“Music brings us together,” says ukulele player and jazz vocal artist Kelle Jolly.
Jolly herself is a great ambassador for the performing arts community. A pillar of the music scene since her arrival in Knoxville in 2006, she is the founder and organizer of the Women in Jazz Jam Festival, and she hosts Jazz Jam with Kelle Jolly on WUOT. She and her husband of 10 years, jazz artist Will Boyd, were awarded Knoxville’s 2015 MLK Arts Award and have traveled to Knoxville’s sister city Muroran, Japan, to perform.
As the “Tennessee Ukulele Lady,” Jolly is also the founder of the Ukesphere, a mash-up term of “ukulele” and “Sunsphere.” It’s her phrase for the community-wide, all-ages, ukulele jam sessions she’s led for several years. Starting in October, the Ukesphere will meet at 10:30 a.m. on the first Saturday of every month at Lane Music at the Franklin Shops, 9648 Kingston Pike. The next meeting is Oct. 6.
When she first picked up the ukulele, Jolly had no idea it would become such an important part of her life. She had tried, years earlier, to learn the guitar and the bass but found both too bulky for her. At the now-shuttered Morelock Music downtown, she bought her first ukulele and started learning chords.
“Then I bought another one and another one and…” she says.
Friends also started buying them, and Jolly says her late friend Carole Borges, a staple of the Knox arts scene, said that Jolly had to teach everyone to play.
“That’s how the Ukesphere got started,” she says. Jolly, who has a degree in music education from South Carolina State University, started teaching group lessons and leading jam sessions. For those who are interested in playing outside the jam sessions, she puts together performances in senior centers, luaus and other places.
Everywhere she goes, she finds a like-minded community of players. On a trip through Greensboro, North Carolina, she Googled “ukulele meet-ups” and was steered right into a jam in the middle of town.
“Now they want me to come back and hang out with them,” she says. “The whole world is the Ukesphere now.”
She has just completed a CD of “Tennessee Ukulele Lady” tracks, recorded at Sequoyah Studio out west. She was recently featured at the third annual James Agee Conference for Literature and the Arts at Pellissippi State and was one of the featured artists at this year’s KYuke!, a rollicking ukulele festival in Lexington.
“Ukuleles, puppets, kazoos – these are my people,” she says of the Kentucky festival.
Although some have dismissed the instrument’s renaissance as a fad, she doesn’t see any signs of people losing interest.
“It’s something that crosses all borders, all languages,” Jolly says. “When people see and hear the ukulele, they get happy.”
In addition to the regular first Saturday Ukesphere meetings at Lane, Jolly is putting together an all-day jam session for World Ukulele Day on Saturday, Feb. 2, with several featured performers. She is also in the middle of planning the 2019 Women in Jazz Jam Festival, which will kick off mid-March.
For more information, email Jolly at email@example.com.