Playin’ Around With Playbook: Saxophonist + Educator Grace Kelly
I was 16 years old when I first heard Grace Kelly play the saxophone. I was attending a concert for The Grammy High School Band at The Vic in Los Angeles. I was there to see my friend, classmate, and singer extraordinaire, Lauren Desberg.
I was a junior at LOS ANGELES COUNTY HIGH SCHOOL FOR THE ARTS so I had heard skilled young musicians before. What I hadn’t heard was a musician my age play with such sophistication and soul. I was floored by Grace. She showed me that we might be young, but we didn’t need to play like kids. Grace was a seasoned veteran, lifting up the entire band. Her passion for music was genuine and infectious.
Since then she’s been tearing up the music world. From performances at The Newport Jazz Festival to the Hollywood Bowl, being part of the house band for “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert,” and being a featured soloist with the Boston Pops.
She is a blast to be around and one of the great educators of our generation. I’m blessed to call her a collaborator and a dear friend.
Grace joined our Playbook Ambassador, Trista Ford on our weekly IGTV show, Playbook Interviews full interview here).
Below is an excerpt from their conversation on September 30, 2021.
Trista Ford: Why did you start playing saxophone?
Grace Kelly: Saxophone reminds me of the human voice. And I always felt this very compelling, this feeling, that someone was singing to me. The Girl from Ipanema was on repeat in my household when I was a little girl and thought: ‘I wanna learn this one day.’ It’s one of the instruments that’s closest to expressing the human voice.”
TF: Did you start with the saxophone?
GK: I was a clarinet player before and a classical piano player. Sometimes you find an instrument that you feel is your voice. I was like ok… this definitely feels right.
TF: What mantra do you have when you’re feeling low?
GK: I think of music as this very healing thing. Live performances are where people can really be in touch with their emotions. Last night at the show, people were crying, they were dancing, they were laughing together. And so I think that that message goes way beyond me and my sax and the notes. And I remember this is for the people. This is for all of us to come together. And that really keeps me going.”
TF: Is there anything that inspired your image and presence in the jazz community?
GK: I love seeing the ladies rock the sax. I didn’t have a lot of female role models growing up. I was so captivated by the instrument itself. My parents never told me any instrument was for a boy or for a girl. It was just whatever you wanted to play. I think that it’s a very powerful instrument. And I think that a lot of things that I feel inside I can channel through the instrument, that I don’t really feel as comfortable expressing just as me…Grace. For all the young ladies watching out there, or anybody really, knowing that it’s a safe place to channel and experiment. And your image and everything comes from that place, that genuine spot. I trust that and I follow that.”
TF: Why do you think programs like Playbook and SaxySchool are so important?
GK: I think we are at this beautiful age where the internet can deliver a lot of information. And we can connect with some of our favorite players and study with people we look up to and kind of get their experience, their knowledge about music, about touring, and life. And I think we should all be able to use that to our advantage. It’s a beautiful thing getting to mentor the next generation.
TF: What stands out to you most about PLAYBOOK?
GK: I love how you guys are bringing together the community. “You’re not alone!”. Music doesn’t have to be a solo track, and if anything, it should be one that you do with others. Some of my favorite moments have been ones where I’m playing with friends. Friends like “Tall Sam,” Sammy Miller, Ben Flocks— all of these guys. I just have such great memories of being in Italy with Sammy Miller and the band. I think that’s a beautiful thing you guys are cultivating.