Jerry Granelli was one of my musical heroes, but also one of my human heroes. Jerry, to me, represented so many different types of music, so many different ways to think about music, and multiple generations of all these types and styles of music.
I met him in the mid-’90s, when I moved to New York right after graduating from New England Conservatory. We struck up a friendship quickly and it turned out to be a turning point in my very early career. Jerry hired me for a band he led called Badlands, which also featured Cuong Vu and his son J. Anthony Granelli. He was very much a conceptualist; he had come out of traditional jazz but had pushed his way forward. He used to have these graphic scores for pieces that he called “cloud pieces”: these paintings that would lead us into different ways to improvise together. It’s hard to describe how incredible it was to have someone hold up a painting and ask you and a bunch of other musicians to interpret it as an ensemble.
We did a lot of touring. Spent a lot of time in Canada, in Jerry’s touring vehicle driving across these Canadian winters to remote places and playing music. But it didn’t matter where we were; Jerry always brought his absolute A-game. It was an inspiring time, very spiritual in a sense. He was serious about Buddhism; he studied with Trungpa Rinpoche and was a founding member with Rinpoche of the Naropa Institute, where Jerry taught for many years. So he had all this spiritual knowledge. He trusted that improvised music was a spiritual path for people to experience, both to hear and to participate in. His whole musical practice was informed by those studies. And though he was deeply rooted in the music of the past, he was all about reimagining and rediscovering that music in every moment.
Jerry had this swing feel that was very much a lost art. I’m not sure how to describe it: Again, it evidenced that one foot he had in the past—it was an early-’70s, San Francisco, West Coast feel—but at the same time, it was so particular to Jerry’s personality. The way he spoke is also the way he played the drums. I did some duo records with him, and on one in particular called Nowness that we made in 2013, you can really get that swing feel. That session is one of the strongest things I’ve ever done and I’m incredibly proud of it.
No matter what situation we were presented with, Jerry had a very positive way of looking at things. And in New York City at the time, that was refreshing. New York can be this fraught, difficult, cutthroat place to make music. Jerry had lived outside of that for so long that he just didn’t play by those rules. [Granelli moved to Canada in the 1980s and became a Canadian citizen in 1999. –Ed.] When you got with Jerry, no matter what was happening, he had a real smile. He always had a way forward, and if he didn’t, he’d go back and find one.
Those lessons were as important as the musical ones: ways to approach life, ways to approach adversity. They informed every aspect of the music, but they also informed the way I wanted to just exist as a human. I wanted to be sweet, and positive, and forward-thinking—like Jerry.
I spoke to him many times in his last months. Jerry had taken a spill in December of 2020, and he went into the hospital for months. He texted me and said, “Hey, I’m in here, I don’t know what’s happening.” And then two months later he got out, and he called to say, “I’m out! I can’t believe it!” And even then, he still had this incredibly positive way of thinking about such a serious medical situation. Then we spoke again a couple of days before he passed—again from the hospital. He called me and said, “Hey, I’m in the waiting room, and the doctor’s about to tell me that I have to check back in, and I’m about to tell him that I’m not checking back in. So, let’s talk.” I got to have this 45-minute conversation with Jerry right before his death, and it was just so like him. He wasn’t going to let his health issues keep him from the things that mattered. He left the hospital and, I think the next day, went and did a jazz workshop in Halifax. Two days after that he passed.
It’s still hard for me to talk about because I miss him so dearly. It’s a huge hole in all our lives.
[as told to Michael J. West]