Having recorded her first album in 2004, when she was only 12, alto saxophonist Grace Kelly was already a veteran jazz artist with nine albums to her credit when she turned 23 in 2015.
That same year she joined the house band on " The Late Show with Stephen Colbert ,” a role that introduced her to a national TV audience. That audience was largely unaware of her previous 700-plus performances in 30 countries - or her prior collaborations with the Boston Pops Orchestra and such jazz luminaries as trumpeter Wynton Marsalis and saxophonists Frank Morgan, Phil Woods, Lee Konitz and David Sanborn.
“I was supposed to play on ‘The Late Show’ for two weeks - and it turned into six months!” said Kelly, now 24, who performs here Saturday, March 18, as part of the “Women in Jazz” concert at Jacobs Music Center’s Copley Symphony Hall.
“I had a great time, the band became like a family to me, and it was a huge step for my career. But I felt it was time for me to go and focus on doing my own thing again.”
A 2011 Berklee College of Music graduate, Kelly got the gig on “The Late Show after jamming in a New York club with Colbert band leader Jon Baptiste. He was suitably impressed by her instrumental command, increasingly assured singing and ability to adapt to a variety of musical settings.
Those skills came in handy on “The Late Show,” where Kelly and the house band, Stay Human, performed with a jazz legend one night, punk vocal icon Henry Rollins the next, and the English pop-rock band Squeeze the night after that.
Only 7 when she wrote her first song, Kelly credits her love of jazz to hearing albums her parents played in their home outside Boston. She cites sax giant Stan Getz, Brazilian bossa nova, Frank Sinatra and Broadway show tunes as some of her biggest early influences.
“I actually didn’t know when I first started playing sax that I wanted to do it professionally. It’s just something that clicked for me and I became obsessed with the instrument,” she recalled.
“The light-bulb moment was when I did my first professional concert at the age of 12; it was more a feeling I had while performing. Standing on stage, playing my music, with 250 people watching, I thought: ‘This is such an incredible feeling and I’m expressing myself at the same time. Wow! Could this be the thing for me?’
“Of course, before that time, I had already gone to a lot of great concerts. I was 10 or 11 the first time I saw (venerated trumpeter) Clark Terry. And seeing that artistry and the amount of joy he had was such a beautiful, uplifting experience.”
San Diego flutist Holly Hofmann and Kelly first met several years ago, when they performed together at the Lionel Hampton Jazz Festival at the University of Idaho. Kelly subsequently accepted the flutist’s invitation to perform at the annual Oregon Coast Jazz Party, where Hofmann is the music director.
“I’m such a fan of Holly’s artistry and playing,” said Kelly, who - like Hofmann - has thrived in a male-dominated jazz world. “So when she invited me to play at this ‘Women in Jazz’ concert in San Diego - and I saw what a great lineup of musicians she had put together - I immediately said: ‘Yes.’
“When I first got into jazz and the sax I didn’t have any female role models. But that didn’t throw me off, at all. I was so in love with the music in what - I later found out - was an incredibly male-dominated field. It wasn’t until after I was on ‘The Late Show’ that young girls started to come up to me with their parents, after my concerts, and say: ‘You’re such a role model for us.’
“That’s when I started to realize how important it is for young girls to see female role models. So I embrace it and want to help champion them, similar to how Holly has, because there are more and more kick-ass women out there in jazz now.”
San Diego Symphony’s Jazz @ The Jacobs presents “She’s Got That Swing: Women in Jazz”
Featuring: Holly Hofmann, Regina Carter, Grace Kelly, Katie Thiroux, Tina Raymond, Dena DeRose, Besos de Coco and special guest Serena Geroe .
When: 8 p.m. Saturday, March 18
Where: Copley Symphony Hall at Jacobs Music Center, 750 B St., downtown
Tickets: $20-$65 (plus service charges, which are waived for tickets bought at the box office)
Phone: (619) 235-0804