Jazz legend Jerry Granelli’s son says he was ‘so blessed’ to play music with his dad

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J. Anthony Granelli says he feels grateful to be able to share in his father’s greatest passion — making music. 

Jerry Granelli, a Nova Scotia jazz legend and music teacher best known for playing drums on the soundtrack to A Charlie Brown Christmas, died on Tuesday at the age of 80. 

His son, a musician as well, often toured with his father. Here is part of J. Anthony Granelli’s conversation with As It Happens guest host Susan Bonner. 

How hard did [your dad] work at being the best?

He was really a child prodigy. So he had an immense natural talent for it, however you want to codify whatever that is, and then a father and family structure that drove him to be better, and just a deep inner desire to somehow master this thing. 

Of course, as we all know, there is no real “there” there. There’s no place you get to where you’re good enough. The people who feel they’re good enough are not the people like my father. He never felt he was good enough.

I witnessed it my entire life. He never stopped. He always was practicing, when he had the time. He always was playing. It was just the language of our household. There was always music. There were always instruments.

That kind of desire to be that good at something is kind of awe-inspiring to witness. And on the other side of it … when I was a little kid, it wasn’t always great either, because he was doing something else, and he was on the road or he was playing or he was practising.

Maybe we don’t always get to say how hard it is being the family of a great artist.

Do you think he knew that?

I think he knew it to a degree.

Like any great artist, he was compelled to do [it]. He had to do it. You know what I mean? It wasn’t a choice, really. He was happier doing that than anything else.

And having had the great fortune to be able to play music with him for years and years and years, and make records with him, and tour with him extensively over years and years and years, I count myself as so blessed because I was able to enjoy that thing with him. Whereas I don’t know for my siblings if that’s so true. But we were able to share this thing, his passion. It was what he did. It was him. There was no separation.

Jazz legend Jerry Granelli died Tuesday at the age of 80. (Stefanie Marcus)

You talk about your work with him as a musician yourself. What was it like learning from your dad, having him as a teacher? Because he loved to teach, didn’t he?

Having been around a lot of music teachers and teachers of various things, he was one of [the], if not the, most gifted teachers I had ever been around. 

He could uncover the thing that you needed to work on in a matter of seconds. It was uncanny. He could sort of cut through all of your insecurities and everything and say, “OK, this is what we have to do, and this is how you’re going to do it.”

He could be extremely exacting, but it was never for meanness or pettiness or wanting to put you down to make himself feel better. And you could feel that, you know, he had you. You felt safe even though you were being pushed beyond what you thought was possible.

And most of the time, he actually was right. You were actually capable of so much more than you, yourself, thought. And that’s like a revelatory experience as a student when you realize your potential. And he was extremely good at that.

I want to ask you about the now famed Charlie Brown Christmas music in 1965. He was part of the Vince Guaraldi Trio, and he recorded that. What can you tell us about his relationship with that album over the decades?

I believe that each of those musicians made $68 for that recording, which is now the greatest selling jazz record of all time. So I think it was difficult.

He had a fraught relationship with it for a very long time. There were even album-crediting eras where he wasn’t credited on the album jacket for a long time until Fantasy [Recording Studios] finally corrected it. And shortly thereafter … his tenure with Vince ended and he went on to other things, and really even left the sort of straight ahead jazz world completely for a number of years.

But …. when he came back to it, when he made peace with it and was then able to go perform it for people, it gave him such joy. And [it was] really, like, awe-inspiring. He was awed by how much people love that record, because he didn’t know.

What about you? How do you feel about it?

It’s a very weird thing … for a month a year, to walk into any store, elevator, restaurant, airport [or] train station and hear your father playing drums. I mean, I’m used to it because I’ve done it my entire life, but it is very surreal.

Like everybody else, I love that music. It’s incredible music. And his playing on it is incredible. And I’ve learned to appreciate his artistry in that context more and more over the years.

He would call me from the road and say, “I was signing albums after the performance,” which he did after every performance, and that, you know, some families would come up with three generations — the grandfather, the father, the son, etc. And it really made him deeply happy. And, I mean, is there anything better than that? I don’t think so.

I looked over at him, and he looked at me and he had this look where he was truly happy, and we were there together.– J. Anthony Granelli, musician and son of jazz legend Jerry Granelli 

Is there a specific memory of your dad that we might not know about that you’re thinking of today?

We were on tour a couple of summers ago for this record Dance Hall that we did, and we were playing in Montreal on a big outdoor stage. There was sort of people as far as you could see, and we were having a great time.

I always stood on his high-hat side of the drum set, you know, the left side of the drum kit, if you’re on stage. And I had stood there for so many times, I mean, thousands of times. And I looked over at him, and he looked at me and he had this look where he was truly happy, and we were there together. 

That was just one of those moments, I think, that we all hopefully have with our parents. It could be fishing or walking through the park or whatever. And as a father, I know that moment of walking with your young child when they reach up and hold your hand, and it’s so precious, and that was one of those moments, you know. It was a precious moment.

Written by Sheena Goodyear with files from CBC Nova Scotia. Interview produced by Katie Geleff. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.