Saxophone Prodigy Grace Kelly’s Astounding Musical Journey

Saxophonist Grace KellyWhen putting these interview articles together, sometimes I get an artist whose accomplishments are so impressive and numerous that it makes putting everything into a few paragraphs, well, kind of a pain in the tush.

That said, thanks a lot Grace Kelly.

I’ll go ahead and list just a few of the bullet points here:

  • Has recorded 7 solo albums with appearances by Phil Woods and Lee Konitz among others
  • In 2011 she became the youngest musician ever to be named as one of the Downbeat’s “Alto Saxophone Rising Stars.”
  • Has played alongside the likes of Dave Brubeck, Wynton Marsalis, Harry Connick Jr., Jamie Cullum, Frank Morgan, Esperanza Spalding, Toots Thielemans, Hank Jones, Jerry Bergonzi, Chris Potter, Rufus Reid, Kenny Barron, Dianne Reeves, Cedar Walton, James Cotton and Terri Lynn Carrington and many more.
  • Has performed over 500 concerts as a leader all around the world at prominent venues such as the Montreal Jazz Festival, Newport Jazz Festival, Lincoln Center, Carnegie Hall, the Kennedy Center, the Apollo Theater, Birdland, Boston’s Symphony Hall, Juan Les Pins Jazz Festival, Dizzy’s Club Cocoa Cola, Tanglewood Jazz Festival, Detroit Jazz Festival, Ronnie Scott’s (London), and in a vast array of venues as far away as Europe and Asia.
  • Has made her mark performing and recording as a first-rate vocalist as well.

Oh yeah, did I mention that Grace is all of 19 years old? (Yes, you heard correctly.)

The Interview

Doron Orenstein:  What was it that inspired you to make music your life?

Grace Kelly: I’ve been so lucky to be surrounded by music all my life ever since I was very little. My parents would play a soundtrack ranging from Broadway music and Stan Getz to the Beatles and other great pop music. I’ve been going to see live Broadway shows since I was 2, and I’ve watched jazz shows since I was 6!

It was really when I started the saxophone at 10 that got me hooked. I had played classical piano and clarinet before, but it wasn’t that fun for me. I had also always been singing which I continue to do to this day. Something about the saxophone was so exciting and fascinating to me. It came very naturally to me and I remember the first time I blew into it I got a nice tone. It was 6 weeks after I first picked it up that I had a concert playing songs like “Besame Mucho” and “My Funny Valentine.” I made my first self produced CD at 12 and now have 7 titles under my name.

When I performed my first CD release concert at age 12, I realized that I loved performing and making music for other people. I started to make a CD every year to document my progress and soon got invited to sit in with lots of my favorite musicians.

I knew when I started saxophone that I had a real passion for it because I always wanted to practice and play music with others. To this day, it is the power of music as well as the feeling I get when someone in the audience tells me how much I moved them with my music that fuels me. I love creating, improvising and touching people.

DO: What do you find yourself practicing the most these days?

GK: I have been learning more standards lately and playing along with the different artists and recordings. One of my favorite things to do while practicing is to play along to the recordings with some headphones on. There’s nothing like playing with Cannonball Adderly, Bird, Miles, or whoever it may be.

I like to practice a few different ways. Sometimes I pretend I was playing with the band on the bandstand and try to react to all their lines during the solos. Sometimes I practice bass lines on the horn throughout the song to solidify the changes and sometimes I just blow over the whole thing.

This year I was also practicing a lot of time. I put the metronome on quarter note=60 and try to play really even eighth notes. Then I would change to different rhythms, sixteenth notes, triplets etc. It’s a “time concept” that I was learning from George Garzone. Very hard stuff but really opened up my ears and it was so interesting that even experimenting with working on my time feel has automatically made me play different lines.

DO: What have you been listening to lately?

GK: I’ve always been listening to a big range of music from jazz to pop to world music. Recently I’ve been really digging Monty Alexander’s new album “Uplift” So swinging! I just played at Monty’s jazz festival last week and saw his performance with his quartet. He is such an inspiration. His music is so cheerful, soulful and expressive. I was so happy to get Monty to play on my “Man with the Hat” CD that came out earlier this year.

I listen to a lot of singers. I’ve been listening to a lot of Carmen McCrae recently. I listen to more singers than instrumentalists in general. Besides being a singer myself I find it really helps solidify knowing the lyrics to songs and being able to feel the emotion through the words, which is always running through my mind whether I’m playing, or singing. I grew up listening to Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughn, Billy Holiday, and all the greats.

As far as other alto players I love Bird, Lee Konitz, Phil Woods, Johnny Hodges, Sunny Stitt, Desmond, and from today Miguel Zenon, Kenny Garrett, and so many more. Stan Getz is always a must for me. He’s the reason why I started playing saxophone so I’m always listening to him. Every time I put on a Getz record I’m reminded of how important the tone of the instrument is and how beautiful melodies can be. He brings out the beauty in music. I’ve also been checking out amazing new artists Emily King. More on the R&B pop side of things, but the music is so great.

DO: What would you say is the skill or attribute that’s helped you the most as a musician?

GK: I love being a versatile musician. I would get bored if I only played one genre or if I only did one thing. I’ve gone from playing a jazz concert with my quintet to being a special guest with blues man James Montgomery and jamming with James Cotton and Huey Lewis playing some gritty loud blues and rock and roll. I grew up listening to a variety of music and I’m constantly trying to expand my knowledge.

I’m a player, composer, singer, arranger, and lyricist. I’ve written orchestral music, I’ve arranged for horn sections. I’m always up for new challenges. I hate when people put labels on music. I think good music is good music. I read a great quote from Ellington and Quincy Jones stating that basic idea. I’d say having an open attitude and being versatile are skills that I find are very helpful to me.

DO: What’s the single best piece of advice you’ve been given over the course of your playing career?

I was so lucky to spend time on the stage with Frank Morgan and get to know the alto legend very well. He told me that one of the hardest things to play is a ballad. He said that if he saw even one person shed a tear while he played a ballad during his performances he could go home happy.

Whenever I heard Frank I got goose bumps when hearing his ballad playing. He was also an incredible virtuoso but at the end of the night the thing that I remembered is how soulful and beautiful that ballad was. That was an incredible lesson to me, and one of my favorite things is to play ballads. I always know the words to all the songs I play, especially ballads.

Lee Konitz is one of my heroes of the alto sax and mentors. He taught me an incredible lesson of how its so important spontaneity is in music. I always try to go on stage and keep my ears open. Jazz is special to me because there’s improvisation, communication, and personal expression in the music. I love reacting to a note, chord, and rhythm that someone in the band throws at me. That’s what makes it fun. I try to forget all the scale stuff and licks that I’ve practiced and instead let musical melodies come out naturally.

DO: What’s the next musical frontier for Grace Kelly?

GK: I’m continuing to do a lot of touring. This summer I played at the Newport Jazz fest, Montréal jazz fest with my band, traveled to Europe, and played around the states. In the next coming months I will be doing a west coast tour along with traveling to South Africa. I’ve been working on new music for my next CD that will hopefully be out next year. It will feature a lot of my original compositions ranging from jazz to more contemporary sounds. Other than that I am going continue to tour and I’m finishing up at Berklee College of music in December [2011].

DO: For those new to your music, which recording would you suggest they pick up?

GK: I’ve done a lot of different albums. For people to get a taste of my more diverse set which ranges from jazz to funk I’d suggest they pick up Mood Changes. I play, sing, and feature my original compositions on it along with arrangements of my favorite standards.

I recently recorded an album called Grace which is a collection of my favorite hymns treated in a gospel jazz style. I’ve recorded two separate CD’s with my two inspirations and mentors Lee Konitz and Phil Woods. Both are straight ahead jazz, it’s basically a live CD for both. We only did 1 to 2 takes on every track. The CD I did with Lee Konitz is called GracefulLee and the one I recorded with Phil is called Man with the Hat.”

DO: What’s your saxophone equipment setup?

GK: I’m a Vandoren Endorser and I really love their mouthpieces and reeds. I play a rubber Vandoren A8 mouthpiece, 2 1/2 green box Java reeds. and a Selmer Mark six alto.

To learn more about Grace, hop on over to her website at

Doing her thing at Birdland, NYC