Encircled by trees, the Ragdale stage stands where the forest meets the horizon during sunset, offering a warm, summer glow to the Lake Forest scenery. Singer Ingrid Graudins serenades the crowd with her smooth, melodic voice as the six-person band, including jazz pianist and event curator Kelly Brand, performs during the Ragdale Ring Spotlight Series. This natural environment surrounding Ragdale—the nonprofit artists’ community—offers inspiration to its residents, including Brand, who often spent her afternoons composing on her piano after taking a morning hike through Lake Forest.
Prior to her Ragdale experience, when Brand entered the Chicago jazz scene after graduating from University of Illinois, clubs acted as a meeting ground for jazz musicians, a place to learn from each other’s work, to appreciate each other’s sounds. Then, in the nineties, Brand noticed a shift in the culture. Clubs opened and closed within a year or two and live jazz trios that once echoed throughout hotel lobbies and lounges became replaced by plasma TVs for entertainment. Yet nestled in the heart of Lake Forest, Brand discovered the community atmosphere among artists was not lost.
Throughout the past ten years, Brand completed two-week residencies at Ragdale on multiple occasions. During her nights, she looked forward to conversing with other artists, hearing about their lives and listening to their work aloud. The bookshelves at Ragdale contain an array of work from past artists, which Brand often spent her afternoons reading.
“Ragdale helps to free up the mind—exercise in a beautiful environment,” Brand says. “The phone isn’t ringing and dogs aren’t barking; it will bring out people’s best work.”
Brand’s own story comprises of ups and downs that led her to become the successful jazz pianist she is today. Years ago, Brand entered the jazz scene with high hopes. She went from playing five hours at Hotel Nikko in a jazz trio to her band’s gig at Jazz Bulls, where they often went through the night until sunrise. But her determination paid off—five years later, her first recording, “A Dream In A Stone” was released. During the CD’s release weekend at the Green Mill, however, her performance received a poor review from a music critic. From then on, Brand struggled to maintain momentum. The band split.
Still, Brand continued to play at Hotel Nikko. Her home became a meeting ground for artists to play and simply listen to each other’s music into the night. After ten years, the hotel closed and, once again, Brand seemed at a standstill, waiting to see where her career would take her.
Meanwhile, Brand began residing at Ragdale, calling Lake Forest “a fairyland” because of its vast gardens. After spending her mornings among nature and nights learning from other residents, she’d play at her piano during the day, creating new music. Eventually, that new music became her next CD, recorded by Origin Records—which the press received well. Now, after releasing her fourth recording, Brand works on her fifth and hopes to release it within the next few years.
“Now, I’m just waiting for something new to say,” Brand says. (Kathleen Caplis)
The Ragdale Ring Spotlight Series continues with performances August 15 and September 12 at Ragdale, 1260 North Green Bay, Lake Forest.