You could say Grace Kelly — born in Wellesley, raised in Brookline, now living in Dover — is a jazz saxophonist, and that would tell you almost nothing. She sings, composes and does arrangements, a hat trick for musicians.
Kelly released her first CD at age 12 and got booked at Boston’s Scullers Jazz Club at 13. She’s played Symphony Hall and before Boston Celtics games at TD Garden. Now 20, she’s performed around the world.
Boston Pops maestro Keith Lockhart has called Kelly “a unique and genuine talent. I can’t wait to see what her future holds.”
Kelly will be performing with her quintet in a free concert at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday in the Hagan Campus Center Hall at Assumption College in Worcester.
When Lockhart first heard Kelly play, he invited her to join the Pops for a two-night engagement at Symphony Hall. Lockhart asked her to compose her own music. She could do a solo. She told him she’d like to write a composition for the entire orchestra.
“He looked at me like I was crazy,” said Kelly. She produced a 40-page score for all of the musicians. “This was the Pops, it had to be good,” said Kelly.
Great things just happen to Kelly, sometimes serendipitously. When she was 16 she went to a New York restaurant where a piano trio was performing. They knew who she was and asked whether she’d like to sit in. “I had my saxophone with me. I ALWAYS do.”
She went to the car to get it. While she was playing, Wynton Marsalis walked in. “It was a total surprise. He thought I sounded good.”
Shortly after, Marsalis called and Kelly wound up performing with his jazz band in New York.
“Grace plays with intelligence, wit, and feeling,” Marsalis said.
At 16, Kelly made Downbeat magazine’s critics poll. In 2011, Glamour magazine put her on its “Top 10 College Women” list.
Her parents divorced when she was 2. Her mother, Irene Chang, married Bob Kelly, who had also divorced. He adopted Grace when she was 8 and became her manager. A few years later he brought Grace to Scullers, Boston’s famed jazz spot, hoping to land a gig for his daughter.
Fred Taylor, the club’s entertainment director, thought Bob Kelly might just be another pushy stage parent. Besides, Grace was so young.
But her father persisted. Two years later, Taylor, who opened Scullers 23 years ago, booked her. “I said, ‘Whoa, what’s happening here?’ That’s when I realized she was something special,” said Taylor.
Kelly attended Brookline High for two years before entering Berklee College of Music on scholarship. “I started musical theater when I was 6. I wanted to be a Broadway actress.” She played the clarinet in fourth grade because the school had no saxophone. She listened to the records of legendary jazz saxophonist Stan Getz.
“I fell in love with the saxophone,” said Kelly. “I was so small I couldn’t hold the saxophone and stand up. I put a pillow on my case and sat down and played. . . . The first time I blew into it I got a really nice sound. It just clicked.”
Six weeks later she had her first booking, in the Borders store at the Atrium Mall in Chestnut Hill. When she was 13, she had already put out three CDs. “The next year I was writing more songs. This is how it all started. Musicians began asking me to play with them.”
Taylor booked Kelly at the Newport Jazz Festival. “I truly believe she’s going to be a super, super star,” he said. “She has the intuitiveness you can’t teach. She just seems to know the right thing to do. When she sits in with artists she doesn’t show off. She fits in.”
Kelly is the centerpiece of the Grace Kelly Quintet. Jason Palmer has been the quintet’s trumpeter for five years. “I had heard of her but I never saw her perform until I went to Scullers to see her,” said Palmer. “She was about 14. I had no expectations of being impressed. I left the show with a complete belief in reincarnation. No creative, musical, improvising musician should sound that good at that age.”