Jerry Granelli, Searching Drummer Who Gave 'Peanuts' Its Groove, Has Died at 80
Jerry Granelli, a drummer whose subtle pulse was a key ingredient in trios led by pianists Mose Allison, Denny Zeitlin and Vince Guaraldi — notably on Guaraldi’s iconic soundtracks for many of the Peanuts television specials, including A Charlie Brown Christmas — died on Tuesday at his home in Halifax, Nova Scotia. He was 80.
His death was announced on his website, without a cause. Last December, Granelli had a fall that caused severe internal bleeding, spending two months in an ICU.
Because of his behind-the-scenes association with Snoopy and the rest of the Peanuts gang, Granelli was one of the most widely heard jazz drummers of the last 50 years. But that pop-cultural touchstone was just one facet of a colorful career, which included brushes with the likes of Bill Evans and Carmen McRae, and more lasting collaborations with everyone from guitarist Bill Frisell to singer Jay Clayton.
“Jerry Granelli brought a unique and particular flow to rhythm section playing and had a special way of accompanying piano players, always leaving just the correct amount of space and air to allow the piano to speak clearly,” pianist Jamie Saft, a more recent associate, tells WBGO. “Jerry didn’t judge musical ideas — all ideas were precious and equal within music. He always cultivated each unique moment in music, art, and life. Jerry would call this ‘Nowness.’”
During his youth in the San Francisco Bay Area of the 1960s, Granelli worked in the studio with Sly Stone, The Kingston Trio and the pop vocal group We Five, notably on their version of “You Were On My Mind,” which hit No. 3 on the Billboard singles chart in 1965. He formed a psychedelic band called Light Sound Dimension, composed of musicians and light painters; they were fixtures at The Fillmore, mingling with the Paul Butterfield Blues Band and The Grateful Dead.
Granelli went on to become a bandleader, an educator and — after he moved to Halifax in the mid-1990s — a treasured musical guru. He was a prolific recording artist who often split the difference between backbeat groove and exploratory space, always achieving a buoyant forward pull in his beat. Most of these hallmarks of his playing can be heard on a version of the Charles Mingus tune “Boogie Stop Shuffle” from Granelli's 1996 album Broken Circle, with German guitarists Christian Kögel and Kai Brückner.
Granelli recorded the same Mingus tune some 20 years later with a pair of American guitarists, Robben Ford and Frisell. His career in the meantime branched into a number of directions, including the multimedia performance art practice he called Sound Painting.
Gerald John Granelli was born on Dec. 30, 1940, in the Mission District of San Francsico. His father, Jack, was a swinging drummer who worked the Italian wedding circuit; his uncle, Pete, also played drums, favoring bebop.
He naturally gravitated to the instrument as a toddler, resisting his parents’ initial guidance to take up violin. Before long he was winning local drumming and talent competitions, and spent a memorable day with Gene Krupa at age 8.
But in terms of tutelage, his mentor was Joe Morello, the estimable drummer in the Dave Brubeck Quartet. “For two years Morello taught me technical aspects of playing and never once tried to influence the way I played,” Granelli recalled in his official bio. “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.”
Granelli gigged locally in his teens and early 20s, hitting the road for the first time with the Johnny Hamlin Quartet, which went as far as New York. When he returned to the Bay Area, he found an opening in the Vince Guaraldi Trio, whose previous drummer had also studied with Morello. Grinelli would later recall that he was thrown into the deep end: his first hit with Guaraldi was a three-night stand in Sacramento, with no rehearsal.
He quickly found his footing, become an essential part of the Guaraldi sound. Along with their contribution to specials like A Charlie Brown Christmas — whose original themes, like “Skating,” benefit immeasurably from Granelli’s whisper-soft brushwork — the Guaraldi trio had creative and commercial successes like a collaboration with Brazilian guitarist Bola Sete, just as bossa nova was beginning to crest as a cultural phenomenon. (Here is priceless footage from Jazz Casual in 1963.)
The following year, pianist Denny Zeitlin moved to San Francisco for a medical internship, forming a trio with Granelli and the lauded bassist Charlie Haden. “Charlie’s amazing talents were well known at the time,” Zeitlin tells WBGO, “but few people knew about Jerry. He had a penetrating intellect, outrageous sense of humor, and a fierce sense of integrity, all of which fueled his music. Always eager to explore, he inspired me with his special blend of fire and grace, finding unusual rhythmic shapes to move the music in new ways. It was a privilege to play and record with him.”
Granelli found a deep mooring in spiritual concerns beginning in the 1970s. He moved to Boulder, Colo. to study Tibetan Buddhism for two years, and teamed up with percussionist Colin Walcott to establish the Creative Music Program at the Naropa Institute — a counterpart to Karl Berger’s Creative Music Studio, in Woodstock, N.Y.
For most of the 1980s, Granelli lived in Seattle, where he joined the music faculty at the Cornish College of the Arts. His fellow instructors included trombonist Julian Priester and bassist Gary Peacock. “We taught music in a way that involved the streets,” Granelli recalled. “It was about not trying to stylize students. It was a great time. We were teaching but all of us got to do a lot of playing together.”
Teaching jazz improvisation suited Granelli, who subsequently held faculty positions in Berlin, Germany and, after he officially relocated to Halifax, at the Canadian Conservatory of Music. His death was noted on social media by the Halifax Jazz Festival, with which he had been closely involved for more than 25 years.
Partly because he loathed being pigeonholed, and partly because of some residual bad feelings over his paltry credit and royalties, Granelli spent decades avoiding any nostalgia trip to the land of Linus and Lucy. But within the last decade, he leaned into Peanuts, recognizing the joy that Guaraldi’s soundtrack imparted, especially around the holidays.
His final release was The Jerry Granelli Trio Plays Vince Guaraldi and Mose Allison, released on the RareNoise label in 2020. It features Saft on piano and Brad Jones on bass, playing songs like Allison’s “Your Mind is On Vacation” and Guaraldi’s “Cast Your Fate to the Wind.” In a sense, the album — an alignment of approachable avant-garde energies and crowd-pleasing crossover material — articulates something about the arc of Granelli’s career.
According to his website, Granelli is survived by three children and five grandchildren.
“Jazz is just a reflection of life,” he told CBC Radio late last year. “Life is improvised, life is uncertain. It’s not solid. It’s not permanent. The art I choose disappears after it’s played, it goes off into the ether. I love that.”