IHS hosts first female jazz artist

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By HANA WAHI–  April means spring break, spring sports and standardized tests– but this month also marks the arrival of the IHS jazz department’s annual artist in residence.  This year, Indiana is excited to host the young jazz personality Grace Kelly, a wildly successful and talented trailblazing woman musician who is an active composer and avid advocate for contemporary, nonconforming jazz.

Indiana High School hosts a jazz artist in residence annually, where a successful musician visits and stays in town for a couple of days to speak and practice with local high school jazz students. The artist then  performs in concert with the students, providing valuable experience and an opportunity for prospective music majors to meet a career jazz musician.

On April 10-12, Indiana will receive one of the world’s most talented and celebrated jazz artist in the musical world. Having performed in impressive venues all over the world, Kelly will join our small town Indiana, PA for some big town jazz tunes.

“This is the first jazz artist in residence that I’ve been able to see,” jazz saxophonist sophomore Jacob Christian says. “It’s really great how IHS offers this opportunity. I’ve only recently moved into town– I’m looking forward to seeing Grace Kelly, especially since she plays saxophone and is a jazz musician. I’m pretty interested in jazz as a genre, so working with a jazz professional is pretty much my dream.”

Kelly has been known in many, many popular venues. She has performed with famed alto sax legend Phil Woods, with jazz musician Harry Connick Jr, and at former president Barack Obama’s inauguration, among countless other notables. In December of 2015, Kelly was inducted as a regular into The Late Show with Stephen Colbert with band leader Jon Batiste, whose band Stay Human features IHS grad Joe Saylor on drums, and is an artist we have had the pleasure to host as an artist in residence in the past.  “Grace Kelly has an atomic charisma on-stage that instantly ignites the room,” Batiste says, as sited on Kelly’s website. “She is one of the most kind-hearted, easy-going people I’ve had the pleasure of working with.”

An advocate for new and progressive music, Kelly has been described as passionate and kind, yet full of energy.  Typically, one thinks of jazz to be soft brass and piano undertones, with accidentals all over, and maybe a solo here and there– Grace Kelly’s music can be exactly that, and more; it is often described to be for music aficionados of all ages and styles.  Recently having released her 10th album, Kelly’s performances delights both “traditional” jazz enthusiasts, as well as mainstream music fans. From more traditional jazz themes, to Grace-Kelly-esque versions of Coldplay’s Magic, or Sia’s Chandelier, Kelly satisfies tastes of all kinds.

“I’m a very strong believer that jazz is about improvisation, and about creating and spontaneity,” she says in an interview sited on her website. Instead of categorizing music into strict genres with binding characteristics, Kelly holds to the rule of no rules– “I’m not into ‘no, this isn’t jazz.’” Kelly explains. “I like everything that’s good, and I encourage people to think that way.”

Despite being typically categorized as a “jazz” musician by critics and audiences alike, Kelly’s active background beats, sophisticated chorus, elaborate keyboard and subtle electro edge displays to the world that she is not bound by labels– she goes whichever way her heart yearns.

At age 12, her unique future direction had already begun to manifest when she released her first album, Dreaming.  Her music even then displayed themes of her current musical values– her music is inspired from all kinds of genres and roots, from jazz and blues, and even underlying subtle Broadway themes. “I was a total Broadway kid,” Kelly says. “So some of that creeps in.”

Kelly’s genre-bending nature is especially present in her newest album, Trying To Figure It Out, where the musical setting moves back and forth effortlessly from an “acoustic, conventional” jazz to a progressive, more contemporary feel.

It is especially fitting that IHS aims to project exactly what Kelly embodies, lives and breathes– a nonconforming stance to jazz. “In our jazz bands, we try to play a wide range of genres and subgenres, not just the stereotypical jazz music you hear in other jazz band performances,” senior music intern Lauren Makara explains. “For example, we’ve been playing some Stevie Wonder, funk charts and some vocal jazz– so it’s really cool that we have someone who doesn’t conform to typical jazz styles all the time.”

Having graduated from the Berklee College of Music in 2011 with a degree in professional music, education remains one of Kelly’s main focuses. She is highly driven to pass on her musical knowledge– from leading regular workshops at her alma mater, to travelling internationally as a music ambassador through the U.S. State Department, Kelly believes in the importance of musical insight and awareness.

Kelly will be arriving for a mere couple of days, from April 10-12.  During her stay, she plans to speak to as well as practice and perform with local IHS jazz students and enthusiasts — from jazz bandies, to vocal jazz musicians, to lowkey closet jazz nerds. “To those who are not as familiar with the jazz world, it’s very much as though Bobby Flay himself was swinging by to visit [the cooking classes],” director of bands Mr. Jason Olear explains.  

Kelly’s upcoming in-town concert, which will be held at the junior high, is a long-anticipated event by jazz students and vocal enthusiasts alike.  Tickets will be $5 apiece and available at the gate, but can also be purchased early by contacting Mr. Olear.

“Grace Kelly is the biggest name we’ve ever had as a jazz artist. She’s on a totally different level than everyone else we’ve ever had,” Makara enthuses. “She plays all around the world and is spending three days in Indiana. She’s leaving for Italy literally hours after our concert. It’s a huge deal that she’s spending her time here.”  Many other jazz students seem to agree.

“A minority and a woman is coming to perform at our high school,” junior jazz vocalist Clara Sherwood expresses. “She’s really different than [the artists] we’ve had before.”  As an annual event, this year’s spring jazz festivities will be made especially unique by this world-renown female jazz musician. Grace Kelly will be IHS’s first female jazz artist in history. “It’s nice for me as a woman that there’s finally a female artist in residence, because I feel like we’d be able to learn more, and I’d be able to relate more,” Sherwood continues. “When you look at the big jazz bands, like the Harry Connick Jr. band, or the bands that visit through IUP that I’ve seen, there are hardly any women.”

A main focus of Kelly’s upcoming concert will be vocal jazz, a twist only recently included in the IHS musical curriculum.  Clara Sherwood, one of IHS’s few vocal jazz musicians to perform regularly at IHS concerts and accomplished participant of this year’s PMEA All-State Jazz Vocal Ensemble, heavily encourages all to take this opportunity to see this young, energetic and successful jazz musician. “She’s jazz, she’s a woman, and she sings. That’s everything I am, and she’s everything I want to be,” Sherwood enthuses. “There are still jobs that women are ‘supposed’ to have, and careers women are expected to pursue– but a woman touring the world with jazz music is just blowing that out of the water.”

Another new feature of this year’s concert is the introduction of jazz “combos”– small groups of a variety of instrumentalists. “Grace Kelly’s typical concert setting is performing with combo groups– not normally the large band concert settings that IHS usually has,” Makara explains. This year’s debut combos feature our high school jazz students, all performing on different jazz instruments.  Each combo features Grace Kelly herself, and a different jazz element apiece– traditional, modern and vocal.

The first combo, a saxophone quartet, represents the more traditional jazz with the piece Django Reinhardt’s I’m Coming Virginia. This quartet will feature Seth Gardner, Lauren Makara, Amelia Kuzneski and India Krug on alto and tenor saxophones, accompanied by a rhythm section featuring Vince Birch, Scott Mitsko and Alex Detwiler.

The second combo is a percussion ensemble, performing the jazz standard St. Thomas, by Sonny Rollins.  Featuring jazz students Aaron Kingan, Scott Mitsko, Maggie Conjelko, Mike Mazey, Zach Palko, Alex Detwiler, Lauren Makara and band student teacher Mr. Nick Metz, St. Thomas will represent a more contemporary island jazz vibe, along with the exciting inclusion of steel pans.

The final featured combo will be a vocal jazz piece, Baking Cookies, featuring Paige Mitsko, who will be accompanied by Scott Mitsko, Alex Detwiler and Lily Carone. This particular jazz piece was arranged by active jazz senior Scott Mitsko, and will represent the vocal jazz element of the three combos.

If contemporary, nonconforming jazz is your kind of scene, and if seeing a wildly successful, talented trailblazing woman musician appeals to you, come see IHS host our very first female jazz artist and support our jazz bands and music department next month at Grace Kelly’s upcoming concert!

[Presale tickets for Grace Kelly’s concert are available by emailing Mr. Jason Olear at jolear@iasd.cc, and are $5 apiece. Tickets will also be sold at the door. The concert will take place at the Indiana Area Junior High auditorium on April 12, at 7:30 pm.]

[Photo courtesy of www.gracekellymusic.com]

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