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Jerry Granelli 1940–2021

The versatile drummer played with Denny Zeitlin, Charlie Haden, Mose Allison, and—most famously—Vince Guaraldi

Jerry Granelli
Jerry Granelli (photo: Matthew Septimus)

Jerry Granelli, a jazz drummer and educator noted for his power and sensitivity both at and away from the drum kit, died July 20 at his home in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada. He was 80.

His death was announced by his son, bassist J Anthony Granelli, in a post to his father’s Facebook account. Granelli had been recovering from a case of massive internal bleeding that occurred in December and left him hospitalized for two months.

“He had made steady progress but eventually was not able to overcome the ordeal,” the younger Granelli wrote.

Granelli had an extensive and impressive résumé, including work with Denny Zeitlin, Charlie Haden, Mose Allison, Julian Priester, and Jane Ira Bloom. However, he was best known for his work with pianist Vince Guaraldi, particularly on the classic recording A Charlie Brown Christmas. Though for many years he distanced himself from it, Granelli eventually took in stride the fame that came with that credit; he performed a show featuring the music and stories of the creation thereof each winter called “Tales of A Charlie Brown Christmas.”

He was also a sought-after educator, a faculty member at the Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colorado; Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle, Washington; and the Canadian Conservatory of Music in Halifax, where he cofounded the TD Halifax Jazz Festival and helped to develop its educational component. In addition to teaching at these institutions and around the world, Granelli was regarded as an important elder and mentor on the local Halifax music scene, of which he had been a part since the 1980s.

Granelli was a practicing Buddhist, with that practice informing both his playing and his teaching about music. Two days before his death, he led a creative workshop called “Art in Everyday Life: The Creative Process,” which was captured on YouTube. In it, he shared principles of living that influenced his music-making.

“What does it take to play music with another human being?” he said. “What it takes is the same things that it takes to live together as human beings. An appreciation of others, not being completely self-centered, which is kind of a hard one, kindness to yourself, and being completely present and awake in establishing … a whole new set of allegiances. One of them being, music wants to express itself.”

Gerald John Granelli was born December 30, 1940 in San Francisco, California to Jack Granelli, a buyer for a poultry market, and Ida Granelli (née Icardi), a housewife. His father was also a drummer, as was his uncle, and Granelli began playing the instrument himself as a small child. He accompanied his father to the jam sessions that were legion in postwar San Francisco. By his teen years, Granelli was sneaking out to attend the sessions himself. In the late ’50s, he solidified his technique in intensive studies with Joe Morello, the drummer for the classic Dave Brubeck Quartet.

In 1962, 21-year-old Granelli passed an audition to join the Vince Guaraldi Trio just as the San Francisco pianist was beginning to enjoy the positive aftereffects of his breakthrough hit “Cast Your Fate to the Wind.” He spent several years with Guaraldi and recorded music for five albums, including the 1964 studio date that yielded A Charlie Brown Christmas. Completed in one three-hour session, the triple-platinum album paid Granelli a one-time fee of $120 with no royalties.

In addition to Guaraldi, Granelli worked with pianist Denny Zeitlin and bassist Charlie Haden, in a trio whose increasing abstraction stood in marked contrast to the sturdy but gentle brushwork of A Charlie Brown Christmas. He also worked on pop recording sessions—notably the Grammy-nominated 1965 record “You Were on My Mind” by We Five—as well as tours with the likes of vocalist Carmen McRae. At the end of the decade, he entered the San Francisco psychedelic scene as a member of the collective Light Sound Dimension (LSD), as well as an experimental electronic quartet called The Ensemble with Fred Marshall, the bassist from the Guaraldi trio.

After several years’ withdrawal from the scene, Granelli joined forces with pianist and songwriter Mose Allison, touring with him through the mid-’70s. Then, in 1978, he moved to Boulder to join the Naropa faculty. He moved again in the early 1980s to take the position at Cornish in Seattle; later that decade, he relocated to Halifax for the Canadian Conservatory job. Granelli quickly came to love his adopted country and became a citizen in 1999.

It wasn’t until 1990’s One Day at a Time—featuring Haden, Priester, and guitarists Robben Ford and Ralph Towner—that Granelli put out his first album as a leader on an established label (Germany’s ITM Pacific; an earlier solo recording, 1978’s Voices, was privately pressed). It was the first of more than a dozen albums that he would make in his final 30 years. His final album, Jerry Granelli Plays Vince Guaraldi & Mose Allison, was released in the summer of 2020.

In addition to his son J Anthony, Granelli is survived by another son, Vajra Granelli; a daughter, Alexis Granelli; and five grandchildren.

Overdue Ovation: Jerry Granelli

Michael J. West

Michael J. West is a jazz journalist in Washington, D.C. In addition to his work on the national and international jazz scenes, he has been covering D.C.’s local jazz community since 2009. He is also a freelance writer, editor, and proofreader, and as such spends most days either hunkered down at a screen or inside his very big headphones. He lives in Washington with his wife and two children.