Music

Remembering Jerry Granelli, the legendary drummer behind A Charlie Brown Christmas

The musician died at his home in Halifax on July 20. He was 80 years old.

The musician died at his home in Halifax on July 20. He was 80 years old

At one point part of the Vince Guaraldi Trio, who's responsible for the songs behind A Charlie Brown Christmas, Granelli's musical career spanned 6 decades, from San Francisco to Halifax. (Courtesy of Jerry Granelli)

"What does it take to play music with another human being? Very interestingly enough, what it takes is the same things to live together as human beings."

Jerry Granelli spoke these heartfelt words to a small group of musicians on July 18, as part of a workshop for the Halifax Jazz Festival. The legendary drummer died just a few days later on July 20, at his home in Halifax. He was 80 years old. 

One-third of the Vince Guaraldi Trio, whose members are responsible for the songs behind A Charlie Brown Christmas, Granelli's musical career spanned six decades, and the drummer became an integral part of the Halifax music community once he moved to the city in the late 1980s. He released 25 albums over his lifetime, many with Vince Guaraldi in the '60s, playing with Miles Davis and touring with the Grateful Dead in his early years. His psychedelic band, Light Sound Dimension, was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for being "pioneers of the psychedelic scene," as Granelli noted.

"Granelli's commitment and passion can equally be felt through his teachings and educational approach," the Halifax Jazz Festival posted on Instagram, upon hearing of the musician's passing. "Jerry established the Creative Music Workshop (CMW) in 1996, alongside Don Palmer and Skip Beckwith, and for over 25 years, the program has been a central component of the Halifax Jazz Festival. Due to Granelli's one-of-a-kind teaching method, the program has drawn students from across the globe to the two-week intensive program. From the CMW and beyond, Granelli has had a profound influence on students and the broader community, and countless many have gone on to become professional artists, educators and creatives, worldwide."

In December 2020, Granelli suffered "a near fatal case of internal bleeding," according to a GoFundMe that was set up to help cover his recovery and medical expenses. He spent two months in the ICU and more than a month in the hospital after that. He was eventually released for further at-home recovery, and donations came in from all over, including from people who had seen him play in San Francisco in the '60s. The campaign had raised a little more than $70,000 of the $85,000 goal.

Granelli was born on Dec. 30, 1940 in San Francisco, Calif., into a family of drummers: his father was a wedding drummer and his uncle also played. They nurtured his talent, which was  prodigious. "I had to sit at the edge of a chair to reach the foot pedals," he would later recall. Granelli entered and invariably won all sorts of drumming competitions during his childhood.

Joe Morello, drummer of the Dave Brubeck Quartet, was an early influence: "I was around the very first time they rehearsed Paul Desmond's 'Take Five.' For two years, Morello taught me technical aspects of playing and never once tried to influence the way I played. I was listening to Jo Jones (for his hi hat technique), Roy Haynes and Philly Joe Jones, who would all come to town in different groups playing at the Blackhawk. I'd see Danny Richmond at the Jazz Workshop with Mingus, Billy Hart with Jimmy Smith, and Elvin Jones — always very kind — with John Coltrane."

Hearing Max Roach play a solo on the Bud Powell composition "Parisian Thoroughfare" was a revelation for Granelli. "That was melodic and harmonic, not just rhythmic. I realized how evolved the American drummer had become — my first glimmer of 'a musician that plays the drums'," he said.

While playing with the Vince Guaraldi Trio, he also pursued outings in the burgeoning field of free and avant garde jazz as well as studio work with pop musicians, including Sly Stone. In 1965, in what was just a short gig at the time, the Trio recorded the now iconic album A Charlie Brown Christmas. "We did it all in one day over three hours, but Vince did us a favour and paid us for two sessions…..$120.00," Granelli told CBC's Mary Lynk in late 2020. Over the last few years, Granelli had put on annual wintertime performances in Halifax of Tales of a Charlie Brown Christmas, a performance of music and stories that often included a choir to sing "Christmas Time is Here."

In the '80s, he joined the faculty at the Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle, Wash., where he taught alongside bassist Gary Peacock, among others. "​​Gary and I became a sought-after bass and drums duo," Granelli recalled. "We did a lot of traveling — and a lot of ECM recordings!"

In the late '80s, Granelli moved to Halifax to join the Nova Scotian Buddhist community. (A longtime practitioner of Tibetan Buddhism, Granelli once remembered, "the first time I went to hear Chogyam Trungpa speak, it was like the first time I heard Charlie Parker.") He became a Canadian citizen in 1989 and a leading figure of the East Coast jazz scene, establishing the Atlantic Jazz Festival (now the Halifax Jazz Festival.)

For his cross-Canada tours entitled Tales of A Charlie Brown Christmas, Granelli regularly played with bassist Simon Fisk and pianist Chris Gestrin. That trio also played non-Charlie Brown, more progressive jazz music together, as this June 2009 performance at the Beat Niq in Calgary testifies:

Granelli is survived by three children, five grandchildren and a large community of students — both music and Dharma practitioners — and music fans.

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