Jazz saxophonist and singer/songwriter Grace Kelly, 23, has been wowing audiences since she was 12 years old and now plays in Stay Human, the house band on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. Born Grace Chung in Wellesley and raised in Brookline, she recorded her first album at age 12, appeared with the Boston Pops when she was 14 and played at President Obama’s inauguration when she was 16. She graduated from Berklee in 2011 and will return to Boston for a concert at the Berklee Performance Center on May 22. She has performed in more than 30 countries, and her latest album, Trying to Figure It Out, debuted in February. She lives in New York.
[Laughs.] Yes, the name throws some people off. They’ll say things like, “She’s back, only she’s an Asian jazz musician this time.” I did have a weird incident a few years back, when the band Mika had a hit called “Grace Kelly.” It’s about her, but it was on the radio a lot, and at this festival I was playing, these preteen girls came up to me, saying, “Oh my God! Is that song about you?” Cracked me up.
Why the saxophone? My parents played a ton of Stan Getz when I was growing up. They were always playing his Brazilian music, with Astrud Gilberto and Jobim, “The Girl from Ipanema” and all that. So as a little girl, I grew up singing along with all of his solos, without even thinking about it. In the back of my head, I knew I loved his sound so much that I knew I wanted to play saxophone. And that was it.
So more Stan Getz than Charlie Parker or John Coltrane? In the beginning, it was all Stan Getz, because my mother played Stan Getz, Sinatra, Magic 106.7, Broadway music, classical music. So once I actually started saxophone, my teacher was like, “All right, you gotta check out Charlie Parker, Paul Desmond, Johnny Hodges”… all the greats.
You’re often the youngest one in the group in a professional situation. Does it annoy you when colleagues try to baby you? It used to. Yeah. It’s still funny to me when someone swears and then apologizes. I’m like, “Dude, I know all the bad words.”
How many of the bad jazz habits have you developed: smoking, drinking, heroin addiction? [Laughs.] Definitely the heroin. Just kidding. The staying up all night thing is very real. It’s usual for me to go to bed at 2 or 3 am. I’ve had to change my schedule a bit since I’ve been working on The Late Show. We have to be in at noon. But if it’s up to me, I’ll go see a show and hang with friends into the wee hours of the morning.
How do you feel about the word “prodigy”? I’m really grateful to have found something I love to do from a very young age. It’s been an interesting transition for me, going from a so-called prodigy to being an adult. After you’re 18, you’re not a prodigy anymore. But it’s made me think about what I accomplished and the music I was making in those years and how to transition into a more mature artist. It was such an unusual thing when I was young—a girl playing the sax—and the standards are very different once you’re out of prodigy-land. But I’m very grateful for that head start.
You chose your career path at such a young age. Do you ever think, “What if I’d chosen medicine?” and if so, would you be at the same advanced place in your career? Oh, God, I probably would’ve killed somebody. [Laughs.] Sometimes I think about what else I would have done, and I don’t think I would have come as far, because music is my God-given gift. My head was always in the creative sphere, and I was so musical from an early age, it was just sort of obvious.
Stephen Colbert—funniest man alive? He is so funny and humble and such a genuinely nice man. So witty. So quick. Even when he’s not “on,” he’s laugh-out-loud funny.
Favorite venue you’ve played? I have to say when I performed at San Quentin Prison a couple of years ago. It was one of the most incredible musical moments of my life. One of my late, great mentors was jazz saxophonist Frank Morgan, and he spent 30 years of his life in San Quentin due to drugs. This was a tribute concert to him, and it was 250 inmates, tears being shed, seven standing ovations. Music took on a completely different meaning to me that day.
Biggest venue you’ve played? I played for the Celtics at the TD Garden, and I’ve also played at the Superdome in New Orleans, in front of, I think, 50,000 people. And at that point, people just look like little dots.
Do you make weird faces when you play? [Laughs.] Yeah. I also do this thing that I call “The Chicken Dance,” where my knees just kind of buckle and move. I’m never aware of it when I’m actually performing, but when I watch videos after, I laugh at how ridiculous I look.
Jazz great you wish you’d played with? Obviously, Stan Getz, but playing with Duke Ellington, in his band, next to Johnny Hodges, my face would melt.
Contemporary artist who it would surprise people to know you’re a fan of? I really like OneRepublic, Imagine Dragons. I have a huge thing for Bruno Mars, and I do have a soft spot for the old Maroon 5. A minor crush on Adam Levine.
Taylor Swift, yea or nay? I like T-Swift. I’m jammin’ to her stuff. I respect her as an artist, and the decisions that she’s made in terms of streaming. And she’s a great songwriter.
Top three things in heavy rotation on your listening device? Recently, it’s been Michael Jackson, the Thriller era. I’ve been revisiting a lot of Phil Woods lately, because he just recently passed away. And the Arcs, which was formed by a guy from the Black Keys. They’re really cool.
Artist you’d most like to sing a duet with? I think it would be really frickin’ amazing to have sung a duet with Ray Charles. He was just so incredible.
Biggest thing Berklee taught you? How important it is to connect with other musicians. The networking side of things, how to be in a community. To get out, go to shows, support your friends. Those connections I made in college are still the people I’m connected to.
Does the ability to improvise musically translate into everyday life? Absolutely. I think the thing that translates the most is not being set on something specific. When your plans get thrown off—expecting a certain thing to happen and it doesn’t—improvisation has taught me to adapt and roll with the punches. I actually did a TEDx talk about how to improvise your way through life.
Give me an example. One time, I was planning to go to the Apollo Theater to see all these amazing artists, and I couldn’t go. I was super bummed about it. Then one of my mentors suggested we go to this steakhouse because a great trio was playing. If I’d been so upset about the Apollo that I’d said no, I wouldn’t have gone, but I did, and that was the night I met Wynton Marsalis.
Is Wynton Marsalis the fairy godfather of your career? He’s certainly one of them. There are other people who mentored me and took me under their wing, like Phil Woods, Lee Konitz…I did a little thing with Harry Connick Jr. once. But Wynton brought me to Jazz at Lincoln Center when I was 16, and he also brought me to Obama’s inauguration, to play at the Kennedy Center.
Three adjectives to describe your new album? OK: Noir. Cinematic. And genre-bending.
Will it change people’s perspective of you? I hope so. One of the hopes was to take it to a different place stylistically. I have a bunch of really great young artists playing with me on it, like Michael League, the founder of Snarky Puppy, and Mocean Worker, a really cool DJ out of LA. Getting to collaborate with these young artists, like Jon Batiste, who are taking jazz to a really different place, is an honor.
Are you pissed at this point that you don’t already have a Grammy? [Laughs.] No. It would be great. I hope one day to get one, because it shows the respect of your peers. But the most important thing is reaching my audience, creating work I’m proud of, and I know that one day, it might happen.
Last question: In what way are you most like a typical 23-year-old? I can get pretty boy-crazy. I am in love with fashion. And Pinterest. And home decorating and cooking. And just hanging out doing goofy, slightly stupid things with friends.
Location: Manderley Bar in New York; Styling: Stacey Jones; Hair: Mel Paldino / Ennis Inc.; Makeup: Misuzu Miyake / Artmix Creative; Wardrobe: Filthy Haanz dress, Tnemnroda sunglasses, Kris Nations earrings, Traci Lynn Jewelry bracelet