Jazz for the Thrill of It

May 13, 2016   •   By Chris Becker

I GREW UP in the 1980s watching jazz trumpeter Doc Severinsen lead the NBC Orchestra on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. Severinsen, who took over the band in 1967 from Milton DeLugg, was known to perform swing and jazz standards, including classics by Dizzy Gillespie, Cole Porter, and others. Carson’s successor Jay Leno hired New Orleans saxophonist Branford Marsalis to direct the newly dubbed The Tonight Show Band, ending the long tradition of a large in-house orchestra. With his illustrious jazz pedigree and hand-picked band, then-32-year-old Marsalis — the eldest of the celebrated Marsalis brothers — was considered one of the more innovative jazz tenor sax player of his generationoften drawing comparisons to the great John Coltrane. By this time, I was a young composer in my 20s, and I, along with many of my jazz musician friends at the time, were excited by the prospects of this new era of jazz in late night — and the possibilities of reviving jazz’s relevance in popular culture. 

The end result failed. Marsalis went on hiatus after nearly two years with the show to promote an album. Unsurprisingly, he didn’t return. He never appeared to enjoy the position in the first place. Unlike Severinsen, who flourished in the role of late night sidekick, Marsalis often came off as too cool for the room.

Now, more than 20 years later, fun and innovative jazz is back on late night thanks to CBS’s The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. Jon Batiste — like Marsalis, a New Orleans native, and likewise from a pedigreed jazz family — and his band Stay Human offer up on a nightly basis the fresh, contemporary modes of jazz that draws as much from Scott Joplin as Katy Perry — and the audience is diggin’ it. 

The band, which formed shortly after Batiste graduated from Juilliard, welcomed a new player at the end of 2015, 23-year-old saxophonist Grace Kelly. A seven-time winner of the DownBeat Critics Poll, Kelly was among the millennial musicians lauded by Vanity Fair last December as something of a second coming in jazz — those “young lions” (and lionesses) creating music freely, without regard to style or standard conventions. Like Kelly, these are artists having fun. 

Aficionados of the music can recount Kelly’s critically acclaimed recordings, including notable collaborations with saxophone greats Lee Konitz (on her 2008 release, GRACEfulLEE) and Phil Woods (in 2011, Man With The Hat). During a performance at the Pittsfield CityJazz Festival with then 14-year-old Kelly, Woods famously crowned her with his signature leather hat after she played a gutsy, emotional solo on the standard “I’ll Remember April.” In jazz parlance, that’s a major honor.

By the time Kelly graduated from the Berklee College of Music in 2011, she had already established a successful touring career as a side musician and band leader, and amassed more than a handful of recordings, performing both standards and her own compositions. These draw on a range of contemporary pop music influences, as Kelly demonstrates on her newest album, Trying to Figure It Out. While the album includes a couple of standards (“Smile” — initially written as an instrumental piece by actor-composer Charlie Chaplin in 1936 — and a moving piano and saxophone interpretation of Harold Arlen’s classic, “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”), Kelly makes her own unique statement in her original compositions. From the album’s first track, the thoroughly noir, down-tempo “Blues for Harry Bosch,” to the soulful affirmation of independence of “The Other One” (one of four tracks she leads as vocalist), Kelly solidifies herself as a vibrant, thoughtful artist. That resonates in her live performances, says Batiste: “Grace Kelly has an electric charisma on-stage that instantly ignites the room. She is one of the most kind-hearted, easy-going people I've had the pleasure of working with.”

In tie-dye dresses and leather jackets, and her green and purple hair, Kelly stands out as the band’s winning fashionista — but more so as a young, Korean-American woman muscling her way into a genre still heavily dominated, at least in public perception, by men. That’s not lost on her; she proudly affirms herself as a role model for girls who love music, and the freedom — and fun — that playing jazz can offer.


CHRIS BECKER: So much of how we get our information these days is through visual communication, be it on social media or in pop music — and you certainly have your own unique eye-catching style. As an artist, has that become an important component to get people to pay attention?

GRACE KELLY: That’s a great question. I have family friends who live in New York City, and one of their kids is four years old; he’s an amazing kid, so musical, and I remember they were playing him my new album. He kept saying, “Why can’t I see it?” It was kind of a light bulb moment for me.

One of the things that I’m working on for my new album is how it will be presented live as a multimedia show. The album is so visual. All of these songs I wrote I saw [them] visually beforehand.

We’ve done a couple of music videos for the album, the latest one for the track “Blues for Harry Bosch,” which includes Bosch in a trench coat, cigarette smoke, me, and the musicians in a club [with] cool lighting. Jazz, as an art form, is a little bit behind in the way pop music uses visuals. I think this is something jazz musicians are becoming aware of, and will come into play more in the future. In a live performance, people are there to hear you, but also to see you. I’ve always thought it was so important to dress well and to present a visually stimulating show.

Not only visual, but social, which is how Batiste talks about jazz. That’s kind of a New Orleans approach to the music, isn’t it?

Absolutely. That is one of the truly unique things about a lot of New Orleans musicians I meet, including Jon, and why it’s so inspiring to work with him. Growing up in that culture and in that place, there is no divide between the people and the music and the streets. I think that’s probably the difference between growing up in New Orleans versus going to music school, where it’s literally the opposite. You’re studying [music] out of textbooks, whereas in New Orleans, you’re learning by ear. With Jon, basically everything he teaches us is by ear, which is so cool. I’ve never worked with another musician who does that for a whole set of music.

I’ve always wanted my music to reach as many people as possible. Music should be this incredibly inclusive thing — a celebration: this thing that brings everybody together, where there’s no line between the stage and the audience which, in a world of social media, is a really great reminder that music is this thing that brings us together. That’s the reason I play music, to feel something, and sometimes with all of this technology it’s hard to feel something. We’re just hit over the head with so much and our attention spans are so small. But when I go see a show and it really touches me, I’m reminded, “Oh, that’s what it feels like to be alive and be loving.”

You’ve played jazz for so many different kinds of audiences. How has the transition been for you playing on television?

A live performance is much more free. With television, you have to be constantly aware of everyone around you and the cues they’re giving you. We’re working with ear monitors, and we hear Stephen Colbert’s voice in one of them, and Jon’s talkback mic in the other. So you always have to get the balance right between the instruments and people talking and giving you directions. The biggest thing is learning all the cues. We play music when the guests come on, then we have to watch them to make sure that when they sit down we all stop.

It’s starting to feel more comfortable, but certainly, in the beginning, I kind of felt like a headless chicken. There were so many terms and things I didn’t know. But I’ve been learning.

Has it been like that for the whole band?

I think so. Back when I joined the band in December, I talked to the guys and they agreed, playing on television is a completely different beast. We’re all so used to being in a live performance, you know? So this has a different set of challenges.

Drummer Terri Lyne Carrington was in the house band on The Arsenio Hall Show, and she once told me that when she would return to playing regular gigs, her approach to the music was fresher. Have you had a similar experience?

Yes. When I go back to playing jazz or a full concert, it feels amazing. It’s super freeing. I think it’s such a different set of circumstances, it makes me want to dig deeper. With the Stay Human band, the amount of knowledge and musical expertise all the cats have is really inspiring. So that’s also pushed me to a new level and to check out a lot of new music.

When you’re taping a show, do you get the sense that you’re winning over the audience by playing a style of music they may have never heard before?

That’s a really exciting thing. Having someone like Stephen endorse jazz and talk about it in such a cool way, it’s just such an incredible thing for the community. To think two million people are tuning in, all of them big Colbert fans and hopefully thinking: “Oh, wow. Colbert loves jazz. I’ve never really listened to this music. Let me check it out.” When we’re swinging really hard during some of the breaks, you see people in the audience are really into it. Our hope is that after they leave, they check out the music, and maybe get deeper into it.

The first song on your new album, “Blues for Harry Bosch,” was composed for the Amazon Studios series Bosch, based on the Hieronymus “Harry” Bosch books by Michael Connelly.

Yes. “Blues for Harry Bosch” is a song I wrote inspired by the character detective Harry Bosch. The band and I play it live for Harry Bosch, played by Titus Welliver, in episode two of Season Two. Harry comes into the Catalina Jazz Club in Hollywood to see my band, and we’re playing that song. Michael, crazily enough, has written me into two Harry Bosch books, The Black Box and The Burning Room. In The Burning Room, Harry comes to see me at a club called The Blue Whale in LA, which is a great club.

The fact that Michael loves my music and made Harry Bosch a fan is a real honor to me. Frank Morgan, who passed away a few years ago and was one of my mentors, is one of Michael’s favorite saxophonists. That’s how Michael found out about me, through Frank.

Are your tracks on the album, He Shot a Man and By the Grave, part of the Bosch universe?

Not directly. He Shot a Man has an interesting story. I performed at San Quentin State Prison a couple years ago for Sound of Redemption, a documentary about Frank Morgan. Frank spent 30 years in and out of San Quentin in his lifetime due to drugs. Me and a bunch of really amazing jazz musicians, including Ron Carter, Marvin “Smitty” Smith, George Cables, Delfeayo Marsalis, and Mark Gross, performed in front of over 300 inmates, and that became a part of the documentary. Michael Connelly is the executive producer of the documentary, so it all kind of pieces together.

You often play with a lot of guys. When you first began studying and playing jazz, were your role models mostly men?

They were all men. I fell so deeply into the music, and it fascinated me so much, that I never really thought about who was playing it. Obviously, I knew their names, but I didn’t think man or woman. It wasn’t until later, when I started performing professionally, that I started realizing what a man’s club jazz was.

From that point, I started learning about a lot of great female musicians. It became important for me to find out who some of these women were, to learn about someone like [pianist] Mary Lou Williams. I got to be on Marian McPartland’s radio show [Marian McPartland’s Piano Jazz] a few times and play with her. To think about what these women went through back in their day, and what trailblazers they were, is so inspiring.

Considering there aren’t any high-profile Korean-American jazz saxophonists out there, do you feel like a trailblazer and a role model for young women who are now connecting to this music?

I do a lot of workshops and clinics, and go to middle schools all around the US. I see saxophone sections in the big bands made up of girls, as well as more and more trumpet players — girls who play bass and the drums. It’s really exciting, because 10 years ago, it was so different.

It’s a really beautiful thing when young girls come up to me after my shows and say, “I’m 12 years old, I just started saxophone, and you’re a huge inspiration to me.” There’s nothing that makes me feel better. I’m realizing now how important it is for young women to see role models [in jazz].

I also get messages from girls in Korea, in Japan, where it’s even more of a case of I look like them too. I get messages from parents saying things like, “Our daughter is a Korean adopted girl. She plays saxophone and really looks up to you.” My hope is, as I grow older and continue to develop, that I can continue to be a role model for young women.

You’ve traveled widely outside of the US to play. What are some of the differences you’ve observed in how this music is received overseas?

It’s interesting. I’m in Germany and France a lot playing my music, and I will say the listeners there are very serious jazz listeners. I get these guys coming up to me afterward who are just real connoisseurs of the music saying: “I have this record that’s out of print from this date, produced by this person …”

We played this cute club in Paris called Duc des Lombards and — first of all — every place is packed, which is different than the US. That and the fact that they all want to see jazz. At the Duc des Lombards, it was like everyone in the audience was literally with me every note through the solos. I never got that feeling that people were zoning out or bored. Generally, in Europe, there’s a deep appreciation for jazz. Which is ironic, right? Because jazz is an American art form. I’ve had some great audiences in the US as well. I think the biggest difference is European audiences really know the history of the music. They’re so well versed in the history of jazz, which is fascinating.

When I was in Madagascar, I was sent there by the US Embassy to perform and talk to people there, I heard some really amazing jazz musicians. I’d say they were as good as some of the New York musicians I know, which kind of blew my mind. Then we went to the Comoros Islands, which are close by, and nobody even knew who Louis Armstrong was. But they all knew Adele and Katy Perry.

Is PAZZ Productions your label?

Yes, that is my label. My parents and I created a company back when I was 12 years old and released my first album. Up to this day, nine full albums and one EP later, I’m still on my own label. It’s a beautiful thing, because I own all of my recordings, and I’ve been able to make all of the creative decisions. Given where music is heading and, unfortunately, the fact that music is streamed and free — and musicians don’t get the compensation they deserve — the best-case scenario is to own all of your stuff.

I’ve been approached by labels, and am definitely open to having those conversations. But at the end of the day, they have to bring something to the table that’s more than my team can do. I want to be able to control my image, to say who I am without someone else telling me who I am, and musically, to make the creative decisions without having to compromise.

That’s the beauty of owning your own label. The hardship is it’s a hell of a lot more work. We’re really overseeing every single thing. But at the end of the day, it’s something that I’m really happy about, because I’m not putting it in the hands of a stranger or someone who might not do a good job with it.

What advice would you give a young musician wondering, “How am I going to make a living?”

If a person is interested in music, but also has talents in science or medicine or whatever, I would say keep music as a hobby, because it is hard to make a living from it, and have it as your [sole] career. But if playing music is the only thing you can imagine yourself doing, and living, and breathing, which it has been for me, I would say work really hard at getting great at your craft. And make sure you have a lot of fun doing it. Never lose your passion or joy for music or forget the reason why you got into it in the first place.

The other thing I tell musicians is to be really open to where your music might lead you. There are a lots of things that have happened in my career, things that I would have never imagined happening, including all of these things we’re talking about. If I was kind of closed off and had a very specific idea of what I wanted or who I am, those opportunities might not have happened.

I didn’t know music was going to become my career. When I was 12, I was playing music and loving it. Then it organically turned into a career and I don’t want to do anything else. I love music that much.


Chris Becker is a writer and editor, with more than a decade of experience covering music, art, literature, entrepreneurship, and economics. As a composer, Becker has created music for dance, experimental video, and mixed-media installations.