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Jerry Granelli: Updating Music of Past Heroes

Jerry Granelli: Updating Music of Past Heroes

Courtesy Jerry Granelli Facebook Page


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Nobody can be the best on any instrument. But you can be in the lineage.
—Jerry Granelli
"I've earned the privilege of not playing anything I don't want to play," says drummer Jerry Granelli, whose past is replete with the names of many greats in jazz for whom he supplied rhythmic support—sometimes force—over several decades.

"That used to be a fear," he adds, "You figured if you turned something down, the phone would never ring again. But I don't have to worry about that now. I might do something with a young musician. I won't charge a lot of money. I'll help out that way. But I don't have to do shit I don't wanna do."

Now approaching 80, it's a good place to be for a man who was born to the drums and knew as a young child in San Francisco that his life's purpose was intertwined with the mixture of drum skins, shells, cymbals and metal hardware. By his estimation, he has been with his instrument for nearly 75 years. It has taken him to associations inside and out of the jazz world. From Brazilian guitarist Bola Sete to Denny Zeitlin, Pat Metheny, Bill Frisell, Lee Konitz, Kenny Garrett, Robben Ford, Jane Ira Bloom and more. He did studio sessions for another Bay Area music figure, Sly Stone (before The Family Stone), who was then producing soul and R&B records before his ascendancy to Sly the icon. He was part of 1960s psychedelia, in the band Light Sound Dimension, and played free jazz in clubs in between his mainstream gigs.

He has recorded about 25 albums as a leader. Like some baseball pitchers might have a "sneaky fastball," Granelli's career is astonishing in its depth and breadth and the high artistic ideals that he has held onto for decades.

"Music is a lineage. It's a living thing. If you help someone, and they're worth it, they join the lineage. Nobody can be the best on any instrument. But you can be in the lineage. We have it in the history of our music in the United States. That's a wonderful thing to have. Sometimes people say, 'You're so great.' I say no. I've just earned myself a place at the table, that's all."

Among his credits is time spent playing with jazz/blues legend Mose Allison for a time and, even earlier, with the wonderful Vince Guaraldi. The latter is forever known for the huge hit "Cast Your Fate to the Wind," a Grammy winner and huge seller, and even more so for the music score to the megahit television special "A Charlie Brown Christmas," that aired in 1965 and reruns every holiday season. The soundtrack album went quadruple platinum for sales of four million copies. Those numbers continue to grow. Granelli played on that record.

He stayed away from that classic music for many years (and also received no royalties from it for decades). But in more recent years, he has toured, of and on, playing the music. And this year he released The Jerry Granelli Trio Plays Vince Guaraldi & Mose Allison on RareNoise Records, which contains a few of the Charlie Brown tunes, and music from his days with Allison. He is fond of both of those former employers and proud of the sounds he helped produce with those groups.

Granelli finally found himself in a spot where he wanted to play this music from his past. But he wanted to do so according to his credo: that it be fresh, adding something new. He went into the studio with his mates Jamie Saft on piano and Bradley Christopher Jones on bass.

"One of the reasons I never recorded it before is because people always wanted a cookie cutter thing. The idea was to approach it as completely new music. We didn't even select the tunes we were going to do until we were in the studio. Most are first takes," he says. "With Jamie, that's what he does. He can make it his own, completely fresh, every time. And genuine. It's not in any way trying to capture the past. It's a chance to finally bring that essence back to the music. For me, that's why it's fantastic."

"With Jamie, the first time we played live with this, we said, 'We've got to record this music.' And that was it. We set about doing it. Not a huge budget. But I'll go all out if it's something I really believe in. The record before this, Dance Hall (Justin Time Records, 2017) with Bill Frisell and Robben Ford. We'd done a long tour. But I'll go all out to make (the recording) happen."

Only one cut, "Christmas Time is Here," is from "Charlie Brown." Other Guaraldi tunes are "Cast Your Fate to the Wind" and "Star Song." But Guaraldi's spirit is an inspiration. From the Allison days, there is "Your Mind is on Vacation," "Parchman Farm," "Young Man Blues," "Baby Please Don't Go" and "Everybody's Cryin' Mercy." There are two improvised interludes. All the music calls to mind the originals, but the music moves elsewhere, voicings are different and soloists do their own exploring, naturally. "Christmas Time is Here" retains its poignancy and is delightful. "Parchman Farm" is less in-your-face than Allison, taking off on a more harmonic adventure. Each song is worthy.

"We loved it," says Granelli of the recording. "I left the studio loving it. It had everything in it. It had a beautiful use of freedom. It had Jamie's harmonics, as well as Brad's. The two intros to 'Your Mind is on Vacation' ("Mind Prelude 1" and 'Mind Prelude 2"), they're beautiful duets based on this theme. We kept them both because they're so perfect. It's a great record."

But there is no supporting tour due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

"We were going to play festivals across Canada. All canceled. Berlin, canceled. I don't know when we'll be able to. No one knows. That's the hardest part about this thing," he says.

Granelli is fond of both of the men who are the subjects of his tribute album. He learned valuable lessons from them.

Granelli was in his 30s when he met Allison. He had some seasoning under his belt and was confident. He had spent time playing free jazz with bassist Fred Marshall, his band mate in Guaraldi's trio (with whom he also played in Light Sound Dimension), and was doing some other experimental music in addition to mainstream jazz. They became fast friends

"There is a lot of Mose that people never heard, that he didn't play on a record. He was a very 'out' pianist. I was playing pretty 'out' when we met. He just loved it. It got better and better. I learned a way to express the drums and play in a way that I was really comfortable, working for a leader who was really comfortable with it. I can't remember a time he told me not to do something."

The drummer enjoyed Allison's poetry and the blues the pianist had in his DNA from his upbringing in Mississippi.

"He came to play every night. We went for it every night. And the dedication it took to keep to what he wanted to do," recalls Granelli. "Against the record company wishes. We did a TV show. 'Austin City Limits' or something like that. They said, 'We don't want you to play the two instrumental pieces.' He said, 'Well, that's what I want to do.' They said we can't. And he said, 'Then I can't play the show.' He would not give in. That's a great model to be around and be with."

On a gig in a San Francisco, the club owner arranged for the trio to play at a nearby facility for juvenile delinquents. "Mose was like, 'You wanna do it Jerry?' I said, 'Yeah, man. That's cool.' Then these photographers and reporters showed up. It was to get publicity for the club. Mose looked at the reporters and said, 'I'm not going to play. I'm not doing it for this.' So they had to leave. And then we played. He sang his version of 'You Are My Sunshine' without a microphone. Those kids just melted, man. Because it was so absolutely genuine. Mose was always genuine. He didn't take a lot of words to get to the point," he says laughing at the fond memory. "He was pretty dark sometimes."

And also very smart. Allison was well read and his mind and interests went beyond music. "There was a tune he took a year and a half to find the right word to put in the tune. It was a word that doesn't rhyme with anything, but it had to make sense in the poem. It took him a year and half. Then he said, 'Hey, I found that word, man.' I said, 'Wow.'

"He was really intelligent and also had a great influence. He influenced Tom Waits. You can tell. Tom Waits opened for us. Bonnie Raitt had a big hit with one of his tunes. The level that he could write blues music, the blues form for his poetry, was pretty far out. Very sophisticated. It always caught the heart of the blues. The joke, the punchline, was always there. It would be titled 'Your Molecular Structure,'" he chuckles. "But it was the blues."

Granelli was around 20 when he met Guaraldi. "That was a different relationship, because when I met Vince, I was really young, establishing myself. It was just amazing to have a jazz gig with a trio that just had a hit record ("Cast Your Fate to the Wind"). Vince was completely different, although we were good friends. He also shared that same quality (with Mose) of having to fight uphill to get his way with his music. Fantasy Records didn't even want to record 'Cast Your Fate to the Wind.' So he fought. One of the owners of Fantasy threw such a fit, they put it on the B side. In those days, the 45s had an A side and a B side. He would not give up his vision. He wouldn't give up his music."

Granelli laughs at the notion of some critics that Guaraldi "copped out" by having a hit record. "It was genuine. He loved that tune. He played a great arrangement. It's fantastic. He didn't compromise at all. It just happened a DJ turned the record over to play the B side. And the phones went crazy." The audience demand made it a hit, not common for a B side.

With "A Charlie Brown Christmas," CBS television, which aired the show, was initially against it, and the subsequent album. But Coca Cola, a powerful sponsor, insisted on it. CBS went along reluctantly, and the TV program is still popular over 50 years later, as is the album, now CD.

The band became friendly with the family of Charles Schultz, who created the Charlie Brown syndicated comic strip and TV specials. When it came to recording it, "We just did it. I think we went back to work that night at the Trident. Maybe I made $156. Never saw any royalties for 40 years."

Granelli recalls how Miles Davis would catch the band frequently when the trumpeter's band was doing gigs on the West Coast. Davis was fond of Guaraldi's playing (his touch was similar to Bill Evans and Davis preferred that to a more heavy-handed approach ). "Star Man" was a Davis favorite, according to the drummer.

One night, Davis, on top of the jazz world at that point and an intimidating figure, approached Guaraldi, which was common. This time, says Granelli, he said to Guaraldi, "'Man, you should come and join my band.' Vince looked up at Miles and said, 'Why, man? I've got a band.' That was pretty brave thing to say at the time. But he was dedicated to his music. I learned that same thing. Follow your music. Which I've tried to do ever since.

"He was a task master. In some ways he helped me learn how to be a professional every night. No mistakes. Playing the same repertoire, but you gotta make it fresh. You bring something to it. You've got to play only what the music needs. Because I was young, wanting to play everything I knew. He made it very clear that what he needed from me was not all this stuff. Play simple. Because if you listen to those records, it's pretty simple. I don't think I ever played a drum solo. Maybe every once in awhile. It was another world. It was great to be able to play every night."

After a while, both Granelli and bassist Marshall were itching for more. It was the 1960s and times were changing.

"For me, particularly, I learned all I could learn in that situation. There was no more growth going to happen for me there. I was hearing a much freer form of music. Because Fred and I had been doing that in the afternoons at Bop City. I so strongly heard another music. We left. Vince and I were still friends."

Still, it was some time before Granelli got to see any money from being a part of such a huge-selling album.

"Every once in a while around Christmas I'd have to travel around the world and listen to it. Every airport and restaurant and shit," says a bemused Granelli, who has been living in Halifax, Nova Scotia since the 1980s. "I'd be like, 'Aww man. I didn't get paid.' I'd see a Charlie Brown Christmas T-shirt. Damn! You know? Finally I wrote a piece about it called, 'Tales of Charlie Brown Christmas' that I've been touring with in Canada. A thousand people a night come out. This music just reached out and touched people. I have no idea, and nobody knew why. People want to see the original and hear the original. When we do concerts, for some people it's still their first jazz concert that they've ever been to."

In more recent years, royalties for "Charlie Brown" were obtained through a Canadian company called the Musicians' Rights Organization. "They found money," he says. "Lots of money, because of all the recordings I did. The union didn't protect us at all. Sidemen. All those drum parts are mine. They're so integral to the composition. But as sidemen, we never got the recognition."

Granelli may take a sideman gig nowadays, but it is infrequent and has to be something fresh that really sparks his interest. Otherwise, he goes his own way with his drum kit. As he noted, he's earned it. And the drums, around him his entire life, have been good to him.

"My dad was an immigrant. He was first generation Italian. The love of his life was drums. And he was a boxer. My mother wouldn't marry him unless he quit fighting. She bought him a drum set. At Sherman Clay in San Francisco. It was 1940. So drums were not very advanced in terms of technology. But it was around me. As soon as I got up and banged on it, it was love. I knew that's what I wanted to do. I knew that somehow I wanted to do that."

He grew up listening to the best jazz of that era and ended up being influenced by masters like Gene Krupa and Joe Morello, among others.

"I grew up hearing jazz, so I knew I wanted to do that. Then when I heard Charlie Parker. That really blew my mind. And the drums that went with that. Max Roach with Charlie Parker. Kenny Clarke. Hearing that and not understanding any of it. It just kept dragging me forward. I loved it so much. It was so painful because you didn't know how to play it," Granelli says. "I could swing, but you didn't know how it worked, bebop and all that music. The blues. I'd play the drums on any gig. It didn't matter to me. I'd always learn something. I would practice. I would imagine drum solos. Imagine the applause and everything... But it all started because my dad loved the drums."

At the age of 8, He got a chance to hang out with Krupa. That was a pivotal moment.

"He was with Jazz at the Philharmonic and he came to San Francisco. A friend put us together. I played his solo from 'Sing, Sing, Sing' for him. We went out to lunch. We walked and we talked. And he said, 'You know, if you love it don't let anyone talk you out of it. Even when it's unbelievably hard. You can play. Somewhere it's in you.' That was so encouraging.

When Granelli was a teenager, he heard Morello on a record. It was technically beyond him. Morello was playing on Dave Brubeck's "Sounds of the Loop" off the album Jazz Impressions of the U.S.A. (Columbia, 1957). Granelli was listening to the music in the same store where his father's drums were purchased. In those days, people could listen to a record in the store to decide whether or not to buy it.

"I knew there was so much about jazz and improvisation I didn't know. I heard this record... It was the same thing when I heard Max Roach play a solo on 'Parisian Thoroughfare.' I could hear the melody. I almost swooned, realizing there it was: The drums are a melodic, harmonic and rhythmic instrument," he recalls.

"Everybody kept telling me, because I studied so much—classical music and technique and all that—they kept telling me that's all there is. I was like, 'No, man. There's gotta be something else.'" He heard that in Morello's work. Also, Morello was in San Francisco. The young Granelli was unaware of that. It lead to another stroke of good fortune.

Granelli walked into Drumland, a store owned by a friend. "He said, 'What's wrong. You look like you're dizzy or something?' I said, 'I just heard this guy Joe Morello. I don't even know where he is.' He said, 'You want to take a lesson with Joe Morello?' I said, 'Yeah.' He said, 'Let me call him. He lives right up the street.'"

It resulted in a lesson, wherein Morello corrected the youngster on something he was doing wrong. Then they split. Granelli took a job on a cruise ship and Morello was on the road.

"When he came back, we got together. He asked what I had practiced. And I had only practiced what he told me, which was really boring. He said, 'What else did you do?' I said, 'You didn't tell me to do anything else.' He looks at me and said, 'You're just dumb enough to make it in this business,'" says Granelli.

"From that point on, we went forward. I was lucky. He never wanted me to play like him. He never influenced me that way. I spent very little time on the drums. Always on the practice pad. Because of that, I think that's the reason I can play the way I do at this age and not suffer physically. Because it was kind of yoga, his way of doing it. He was such a great friend."

Granelli would pick Morello up at the airport and go to gigs and set up his drums. "Because I knew he would always talk about drums during this. He only charged $10 for a lesson. I had to give him $10 each time. He'd usually give it back or take me out to lunch. But I had to give it to him every time. That exchange had to happen.

"He was a friend until he died. Every time I made a record under my name, I sent it to him. And he would comment on it. 'I really liked that one... That track where you did this was really cool.' He was very encouraging. I've been really fortunate in that way. I think that's part of my inspiration to teach. Because people stopped to help me. So that's what you do when you get a chance (to help others)."

Granelli has been influenced by a great many musicians. "I grew up memorizing Louis Jordan songs as a child. I covered so much music. Count Basie. Ray Charles. Booker Little." Other favorites include Frisell, Nina Simone, Jane Ira Bloom, Dave Douglas, Joey Baron, "and Carmen McRae. There's a version of 'It Never Entered My Mind.' Nobody else can ever sing that song again... I got to hear a lot of that music live. All the music of that era. Miles was a genius. So was Trane, who I got to sit in with once. I didn't do anything impressive. I just hung on for dear life," he says lightheartedly. It helped him develop his instincts. "I hear something and you just feel that it's real."

His ears are always open, to the point where he can't listen to music if he is doing something else, because it will make him stop and listen, ignoring the task at hand. For music by today's youth, he listens to recommendations of his son, bassist J. Anthony Granelli, who has played and recorded with his father.

As Granelli progressed, so did his interests. He got into painting. He's been heavily into teaching over the years, both in the United State and in Germany. Since moving to Nova Scotia, he has operated the Creative Music Workshop that runs as part of the annual Halifax Jazz Festival (canceled this year).

"The only way you get any kind of fame and the ability to make money is the ability to do your work. That's all it means. The people you want to play with, the circle gets smaller. It doesn't widen. You want to play with people who understand what it means to serve the music. That's not a big circle, man. (laughs) When you consider what's happening out there. I don't hear that a lot. I don't hear that honesty. You hear a lot of egos, but you don't hear that thing you can't describe. Soul. Swing. I don't know. Heart? You don't hear it. I'm not interested in that."

At nearly 80, his future? "Keep on playing. Keep on teaching. I have a great workshop here I teach at every summer. I bring some great friends of mine in. It's really going great. People come, students come and we get to explore this music. I had a little run-in with cancer a few months ago. A little something on my lungs, which they've since taken out and it's all clear. I was on the road the whole time knowing that I had this, but there was no way to get it done. It came to me: What was I going to do? I was going to keep doing this until I couldn't do this. Do it until you can't. I feel gratitude."

He adds with his humorous sparkle, "Especially now that I get my royalties."

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