“One reason why people like improvised music is that it’s a direct reflection of life, not something we thought up. It scares you…makes you think you’re going to die for a moment…do you have the courage to play? Can I move out of my desires and wants, and into compositional choices?” – Jerry Granelli
At 71, Drummer/Composer/Professor/Sound Painter Jerry Granelli has enjoyed an incomparable career in music from the inside out…way out! The winner of the last NEA Grant awarded ascended from playing with the great pianist Vince Guaraldi at the height of his popularity while simultaneously exploring Free Jazz on San Francisco’s thriving after hours sets in the early `60s to establishing academic arts curriculums to indoctrinate and perpetuate alternative musical forms such as Spontaneous Composition in the present. A pioneer of `60s psychedelic sounds, a sideman on a Top 5 pop hit and a session musician for Sly Stone, Granelli is a forward thinking master in the art of music. Since the late `80s, he has recorded over 20 albums as a leader and/or soloist…in jazz and the indefinable beyond.
Jerry Granelli was born December 30, 1940 in San Francisco, growing up in the city’s Italian-dominated outer Mission area. “My dad, Jack Granelli, was a great Italian wedding drummer,” he shares. “He loved the instrument as did my Uncle Pete. Dad liked swing, my uncle was more bebop. My first memory of music was finding a couple of screwdrivers then climbing up the drums to play them!” At 4, he memorized and could play Louis Jordan and His Tympany Five’s “Open the Door Richard.”
Though his parents first tried to start him on violin, Jerry was adamant in his love for the drums and swiftly became a bona fide prodigy. He studied under classical player Al Carr, sat in when his dad’s friends played Dixieland, and won every drum competition that came along. “I did that until I was about 10,” he says. “They kept bumping me up to compete against older kids. I was already converting snare drum rudiments and applying them to the drum set…but I had to sit at the edge of a chair to reach the foot pedals!”
San Francisco had a rich jazz scene in the `50s with a strong connection to what was happening in New York – The Tenderloin district, The Jazz Workshop, The Blackhawk and Black jazz clubs downtown in Fillmore like Jimbo’s Bop City. His dad would take him out once a week. When he was 8, Jerry spent a day learning under the feet of the legendary Gene Krupa. But it was Dave Brubeck Quartet mainstay Joe Morello that spent extensive time with him. “I would drive him to rehearsals and set up his drums,” Jerry says. “I was around the very first time they rehearsed Paul Desmond’s ‘Take Five’! For two years Morello taught me technical aspects of playing and never once tried to influence the way I played. I was listening to Jo Jones (for his hi hat technique), Roy Haynes and Philly Joe Jones who would all come to town in different groups playing at The Blackhawk. I’d see Danny Richmond at The Jazz Workshop with Mingus, Billy Hart with Jimmy Smith, and Elvin Jones – always very kind – with John Coltrane.”
“By12, my uncle had taken me to hear Charlie Parker which blew my mind. I started sneaking out to the Koo Koo Club on Haight Street. I’d try to play and they’d throw me out. It was harsh but that was the rules – tough love. Then I heard Max Roach play a solo on ‘Parisian Thoroughfare’ that was melodic and harmonic, not just rhythmic. I realized how evolved the American drummer had become – my first glimmer of ‘a musician that plays the drums’.”
Jerry also learned much from the men on the local jazz scene. “I started off playing a lot of casuals, cabaret shows and in the symphony, but I knew that’s not what I was eventually going to do. I did that for experience and money because there wasn’t much jazz work and I wasn’t good enough yet. But I got to do jam sessions, rehearsal bands, big bands…strip joints and blues haunts…all while trying to get my be bop chops. At 17, I started getting a lot of $8 gigs at North Beach playing with local heroes. Tenor man Bobby Ferrera decided to come by every day at 4pm and teach me a Monk tune for an hour. There were no books. Anyone who was kind to me felt that I was sincere in my desire and took it upon themselves to teach me. They were anxious to keep the music alive.”
Granelli’s first big break came at age 21 when he went on the road with the Johnny Hamlin Quartet. “We did the Midwest and it was also my first trip to New York,” he says. “We made no money but I was playing jazz every night. When I got back to San Francisco, (drummer) Colin Bailey and (bassist) Monty Budwig had both left The Vince Guaraldi Trio to move to L.A. Vince’s big hit ‘Cast Your Fate to The Wind’ was out so he had a lot of bookings. Vince gave me a shot. In his inimitable way, Vince said, ‘We’re going to Sacramento for a week. We’ll see what happens.’ I knew I had to play better than ever and I did. Vince kept me.”
Jerry recorded with Vince on several of his collaborations with Brazilian guitarist Bola Sete and was present on many of the “Charlie Brown” television special scores including the inaugural now-classic A Charlie Brown Christmas – an internationally beloved jazz treasure for children of all ages which includes the bouncy theme “Linus and Lucy.” Sadly, carelessness on the part of Fantasy Records kept him from being properly credited on that album for decades. “That was the real beginning,” Jerry shrugs. “I was making good money as a working jazz musician. (Renowned music critic) Ralph J. Gleason would write about me so I went from a local guy to national recognition.”
“The gig with Vince was great but constricting,” Jerry continues, “There was another way I wanted to play. Dewey Redman was around. Pharoah Sanders had come up from Arkansas. I’d get off my gig with Vince at 2 then play the hard stuff for four hours over at Bop City. Then Jackson’s Nook would open at 6 A.M. I had the best of both worlds.” While playing with pianist Flip Nunez, Jerry met guitarist Fred Marshall who ushered him further onto alternative pathways. It was the seeds of the American avant-garde. New York had Ornette Coleman, Eric Dolphy and Albert Ayler. Jerry began to interface with a daring group of West Coast cats that included pianist Tom Harrell and Rafael Garrett on bass and whistles.
Jerry left the Guaraldi trio in `64 and switched to pianist Denny Zeitlen who’d moved to San Francisco from Chicago and was playing more open. Jerry recorded the Columbia Records studio LPs Carnival and Zeitgeist with The Denny Zeitlen Trio – a band that tied with the classic Miles Davis Quintet for Group of the Year honors in Downbeat Magazine’s Critics and Readers Polls of 1965. He also played on the trio’s Live at The Trident, a club in Sausalito that catered to a who’s who of visiting jazz stars. Jerry accompanied many of them including Carmen McRae, Jimmy Witherspoon, Lou Rawls and Mose Allison. “It had dawned on me during a solo I played with Denny that I wasn’t hearing the drums in a typical fashion. I got a tympani, 3 gongs, and racks of bells and tom toms.”
Another interesting mid-`60s sideline found Granelli doing studio work for then-up-and-coming record producer Sly Stone – pre-Family Stone – at *Tom Donohue’s* Autumn Records. “The Beatles bored me,” Jerry confesses, “but working with Sly I got to play some rhythm and blues, and work in the studio cutting singles on different artists…and beer commercials – separate ones for the Black, White and Hispanic radio stations.” Jerry played with folkies The Kingston Trio. He also cut a golden oldie for A&M Records’ pop vocal group We Five which featured his friend Fred’s then-wife Beverly Bivens as lead singer. The song, “You Were on My Mind,” was a dynamic pop radio smash that soared to #3 on the Billboard Top Singles chart in August of `65 on the wings of Granelli’s driving soft-to-loud/reflective-to-rousing pulse. “Frank Weber, who owned the Trident Club, brought me in on that,” Jerry shares. “That single sold 2 million, the album 1 million. I was making a living but those gigs were essentially paying the tab for me to play OUT on my time.”
After leaving Zeitlen’s trio, Jerry did a few gigs with jazz piano legend Bill Evans but declined joining the band. Instead, Jerry and Fred created a quartet called The Ensemble just as the psychedelic scene started popping up around `68 at Haight-Ashbury. Fred had invented an instrument called a Megatar – an 8-string guitar with a flexible neck but bigger. Jerry started experimenting with electronics to match. “The only place we could play was in the Haight at the Both/And club and the Sugar Hill opposite Redd Foxx. He called what we played ‘empty the room music!’ We couldn’t buy a jazz gig. (Rock impresario) Bill Graham had a club called The Matrix. We got on a bill between Jefferson Airplane and Big Brother &The Holding Company (Janis Joplin’s group) as Bill’s ‘pet band’.”
Jerry’s next band was even more innovative, an artist collective of three musicians and four light painters called Light Sound Dimension. “We were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as pioneers of the psychedelic scene,” Jerry states. “Frank Weber put Fred and I together with Bill Ham and Bob Fine – two light painters from the company Family Dog that did light shows for rock bands out at the Avalon Ballroom. They were improvisers who loved jazz. We played the San Francisco Museum of Art in front of screens inside rooms where every wall was painted black. Then we’d hang at The Fillmore with bands like The Jimi Hendrix Experience and The Paul Butterfield Blues Band. I was no longer in the middle of the jazz stream. It was a wide open time…the free speech and civil rights movements were raging…the sexual revolution…anti war demonstrations. Our music was tied into all of that social consciousness. There was also a lot of LSD going around… I went to Europe for the first time in `71 with The Grateful Dead.”
“This is when I began to see myself less as a musician and more as an artist,” Jerry muses. “I figured everybody would be multi-disciplinary by then.”
In the midst of all this, Jerry discovered Buddhism which additionally began to shape his consciousness. “The first time I went to hear Chogyam Trungpa speak, it was like the first time I heard Charlie Parker. I recognized what he was saying as truth. It was like someone had read thoughts in my mind that I had never spoken aloud. I got involved with them and trying to figure out how to be a human being – living out in Berkley raising vegetables. I hadn’t done anything my whole life but play music. I was trying to discover myself. Studying Buddhism I became aware of ‘lineage’” (the generational continuum of souls connected and moving forward).
After visiting for two summers in `74 and `75, Jerry moved to Boulder, Colorado in 1976 to study Tibetan Buddhism. He started the Creative Music Program at Naropa Institute with percussionist Colin Walcott (later of Oregon fame). “That was tied in with what Carl Berger had been doing up in Woodstock. We brought out musicians like Don Cherry and Charlie Haden. We had dance and theatre departments. I got to work with poets Allen Ginsberg and Ann Waldman. For five weeks, people would come together, have concerts and teach. It was a real entrance into education based on this type of music – in how it could be taught. Naropa was about crossing boundaries and making the arts melting pot work together.”
Next in `81, he took his burgeoning teaching chops to Seattle. “A scene was developing at Cornish Institute of Arts where I found myself on a faculty with Jim Knapp (composer), Gary Peacock (bass/theory), Julian Priester (trombone), Carter Jefferson (sax) and Jay Clayton (singer).We had a free hand at a new way of teaching this music to an exciting and receptive collection of young people like Brad Shepik (guitar) and Briggan Krause (alto sax). We taught music in a way that involved the streets. It was about not trying to stylize students. It was a great time. We were teaching but all of us got to do a lot of playing together. Gary and I became a sought after bass and drums duo. We did a lot of traveling…and a lot of ECM recordings! I also played with Jane Ira Bloom.”
On the advice of his Buddhist teacher, Jerry left Reagan era America to live in Halifax, Nova Scotia where he got in touch with its strong folk and roots scene and Celtic music. It was while on a series of solo concert dates in Europe that Jerry encountered mallets master Dave Friedman in Berlin who had started a music program at Horchshule der Kunst. Jerry accepted a position there (now The Jazz Institute of Berlin) and was officially recognized as a professor – not through traditional academia but through a more organic amalgam of his experience and outlook on art. “The Germans looked at my resume, my career, my life’s journey and said, ‘You are a teacher.’ It was like a jazz musician hitting the Lotto. I had a steady job of high esteem, I enjoyed a great salary and I still get a pension. I played a lot but I really enjoyed teaching and designing curriculum.”
“The heart of that curriculum is every class is a playing class,” Granelli elucidates. “Even the theory class had a performance aspect. We had 60 to 80 students a year for a 4-year program. There were about 8 ensembles running – blues, bop, free, composers, etc. – so everyone got to be a part of some ensemble. It also involved intimate relationship with students based on giving information to help them find their own voice. The European approach to jazz really changed with the presence of American teachers. In the `80 and `90s, they got to hear The Art Ensemble of Chicago, John Zorn and Ornette Coleman. They understood and embraced the social aspect of the music which represents freedom. And when they graduated, they were ready to work not just as sidemen but to make their own music.”
Jerry was Director of Jazz and Popular Music Dept. at Canadian Conservatory.
He also co-founded the Atlantic Jazz Festival with Susan Hunter, introducing an educational component to the jazz festival experience. And Granelli started the band camp Creative Music Workshop which happens two weeks every summer.
The fertile ground of teaching and a relationship with producer Lee Townsend gradually led Granelli to recording as a leader with an emboldened sense of imagination. He started a double-guitar band with some young German musicians and called it UFB (an acronym for UnFuckinBelievable). He cut a record titled A Song I Heard Buddy Sing based on Michael Ondaatje’s novel “Coming Through Slaughter” (The Life of Buddy Bolden) with Kenny Garrett on sax, Julian Priester on trombone, Anthony Cox on piano, and both Bill Frisell & Robben Ford on guitars. It won the German Critics Prize – high respect for Granelli as a leader – was also nominated for a Grammy Award and Canada’s Juno Award.
Since 1987, Jerry Granelli has recorded almost an album a year- profoundly inspired to do so via his respect for the great Max Roach. Among his first CDs were One Day at a Time and Koputi (both on the ITM label), News on the Street and Broken Circle (a Native American meditation). Recent highlights among these projects include albums with his band Badlands, a septet with guitars and saxes. Its 1998 album Enter, a Dragon (with accordion) included the ethereal pieces “Fainting Sheep” and “Bou Nora.” Another band, V16, is a double-guitar quartet that incorporates samplers. Its self-titled 2003 debut featured the pieces “O Bossa, Where Art Thou,” “Mutator” and “Black Confederacy.”
The following year’s Sandhills Reunion (2004) was an especially unique piece in collaboration with writer/spoken word artist Rinde Eckert whose scenarios, short stories and poetry were set to evocative ‘soundscapes’ on titles such as “Smart Women,” “20 Questions for an Outlaw,” “Your Voice,” “Never to See You.” “That project was assembled as a composite of Americana,” Jerry explains. “Sandhills is a sprawling area in Nebraska with clusters of small towns. We made an aural movie by trying to create a third thing out of words and music – like Mingus meshed jazz and dance with Black Saint & The Sinner Lady as a ballet.”
In 2010 Granelli recorded a solo/all-drums album in one day titled 1313 (after the address behind which his Sprung Studio resides). “Doing that record was not my idea,” Jerry confesses. “It was the idea of Dorsey over at Divorce Records, a label that specializes in what’s called noise records and trash music (neither of which apply to Granelli’s highly experimental yet musical offering of drums, cymbals, synth, octopad and electronics – all mic’d uniquely). 2011found him engaged in the inevitable – The Jerry Granelli Trio record Let Go – not with piano but sax, bass and drums (with the voice of Mary Jane Lamond on “Solaria” and “Vulnerable”).
Granelli’s evolution from musician to artist has culminated with his adaptation of the descriptive Sound Painter which connects back to another creative outlet he has long enjoyed – painting. “I started painting in the late `60s,” he shares. “Once again, Fred Marshall was an artist. He’d make a charcoal drawing then ask, ‘Can you play that?’ So I started. I like to paint because it’s a slow process. I can tell when I’m about to write music because I start painting… Peter Voulkos was a great American potter who made bronze sculptures like the one in front of the Hall of Justice in San Francisco in the early `70s. I would play them. Later in the `90s, a blacksmith named John Little created sound sculptures – beautiful structures yet make with musical intent. I did a record playing them called Iron Sky (2001).”
At 71, Granelli is as inspired as ever. He’s the subject of the film documentary “In The Moment.” And two classical works are being composed for him: Peter Togni composing a choral concerto featuring “Warrior Song” (in including Tibetan text, Spanish Catholic text and Malcolm X text) and Jeff Riley is writing a piece for nonet – both showcasing Granelli as the sole soloist.“It’s frustrating yet very exciting work,” he marvels. “I’m playing to listeners that are primarily 40 years younger. Seeing someone play spontaneously blows their minds… Jazz reflects life – a totally spontaneous event. I believe that will always have an appeal.”
“I want to be an artist `til I drop and continue to be relevant,” Granelli concludes. “I remember seeing Max Roach in New York City just before he died in 2007. I walked into Carroll Music on 55th and could not believe my eyes. At 83, that man had rented a room and was in there…practicing.”
“And now for my next number, I would like to play…a building.”
– A. Scott Galloway