CELEBRATING
50 YEARS

Jerry Granelli Honors Vince Guaraldi And Mose Allison

As he nears 80, the drummer pays tribute to his former bosses

Jerry Granelli (photo: Matthew Septimus)
Jerry Granelli (photo: Matthew Septimus)

Those unaware of the bigger picture may look at The Jerry Granelli Trio Plays Vince Guaraldi & Mose Allison, released on the RareNoise imprint this past June, as a pure nostalgia trip.  The truth, however, is something more complex. While Granelli, who’ll turn 80 on December 30, has plenty of incredible memories from the time he spent playing drums alongside those titular figures, his eyes remain fixed on the road ahead. Even this particular album, which admittedly succumbs to a degree of sentiment in its embrace of personal history, skirts most foreseeable outcomes. In that respect it mirrors the artistic course that Granelli has traversed over the past three-quarters of a century.

In hindsight, given Granelli’s DNA and San Franciscan surroundings, one of the only inevitabilities in his life seems to have been his path to percussion. “The drums were my father’s major love,” he recalls, “and he would vanish after dinner and play for two hours every night. My uncle also loved the drums. He and my dad had really beautiful, different tastes. My uncle introduced me to Louis Jordan—one of the first songs I ever learned [to play] was ‘Open the Door, Richard!’—and my dad turned me on to Dixieland, Gene Krupa, and big bands.”

The influence of both familial figures was profound, and the rich jazz scene in the City by the Bay during the 1940s and ’50s became a gateway for this impressionable youth.  “During and after the war, San Francisco was wide open. There were just so many jazz clubs,” Granelli explains. “My dad would go to a jam session, take me with him, and leave me with the policewoman at the door while I’d drink Shirley Temples. It was wonderful.”

Concurrently soaking in the sounds of postwar swing and bebop, sitting in at Dixieland sessions with his father’s friends, studying classical percussion, and participating in rudimental drumming competitions, Granelli began to develop a broad skillset before he was even 10 years old. But a true grasp of jazz eluded him. “I knew I didn’t know how to play the music,” he confesses. “I could imitate Gene Krupa, Jo Jones. But I didn’t understand the art of improvisation. And there was a yearning for that.”

Intent on filling in the gaps, Granelli, barely into his teens, began to sneak out to night spots in the Fillmore District to study at the school of hard knocks. “I’d get thrown out of the clubs because I couldn’t play. It was a rough way to learn because you’d sit in and somebody would come up and say, ‘Get off the drums!’ Then I’d go outside and cry, but then I’d get back in there because I knew—I knew!—that if I didn’t go back in I’d never get there.”

That real-world experience helped Granelli toughen up, but it was an intense period of study with drummer Joe Morello, coupled with some informal mentoring from visiting legends like Philly Joe Jones, Max Roach, and Elvin Jones, that broadened his technical abilities and outlook. Then, in 1962, when Granelli was 21, real opportunity came knocking: “Colin Bailey decided to leave Vince [Guaraldi] to go to L.A. and become a studio drummer, so Morello talked to Vince, and he called and gave me a shot.” Essentially auditioning, Granelli played a weekend in Sacramento with the famed pianist, who was riding high on his original hit “Cast Your Fate to the Wind.” He landed the gig. 

It was the beginning of a beautiful musical relationship and tough-love experience. Over the next two years, Granelli played countless gigs in Guaraldi’s trio and made notable appearances on records like The Latin Side of Vince Guaraldi, the collaborative outing Vince Guaraldi/Bola Sete/and Friends, and the outright classic A Charlie Brown Christmas. “Vince was great,” Granelli notes. “He taught me the discipline of being a working jazz musician. It was just a little harsh the way he taught it—always under the threat of being fired!”

During that stretch, Granelli and bassist Fred Marshall would come to form a tight bond that regularly extended into jam sessions beyond their working hours. Ultimately, that musical connection and a parallel need for growth pulled them out of Guaraldi’s orbit and into freer realms. The pair formed a trio with pianist Joseph “Flip” Nuñez, pushing boundaries while loosening frameworks and form. And that was merely the first of many avant-garde escapades to come.

At approximately the same time in the mid-’60s, while also playing on sessions for producer Sylvester Stewart (a.k.a. Sly Stone), providing the beat on record for folk-rockers We Five, and working in pickup rhythm sections for touring talents like Carmen McRae and Jimmy Witherspoon, Granelli met pianist Denny Zeitlin. Together with bassist Charlie Haden, they would come to form one of the most radical trios of the era, documenting their work on Columbia LPs like Carnival and Live at the Trident. Zeitlin’s fondness for that band and its drummer remains to this day. “We broke some new trails in trio performance,” the pianist says, “and Jerry’s original approach to the drums brought both grace and penetration to the music. He had huge ears and a great desire to explore.”

As the decade wore on, that desire for exploration was channeled into the psychedelic scene. Granelli, experimenting with electronics, and Marshall, on his self-invented, eight-string “megatar,” formed The Ensemble—an edgy quartet that played opposite Red Foxx at Sugar Hill and Lenny Bruce at the Off Broadway. Then they went further down the rabbit hole, joining forces with light painter Bill Ham to create Light Sound Dimension, a multidisciplinary venture that was a key presence in the city’s genre-blurring hippie happenings. That project marked the beginning of a new phase in Granelli’s journey—one where he adopted the ideal of the artist, not just a musician—yet it also signaled an end:  While coping with personal difficulties and discovering a path through Buddhism, he essentially gave up playing for several years. It wasn’t until old friend Mose Allison reached out that Granelli returned to the fold in the mid-’70s.

Removing the rust while touring with Allison, Granelli played his part on that polymath’s celebrated 1976 album Your Mind Is on Vacation. At the same time, teaching was now becoming a primary factor in the drummer’s life choices. A move to Boulder, Colorado, gave him the opportunity to work with percussionist Collin Walcott on developing the Creative Music Program at the Naropa Institute; a jump to Seattle in 1981 saw him working on the faculty of a burgeoning department at Cornish College of the Arts; and a shift a few years later to his current home base—Halifax, Nova Scotia—found him assuming a leadership role at the Canadian Conservatory of Music and launching the education-rich Atlantic Jazz Festival with Susan Hunter.

Over the course of those moves, Granelli amassed a large network of collaborators, which he made a conscious decision to tap into in order to develop his own body of work. He has since released nearly three dozen albums in almost as many years, a rich discography overflowing with diversity. Highlights include a handful of projects with vocalist Jay Clayton, including 2020’s Alone Together duologue; A Song I Thought I Heard Buddy Sing, inspired by Michael Ondaatje’s literary classic Coming Through Slaughter and boasting a lineup that includes saxophonist Kenny Garrett and guitarists Bill Frisell and Robben Ford; Sandhills Reunion, featuring Rinde Eckert’s spoken art; a series of dates with double-guitar quartet V16; and numerous projects featuring multi-instrumentalist Jamie Saft, who, along with bassist Bradley Christopher Jones, fills out the lineup on Granelli’s recent trip through the music of Guaraldi and Allison.

Despite the occasional allusion to the past, which only seems appropriate for a musician of Granelli’s vintage, there’s actually little to no repetition in the drummer’s work. Even what’s old is new in his hands, and the only constant across an ever-changing landscape seems to be his key takeaway from a life well lived: “I’ve learned to just follow the music, no matter what happens. That grows into the idea of serving the music. If I can get out of its way—just hear the music and play it—then I feel I’m being true to it. I think that’s the greatest thing I’ve learned.” 

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Dan Bilawsky

Dan Bilawsky has been involved in jazz journalism for 15 years. His work has appeared in JazzTimes, JAZZed, and All About Jazz, among other outlets. In addition, he’s penned liner notes for artists on Red, Capri, HighNote/Savant, Ropeadope, and other respected imprints. A band director with 20 years of teaching experience, he holds degrees in music from Indiana University, the Aaron Copland School of Music at Queens College, and Five Towns College.