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No doubt, it’s been a rough summer for music fans around Newport. Among other things, we’ve missed out on the artistry and excitement of the many festivals that take place on the island each year. No one has missed it more, however; than the artists who play the Festivals.

Grace Kelly, a fan favorite at the Newport Jazz Festival, is one of those artists. We caught up with popular saxophonist and singer last week and learned a little more about what shes been up to lately. Like most, her touring scheduled has been sidelined due to Coronavirus.

“Never before have I seen my entire performance schedule cancelled with the uncertainty of not knowing when it’s going to come back,” she explained. Nonetheless, she’s been keeping busy.

“I’m in a fortunate position as I’ve built up a healthy online audience over the years. I’ve been pivoting to virtual concerts and figuring out how to get closer to my fans to bring them even more specialized experiences online. I’m doing more educational work, which has always been passion of mine, but I’ve never really been able to get deep into it in a way that I wanted to, given my touring schedule.”

Kelly has been running Zoom group workshops, with over 600 students joining since quarantine. “They’re from all around the world, Japan, Germany, its so cool. I’m about to launch a private membership community with exclusive educational content and live streams,” she noted.

On Saturday, August 29, at 2PM, Kelly will join Charles McPherson, Joe Lovano, Antonio Hart, and Barry Harris for an online conversation and performance titled “Celebrating Bird.” The event is part of “Charlie Parker: Now’s the Time, Celebrating Bird at 100,” sponsored by 92Y in New York City.

“I’m super excited about this. Charlie Parker has been one of the most important saxophone figures in my life, with his recordings spending so much time in my ears. I really started to learn the bebop language from so many of Parker’s transcriptions. Some of my favorite recordings like Bird With Strings, are records that I would put on at night and lie there in bed, just soaking it in and studying every sound. I loved studying with my teachers and my mentors – Phil Woods who was literally a direct lineage, and my other mentor, Frank Morgan, who spent time with Bird and actually told me incredible stories about their times with Charlie Parker.”

It’s an amazing line up. All these cats, I admire so much, and I think it is going to be a very fruitful conversation,” Kelly added.

At age 28, the Berklee School of Music graduate has spent more than half her life making music, recording her first album, Dreaming, when she was only twelve. She described how her background included a range of musical influences.

“Growing up I had so many musical influences. Of course, I was deep into bebop and I had the great fortune of studying with my saxophone idols, Phil Woods and Lee Konitz. At the same time, I was listening to Stevie Wonder, the Beatles and John Mayer, and whoever else may have been on Top 40 radio when I was growing up. My iTunes would shuffle from Miles Davis to Earth, Wind and Fire… I also have a background in musical theater. I originally wanted to be a Broadway actor and I loved a lot of Broadway music growing up. Before I got the jazz bug, I was singing and dancing from the age of six. A lot of people don’t know that about my background, but it’s very authentic to who I am in my expression.”

Kelly has found her own voice on sax, and is known for her high energy performances. It’s a dynamic seem more and more frequently in jazz. Kelly offered some thoughts.

“Saxophonist Frank Morgan would often say to me, ‘there’s one Grace Kelly and you be her.’ I think there’s probably a musical/performance piece where my mentors and I wouldn’t see eye to eye, but what they’ve taught me, and the language that I learned with bebop, and continue to learn from their records, is there. I know that’s always going to be in my music, because whether I’m playing with a back beat, or whether I’m playing some blues or pop music, the way that I’ve learned saxophone and its language is rooted in bebop and traditional jazz. So it’s all jazz. I think it’s my responsibility, along with the people of my generation, to continue pushing the music forward.”

“There’s a whole new wave coming in right now that pushing jazz forward, and I’m very excited to be part of that. In my mind, if we can get one more person who wasn’t hip to jazz to now have an interest in it, that will help the music grow to an even larger audience, which I think is really, really important. In my mind, the world of this is jazz, this is pop, this is hip-hop, is very blurred in the way people listen to music, We’re in a playlist world, we’re in a video world, where people just discover stuff on YouTube.”

As a female Asian American saxophonist, Kelly is in a unique position in the jazz world. She’s become a role model for many young players, especially young women.

“Growing up, I never had a female saxophone role model. I fell so deeply in love with the sound of Stan Getz – he was the reason I picked up the sax. I also was very fortunate that my parents never told me sax was for guys, so I was kind of in my own bubble. I had incredible male mentors and I guess this conversation never really came up because in their mind, it’s like, if you can play, you can play. I’m so grateful for their openness and for seeing something in me that they wanted to champion.”

“Later, I developed a relationship with the great Terri Lynn Carrington, who recorded on one of my albums when I was 14. Later when I was 16, she had me perform with her band in Uruguay. She’s such a champion of a great female musicians and is cultivating a beautiful community and awareness about them, because there are so many incredible female musicians that the world doesn’t know about, that I think really deserve a bigger spotlight.“

Kelly continued, “A lot of young women have reached out to me, middle school girls and their parents who say thank you so much for being a role model for my little girl. You know, it’s because of you that she took up the sax seeing someone that made her think she can play the instrument. So I’m very grateful for the opportunity could be there as a role model for so many young women who are interested in sax and are becoming passionate about music. That’s something I didn’t have growing up.”

The COVID crisis has given Kelly a chance to reflect on some impressive career highlights, including her performance at the 2009 Presidential inauguration.

“An early highlight of my career was to both perform with the Boston Pops Orchestra, and write an original arrangements for them when I was 14. I was opening for the great Dianne Reeves. It was an incredible experience, and my first time ever writing for orchestra. Playing Obama’s first inauguration was such a ‘pinch me’ moment. Recording saxophone albums with my idols, Lee Konitz and Phil Woods and playing the Newport Jazz Festival with them was also amazing.”

On a more mainstream level, I was featured in the Amazon show Bosch, which I think might be the most successful Amazon TV show at this point. To play my song ‘Blues for Harry Bosch,’ was such a thrill. And performing in the house band for “Late Show with Steven Colbert” with John Batiste was certainly a highlight.”

“And another thing that I am so grateful for, I won the John Lennon ‘Song of the Year’ award in 2018 for my song ‘Feels Like Home.’ It now has millions of plays online – people have gotten married to that song, I performed a Zoom wedding recently, singing that song, which was requested by the bride and groom. So that’s was an incredible highlight for me, because my dream as a songwriter is that my songs could really touch people and reach people.”

Grace Kelly continues to emerge as a star. To learn more, check out her web site here.

Grace Kelly (Photo: Ken Abrams)
Grace Kelly

Ken Abrams

Lifestyle Editor Ken Abrams writes about music for What'sUpNewp, Providence Monthly, SO RI, and more. He DJ's "The Kingston Coffeehouse" Tuesday nights, 6-9 PM on WRIU 90.3 FM.