fit, a mini bar adorned with Irish decor occupies the back of the room, and the musicians play on the same level with the crowd. Typically, the musicians who perform here enjoy a full spread of food and an interactive session with the audience after the concert.

“I honestly never thought it would take me this far,” said Kelly. “Especially the fact that now I have an A-list, B-list, and C-list for these house concerts.”

The decision Kelly made back 10 years ago to have house concerts was a symbolic gesture to try and bring back, on some level, his own childhood.

He grew up in the Bronx, and is the son of the renowned 20th century Irish musician, Ralph Kelly. His father, originally from County Galway in Ireland, frequently played at the top bars and ballrooms in New York City in the 1920s and 30s. When Kelly was born in 1940, he became immersed in music from the get-go.

“My dad used to have some of the Irish music greats come and play in our home,” said Kelly. It was during such occasions that the young Kelly learned to love the music of his ancestors.

That immeasurable love of Irish music has shaped his life in ways he thought music couldn’t.

“Music paid for my kids’ schooling,” said Kelly. He worked at a local brewery, for the steel workers, and then for the Albany County sewer district. But it was the money Kelly made as an Irish ceili drummer that ultimately financially sustained his family.

Kelly played drums for the Galway Blazers, an Albany based Irish band. The group lasted from 1966 until 1979. John Callahan, Mike Leonard, and Jimmy Mangan were Kelly’s band-mates. “My dad gave me the banner he used for his band in 1966 when I started playing with the Blazers, so it was like I was carrying on the tradition,” said Kelly.

Jimmy Kelly on drums with the Galway Blazers/John Lyden

Jimmy Kelly on drums with the Galway Blazers/John Lyden

For Kelly’s four children, now adults, listening to renowned Irish musicians play in the home is something they’ve been fortunate enough to experience for most of their lives.“I remember music always being around,” said Jimmy Kelly Jr., 43. “We’d have the top Irish musicians playing at our kitchen table when I was a kid. I thought nothing of it.”

This month, the Irish group De Dannan is scheduled to play in his basement. Kelly sends out private invitations for the house concerts. Advertising the event has never appealed to him, because issues with crowd control could ensue.

“Musicians who would normally play in much larger venues love to play at Jimmy’s,” said Kathleen Sweeney, a local Irish musician and frequent attendee at the house concerts. “He and Annie offer such wonderful hospitality.”

Some of those who have come to the concerts since 2003 are in awe of how Kelly has reeled in some of the top Irish musicians in the world.

“It’s incredible to see people such as Joanie Madden in such an intimate setting,” said Linda Cryan, a regular house concert attendee. “It seems somehow much more Irish than going to a big concert hall.”

For Kelly, the house concerts have helped him maintain a connection with his past, and, most importantly, his father.

“I like to think my father passed the torch to me,” said Kelly.

Kelly has not only helped himself feel a connection to his past, but also many of the attendees at the house concerts.

“This really reminds me of my childhood, growing up in an Irish family in the Bronx,” said Martin Joseph, a Kelly family friend who often participates in the gatherings. “It’s a warm atmosphere, with storytelling, music and friendship. It’s truly nostalgia inducing of the old days of Irish music.”

Kelly hopes he’ll be able to continue with the house concerts for many years to come. The music filled evenings in his basement not only entertain the audience and give successful musicians a chance to interact with their audience, but also bring solace and joy to him.

The ending of “Fine Soft Days”, a poem penned by Kelly nearly 10 years ago, depicts the unwavering love he feels for a day filled with music and kinship: “The whole world in peace, all borders to cease. Imagine that joy to portray. That tells one in part of my happy heart, whenever my friends come to play.”-30-


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