"The first time, I got a really nice sound," says Kelly. Six weeks later, age 10, she had her first performance, at Borders Books and Music in Newton. "I played 'Bésame Mucho' and 'My Funny Valentine.' I learned all these songs by ear. I knew the songs. I listened to Sinatra a lot, he was always playing in the house, and lots of Broadway music. So I just needed to figure it out. And James helped me with the fingerings. We never played 'Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.' "
She continues, "I remember when James told me for the first time, 'Okay, now improvise. There's no wrong note, just play whatever you hear.' And he'd play the chords on the piano. It's what I did from the beginning, I just played what I thought sounded good. And then I started to learn scales. But that's the biggest reason I had such a fascination with this music — there's so much freedom to express anything at any time."
Kelly went on to study with a string of teachers, often several simultaneously. At New England Conservatory Prep, she and tenor-saxophonist Jason Hunter worked on articulation and technique as well as ear training. "He really pushed me. I worked on the song 'Donna Lee' for six months." When Hunter left town, she began studying with another NEC grad, Jeremy Udden, and another legend, Jerry Bergonzi. "Bergonzi would give me seven pages of exercises. 'Do this in every key.' It took a lot more discipline."
Other great teachers followed — Udden's teacher Allan Chase and the Fringe's George Garzone. But she retains a special affection for Udden (now living in New York), who ended every lesson with the two just playing together. "I would always leave the lesson feeling, like, 'Wow!' "
And, of course, there was Konitz, with his reputation for "pure" improvisation. "The biggest thing he stressed was, 'Don't have anything planned, don't learn any licks, just play from what you hear on the bandstand.' "
Bob Kelly says that it was Grace's winning of third place in the Fish Middleton Jazz Scholarship competition in Washington, DC — against music-school undergraduates — that put her "on the road to being a professional. That's when we started getting inquiries." She was 13. She met Phil Woods at a Stanford Jazz Residency in 2006. The two crossed paths again a few months later at a festival in Pittsfield, where Woods invited her on stage. When they finished playing, he took off his trademark leather cap and put it on her head — to keep.
Udden, emailing me from New York, says that he recalls seeing Kelly record at the age of 13 or 14. "I was able to hear her do a few takes of a ballad. What amazed me was that she started each solo from a completely different angle, and was truly listening to the rhythm section and reacting rather than playing the same material over and over as other young (or old) players might." He adds, "Her ears are huge and she has the maturity to just let go and play. And the fact that she can sound so good over more pop-oriented stuff, then completely hang with Lee Konitz and [drummer] Matt Wilson over freer material, is amazing — and rare for musicians of any age."