Drummer Jerry Granelli, best known for recording with pianist Vince Guaraldi on the beloved album “A Charlie Brown Christmas” and remembered in Seattle as a musician who in the 1980s helped shape an extraordinary generation of young players, died July 20 in Halifax, Nova Scotia. He was 80.
Granelli, who taught at Seattle’s Cornish College of the Arts from 1980-89, had a direct and probing teaching style that challenged students to play only what they really meant and felt, as if their life depended on it.
“For tons of people, he was a guru, for sure,” said drummer Aaron Alexander, one of Granelli’s students at Cornish who found a niche in Manhattan’s jazz and folk scenes. “For me he certainly was.”
At Cornish, he also taught guitarists Brad Shepik and John Schott, saxophonists Briggan Krauss and Andy Laster, and Granelli’s son, bassist J. Anthony Granelli.
“Oh man, I just loved him so much,” recalled Schott from his home in Berkeley. “His tall, thin, lanky body that just undulated when he played. His listening behind the drum set was so tangible and physical, like when he’d listen, rear back, then decide to not play anything. He changed my life. And I think he changed the way I walk down the street.”
In addition to teaching at Cornish, Granelli also influenced students outside the school, such as drummer Michael Sarin.
“There’s not a moment that I sit down at the drums that he’s not with me,” said Sarin, who over the years has worked in New York with John Zorn, Dave Douglas and Myra Melford.
Born and raised in San Francisco, Granelli was a child prodigy and an early protégé of drummer Joe Morello, of the Dave Brubeck Quartet, which led to work with pianists Guaraldi, Flip Nuñez and Denny Zeitlin in a bohemian North Beach scene that included opening for comedian Lenny Bruce.
Later, during the psychedelic years, Granelli played with the pioneering light show collective, Light Sound Dimension, appeared on the We Five pop hit, “You Were On My Mind,” toured with The Grateful Dead and ventured into free-improvised jazz. But whether he was playing free jazz with longtime Cornish partner Jay Clayton or bluesy swing with Mose Allison, his intention and conviction came through.
A practicing Buddhist, Granelli in the mid-1970s co-founded the Creative Music Workshop at the Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colorado, a school that grew up around the Tibetan Buddhist teacher Chögyam Trungpa. Buddhist mindfulness was part and parcel of Granelli’s aesthetic.
“What does it take to play music with another human being?” he asked in a streaming workshop posted a day before he died. “What it takes is the same things it takes to live together as human beings: appreciation of other, not being completely self-centered — which is kind of a hard one — kindness to yourself and being completely present and awake.”
In the late ‘80s, Granelli moved to Halifax, Nova Scotia, to be closer to the strong Tibetan Buddhist community there. In Halifax, he taught at the Canadian Conservatory and founded a summer program also called the Creative Music Workshop. He also taught in Berlin for many years at the Hochschule der Künste, where he formed a jazz/rock band with two electric guitars, a concept that led to his most heralded album as a leader, 1993’s “A Song I Thought I Heard Buddy Sing,” featuring guitarists Bill Frisell and Robben Ford.
In addition to his son, Granelli is survived by his second wife, Nina Sebolt, of Halifax; son Vajra Granelli, of Boulder, Colorado; daughter Alexis Granelli, of Rome, Italy; and five grandchildren.
A memorial for Granelli was held in Halifax shortly after his death. At this time, no memorial has been scheduled in Seattle.