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