Interview:

Jerry Granelli
By Ken Waxman

Now 72, and a resident of Halifax, Nova Scotia, percussionist Jerry Granelli has been involved in so many different projects over the years that he would seem to be several drummers. A San Franciscan, Granelli was the drummer on Vince Guaraldi’s popular series of Peanuts LPs and TV specials. He played on hit records and with psychedelic rock bands, while his jazz gigs encompass work with Denny Zeitlin, Jane Ira Bloom and Mose Allison. Granelli, who moved to Canada in the late ‘80s, has taught music in three countries and recorded a spate of CDs under his own name.

The New York City Jazz Record: Although you were already working steadily at the time, you’ve said that it wasn’t until you studied with Joe Morello that you finally formed your idea of how to play the drums. What did he teach you?

Jerry Granelli: The Morello relationship was very important in my life. I had been, like you say, basically working professionally since I was 15. I guess I was about 17 when I met Joe. Before that I felt there was so much more to playing the instrument than I knew, but no one around San Francisco at that time could help with the technical aspects. Then I heard Morello, and was lucky enough to meet him and he became a great mentor. His greatest gift was that he really opened up another whole level of technical skill to me. That continues to be of value, even at this age. I think the most important part of his teaching was that he never tried to get me to play like him. He just kept saying, ‘find your voice,’ and all the technical teaching was just to serve the music. He was first a great mentor and later a dear friend.

TNYCJR: When you joined pianist Vince Guaraldi’s trio he already had a hit single with “Cast Your Fate to the Wind” and recorded the Charlie Brown TV show albums around that time. Did you figure people would still remember those sessions, especially the Christmas album, nearly 50 years later?

JG: Ah, the great Peanuts question. Well, when we did it we had no idea what a cultural phenomenon it was going to turn into. No one can know those kinds of things. It was just the right time, right project, right people and right music. I’m just happy that it has touched so many people. People don’t know but the recordings with Vince were the tip of the iceberg. Vince came to play, really play, every night, and he demanded that you do the same. It was great training.

TNYCJR: You were also playing with outside players like Dewey Redman and Pharoah Sanders at the same time? Did that experience cause another change in your playing style? Was your style solidified when you played in pianist Denny Zeitlin trio with Charlie Haden? What distinguished those gigs from more mainstream ones with Guaraldi or Mose Allison, for instance?

JG: Like I said, that was a great time, having the ‘real gig’ [with Guardaldi]. But [bassist] Fred Marshall was in Vince’s trio, so after the gig we would go to Bop City and play. Yes, Dewey was there, and Pharaoh and others, but more importantly was a piano player, Joseph Nunez. Flip as he was called, was one of those legends in the music, who only the players know about. The really out playing that I did was with him and Fred. All that playing was for no money, but was so exciting for all of us. The music was raw, new, and in those days it really got people upset, because they thought we were trying to destroy bebop. But we figured we were just going where it led. All of this playing, the non-paying and the paying gigs enabled me to find a voice. It was confirmation of what I had heard in terms of stating the time, new ways to generate time and form, and to enter the world of spontaneous composition.

Later, when I played with Denny and Charlie, we were really interested in approaching the trio as a three-way relationship, which was a different approach at the time. The work with Mose has always been one of my favorite things. Mose is really pretty out and, again, he comes to play all the time. During this whole period I played with a lot of different people, but being a part of the ensemble. Still I was always pushing forward towards getting into creating a larger drum set or playing electronics, I think I began to more and more see myself as a sound artist rather than a drummer, per se. The music I think really influenced young rock bands around San Francisco like The Dead and the Jefferson Airplane. I think it was cool, because people hadn’t yet figured out a way to label the music we were playing. Free music was being thrown about but I don’t think that’s completely accurate.

TNYCJR: Jazz people may not know that you’ve actually been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a pioneer of the psychedelic scene. When was that? What was the Light Sound Dimension artist collective and what did you do as part of it?

JG: I think the time period we’re looking at was late ‘60s. I’d started working with the big drum set and having more sounds, and amplifying the instrument. Then Frank Werber, who owned the Trident, where I had worked with Vince, and Denny, somehow got the idea of putting us together with the great light painters Bill Ham and Bob Fine. They had been innovating with light painting at the Avalon and Filmore [ballrooms], but also loved improvisation. So we started to play together and explore the form of a light and sound band, playing spontaneous audio visual work. It was pretty underground. We played at Bill’s studio, and people started showing up; then at the Museum of Modern Art in San Francisco. I guess at that time – ‘68, ‘69,’70 – we were way ahead of the curve, but that work kept growing. What I’m describing is a journey you aren't even aware you’re making when you’re on it.

TNYCJR: Even though you seemed to be established in the Bay area in the ‘60s and ‘70s shortly afterwards you moved first to Boulder than Seattle, then Berlin and finally Halifax. Was it primarily to teach music? You also recorded with people like Gary Peacock, James Ira Bloom during that period. How did you find the time?

JG: Well, since life always changes that period came to its natural conclusion. I, like a lot of folks, began to look around for some other ways to live. I was fortunate to meet my Buddhist teacher, Chogyam Trungpa, the great Tibetan master, who introduced me to meditation, and another amazing time of life. Trungpa really encouraged me to teach, and I helped start Naropa Institute, in Boulder, particularly the creative music program, with [percussionist] Colin Wallcott. So San Francisco was pretty much over for me. I moved to Colorado to teach at Naropa. During the summers we were able to invite some of the greatest jazz improvisers to inspire new ways of teaching. Each move in my life from that point on seemed to involve teaching, fortunately from one great innovative program to another, the Cornish Institute of Arts in Seattle, the Hochshuler der Kunst in Berlin, now Jazz Institute Berlin, and the Maritime Conservatory of Performing Arts in Halifax. For two weeks each summer I teach at the Creative Music Workshop, part of the Halifax Jazz Festival.

In Seattle, Ralph Towner, Gary Peacock and I became a trio, and toured and recorded with ECM. Also during this time I spent a lot of really great time with Jane Ira Bloom, touring and recording. She loved electronics and creating new sounds, and the music she composed challenged me to go further with using more electronics, synths and octipads. In Europe I formed my double guitar band called UFB, and worked on projects with Lee Townsend, the great producer. So it’s funny how teaching allowed me to find some new music, and to begin producing work as a leader and composer – and now it’s something like 20 CDs later.

TNYCJR: As a studio musician in 1965 you played on “You Were on My Mind,” written by Canadian Sylvia Tyson. Did you ever think then you’d end up a Canadian resident 40 years later? Why move to Halifax anyway, instead of say Vancouver or Toronto?

JG: I moved to Halifax, in, I guess, 1988 really because of Trungpa, who moved there along with about 1,000 people in the sangha [community] because he thought it was a good place for the dharma [natural law] to grow. When I got there I felt that although I could live and work anywhere, this was my home: Nova Scotia and Canada. The tradition of music here is so rich, so ingrained, so although I have to travel, I’ve been able to get projects presented here, and to develop an ongoing relationship with [Vancouver’s] Songlines Records, for which I’ve recorded six CDs, including V16, Badlands and The Sandhills Reunion, [a spoken-word cycle with music featuring writer] Rinde Eckert. You know, you can trace connections. Like getting to spend so much time at Naropa working with the great poets like Allen Ginsberg probably lead to recording A Song I Heard Buddy Sing based on Michael Ondaatje’s novel “Coming Through Slaughter” (The Life of Buddy Bolden), which led me to connect with Rinde years later for Sandhills.

Now I’ve got the new trio with two Nova Scotians, [bassist and cellist] Simon Fisk and [tenor, soprano and baritone saxophonist] Danny Oore, brilliant young artists who I’ve kind of watched grow up musically. Wanting to play with them and to record Let Go [on Plunge Records] came out of V16, the band I had with [electric guitarists] David Tronzo and Christian Kogle and [electric bassist] J. Anthony Granelli. I needed to take a rest after six years and three CDs and I wanted to explore trio playing again. Both [Fisk and Oore] play more than one instrument, so it was a chance to try to make the trio more diverse and orchestral. Right now that’s my working band, but I’m also doing some solo recording and playing. And I’m re-forming a trio with David Tronzo and J. Anthony, which is also so much fun.

TNYCJR: Since you now play solo concerts, why did you wait until you were 70 to record a solo album [1313 Divorce Records] when many other drummers have done so at an earlier age?

JG: I’ve always thought about doing a solo record, but I also love to play in the band context –and solo is a big leap even from working in a duo. The idea for 1313 came from Darcy Spindle at Divorce, a Halifax-based alternative music label. I had to push myself a little to do it since it was all spontaneous compositions. The real challenge came when I started doing solos concerts, what with just getting used to the compositional form, learning how to develop things with even more patience and space, since they’re so many different ways to play the drums not in a band context. One of the great benefits though is that I do these concerts in settings where there are new and young audiences.

—For New York City Jazz Record September 2012