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Teen Musical Prodigy Earning Acclaim in Jazz World

Jazz saxophone player Grace Kelly (center) on stage
Jazz saxophone player Grace Kelly (center) on stage

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Ernest Leong

She shares a name with a former Hollywood star and Princess of Monaco, but her talent is all her own. This Grace Kelly is a jazz saxophonist who has won multiple awards, toured around the world, and played with famous jazz musicians.  And to top it all off, she's only 18.  

She has played to packed houses of jazz fans, sometimes even getting to jam with her childhood heroes.  For Grace Kelly, the life of a jazz musician can be fun and fulfilling.  

But it also takes work.  Long before she takes the stage, she prepares through a daily ritual of listening to music on her laptop and taking notes.

Music has been a part of this prodigy's life since early childhood.

"I think it just started by singing," said Kelly.  "Because that was so natural to me.  Ever since I was little, if I could talk, I would sing."  

Grace began her musical career studying classical piano, but while doing her daily piano exercises, she and her family discovered her true calling.

"I would make up my own songs rather than practice the pieces, so my parents would walk in and go, 'that doesn't sound like the piece.'  And I realized early on, maybe they shouldn't push me in this classical realm, because I wanted to make up my own songs," Kelly recalled.

The result was a career in jazz and worldwide acclaim for her performances on the saxophone.

Grace grew up in the northeastern state of Massachusetts.  She was born Grace Chung, but took her stepfather's name, Kelly, when he adopted her.

There was always music playing in the Kelly house, including jazz.  It was the perfect setting to nurture the talents of a developing saxophonist.  

Grace now follows a grueling schedule, which revolves around practice, recording and touring, but she also takes time out to act like a normal teenager.

"I can go to school and hang out with my buddies, and it's great," she said.  "At the same time, I get to tour and do this whole thing so I feel very blessed to get to do both."

Grace is not the only hard worker in the family.  Her stepfather Robert performs many roles behind the scenes to help with her career.

"I'm her agent, her manager, her roadie, her dad, her confidant, her schlepper - anything that needs to be done," he said.

As a saxophonist, singer, composer and arranger, Grace has released five CD's to date, including one with her teacher, Lee Konitz.

She has performed around the world, in diverse venues, before celebrities and politicians. But of all the places she's been, her favorite place remains the stage.

"Doesn't really matter where," she said.  "I feel most comfortable up there [onstage], and it's funny how, a minute before [I] go on, I can feel nervous.  But as soon as I'm on, I feel like it's home."

And it was onstage that one of her most memorable moments took place.  While she was performing with jazz great Phil Woods at a 2006 concert, Woods took off his hat - an iconic symbol to jazz fans - and placed it on her head.

"It was just really, really flattering, because Phil Woods is one of my idols," Kelly recalled.

It was literally a "crowning moment" and Grace Kelly's fans hope there will be many more to come.

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April 22, 2014 4:14 PM
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