Sam Kelly is the go-to sax player in Durango. The Dolores native and Fort Lewis College music department alum has been the choice dude for saxophone representation in numerous bands around town, including The Durango Funk All-Stars, Afrobeatniks, J. Calvin’s Funk Express, and his full-time gig in Elder Grown. If you need a saxophone for something, he’s your guy.
He’s kind of our own Bobby Keys; Keys, the late saxophone player for what is now the classic-rock canon of Eric Clapton, George Harrison, Joe Cocker, Lynyrd Skynyrd, and, most notably, The Rolling Stones, who featured Keys on most tours since the early 1970s.
I want Sam Kelly to be the next Bobby Keys, all the way down to the noticeable watch they wear while on stage. Not the Bobby Keys who would throw televisions out of hotel windows with Keith Richards, or the Bobby Keys who ordered thousands of dollars worth of Dom Perignon on a tour in Belgium resulting in a strained relationship with the Stones that would last years, but the Keys who adds a thick layer of saxophone soul to your band’s sound, the guy who steps up to take a solo and the band backing him, and the audience in front of him, knowing it’s going to be great. I see that in Kelly; he’s fun to watch, and a hell of a nice guy to boot.
“I first started playing saxophone in fifth grade. 1998 maybe? Nineteen years. Back when you’re in elementary school, what your parents say is still pretty cool. My mom listened to a lot of jazz, and said ‘Sam, you should play sax,’ and I said ‘Yeah, I could do that,’” said Kelly. “In fourth grade, I told the music teacher, and he had me play the recorder, but the next year my mom rented me a saxophone in a lease-to-own thing, and I haven’t stopped playing.”
By “haven’t stopped,” he means it’s just become part of what he does. School band led to the discovery of hipper things that needed a saxophone, like ska. Its arguable that any kid that gave up their horned instrument in eighth or ninth grade regretted it when they got turned onto The Toasters.
“Honestly, it was middle school. Those years I played it because I liked doing it, I didn’t think too much more other than just doing it in school,” said Kelly. “In high school, I got turned onto ska music; that’s when the gears started turning. Like, ‘Hey, the saxophone, you can play in cool bands.’”
The discovery of “cool bands” that utilize a horn section may have been mind-blowing, but playing your instrument of choice as a college major was just as much. It’s like Kelly was given the green light to make music a full-time thing, forever.
“In college, I went to my advising appointment and the guy asked me what I liked to do that has anything to do with school and I said ‘I like playing my saxophone,’ and he asked if I wanted to be a music major. I asked ‘That’s a thing?’ I never made that connection, and I said ‘Let’s do that.’ Next thing you know, I’m a music major.”
He’s not spreading himself too thin. He’s just playing, and will continue to do so with who needs him, finding the balance that keeps him on-stage when he can.
“I guess I’m in multiple bands, and I have the great fortune of being able to sit in with a lot of groups,” Kelly said. “Elder Grown, I’ve been with those guys the longest; that’s the passion project. If I had an official title, it would be ‘Sam Kelly, saxophone for Elder Grown.’”
Bryant Liggett is a freelance writer and KDUR station manager. firstname.lastname@example.org.