Halifax Jazz Drummer Jerry Granelli Dies at 80
He famously kept time on the Vince Guaraldi Trio's 'A Charlie Brown Christmas' soundtrack
Published Jul 21, 2021Jerry Granelli — a Canadian jazz drummer and music teacher who performed and recorded with Vince Guaraldi, Charlie Haden, Sly Stone, Ornette Coleman, Pat Metheny, Mose Allison and more — has died. Granelli's official social media accounts shared in a statement that the artist passed away yesterday morning (July 20) at his home in Halifax. He was 80.
"Jerry was a true force of nature, he will be greatly missed by his three children, five grand children and all of the countless people he touched through his music and spirit," the statement reads in part, noting that Granelli was admitted to hospital late last year following "a near fatal case of internal bleeding" after suffering a fall, where he also recovered from "a number of other long term health issues exacerbated by his initial issue."
"Jerry has spent his life dedicated to the art of improvisation, helping young musicians see the connection between life and the art they create and the ordinary magic of living a spontaneous life," the statement continues. "A long time practitioner of Tibetan Buddhism Jerry has been an important proponent for people in all walks of life of meditation practice and living one's life awakened and fearlessly. A large network of both music and Dharma students will miss his fierce spirit and compassion. His life and work live on through them."
Born in San Francisco in 1940, Granelli's parents first tried to start him playing violin, though his love for the drums soon led him to keeping time. As he shared in an artist bio, "My dad, Jack Granelli, was a great Italian wedding drummer. He loved the instrument as did my Uncle Pete. Dad liked swing, my uncle was more bebop. My first memory of music was finding a couple of screwdrivers then climbing up the drums to play them!"
As he grew older, Granelli continued to learn the instrument, attend live jazz performances in San Francisco and play in numerous competitions and bands in the area, including two years of study with Dave Brubeck Quartet drummer Joe Morello. After touring with the Johnny Hamlin Quartet at age 21, Granelli was offered a spot behind the kit to drum for the Vince Guaraldi Trio.
"Vince's big hit 'Cast Your Fate to the Wind' was out so he had a lot of bookings," Granelli recalled. "Vince gave me a shot. In his inimitable way, Vince said, 'We're going to Sacramento for a week. We'll see what happens.' I knew I had to play better than ever and I did. Vince kept me."
As a member of Guaraldi's trio, Granelli is perhaps best known for his performance on the soundtrack of 1965's A Charlie Brown Christmas, a holiday listening staple that has been inducted into both the Grammy Hall of Fame and the National Recording Registry of the Library of Congress.
However, Granelli would not be credited for his work on the soundtrack upon its initial release, with Fantasy Records amending his omission three decades later upon reissuing the LP. In a 2010 interview with the Canadian Press, Granelli said he didn't receive royalties for his role in the music-making unless it was appropriated for something new.
"But people would always hear it and like it. And over the years, I think I began to be grateful for that, that gee, you made something that touched somebody. A lot of somebodies. Millions of somebodies. Generations of somebodies," he said. "My kids saw it, and my grandkids saw it.... I hear it sometimes and I think: 'That's really good music. There's nothing sellout or corny about that. That's jazz. It's really good jazz.'"
Granelli would leave Guaraldi's group in 1964, calling his time "great but constricting...There was another way I wanted to play." He would join a group led by jazz pianist Denny Zeitlen, and would also perform as an accompanist to vocalists including Carmen McRae, Jimmy Witherspoon, Lou Rawls and Mose Allison.
Granelli's '70s work with artist collective Light Sound Dimension would lead him to discover Buddhism, likening the first time he heard Tibetan master Chögyam Trungpa speak to "the first time I heard Charlie Parker."
A move to Boulder, Colorado in 1975 to study Tibetan Buddhism would also see him co-found the Creative Music Department at Trungpa's Naropa Institute, which he would co-direct until 1980. 1978 also saw the release of Granelli's first album as a band leader, titled Visions.
Trungpa's teachings would lead Granelli to follow his faith Halifax in the late '80s, joining Nova Scotia's Buddhist community and the East Coast music scene. He would become 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," Colin MacKenzie, Granelli's manager/collaborator, told Salt Wire. "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."
For example, Granelli's 1999 album Music Has Its Way With Me features work with Buck 65 (credited as Stinkin' Rich), which Exclaim! called "the intersection point between Medeski, Martin & Wood, the Roots and MC 900 Ft Jesus."
Granelli served as the director of jazz and popular music department at Halifax's Canadian Conservatory of Music, and also co-founded the Atlantic Jazz Festival (now Halifax Jazz Festival) with Susan Hunter, which is recognized as the oldest jazz festival and largest summer festival in Atlantic Canada. The artist also founded the Creative Music Workshop, which takes place two weeks every summer in conjunction with the festival.
Granelli's most recent release was last year's The Jerry Granelli Trio Plays Vince Guaraldi & Mose Allison, recorded and released in tribute to his musical collaborators. Two days before his passing, Granelli would lead Creative Music Workshop event "Art in Everyday Life," which you can find below.