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Saxophonist Grace Kelly kicks off Quad-City Arts Visiting Artist Series

Grace Kelly

Saxophonist Grace Kelly kicks off the Quad-City Arts 44th annual Visiting Artist Series with a week-long residency here, which includes a public performance on Sunday at the Redstone Room. 

CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

At 24, the saxophonist Grace Kelly has accomplished plenty: She has played at Barack Obama’s inauguration celebration, given a Ted Talk and released eight albums.

In many ways, Kelly, who was playing piano at age 6, picked up the saxophone at 10, released her first album at 12 and graduated from the Berklee College of Music at 19, has already arrived in the jazz world.

Up next?

Sharing her music — and messages — with the rest of the world.

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Grace Kelly

If her recent wave of internet fame is any indication, she’s well on her way. Kelly joined the house band for the “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert,” for a five-month stint last year.

“A lot of new people discovered me,” Kelly said in a phone interview this week. “I was amazed in the first three seconds I was on TV how many phone calls and texts and messages I got from people who had seen me.”

Plus, there were a lot of people searching the web for the name of the young jazz musician with the blue hair.

“There was a whole Reddit thread devoted to finding out who I was,” she said. “That was pretty cool.”

Kelly is thankful for the exposure. What matters more to her is reaching young people -- especially girls -- with her music.

“There’s a lack of women in jazz,” she said. “When I was growing up, I didn’t have any role models who were women that played jazz, so if I can be that for someone now, I’m honored to take on that role.”

And she already is. Kelly says she receives frequent messages on social media from young girls or their parents who count Kelly as inspiration to pick up an instrument or a jazz class.

“I think we’re way past that thing of, ‘You can’t play the drums because you’re a girl,’” she said. “I only hope more women will play jazz. There’s no reason there shouldn’t be more of us.”

Along with a busy touring schedule, Kelly makes time for educational programs and conferences. This weekend, she’ll be in Davenport as part of a week-long residency with the Quad-City Arts’ annual Visiting Artist Series.

She’ll lead music workshops at nine area schools, from elementary school students to college-aged students, next week.

Kelly kicks off the 44th season of the Quad-City Arts’ Visiting Artist Series, which will bring eight additional world-class acts to town for residencies, including public performances, through April 2018.

“All of these artists have good stories because they started out doing what they love to do and they put their nose to the grindstone and then they had setbacks, but they kept going,” Margot Day, community engagement director with Quad-City Arts, said. “That’s really important for these kids to hear.”

And Kelly's story will certainly be inspiring for students. 

“She’s very, very talented and she’s already proven her chops and she’s not even in her mid-20s,” Day said. "It's unbelievable what she's accomplished. I think she's a really good role model for students of what they can do after school and how they can incorporate their music." 

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Grace Kelly

Grace Kelly, a saxophonist, 

That's because, as Day said, Kelly's resume is impressive: Kelly has performed over 700 concerts in over 30 countries around the world at places such as the Hollywood Bowl, Kennedy Center, Carnegie Hall, Symphony Hall and she has performed and recorded with artists such as Huey Lewis, Harry Connick Jr., and Gloria Estefan.

And she has done so by following her own style. Before a show, she frequently shares a video on Instagram of a song she made up on the spot. She also performs the occasional pop-up show atop her Toyota Prius in downtown Los Angeles or in a parking garage, shared on social media with the hashtag #whereintheworldisgk. 

It's all part of trying to reach an untapped fan base in jazz music: her own generation.

“That’s one of the big goals,” Kelly said. “I believe that all young people would love jazz, but they just don’t know how to access it or there’s not a jazz club nearby or it’s too expensive.  It feels like this alien thing or they think of it as the music in ‘La La Land’ or ‘The Great Gatsby,’ but there’s a lot of other types of jazz. You just have to find one you like." 

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Amanda Hancock is a reporter covering food, arts and entertainment in the Quad-Cities (and beyond).