Grace Kelly Bio: GRACEfulLEE by Kirk Silsbee
“Ten years ago I was asked by someone where the new Bird was going to come from. I said, half-jokingly, that it might be a dwarf, Albino woman from Africa. Jazz seems to be floundering right now, and we don’t have a clear-cut leader. Maybe Grace Kelly is the one. You just never know.” –Phil Woods
With the tremendous proliferation of jazz education in the past 50 years, we’re used to seeing talented and precocious youngsters in the music. But education alone doesn’t account for a rare talent like Grace Kelly.
She’s accomplished far beyond her 16 years, as an alto saxophonist, songwriter, arranger, jazz composer and singer. Kelly has performed in such far-flung venues as Scullers in Cambridge, Dizzy’s Club Coca Cola, the Jazz Bakery in Los Angeles, the Telluride Jazz Festival in Colorado, the Lionel Hampton Jazz Festival in Idaho, the Nordlysfestivalen in Tromso, Norway and the Sejong Cultural Center in South Korea.
Grace has shown tremendous aptitude for playing jazz but perhaps more importantly, she’s shown just as much capacity for learning and growth. Alto saxophone legend Lee Konitz, her mentor and frontline partner on GRACEfulLEE, declares her “absolutely egoless. She’s interested in just playing; she’s not trying to impress anybody. That’s very important.”
The Kelly-Konitz collaboration on GRACEfulLEE came about almost by accident. “I originally wanted him to record a couple of tracks for another album,” Grace offers. “It was his idea to set up a session in New York. We wanted another voice so we settled on guitarist Russell Malone. I met Rufus Reid at Birdland and sat in with him. His sound is so gorgeous; he was our first choice for a bass player. And Matt Wilson is one of my favorite drummers. Everything he does is so musical.”
Lee and Grace connect on a fundamental level. “We spend as much time talking and listening as we do playing,” she explains. “He talks a lot about cheesy things in the music and how to avoid them. I love the way Mr. Kontiz is able to play at such a fresh level all the time.”
Although the Brookline, Massachusetts resident picked up the clarinet in the fourth grade, she quickly began studying the saxophone privately. “Six weeks into playing,” recalls Grace, “I was playing songs. It was very natural for me.”
Despite her young age, Kelly has garnered impressive formal recognition. She won both the 2008 ASCAP Foundation’s Young Jazz Composer Award and the ISC International Songwriting Contest for her song “101.” Her other honors include the Downbeat 2007 Student Music Award for her arrangement of “Summertime.” That year saw Kelly walk off with the Top Woodwind Soloist honor at the Lionel Hampton Jazz Festival. She amassed an impressive array of awards from Berklee College of Music in 2007: the Superior Musicianship Awards of 2007 for jazz instrumentalist, pop/rock/blues instrumentalist, outstanding jazz vocalist and for her original composition “Fast Metabolism (Times Two).” In 2007, she grabbed the IAJE honors for Best Composition, Best Composition for Small Ensemble, and Best Ensemble Lead Sheet.
The song form is an important ingredient to Kelly’s musical profile. She attended her first Broadway show at the age of two, and like many a schoolgirl, sang at home in front of the mirror. Writing songs has been a part of her musical life, almost as long as she’s been playing. Among Grace’s champions is singer-songwriter Ann Hampton Calloway, who recognized and praised her writing abilities early on.
Wedded to the love of song is a sense of lyricism, “My parents played a lot of Stan Getz and Paul Desmond around the house, so I was used to that kind of melodic playing. The more I listened, the more I loved it.” That singing quality, coupled with an eye toward linear improvising, is what marks Grace’s playing on GRACEfulLEE.
Study has always been an important aspect to Kelly’s music. Her ongoing teachers are Jerry Bergonzi, Allan Chase, and Lee Konitz. The Konitz link is both fortuitous and historic for her. He’s the last living member of the tight knit coterie that surrounded pianist and theoretician Lennie Tristano--the first person to codify a teaching methodology for jazz.
After his second set at the Jazz Bakery recently, Konitz answered questions from a group of college-age players, eager for information and lessons. The attention doesn’t surprise Konitz. “The knowledge that Lennie imparted is there for the taking. Young players have studied Parker and Miles; some of them want to go deeper. Grace has the appetite for deeper study, and that impresses me.”
“I’m so fortunate to know Mr. Konitz,” Kelly says. “My parents took me to hear him at the Jazz Standard and that’s where I met him. He seems more like one of my peers because he’s very open to calling people up out of the blue to jam. Now he’s a friend of the family.”
“Working with Mr. Konitz and the rhythm section,” Grace maintains, “has been a dream project. It didn’t seem like work at all when we were playing. We were just calling standards and, before we knew it, we had eighty minutes of music.”