WICN Artist of the Month, August 2022: Grace Kelly
Written by Doug Hall on August 1, 2022
Watching live performances of featured artists in jazz, certain musicians command your attention with their physical presence, effortlessly able to exude enormous energy. Grace Kelly, saxophonist, singer, and bandleader, has been sharing that sustained personal intensity on stage since her teens. Kelly has a unique combination of passionate energy and infectious enthusiasm, all directed towards a driving desire to connect with her audience, sharing and expressing herself through her saxophone or voice—a calling, in her own words, “to be a healer through music, and uplift people.” With an early resume that includes a CD release (Dreaming in 2005) at 12, a special guest artist performance with Keith Lockhart and the Boston Pops 2007 Jazz Series at 14, and at 15 an invitation by Wynton Marsalis, in 2008, to play with David Brubeck for the “Let Freedom Swing/Celebration of America” concert as part of the inaugural festivities for President Obama—Kelly has been on the main stage since grade school.
In addition to the natural gift of spirited and electric charisma onstage, Grace Kelly’s musical path follows a family heritage, from her grandmother, a classically trained pianist, to her mother Irene Kelly, who studied classical piano for 12 years. Kelly’s grandparents took the unusual chance to move from South Korea to the US to enroll Kelly’s aunt (Irene’s sister) in the renowned Juilliard School in New York City. With a tradition of strong classical music following from her mother’s family, Kelly would begin piano lessons at six. Her mother Irene married Robert Kelly in 1997 and relocated to Brookline, and the sound of music was never far away. Kelly recalls hearing classical music recordings, Broadway scores and jazz played regularly in her home. Iit was an important part in my subconscious,” she later stated.
As with any family that discovers that their child has an extraordinary gift for music at an early age, there is a point when career decisions demand to be made. Irene Kelly, Grace’s mother, and her adoptive father Robert Kelly moved their lives in a direction to focus on their daughter’s future. At the Brookline Elementary School, the Kellys found a very special mentor in music teacher and jazz pianist Ken Berman. As related by Irene Kelly, “Ken saw Grace had this special talent.”
The first moment of opportunity on stage came when Grace was just 8 years old. Selected to be on stage in a local Brookline school performance event normally reserved for 7th and 8th graders, Grace the 2nd grader delivered a voice and presence beyond her years. Her mother was caught off-guard when Berman told her, “You need to start recording this.” Mr. Berman then directed Kelly’s parents to a recording studio (PBS Studio in Westwood, Ma.), providing introductions to other musicians (including renowned jazz bassist John Lockwood) to record some of the songs their daughter was writing. This gave birth to Grace Kelly’s first CD, Dreaming (2005). “The CD release took place… when I was 12,” Kelly recalls, “and as soon as I walked on stage, I realized that performing was my favorite thing to do.”
With a family commitment to a future of musical performance, the Kelly’s remarkable journey followed an uncharted script. Irene and Robert Kelly related their on-the-job training management experiences in a conversation for Allaboutjazz, in a 2018 article profiling Grace, “Irene, her mother, talked about Grace’s father Robert Kelly taking on that role down to driving Kelly to local gigs, picking up lost band equipment at the airport and just getting to the show on time (as Irene was working full-time running a family boutique business in Brookline).” Kelly reflected on her parents’ commitment, once her decision was made to be a professional musician, “There’s no straightforward way to create a career (in the music industry), no book that tells you what to do.”
An early mentorship for Grace would play a crucial part in developing her professional career and future connections with exceptional and established jazz musicians and teachers.
At 12, Kelly would meet legendary jazz promoter Fred Taylor at Sculler’s Jazz Club in Boston, and after hearing her version of Over the Rainbow, Taylor’s ear was caught, and bookings followed and a long-bonding personal and musical relationship was begun.
In Taylor’s biography, What, And Give Up ShowBiz? Released posthumously in 2020 he relates the moment he met Grace. “In 2004, I met Bob Kelly, who would drop by Scullers and ask me to audition his teenage daughter, who played alto saxophone. I would put them off. But he was persistent.” The moment arrived when singer Ann Hampton Callaway, an American jazz singer and songwriter, introduced Grace, “Ann’s doing her show, and says, ‘Now I’d like to bring up a very talented young lady, Grace Kelly.’ I had no idea this was going to happen. Grace was all of 13, and she played Over the Rainbow, and I’m thinking, ‘What’s this all about?’ – I was floored, instantly a fan, and I met her afterwards and told her I’d like her to do something at the club.”
David Ginsburg, WICN Public Radio general manager, recalls some back history of these early years when Kelly was first brought to the station, and her continued ongoing support and involvement with the station, “Much of the institutional memory of Grace’s early years at WICN has passed on, unfortunately. I do know that as a 12-year-old prodigy, Grace was brought to WICN by former GM and host, the late Brian Barlow. Subsequently, longtime WICN host Joe Zupan brought Grace on many times, and she’s been a part of the WICN family ever since. She’s played Jazz at Sunset gigs, in-studio performances, calls in during fund drives to help raise money for the station, and has generally been a remarkably supportive artist and presence. We are immensely grateful for Grace’s ongoing support of the station, and we are proud to support her in all of her endeavors.”
Kelly’s musical education would intensify after graduation from Brookline High School at 16, enrolling in the Jazz Department of New England Conservatory of Music’s School of Preparatory Education and then graduating from Berklee College of Music in 2011 with a Bachelor of Arts in professional music at age 19.
But more importantly and critical to her early career, and developing an individual style, were intersections with prominent mentors and teachers. This critical circle of musicians had a profound impact on Kelly’s career. A pivotal mentor was Lee Konitz, renowned bebop saxophonist, who played with Miles Davis on Birth of Cool (1957), and an NEA Jazz Master, who worked with Kelly when she was 16, recording the album GRACEfullLEE (2008), which garnered a 4 ½ star review from DownBeat magazine. Kelly reflected, “The biggest lesson that Lee taught me has been spontaneity, from day one,” and Konitz responded by saying, Kelly is “all ears and all heart.”
Collaborations followed with Phil Woods, stellar jazz saxophonist (who toured with Gillespie and many other jazz legends) multiple DownBeat award-winning artist, and another NEA Jazz Master, recording together, Kelly’s sixth album at 18, Man with the Hat (2011). And then a very close personal relationship with the late, legendary jazz saxophonist Frank Morgan, who Kelly performed with and more recently helped promote the documentary The Sound of Redemption: The Frank Morgan Story (2014), fondly referring to Morgan as “almost a grandfather figure to me—we almost adopted each other.” An “A” level of talented and inspired musicians and promoters which Kelly graciously acknowledges, “it’s their lives, who they are as people—playing music next to them just takes on a bigger meaning.”
Another reccurring theme in Kelly’s musical life has been intersections with a variety of contemporary rising stars in jazz. In 2016, she stepped into a new role, on television, with regular performances alongside Grammy-award winning and DownBeat’s 2022 Jazz Artist Critics Award, jazz pianist Jon Batiste, on CBS’ “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.” Kelly found herself developing a close collaborative relationship with the bandleader. Batiste, a Juilliard-trained multi-instrumentalist, and his band Stay Human, continue as the house band for the show, which has often featured Kelly in the lineup. Kelly talked about this musical connection. “I’ve learned so much from him (Jon Batiste), and genuinely loved his music and musicianship.” Again, another musical partnership, and friendship, adding a branch of exposure to her musical orbit.
In this same year, Kelly would have her greatest professional recognition to date, winning the 64th Annual 2016 Downbeat Magazine Critics Poll as “Rising Star Alto Saxophone,” and voted fourth in the Alto Saxophonist category in the 2016 Downbeat Magazine Readers Poll. Concurrently, she would also receive critical reviews for her 10th CD Trying To Figure It Out was voted the #2 Jazz Album of The Year in the 2016 Downbeat Magazine Readers Poll.
Between 2016/17, Kelly was also already actively using social media as an outlet for productions and access to her creative projects, having started making music videos of herself performing spontaneously in locations around the US and the world, while on tour. Kelly called these recordings, Grace Kelly POPUP series, which are available on YouTube. In a 2018 article, she elaborates on her fascination with the effects of different physical locations. “It’s interesting to hear how the ambiance varies between locations. I did one in a parking garage where there’s amazing natural reverb. I did one on a Ferris wheel. They all sound different, which is fascinating to me.”
During this same period, in a personal give-back to the music industry and education, Kelly and her parents Irene and Bob, would partner with Berklee College of Music to fundraise and establish the Fred Taylor Endowed Scholarship Fund, which is awarded annually and “designed to nurture gifted and deserving students who are in need of financial assistance and who are studying in the areas of music business/management as well as professional music.”
Kelly was also among those who honored Taylor at a special benefit concert on September 12, 2017, at the Berklee Performance Center. Grace spoke directly to Taylor that night on stage, “Thank you, Fred, for making it possible for great artists to be heard, and for fostering the new talent. You believe in the music and are always 100 percent there for the artist. We can’t thank you enough for that.” The concert featured a special appearance by multi-Grammy-winning jazz guitarist and composer Pat Metheny, along with performances by jazz luminaries such as Terri Lyne Carrington, Kurt Elling, Danilo Pérez, John Patitucci, Catherine Russell, Jason Palmer, Kat Edmonson, Monty Alexander, and Bo Winkler.
Returning to utilizing social media tools and the concept of wider exposure and audience access, Kelly released “GO Time: Brooklyn,” (2018) recorded live in studio, in two parts, as a video release and album. In a DownBeat news article, Kelly is represented as taking the latest direction in connecting to fans and new listeners. “GO Time: Brooklyn, saxophonist Grace Kelly’s new video album, fully embraces the way musicians are making music supremely immediate to their fans. And on Fish & Chips, which features baritone saxophone player Leo P, Kelly pulls in some New Orleans vibes to match the music’s verve—and danceability.” Kelly also states her intentions directly, “This new album was created so I could connect with fans all around the globe and have them feel the magic of new music by experiencing it more viscerally through their screens,” Kelly said. “I want them to feel as if they’re in the studio with me, making it.”
In 2019, Kelly stepped back into the recording studio for a follow up to the GO Time: Brooklyn with GO Time: LA – having relocated to Los Angeles and reinventing a more visual style that continues her approach to new audiences through a live video recording experience. In a JazzTimes review, Dan Bilawsky gave an enthusiastic thumbs-up for this innovation of “narrowing the gap separating the senses.” Bilawsky further observes the power of the “whole audience” inclusiveness concept: “Capitalizing on the popularity of her PopUp video series and eyeing the way that younger listeners tend to consume music, Kelly delivers an album that’s both audibly and visually appealing.” Also, Kelly doesn’t shy away from crossover to pop ballads and back again to jazz standards, covering both Van Morrison’s Crazy Love and then Chick Corea’s Spain. Kelly, like many other younger multi-instrumentalist musicians, incorporates elements around jazz, adding a broader skill set and contemporary interpretations.
In early 2020, another outside the box musical collaboration effort developed via a connection with Charlie Rosen, gamer, multi-instrumentalist and orchestral composer/arranger. An innovative approach to musical reinterpretation brought the two together, with Rosen’s 30+ piece jazz orchestra, the 8-Bit Big Band. The show’s immersion into expanded, enhanced orchestral arrangements of familiar video game themes from Super Mario, Legend of Zelda, Final Fantasy, Donkey Kong, and Pokémon debunked any preconceived notions of simplistic, pop-oriented theme repetition. As reviewed in Allaboutjazz, “stellar multi-saxophonist, vocalist, DownBeat Critics Poll winner and Berklee alumna Grace Kelly joined the stage, with Rosen conducting, and delivered fireworks for several theme covers, including “Hydrocity Zone” and “Big Blue” running her fingering across the octave keys and owning the spotlight with her spirited performance.”
With the onset of the Covid outbreak occurring just weeks after this performance, Kelly and all other musicians were shut down, as no live audience performances were scheduled well into 2021.
Currently back on tour, after two years of isolation, Kelly is on fast-track mode, with a variety of projects and busy supporting her upcoming release All That I Need. The first leg of the tour kicks off on August 19 in Worcester, MA at the WICN/Hanover Theatre Jazz at Sunset concert. In her own words, the pent-up desire to perform again has been forever to wait out, “It’s been a long time! This will feel like a reunion.” Certainly, her fans will feel the charge from a polished entertainer and an artist who lives to deliver positive vibes, sizzling and sophisticated sax chops, and share her infectious spirit.