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Grace Kelly will blow you away

Ex-child prodigy to perform unique jazz at Niswonger

Grace Kelly will perform on Sept. 23 at Niswonger Performing Arts Center.

Chris Hupe

Whatzup Features Writer

Published September 14, 2022

Yes, her name really is Grace Kelly. No, she is not a princess or an actress, but she is a world-class performer, a former child prodigy turned seasoned musician that is paving her own path in a genre traditionally dominated by men. 

With saxophone in hand and new music on the way, Kelly will visit Niswonger Performing Arts Center in Van Wert on Sept. 23.

Putting pandemic unease into music

The 30-year-old Kelly is set to release her 14th studio album, All That I Need, on Nov. 18. She recently told Whatzup that although she has been working on the album only about six months, the ideas for its songs came from stories that were shared with her during the two-year shutdown. 

“Coming out of the pandemic, there were a lot of feelings of, ‘What’s going to happen?’ and ‘Am I ever going to perform again?’ ” she said. “So, the thought of choosing to take an optimistic view versus the fear-based ‘Is music ever going to happen again?’ brought up a lot of questions.”

The first single from the album, “We Will Rise,” Kelly  said, “was inspired by Maya Angelou’s poem ‘And Still I Rise,’” but there are a lot of other influences contained on the release with a “mix of jazz inspired cuts that have been remixed by me and some pop/singer/songwriter cuts.”

Respect of contemporaries

Born Grace Chung, Kelly was adopted by her stepfather, Bob Kelly, at age 8. 

Although she had experimented with other instruments, it wasn’t until she started playing the saxophone at 10 that she got hooked. 

“I had played classical piano and clarinet before, but it wasn’t that fun for me,” she told bestsaxophonewebsiteever.com. “I had also always been singing, which I continue to do to this day, but 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 six weeks after I first picked it up that I had a concert, and I made my first self-produced CD at 12.”

After performing her first CD release concert, she realized that she loved performing and making music for other people. So she started to make a CD every year to document her progress, gaining notice of some of her favorite musicians that soon invited her to sit in with them.

Her accomplishments are as impressive as they are numerous, having played with the likes of Dave Brubeck, Wynton Marsalis, Harry Connick Jr., Jamie Cullum, Frank Morgan and Esperanza Spalding. She has also been invited to play at prestigious events and venues like the Montreal Jazz Festival, Newport Jazz Festival, Lincoln Center, Carnegie Hall, Kennedy Center, Apollo Theater, Birdland, Boston’s Symphony Hall, and in a vast array of venues as far away as Europe and Asia.

Connecting with audience

What’s different and intriguing about Kelly is that she isn’t a jazz musician in the traditional sense, preferring to describe her style as “jazz and beyond.” 

“My background is in traditional jazz, so that’s the jazz imprint in everything I do, but I also grew up writing songs and listening to people like Carole King and Stevie Wonder,” she said. “So, it’s a mix of singer-songwriter, groove, and jazz.”

Her live shows go a step further. Traditionally, jazz concerts are sitdown events meant to be enjoyed in the comfort of each individual seating area, but Kelly blows that mindset out of the water. 

“I think I bring a lot of energy in our live shows, and I’ve always love performing,” she said. “That’s where I’m most connected with the audience.

“After shows, people often say they feel so much energy or that it was so dynamic,” Kelly said. “I think it’s those things, mixed with some vulnerability,” that makes her shows different. “I’ve had people say, ‘I’ve cried at your concert, I laughed and I smiled.’ We’re just trying to capture a wide range of human emotions.”

Kelly’s fans range from grandparents to young children, a product of creating music that appeals to many different types and demographics of people. She attributes her ability to connect with those audiences to her time as a member of the house band on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. Recruited by band leader Jean Baptiste, she said she picked up a lot from his style. 

“I learned from Jean the power of really connecting with the audience and spreading ones joy,” she said. “We would go out in the crowd of the Ed Sullivan Theater and get people on their feet or we would be out on the streets of New York City playing. That always really resonated with me, because that’s the type of joy I really love to bring to the stage. He was really the first one to show me that you can break the barrier of stage and audience, and it becomes like this family vibe at that point.”

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