• Michael Bourne Remembers George Gruntz

    January 14, 2013. Posted by Michael Bourne.

    George Gruntz passed on January 10th, 2013, after a battle with illness.  He was 80.  He was ageless.  He was lively to the end.  He'd only a month before recorded a new big band album in New York.  When he wasn't playing music, he was composing music.  And whatever he was doing, GG was living music.

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    George Gruntz was one of the most extraordinary musicians I've ever known.  He was born and lived in Basel, Switzerland.  He first came to America and played Newport 1958 as pianist in the International Youth Band.  He first became known in the jazz world as pianist in the European Rhythm Machine.  Henri Texier played bass, Daniel Humair played drums, and together in the 60's they traveled around Europe as the rhythm section for countless jazz greats,  including Dexter Gordon and Rahsaan Roland Kirk.  Phil Woods  loved playing with them so much, he commandeered the trio into his working quartet of the latter 60's.

    GG created, in 1972, a band of his own, the George Gruntz Concert Jazz Band, and many of the jazz greats he'd played with came to play in the CJB sections through the years, including Dexter Gordon, Joe Henderson, Lee Konitz, Larry Schneider, Chris Hunter, Kenny Wheeler, Franco Ambrosetti, Enrico Rava, Woody Shaw, Howard Johnson, Steve Turre, Ray Anderson, John Scofield, Elvin Jones … a flabbergasting who's who of jazz who all loved to play with George.

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    I became friends with GG in 1987 when he invited me to Jazzfest Berlin.  George was the festival's artistic director from 1972 through 1994 and often presented some of the most artistically visionary programs of all the jazzfests.

    One year he celebrated "Serious Fun" and gathered some of the world's greatest accordion players.  Other years  featured improvising orchestras, a variety of jazz violinists, the Hammond B-3, and even singers.  I say "even" because the Berlin audience infamously boo'd singers off the stage, but not that year of Jazzfest Berlin.  Dianne Reeves, Greetje Bijma, Michel Legrand, the New York Voices, and Dave Frishberg (I remember him getting an ovation for his song that is only names of old-time baseball players) were among the Berlin hits that year.

    GG also was composer-in-residence for the State Theatre in Zurich and often involved jazz musicians in his scores, including a production of  Hamlet scored only for a jazz drummer.  He also composed jazz operas, including a variation of  The Magic Flute re-located to New Orleans, Cosmopolitan Greetings  (with a libretto co-authored by Allen Ginsburg) about Bessie Smith and ecology, and Money (with a libretto by Amiri Baraka) about a jazz musician.

    Singers in his operas included Sheila Jordan, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Renee Manning, Ian Shaw, and Mark Murphy.  GG composed an amazing cornucopia of music: movie scores, ballets, concertos, and chamber pieces.  For one of his musical triumphs, he composed for hundreds of traditional drummers in his hometown Basel.

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    George loved best composing, arranging, and playing jazz.  And he could play anything, surprising anyone who thought a Swiss couldn't swing.  I remember a JVC New York tribute to Ellington when the pianist didn't show.  George sat in and was wonderful.  I remember a Jazzfest Berlin tribute to Kansas City when the pianist couldn't play.  George sat in and was wonderful.

    He delighted especially in traveling the world and being creative with musicians of other cultures.  He recorded with Bedouins in North Africa.  He was one of the first "mainstream" jazz artists to record with hip-hop artists, with a rapper and a scratcher on his album Blues 'N Dues Et Cetera.   He gathered some of the best  jazz, blues, and gospel artists  for his Chicago Cantata at the 1991 Chicago Jazz Festival.  George and the Concert Jazz Band became the orchestra playing the classic arrangements of Gil Evans when Quincy Jones conducted a Miles & Gil celebration at the 1991 Montreux Jazz Festival -- with Miles himself playing one of his last gigs.

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    I traveled with George when he created a Turkish project with Burhan Ocal, first with the WDR Big Band, then with his own GG-CJB.  George somehow got everyone to swing some of the most complex rhythms I've ever heard, and the highlight of every concert featured GG's setting of traditional Turkish love songs sung by a fellow from Izmir who earned his living hauling tobacco sacks but who sang — in microtones — so profoundly that the concert halls trembled.

    Of all his triumphs, the greatest happened in 1992 when George was the first jazz bandleader to tour modern-day China.    He insisted that the concerts not be only for consular officials, that the concerts be open to ordinary Chinese people.  He brought along Chicago blues players Billy Branch and Carl Weathersby with the GG-CJB, and when you hear the audience reacting to  jazz and blues , they were passionately cheering music most of them were hearing for the first time.

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    On the cover of the album from the China trip, George is dressed like a Chinese emperor and laughing.  And it's the laughing I'll always remember best.  George Gruntz was one of the most joyous people I've ever known.  He loved life, and you can hear happiness resounding in all of his marvelous music.

    - Michael Bourne

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