By Gary Walker
Music venues come and go, wane in and out of popularity. But playing at one Hollywood landmark to this day represents for many musical acts, soloists and performers one of the barometers on which to measure their success.
Such is the case for saxophonist Grace Kelly, who will make her Hollywood Bowl debut during the 35th annual Playboy Jazz Festival, scheduled Saturday and Sunday, June 14 and 15.
“I’ve never been to the Bowl, so this is an exciting steppingstone for me,” said Kelly, who turned 21 last month and recently moved to Santa Monica.
After performing at well-known venues such as the Newport Jazz Festival in Newport Beach, Carnegie Hall in New York, the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. and Boston Symphony Hall, Kelly will now tackle one of the world’s most renowned musical settings at this year’s annual summer jazz showcase.
Built in 1922, the Hollywood Bowl’s distinctive band shell was added in 1927 by Lloyd Wright, son of the premier architect Frank Lloyd Wright. The following year, the younger Wright added the amphitheater’s iconic 120-degree arches.
After playing some of the abovemetioned concerts, Kelly thinks she is now ready for the Hollywood Bowl.
“Playing at some of the other venues has given me the confidence to take on bigger challenges,” she said.
She will be joined for her June 14 set by Phil Woods, who collaborated with Kelly on her 2011 album, “Man With the Hat.”
Like Kelly, Woods, a four-time Grammy Award winner, is from Massachusetts. He was so impressed with the young saxophonist that he gave her a special gift after they played a session together in Pittsfield, Mass.
“I first met Grace Kelly at the 2006 summer jazz program at Stanford University. I was amazed at her precocity and talent. Recently she sat in with me and the Jazz Ambassadors Jazz Band at the Pittsfield Jazz Fest,” he recalled.
“How did she sound? I gave her my hat. That is how good she sounded,” the longtime sax man said. “She is the first alto player to get one.”
Kelly has some impressive admirers.
Wynton Marsalis thinks she has all the tools and skills to be a frontline jazz player.
“Grace Kelly plays with intelligence, wit and feeling. She has a great amount of natural ability and the ability to adapt. That is the hallmark of a first-class jazz musician,” said the multiple Grammy Award-winning trumpeter and composer.
After seeing Kelly perform at the Lincoln Center, Marsalis, the center’s artistic director, invited the saxophonist to join the ensemble at the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater in Washington, D.C. for President Barack Obama’s inauguration in 2008 when she was 16 years old.
“That was a great experience,” she said. “I was so excited when Wynton brought me to Washington.”
Other Westside residents have graced the stage of the Hollywood Bowl for the two-day summer concert series in recent years.
Marina del Rey resident Ronald Wayne “Ronnie” Laws was part of the 2011 Playboy Jazz lineup that included fellow sax man Walter Beasley and guitarist Stanley Jordan. The longtime soloist, who played with the iconic rhythm and blues band Earth, Wind and Fire in the 1970s, told The Argonaut that a gig at the famed amphitheater in many ways is still a defining moment for many artists.
“It’s a great privilege to play there,” the saxophonist said. “(The Hollywood Bowl) has a long history of featuring some of the legends of jazz, and I think that in many ways when you get a chance to play there it solidifies you as an artist.”
Kelly will be playing songs from “Man With the Hat” as well as some original tunes. A self-described musical “chameleon,” she says she has a wide array of musical tastes, ranging from Miles Davis to John Mayer.
“Lately I’ve been listening to more contemporary music and songwriters and at the same time I’ve been more inspired to write songs,” she said. “Growing up and learning the saxophone, I always listened more to singers than instrumentalists.
“Whenever I play a standard I always make sure to know the lyrics behind it. I feel like words are a really big connection between myself and the audience.”
Woods, who is well admired among the jazz set, says his partner at the Playboy Jazz fest could be on her way to a stellar career.
“Ten years ago I was asked by someone where the new ‘Bird’ (the nickname for saxophone legend Charlie Parker) was going to come from,” he said. “I said, half-jokingly, that it might be a dwarf, Albino woman from Africa.
“Maybe Grace Kelly is the one. You just never know.”
The best part of being a jazz musician, and playing the Hollywood Bowl, is “being able to reach people all over the world,” Kelly concluded.
Other performers on the jazz festival’s bill include singer Patti Austin, trumpeters Herbie Hancock and Troy Edwards, known as “Trombone Shorty,” Poncho Sanchez and his Latin Band, keyboardist Bob James, saxophonist David Sanborn and drummer Sheila E., who headlined last year’s Playboy Jazz Festival.
Comedian George Lopez will take over the duties as master of ceremonies from actor-comedian Bill Cosby this year.
Santa Monica resident to help kick off 35th annual Playboy Jazz fest
By Gary Walker