WBGO Blog
  • 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

  • In Memoriam Dave Brubeck

    December 5, 2012. Posted by Tim Wilkins.

    Add new comment | Filed under: Dave Brubeck, RIP

    WBGO remembers pianist Dave Brubeck, who passed away this morning one day shy of his 92nd birthday.

    Dave was a dear friend of the station, and we had the good fortune to visit with him many times over the years. Michael Bourne spoke with Dave at his home in Connecticut for this memorable interview in 2003:

    Brubeck and Bourne also discussed his breakthrough album, Take Five, in a segment which aired in 2009:

    Thank you, Dave, for your indomitable spirit, and rest in peace!

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  • Farewell to Annie Kuebler, Master Jazz Archivist

    August 16, 2012. Posted by Becca Pulliam.

    Tim Wilkins contributed to this post.

    WBGO's dear friend Annie Kuebler died on Monday, August 13, in Atlantic City. Annie had been an Archivist at the Institute of Jazz Studies, Rutgers University, Newark, from 2000 until February of this year, when she resigned because of declining health. Before she came to the IJS, Annie worked with the Duke Ellington collection at the Smithsonian Institution.

    Annie had countless friends, and was “one of the best jazz archivists out there,” says Tad Hershorn, a colleague at the IJS. Annie was an excellent project manager, she read music, trained students and volunteers and – as we all sensed or knew – became very important to the day-to-day atmosphere at the Institute. “Brassy, funny, irreverent,” is how Tad describes her. Other words immediately spring to mind: generous, thoughtful and kind.

    To read Annie's story as written for the Institute of Jazz Studies by Hershorn, click here.

    Farewell, Annie, we will miss you! If you have memories of Annie you would like to share, please add them to our comments section, and we will be adding to this online tribute in coming days, so come back and visit us again.

    Annie Kuebler (right) with Lila Duckett on November 9, 2007, photo by Ed Berger

    Annie's position at Rutgers-Newark was first funded by a National Endowment for the Humanities grant. She was so good that when the grant ran out, the Institute kept finding ways to keep her.

    Annie with visitors at the IJS
    Annie with visitors at the IJS

    Annie’s major project at the IJS was the Mary Lou Williams archive. Those of us who have seen it appreciate the scale. Williams saved everything for decades -- dresses and purses, albums, scores, countless penciled lists and  notes to herself,  even a hand-written letter to her from me in 1980.

    Cocktail napkins and notes from the Mary Lou Williams collection
    Cocktail napkins and notes from the Mary Lou Williams collection

    With Mary Lou's collection, as well as the James P. Johnson archive, Annie always turned "countless" into "catalogued" and knew the value, location, the story of each item. She did this with the help of devoted students and interns.

    People loved working with her. Her young colleague Joe Peterson says he is taking some "comfort in the fact that if Annie had any questions about Duke or Mary, she now has the answers from the source[s].”

    How she went from being a single mother of four and a part-time bartender to all of the above, I don’t know. She encountered a near fatal fire along the way, and it scarred her for life but did not seem to scar her spirit. She was upbeat and animated, smart.

    She is survived by her mother in Baltimore, four children (three sons and a daughter) and her Institute of Jazz Studies family, plus many admirers and friends.

    A Mass will be given to honor her memory at the Church of the Immaculate Conception, 200 Ware Avenue, Towson, Maryland at 10 a.m. Tuesday, August 28, with another to be held at St. Bartholomew of the Apostle Church, 2032 Westfield Avenue, Scotch Plains, New Jersey at 11 a.m. on Saturday, September 15.