Grace Kelly '11 Is 'Trying to Figure It Out'

Fresh off her latest album and a stint in the house band for The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, at 24, alto saxophonist Grace Kelly '11 has only just begun.

July 18, 2016

At 24, Grace Kelly '11—who arrived at Berklee on a full scholarship with her GED in hand at age 16—already has a resume that belies her years: she penned her first song at age 7, recorded her first CD at 12, and performed an original composition with the Boston Pops Orchestra at 14. Add to that a performance at President Barack Obama’s inauguration in 2008; recordings and performances with such artists as Wynton Marsalis, Dave Brubeck, and Dee Dee Bridgewater, as well Berklee’s own Terri Lyne Carrington ’83, and Esperanza Spalding '05; stints with The Late Show with Stephen Colbert (performing with the show’s house band, Stay Human, under director Jon Batiste, a Five-Week Summer Performance Program alumnus) and the house band for NBC's Maya & Marty; and being named "Rising Star—Alto Saxophone" in the 2016 DownBeat Critics Poll. 

But Kelly, a Massachusetts native who splits her time between Brooklyn and Santa Monica, is by no means finished learning and named her latest album, Trying to Figure It Out, as a nod to her own path of self-discovery. She promoted the album at a recent performance at the Berklee Performance Center—her first gig there as an alumna—and is back on campus this week to share lessons she's learned so far with this summer's crop of Five-Week students. 

The following is an excerpt from a conversation with Kelly during a visit to Berklee prior to her recent BPC show.


What was it like studying at Berklee at such a young age?

“When I got here, I met another talented musician who was also 16. I realized quickly it was just the best feeling to be among other musicians. The age thing was not an issue at all. To be among like-minded people felt so good. In fact, my network of friends today as an alumna is still the people I met at Berklee.”

You bring all different styles into your playing. How did that evolve?

Jazz is where it started for me. I think it’s really important to learn the foundation of jazz. It can also be a language we can use in expressing ourselves through other music. I’ve never believed in the concept of, "You’ve got to just learn about this type of jazz, and you can’t play hip-hop, etc." My music incorporates pop, blues, and jazz now. To be a versatile working musician in today’s world, you have to be able to play [different styles]. Some of the busiest and most called-upon musicians are those who can play several different instruments; those who are producers and musicians; or those who can fall into different musical settings.

And Berklee was all about that. The fact that I could go from the music of the Yellowjackets to being in the World Music Ensemble to doing a songwriting class then a percussion class—that gave me so much freedom.

How have these lessons in versatility contributed to your professional experience?

On The Late Show, I played all the woodwinds: baritone sax, soprano, alto, clarinet, flute, as well as percussion and vocals, and then sometimes keyboard and guitar. Alto sax is still my primary sax but this show made me really stretch. I’ve also been doing a lot of songwriting and composition.

What were some of your biggest takeaways from your time at Berklee?

I loved [the] fact that it was a super international population so I have friends now all around the world. That networking part of it, just making friends and connections, was huge. The other big piece that stuck with me was the connection I made with faculty.

Tell me about some of the faculty who influenced you.

The faculty here are working musicians who are doing incredible things. Alain Mallet [Berklee associate professor of ensembles] ended up producing my first single, “Sweet Sweet Baby,” during my time at Berklee. He was an ensemble teacher here. We really clicked. Terri Lyne Carrington has had me on some of her gigs. She had me on her latest CD, The Mosaic Project: Love and Soul. She also recorded on two of my CDs, one of which I did before Berklee. 

You’ve been connecting with high-profile musicians from a young age. How did some of those opportunities come about?

When I was in middle school, [Berklee faculty] Doug Johnson was my piano teacher and then he was in my band for eight years. Esperanza Spalding was in his trio; she invited me to sit in with her. Things like that. I sat in with Dave Brubeck at the BPC when I was 14. One of my sax teachers, Jerry Bergonzi, had been one of Dave Brubeck’s saxophonists. Around the same time, Harry Connick Jr. heard me at a workshop and asked me, "Why don’t you sit in with my band tonight?" I was playing with my trio in a steak house in New York City when Wynton Marsalis came in. He sat in for the whole second set. He called me a week later and asked me to be part [of a performance] with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra at Rose Hall, and then he brought me to Obama’s inauguration. In my career so far I've kept a very open mind and I’ve been super grateful. A lot of things have rolled up that I would have never expected would have happened.

How has it been for you as a female instrumentalist making your way in the music world?

There are two sides of it: Because there are fewer of us, it makes us more special in certain ways. People notice that. Still, to this day it kind of blows my mind to have audience members come up and say, “I’ve never seen a girl play saxophone.” I think we’ve come a long way from 10 years ago. I’m lucky in my career so far that I haven’t hit that many roadblocks as far as that stereotype. I think it comes down to the fact that you have to be really good at what you do. Terri Lyne Carrington had me do something with her at the Kennedy Center. It was me, Geri Allen on piano, Esperanza Spalding on bass, and Dee Dee Bridgewater on vocals. I was so excited to be part of that, it was such an empowering thing. I love to see women instrumentalists killing it.

I’m always really touched when I see some young girls come to my concerts and say, "I’m playing sax now, I got your first recording when I was 12, and you’ve been a big inspiration." I hope I can continue to be someone for the young generation coming up. My hope is in the next 10 years, there will be much less of a discrepancy between females and males in the instrumental world. 

Tell me about your new album.

I made it in three months—the fastest I’ve ever made an album. The writer Michael Connelly has [a series] about this character, Harry Bosch, who is a big jazz fan. He loves the saxophonist Frank Morgan, a mentor of mine. Through Frank, Michael Connelly found me and my music, and featured me in a couple of his books. In August, Michael emailed me and told me he wrote a part for me in season 2 of his show [the Amazon series Bosch]. I’m featured with my band. I wrote the song, “Blues for Harry Bosch,” inspired by Michael’s work [before I was asked to do the TV show]. I wanted to express my admiration back! Michael said, "After [the show] comes out, people are going to want to buy the track."

The CD is basically an emotional musical journey of darkness into redemption. It’s a theme album. It starts in a super dark place and then in the middle, “Trying to Figure It Out” is about keeping your head up and looking towards the future, and then every track kind of unfolds into celebration.

This mirrors the last two years of my life: a lot of exciting things are happening for me in L.A. but there was also a lot of confusion because I was working with different producers and writers. I think the hardest thing to do is to find your voice as an artist. Through it all, everyone was kind of saying this is who you should be: "You should do this, you should do that." That’s why I called it Trying to Figure It Out. It comes down to, "What is it that I want?" All of that was such an emotional journey.

Watch a highlight reel from Kelly's recent peformance at the BPC.