The making of a prodigy

Story highlights

  • Prodigies show talent from young age -- but to be creative, they have to work at it
  • Grace Kelly, 19-year-old jazz musician, has dazzled at saxophone since she was 9
  • Some prodigies burn out or regress; they can be vulnerable, expert says
  • Expert: Keys to success include providing support, finding mentors to nourish young talent
It's a balmy summer night at the Newport Jazz Festival, and saxophonist Grace Kelly is welcoming an audience of about 500 at the Harbor Stage.
"Hello, Newport!" she calls, launching into "The Way You Look Tonight," all silky runs and warm phrasing.
As her band members take solos, she smiles, humming along with their playing, a tic reminiscent of jazz pianist Oscar Peterson. She dances little jigs. She sings. She basks in the thrill of the music.
Kelly is all of 19.
Sometimes her youth is obvious. Her on-stage patter can have a girlish quality, and at times she appears gangly and uncertain, like a filly finding its legs. And the sight of her with a saxophone -- an instrument that appears so appropriate when clutched by a Junior Walker or John Coltrane but awkward in the hands of an attractive young woman -- summons the unfortunate scene of a flight attendant in "Airplane!" honking Dixieland jazz in the cockpit.
But when she plays, all that becomes meaningless. She's jammed with jazz legends, notably fellow sax player Phil Woods, who bestowed one of his trademark hats on her as a sign of appreciation. She's won several DownBeat Student Music Awards and a pair of ASCAP Young Composer Foundation Awards. In interviews, she's poised and thoughtful beyond her years.
"I've heard the future of jazz and it is Grace Kelly," musician and NPR contributor David Was once said, echoing critic Jon Landau's famous line about Bruce Springsteen and rock.
Her talent still mystifies her father and manager, Bob Kelly.
"I don't know where that comes from," he said. "With the saxophone, once she picked that up, after the first couple of months, she could play songs. She was in fourth grade." She was so entranced by the instrument, Bob Kelly recalls, "we had to tell her to go to sleep."
'They are precious resources'
It's a blessing from the gods, this kind of talent, and when we see it in someone young, we marvel at the contrast: a child with the outsize abilities of an adult. The very word "prodigy" evokes otherworldliness, from "prodigium," which means "sign" or "portent" in Latin.
"If you look at people who are creative geniuses, and look back, a lot of them are prodigies," said Boston College psychology professor Ellen Winner, who has researched gifted children and the arts.
Grace Kelly, here with Phil Woods, brings an infectious joy to performing. She has been dazzling listeners since she was 9.
"You can say that prodigies are our best hope. They are our future. They are precious resources."
Early on, a prodigy's talent is more for mimicry. But at some point, mimicry gives way to genuine creativity -- an ability to combine talent and knowledge to make something novel.
Kelly's sax playing has been dazzling listeners since she was 9. Although she wasn't named for the actress -- her mother Irene married Bob Kelly when Grace was a small child -- she already had a creative bent. Before she ever picked up an instrument, her father recalls, she could entertain herself for hours by acting in front of a mirror. Grace recalls singing along with Broadway tunes. But there was something about the saxophone that fulfilled her in ways other instruments she tried, including the piano and clarinet, did not.
Six weeks after her first notes, she was performing for an audience. Her father has a video of it: a slip of a girl sitting on her instrument case, the saxophone precarious on a pillow in front of her, the whole apparatus threatening to topple over -- and yet the tone is clear and rich, Grace Kelly nimbly working her way through "Besame Mucho" and "My Funny Valentine."
A bolt of lightning? Perhaps. Neither Bob nor Irene had much of a musical background. However, young Grace did have relatives on her mother's side with musical talent, including an aunt who played violin professionally. Moreover, she grew up with music: Her parents played jazz tunes and standards frequently in their suburban Boston home, songs she grew to love.
But talent only goes so far unless it's combined with hard work and motivation. Fortunately for us, many prodigies have a passion for their interests, often going on to become famous: Mozart, for example, wrote melodies at age 4; Pablo Picasso painted his first oil painting, "The Picador," at 8; mathematician Carl Friedrich Gauss could do equations in his head as a child.
Winner says prodigal talents often come with determination.
"Usually when you can learn really easily in some area, you're very motivated -- you have this intrinsic drive," she says. "You can't take a kid with no passion for something and make them work 10 or four hours a day."
In fact, Bob Kelly says Grace has resisted the "prodigy" label. "She looks at it as the fact she has an intense love and passion for what she does, has loads of fun and puts in a lot of hard work without being told to."
'Natural talent only takes you so far'
The trick is sustaining that passion.
Josh Waitzkin, the chess prodigy whose story was made into the movie "Searching for Bobby Fischer," gave up competition for several years.
"I realized that even if I became the world champion, it wasn't going to make me happy," he told People magazine in 2003. He's since plowed his energies into martial arts and education, though he still is a spokesman for computer chess games.
Trombone Shorty faced a similar crossroads. He started playing at 4. Now 26, he fronts his own band, Orleans Avenue, and was nominated for a Grammy last year. He's scheduled to play the White House next week as part of a Black History Month celebration.
Born Troy Andrews, the New Orleans horn player and singer -- yes, he's from the Treme neighborhood -- is part of an accomplished musical family: His brother, James, is a bandleader and trumpet player known as the "Satchmo of the Ghetto," and his grandfather, Jessie Hill, was a New Orleans music scene mainstay who had a national hit with "Ooh Poo Pah Doo."