At 24, Grace was already 10 years into her career, saxophonist, vocalist, composer, and New York Local 802 member Grace Kelly is moving past the label “prodigy” and defining her voice as a jazz musician.
Growing up in Brookline, Massachusetts, Kelly displayed an affinity for creativity and a talent for music from an early age. Formal piano lessons began at age six. When she was bored with the repertoire, she improvised, writing her first song at age seven. In fourth grade, inspired by the music of Stan Getz, she picked up the saxophone. Six weeks later she was learning the standards.
Kelly began touring soon after recording her first album at 12. “At age 14 I traveled to Norway to play my first international show, and then I came back to being an eighth-grader,” she says, explaining the surreal teenage life she led.
That same year she had one of her most memorable performances when she was asked to play with the Boston Pops Orchestra in a concert opening for Dianne Reeves. Already an incredible invitation, Kelly is not sure what inspired her to ask Conductor Keith Lockhart of Boston Local 9-535 if she could write a score for the occasion.
He asked, “Have you done that before?” She hadn’t. “I was out of my mind, but I wrote a 40-page score for the Pops and I was the soloist in the middle of it. It was such an incredible moment; I felt like I was floating on a cloud,” she says.
Career already in full swing, it made sense to leave high school early with her GED. Though she considered forgoing college, at age 16, Kelly was accepted with a full scholarship to the only college she applied to: Berklee College of Music. At Berklee she adapted her studies to accommodate touring while working toward a degree in professional music.
“The most important thing that I got from music school was connections to my peers,” says Kelly who describes college as a playground that offered her the chance to explore courses in things like string arranging and percussion. She found mentors among the faculty. Associate Professor Alain Mallet took her under his wing, while another associate professor, Darren Barrett, used a “tough love” approach to push Kelly to improve her technical skills.
But on saxophone, most of Kelly’s mentoring came outside of college. Saxophonists Lee Konitz, Phil Woods, and Frank Morgan each, in his own way, helped her develop as a young player. At age 13, she began studying with Konitz. “He gave me the incredible gift of explaining what improvisation is. I’ve never met an individual as spontaneous and who really practices improvisation in his life as much as Lee does. He taught me how to improvise on stage and in the moment, reacting to other musicians. I still live and play today by that idea,” she explains.
She treasures the opportunity she had to tour and record an album with the late Phil Woods. “It was an osmosis thing being on stage with him. I wrote a song for him called ‘Man with the Hat’ that we’d play together. I would catch onto musical things that he was doing just by being next to him and that helped me grow as a saxophonist,” she says.
“Frank Morgan—a direct prodigy of Charlie Parker and one my favorite saxophonists in the whole world—taught me about the power of moving people with a ballad and playing beautiful music,” says Kelly. “He told me that, in his set, if he could make one person cry, if he could touch the audience, he could go home feeling satisfied. Nobody played ballads the way Frank did. He was an incredibly virtuosic saxophonist, but to him, the way he measured how he played was not through all the notes. That really sticks with me.” http://www.afm.org