The Chronicle Herald (Metro)
Jazz loses creative force with death of Jerry Granelli
The world of jazz and creative improvisation has lost one of its most dynamic forces with the death of drummer and teacher Jerry Granelli. He was 80.
A powerful presence behind a drum kit, and revered source of inspiration for players of all ages learning to cut themselves loose from the bonds of musical convention, the San Francisco-born artist died suddenly at his Halifax home on Tuesday morning.
Granelli’s playing became known to the world in 1965 after he joined the trio of California pianist Vince Guaraldi in time to record the soundtrack for the beloved holiday TV special A Charlie Brown Christmas, although he wouldn’t get proper credit for his work until it received a deluxe reissue decades later.
He also toured and recorded with jazz/blues great Mose Allison and trio leader Denny Zeitlin before fronting his own groups starting in the 1970s, eventually moving to Halifax to join the Nova Scotian Buddhist community and become a galvanizing influence for the East Coast jazz scene.
Colin Mackenzie first met Granelli in the early 1990s, when he arranged a collaboration between the percussionist and hip-hop poet Buck 65, a.k.a. broadcaster Rich Terfry, for a documentary and the album Music Has Its Way With Me. He says the musician followed his faith to Halifax, but soon came to love the city’s creative spirit and heritage, becoming a Canadian citizen in 1989.
“Originally he came as part of that Buddhist migration, but he loved the history, he loved the stories. He took holidays in Cape Breton almost every summer, it was an important part of what he did,” said Mackenzie, who would eventually become Granelli’s manager/collaborator.
“He loved the community; the musicians that came up around him over the time that
he'd been in Halifax, he continued to work with a lot of them down the road.”
Besides performing and recording with musicians like Bill Frisell and David Tronzo, and his son, bassist J. Anthony Granelli, Granelli's creative energy found one of its most powerful outlets in the program he created with what was then known as the Atlantic Jazz Festival, now the Halifax Jazz Festival: the Creative Music Workshop.
When asked what it was that Granelli brought to Nova Scotia's jazz scene, Mackenzie responds, “Inspiration.”
“His dedication to teaching, that was a really, really important part of what he did, to pass things along,” said Mackenzie. “To pass along what is the legacy of jazz or the blues, where does the music come from, and why you need to know that stuff to do it yourself.
“Improvising was his big thing, because he'd say that's life: being able to improvise is key, just as you're making your way.”
Creatively, Granelli was always pushing his art forward, and bringing other musicians along with him, hurdling the boundaries of what jazz performance and composition could be and where they could go. But he'd also learned to make peace with his musical past, returning to the sounds of the Vince Guaraldi Trio and A Charlie Brown Christmas for a series of popular yearly concerts that raised money for music education, and paying tribute to both of his early mentors, Guaraldi and Allison, on a 2020 trio release.
Over the past year, Granelli's health issues were no secret; his son set up a Gofundme page to provide some assistance after he'd spent two months in ICU with a near-fatal case of internal bleeding and a collapsed lung at the start of the year.
But Mackenzie says over the past few months he'd been exercising regularly, getting ready to resume teaching and performing on stage.
“He gave a creative music workshop as part of the Halifax Jazz Festival on Sunday,” he said. “There were actually people there in-person, and it was simulcast.
“Over the last couple of weeks, he'd been calling me, saying let's start planning, maybe by December he'd be able to do one or two of the Charlie Brown Christmas shows, he was working on a new record, and all that kind of stuff.
“It seemed like the energy was coming back. ... he had good weeks and bad weeks.”