Coastal Jazz sat down with affable Tales of a Charlie Brown Christmas co-creator and drummer Jerry Granelli to talk about the San Francisco jazz scene in the 50s, his band mates, and how he feels about being Canadian.
CJ: You grew up in a pretty active San Francisco jazz scene. What was it like back then?
JG: I grew up in San Francisco in the 40s and 50s, which was one of the major jazz centres in the world at the time. There were about five major jazz clubs, so you could hear jazz pretty much anytime. Musicians would stick around for a couple of weeks, so if you had a favorite performer you could hear them every night non-stop. At the time, there wasn’t really a school or books, so if you wanted to study jazz, you had to go on the streets and learn. But it was really the after hours clubs where the young jazz players like myself hung out. You always wanted to be in a place where the people were, where you were part of the jazz community.
CJ: How did you hook up with pianist Vince Guaraldi? Didn’t he have a hit with “Cast Your Fate to the Wind?”
JG: I was becoming known in San Francisco as someone who could play. Vince heard of me and decided to give me a shot. I had met him once or twice before, but this time he asked me to come on the road with him for a weekend. I saw this as my chance, so I played like the devil was chasing me! We got along great, and I eventually ended up making five or six records with him over the next couple of years.
CJ: You are the drummer and the last surviving member of the trio (Vince Guaraldi, Fred Marshall) that made the Charlie Brown Christmas record…tell us the story of how it all came about?
JG: It was more like a series of events that brought together the right people at the right time. Lee Mendelson, Charlie Shultz, Vince, Fred and I… it had to be these key people. We recorded it in an afternoon because that was kind of how you did records back then. Bands were used to playing live together, so you knew the guys, you knew the music. It was pretty honest, magic almost.
CJ: Why do you think the music connects with generations of people on such an emotional level?
JG: It’s very genuine, and people’s response to the music is very honest and real. People remember hearing the music when they were children, they remember how it made them feel, and they want to pass that on to their children. When an entire audience is experiencing this at the same time… this connection… it really is magic.
CJ: Your band mates for the show (Chris Gestrin and Simon Fisk) are pretty hip musicians. What made you choose them for the project?
JG: They both wanted to do it. They knew the music and grew up with it, and I think they’re both great players who bring something fresh to it every time without changing the heart of it. It’s not easy music to play, but we have a great connection and respect each other musically on top of having the skill and heart.
CJ: Halifax is now your home. What do you love most about Canada?
JG: I love the people in Nova Scotia… Halifax… Canada... I feel so at home here. I felt that as soon as I moved here, that sense of home, of belonging. I recently won the Portia White Prize for my contributions to the community, which means so much to me because she was such an amazing Canadian and talented singer.
CJ: The list of musicians you’ve played with over the years is impressive: Charlie Haden, Lou Rawls, Ornette Coleman, Mose Allison, Sly Stone… any memorable moments you’d like to tell us about?
JG: I am excited about what’s coming and always try to look to the future. There aren’t many left of my generations, the originals, which is why it’s so important to work with young players. This music… it has to go from one human being to another. I feel like it’s my responsibility to someone who is willing to do the work. The business is harder now. The chances of someone hearing you in a jam session and taking you on the road are harder. I think it’s important for people who have lived through the history to reach out and teach.
CJ: Any advice for young performers today?
JG: You have to decide if this life is for you, because it’s not for everyone. It’s a hard life, but that shouldn’t discourage someone who is in love with playing music. You won’t get it all in school, and you’re going to work really hard for something that may or may not pay off. Learn your craft and spend time around other people who are doing the same thing you are. Work your butt off and don’t give up!
CJ: If you had an opportunity to perform with musicians you haven’t ever played with, living or dead, who would they be and why?
JG: Miles Davis. I never got to play with him but it’s always been one of my dreams. Maybe next time around.
CJ: What are some of you favourite Christmas memories?
Finally getting old enough to hang out with my parents when they went out on Christmas Eve to see relatives. Christmas with my family. Oh, and my grandmother’s ravioli and watching the Italians fight with each other over Christmas. That was always a good time!