Alto saxophonist, Grace Kelly, is finishing up eighth grade at Driscoll Elementary School in Brookline, MA. As her peers are challenged by the rudiments of the Three R’s, Grace meets her challenges on the bandstand and in practice sessions with the likes of vocalist Ann Hampton Callaway, saxophonists Lee Konitz, and Boston-based Jerry Bergonzi. Her latest accolades are becoming the youngest semi-finalist and winner of the Fish Middleton Jazz Scholarship and winning in four different categories in the Junior High School Division of the 29th Annual Student Music Award in Down Beat - Jazz Soloist on Alto Saxophone, Pop/Rock/Blues Soloist, Original Composition - "Fast Metabolism", and Jazz Vocalist Outstanding Performance (only one other person has done this.)
Kelly, who also sings, composes, and plays piano, is defining her abilities as a jazz and blues player at venues like Boston’s Scullers Jazz Club, Johnny D’s Uptown Restaurant & Music Club, New York City’s Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola and The Jazz Gallery. Her second release, Times Too, ushers in more of her original compositions along with standards like Jerome Kern’s "All The Things You Are" and Stevie Wonder’s "Signed, Sealed, Delivered." She has garnered the praise and admiration of musicians four times her age. What they hear is an old jazz soul, conjuring up pent-up emotions. Her talents seem to be bursting forth like the spray of firework stars cascading in the night sky for full viewing.
Switching from clarinet to saxophone at age 10, her first performance was given six weeks later. "I performed with James Merenda (my teacher) at Border’s Bookstore at the Atrium Mall in Newton, MA. I played "My Funny Valentine" and "Besame Mucho." I could not hold the saxophone and play while standing, so I sat on my saxophone case and put a pillow on the floor to rest my saxophone on."
In her development as a well-rounded player, Kelly studies with various teachers, each offering a keen perspective on musicianship. "All of my teachers have been incredibly helpful and encouraging to me. [Jerry] Bergonzi is really a brilliant and amazing teacher and musician. He is very organized and effective. I learn a lot of rhythmic variations and harmonic structure from him. Lee Konitz, first of all, it is just an honor to be in his presence. He has been my idol for a long time. It’s like a dream He offers me overall critique and a lot of ideas about improvisation. [Saxophonist] Jeremy Udden, a very patient and effective teacher, helps me with a wide range of things from improvisation and articulation to being a leader on the bandstand. Doug Johnson, my piano teacher, is more like a musical director as well. He gives me guidance and direction in so many areas of music. James Merenda, my first saxophone teacher, has given me so many opportunities to play out at jazz jam sessions with him. He was the one that encouraged me to improvise from the very beginning."
I asked Kelly about her choice of a 1954 Selmer Mark VI alto saxophone, arguably the most popular and best all-around playing saxophone. "When I was looking to buy a saxophone, I went to Rayburn Music [in Boston, MA]. I tried out a few different horns in a little room and then this man, whom I learned later was the famous "Sax Doctor" Emilio [Lyons], thought I played so well, he wanted to show me a special horn he had in the back. He brought out this old beat up hard case and took out this old special horn, which I immediately fell in love with from the first moment I played it."
In listening to her play, one can hear the influences of saxophonists Paul Desmond and Stan Getz. "Stan Getz’s was the sound that drew me to the saxophone. My mom used to play [him] during Sunday brunch at home when I was little. Such a beautiful sound! When I really started playing, I started listening to alto saxophonists like Paul Desmond and Lee Konitz. Of course, I listen to a lot of jazz music, including all the greats like Parker, Cannonball, Monk, Miles, Hodges, Evans, Ella, etc. I also like other styles of music that speak to me: Latin, Ethiopian, classical, and contemporary composers like Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder."
So where does Stevie Wonder fit into her musicianship? "I feel like Stevie Wonder is a big influence in my composition writing because his tunes have so many different elements to them and layers of sounds--whether it has to do with the composition writing or the arrangement of the song. I like to soak up as many different types and genres of music as I can. Stevie Wonder is a living genius and a big inspiration for my songwriting."
Though she’s composing more these days, Kelly doesn’t use any specific composer as a template. "I just listen to a lot of different music and what comes out of me, comes out of me. For example, I wrote "Fast Metabolism" last year, which is on my latest CD Times Too, and many people say they hear some Monk influences. Maybe because at the time I was playing a lot of Monk tunes."
As a leader on the bandstand, Kelly chooses musicians who share her understanding of two things: "It is all about the music and communication on the bandstand. I like having musical conversations when I play. So it is important that the other people do, too." With a daily schedule of homework, lessons, and other activities, she methodically prepares mentally for performances. "I make sure I feel comfortable with my repertoire and take a few deep breaths and try to relax. I also like to eat bananas to calm my nerves and pasta for energy. I am nervous just before I go on stage but when I am on stage it feels like the most natural thing in the world." This diligent preparation is vital to any artist who travels regularly, as Kelly is doing more of these days. "The most exciting thing about traveling is getting to play at new venues for new audiences in different areas. It’s really enjoyable to play live and I have a lot of fun."
Nestled in with her music is her life as a teenager, daughter, sister, friend, and colleague. She has little time for much else but music. "But when I do have time," she says, "I enjoy dancing, playing some soccer, and hanging out with friends and seeing many other artists’ concerts with my family. I feel I learn things watching other performers and feel it is very important to support other musicians by going to see them." She credits her family with assisting with the financial and physical support of promotions, recording, "webmastering" and other behind-the-scenes action. "My family has been and is playing a very large role in my career. My parent’s recognition of my passion for music, especially jazz, and their support through numerous hours of chauffeuring me to and from lessons and gigs I am really thankful for them. I could not do what I do without them."
This seems to be a summer brimming with musical happenings for Kelly. She has been selected to participate as the only alto saxophonist in the Brubeck Institute Summer Jazz Colony in California and as the alto saxophone alternate for the Next Generation Monterey Jazz Orchestra. She’ll also be attending a one-week adult program at the Stanford Jazz Residency Program at Stanford University. She’s honored and excited to be a part of each one. Kelly was particularly drawn to apply to the Stanford Jazz Residency Program for one special reason: Phil Woods is teaching there. "Someone told me once", relates Kelly, "that if I couldn’t study with Charlie Parker then Phil Woods was the man."