Sunday, July 17, 2016

Man with the golden horn: Part Two of an Interview with trumpeter/vocalist/ big band leader Joe Gransden

Joe Gransden
Atlanta's Joe Gransden is the archetype of the successful working musician. He is an accomplished trumpet player, a silvertoned vocalist and a consummate entertainer. He has worked hard to establish a stellar reputation as an in demand performer, often working seven nights a week at various local venues. This indefatigable musician can be seen working as both a sideman or most often as a leader in duos, trios, quartet, quintet and big band formats. His tireless drive and his good natured charm has been key to allowing him to operate almost exclusively from his home base in Decatur. Gransden has chosen a life that is not as subjected to the demanding rigors of touring that most travelling musicians must endure to provide economic stability for their families. Joe's desire to create a sustainable career in the Atlanta area has been to the benefit of his followers, those jazz fans who covet great, professionally played jazz without having to go to New York, New Orleans or Los Angeles, and he has consequently garnered a large and loyal following. In the first part of our interview we talked to Joe about growing up in the Buffalo area, his musical family,  his early musical influences and some of his experiences in college and on the road honing his trade as a professional musician, You can link to the first part of the interview by clicking here.

In this part two of our two part interview we learn about Joe's take on several iconic trumpet players, how he met the actor Clint Eastwood, his work with the smooth jazz saxophonist Kenny G., the balance between work and family, his work as a big band leader, his acting ambition and his future projects.

NOJ: Joe we talked about two of your major trumpet influences Allen Vizzutti and Joe Magnarelli. Now let's get your take on some of the major trumpet figures of the genre. I'm sure the trumpet players out there would find your take informative. Let's start with Louis Armstrong.
 JG: He’s affecting me now. I wasn’t into him as a kid.Now I love his tone,his endurance and  his love his phrasing. I put it right up there with Frank Sinatra.

NOJ: His phrasing as a player or as a singer?:
  JG: Both.

Frank Sinatra and Louis Armstrong

NOJ: What about Miles?
  JG:  Always affected me. Miles laid back sound and his sound. I always tried to copy Miles 
  tone. He was breathy, dark, not necessarily flat but maybe just little on the lower side of the     pitch just to create a little tension.

NOJ: How about Lee Morgan?
  JG: Yeah he affected me a lot. I transcribed a lot of his solos when I was a kid.

NOJ: What is the difference between Lee and Miles approach in your mind?
  JG: Tone first of all. Lee was much brighter and much more soulful in a bluesy way. His articulation was much different from Miles. His eighth notes were very aggressive. He used a lot of hard tongue on some of those notes. Miles was a lot more laid back.

NOJ: What about Dizzy ( Gilespie) ?
  JG: I always appreciated his playing but never really took to him. Wasn’t someone who I wanted to sound like.

NOJ:  How about Freddie (Hubbard)?
  JG: Freddie all day long. Transcribed him, great soloist, can’t play any of them. He was amazing, especially in the sixties, that record that he did with Herbie, Empyrian Isles, all those great tunes. Those CTI records I listened to them a thousand times.

Empyrean Isles
NOJ: Who do you think sounds most like Freddie these days?
  JG:  Jim Rotundi. He sounds like himself, but he also has a lot of Freddie’s phrasing and that ability to change registers so fast and smooth. You can want to sound like Freddie or Dizzy but maybe just not have the chops to do it. Jim’s got those chops.

NOJ: Well Miles never had those chops, but he figured out a way to play that was different than Dizzy but all his own.
  JG: He had chops in other ways that these guys didn’t have so it didn’t matter.

NOJ: Talking about chops how about Maynard Ferguson?
  JG: I just love Maynard. I knew early on I was never going to be that guy, I didn’t want to be     that guy, but God it was so cool. I saw him a lot. I saw him perform live many times and just loved what he could do on that trumpet. Just the fact that found his niche and he is probably one of five guys in the history of the instrument that could constantly play in that register and sound that good. I love Maynard Ferguson.

NOJ: Do you think when you are playing like that and everybody expects that you are going to play that almost unreachable high note, it takes away from the music, the art by becoming just another technical achievement?
  JG: That’s what it is and with the trumpet it is a big deal. I would say ninety-nine percent of the trumpet players would like to be able to play a double high C. If you take that ability and use it right. Maynard’s ability was like a golfer hitting a 400 yard drive. It was amazing to watch but it wasn’t necessarily going to get you all the way to a subpar game. I could always dig him because he had a great band and he was a great improviser. He knew how to sing on the trumpet.

NOJ: What about Kenny Dorham, he was a native of Atlanta?
  JG:   KD became my favorite trumpet player during the time I was playing with Joe Magnarelli because Joe loved him and hipped me to him. One of the records he told me to go out and get when I was dealing with trying to develop my ear was Quiet Kenny and the another was Afro-Cuban. Kenny had a way of articulating that I wanted to be able to develop. He kind of hits the note, scoops down a little and then pitches it back up. When I was doing it back then I sounded like I was trying to be Kenny. When he did it, of course, you could tell it was just him. It was just the way he played a note. He is another one that had that real soulful sound. Only Kenny Dorham has that tone. Love him. 

NOJ: Let’s talk about Chet, you have been compared to him.
  JG: Chet Baker is probably my all-time hero. I think it goes back to my early days when I spoke about how I was so into melody. When I started diving into Chet Baker, I got a record called Diane it came out in 1985. I think it's out of print. It was just him and piano. I would listen to that record all day long. I would sit in bedroom, close my eyes and try to pick out the notes he was playing.

NOJ: Well he was easier to follow, right?
  JG: He was easier to follow. He makes sense and he was never trying to do anything but make music. He wasn’t trying to play high, he wasn’t trying to play fast, he wasn’t really trying to copy anybody except maybe early on. You know you could tell he loved Miles. Chet became my hero, throughout his entire career, seemed like he always stayed pretty true to the music. 
His tone was gorgeous and when he wanted to play fast he could. Man he had just as good a technique as anyone. So he is probably my number one influence?
NOJ: What about Woody Shaw?
  JG: Woody I’m just getting into him now. I was scared of him for a long time. 

NOJ: What was so special and scary about Woody’s playing?
  JG: I think it is just that no body played trumpet like that. All those intervals, all those pentatonic scales. It wasn’t simple melody coming out of his trumpet. It was more.

NOJ: Do you think he was the John Coltrane of the trumpet?
  JG: Yeah. When I heard him play live in 1986, I couldn’t even comprehend what he was doing and it frightened me. Sounded interesting, wasn’t quite for me then, and it is just now forty-five years old and I think what an idiot I am for not adding him to my bag of tricks. Because we all take from these guys we hear and I kind of avoided him, I think I was just afraid of him. 

NOJ:  Blue Mitchell?
  JG: One of my favorites. Tops the King of bebop trumpet playing. Just deep in the pocket swinging. I transcribed one of his records called Blue’s Moods. Love Blue Mitchell.

NOJ: Everyone had to listen to Clifford, right?
  JG: One of the top five of all time. Tone was great. He had kind of an airy tone that could change between bright and dark. His articulation and his ability to navigate the changes was I think incomparable. His ability at such a young age was ridiculous, just like Booker Little.
                                               Clifford Brown

NOJ: Speaking of Booker Little, besides him who are your favorite unsung               trumpet heroes?
  JG: My two favorite are Conte Candoli and Jack Sheldon. Jack and Conte we the guys who, in their time, could have easily become rock stars in their own right but they just got busy in the recording scene and quietly went their own way. Jack did the great trumpet part on "The Shadow of your Smile.” from the movie The Sandpiper. There is no better version of  that song.

NOJ: Let's talk about a more contemporary player like Wynton Marsalis?
  JG: I think he is the top of the top. He is the Tiger Woods, The Muhammad Ali in that he can   play classical, he can play jazz music, he is very soulful. I know early on there were some cats who questioned as whether he had lived enough to considered that great. He is probably in his early fifties now and his chops are in better shape than anyone on the planet. He is a great composer. He is the modern day Louis Armstrong and I have met him many times
and he is about as nice as you can be. I absolutely love Wynton Marsalis.

NOJ:  Let's get back to you. What is your personal practice discipline?
  JG: For most of my life it was like a drug, it was unbelievably powerful. It was all day long. It started with a warm up on the trumpet, playing exercises out of the Arvin book. It was hours of playing along with records once I met Joe and found out that was the way to do it. It never stopped. I would hear something on the radio and immediately try to figure it out. Nowadays, with a child and a family, it’s enough for me to get some maintenance on the horn. I’m working every night playing so it’s on my face every night. As far as learning new things and trying to grow as an artist in the practice room, it’s probably twenty-five percent of what it used to be. I’m just too busy. I always tell students and elders told me when I was younger, get it done now. You got to get it done early and it’s easier to absorb when you are younger. I practice for maybe ten minutes in a dark room free improvising, just to clear my head. But in some respects my life has become so much more than just a professional trumpet player. I am more of an entertainer now. I’m leading this big band, I’m singing, sometimes more than I’m playing.So I have to balance it all and I like it all just as much. 

NOJ: I’ve seen you in a duet, a trio, a quartet and leading the big band. What is your favorite format?
  JG: Small jazz groups are my favorite. However, entertaining a large crowd with the big band, there is nothing like it. The power of the big band is incredible. If the crowd happens to laugh at one of your stupid jokes or if they happen to feel something when you sing, it is really exciting. They react even if you are not a good singer because they hear those lyrics and they relate. It is an interesting balance to try to navigate.

NOJ:  You have been working in the Atlanta area for how long?
  JG: I did college here in 1991-92, went to New York for a few years and came back to Atlanta around 1995-1999 and then back to New York until 2001 then came back and stayed since then.

NOJ: What is it that drives you to maintain such a hectic schedule?
  JG: The obvious answer is money (laughing) and all kidding aside money is a necessary factor, it’s nice to be able to provide for your family. You have got to make a living, but the truth is I wouldn’t keep such a hectic schedule if I didn’t love the music and performing.I am at a place in my career where I could slow down a little bit (Joe often works six or seven nights a week). It’s all the preparation for the gigs, the telephone work, the business of the music that is so draining. Playing is the culmination of all that behind the scenes work.  I have been doing it myself since 2001. I kind of like that Gransden Music LLC is a one owner corporation and I am handling everything from what we will wear for the gig, what time we are going to eat, what songs we are going to play and I have no body breathing down my neck. So I like to put in that extra time to have that control.

NOJ : Tell us about your family and how the put up with the life of a working musician?
  JG: My wife Charissa is a classical flute player and the band director at the Lovett School. it is a private elementary to secondary school here in Atlanta. She is an incredible educator and has been named teacher of the year on several occasions. She gets the life of a musician. She is a musician so there is no problem there. For my six-year-old son Joseph, it can sometimes be a little challenging that daddy is not there to put him to bed or wrestle with him. I look at it like this, if I was a full time musician on the road, I might be away for six or seven months at a time, but I have been able to sleep in my own bed nine maybe ten months out of the year. So if I don’t get to put him to bed one night, I’m having breakfast with him in the morning. Or I’ll pick him up from school and we will have a couple of hours together. So the hard work that I have put in is great, I can make a living here in Atlanta.

If something comes along that says go to this city to perform, if the situation was right it would be no problem. 

NOJ:   When did you realize you wanted to both sing and play?
 JG: When I was playing at Veni Vidi Vici here in Atlanta in 1998. We were making fifty dollars each. It was me and Neal Starkey on bass and Bill Anschell on piano. Bill now lives in Seattle. We did every Sunday and every Wednesday and we got three months into the gig when the manager said "Everybody loves your band, but you have got to have a singer here." I said “Alright give me another fifty bucks and I ‘ll get you a singer.” He said “I can’t give you any more money,” so I said “How am I supposed to hire a singer?” So he said “Well I guess I'll just have to get another band that has a singer. “ So I said “Well I sing”and he said “Great, next Sunday you start singing.” I ran home and talked to my dad and asked him to show me some songs, because he was a great singer and knew all the songs. The following week I sang in my shaky voice and as soon as I started to sing people would look up and pay attention. I could see that the lyrics made a difference. That’s where I met my friend Bob Weiner who would later produce several of my albums. He used to come in and see us play and loved our music. He was a fan and he really helped my career and he is a good friend today.

NOJ: Who are your singing models and why?
 JG:  Frank Sinatra first for his phrasing. I love Ray Charles soulful way of singing and every once in awhile I’ll try to do a little of that in my vibe and when it works it feels so good, sometimes it doesn’t work, but it is fun to try. I just noticed when I try too hard to do something it only comes across as trying and when I don’t try it comes across more authentic.

NOJ: What about a guy like Chet Baker? Was he a singing inspiration?
  JG:  I love his tone and I love his ability to sing quietly but effectively without ever raising his voice. He never tried to do anything but get the melody across.

NOJ:  How about a singer like Billy Eckstine? Was he much of an influence?
  JG:  My mother loves Billy Ekstine, I don’t have a lot of his records, but I really enjoyed Joe Williams, Mel Torme and Nat King Cole. These days Kurt Elling is just killing. Gregory Porter is another monster singer.

There is an old record called In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning, Sinatra and strings, and it was recorded not too long after he and Ava Gardner split up. He was really hurting on this record and it’s all ballads. For a good many years, when I was being hired more as a singer than a trumpet player for corporate parties and events, I noticed that my singing was taking me further and making me more money and drawing more and more attention.  So every day I would practice to that record one side every day. I would sing note for note with Frank and practice his phrasing, and try to hold the notes the way that he did. I couldn’t hold the notes the way he did and I can hold a note on the trumpet because I circular breathe, so I couldn’t understand it. I was breathing incorrectly for singing and I eventually learned how to do that by mimicking Frank and it allowed me to be more creative with my singing.

NOJ: You have maintained a working big band now for seven years. How hard is it too keep such a disparate group of top notch musicians together?

 JG: The big band? It is extremely difficult, its painstakingly difficult its losing sleep difficult. Because they are so good and they are so busy with their own careers. It has gotten to the point now where I can pay them enough for them to show up- I can’t pay them what they are worth- but in the beginning we would have to split the money that would be barely adequate for a quintet amongst seventeen guys. Now we are busy enough that everyone is making more and getting a taste, most of the time, not all the time. Sometimes we do something for less if we think it will lead to something else. Now we are constantly dealing with subbing out because these guys are playing gigs with other people, so that’s always an issue. It’s is also seven years later now from when we started this band and most of the guys have families, kids and responsibilities. It’s tough.
 NOJ: What intrigues me is how you guys keep the tightness of a great big band when you obviously don’t get a chance to practice together on a regular basis. It is not like the old days when the bands traveled together for months at a time and lived and eat and slept together as a unit. How does this work now?

JG: In the old days the bands were like a family. It was in many respects a very difficult life. I know what you are talking about though, even when I started this band seven year ago, how difficult it could be to try to keep a group together, get practice space, manage a sound system and run around and book gigs. So that is why I got the gig at John Scatena’s Café 290 on the first and third Monday every month. We get paid a little bit, we play in front of a live audience which is good for the nerves, and we can try out new stuff. Wes Funderbunk, who plays lead trombone, arranges most of our charts, although some of the other guys are now arranging also. If I was going to do this gig I wanted to do it on a Monday night, like they do in New York, which is usually when nobody has a gig.  So that is our chance, twice a month to rehearse. If we crash and burn once in a while the crowd is so great we all just laugh and have a wonderful time. We get a thirty minute warm up before the show and we can get a lot accomplished in thirty minutes so it works. John Scatena has been extremely helpful and he has stuck with us all this time.


NOJ: How do the economics of a big band work in today’s market which is generally unkind economically to musicians?

 JG: Not very well. It is very difficult. I know Harry Connick Jr's band is down to five horns and he can charge pretty much what he wants. It is very difficult to have sixteen to eighteen musicians plus stage assistance to put a big band on the road. It would be almost impossible without a big name like Michael Buble or Harry Connick Jr.  or whoever tit is that can demand enough money to pay the guys. On the other hand in a local setting like the Southeast it is doable. It is doable to go to South Florida for one night and get paid enough to make it worthwhile.  But economically, if I was smart, it would be  more economically viable with  a six-piece band, but I also do that also, so the big band is something special.  If people want the big band for an event there are few people doing that.

NOJ: Are you playing weddings with the big band?
JG: Sure, we play a lot of concerts now. It used to be ten percent concerts and the rest would be corporate parties and weddings now it is like fifty percent concerts. We play at performing art centers, at clubs like the Blue Note. So no one else is really doing what we do in the South east.

NOJ:  The trombonist Wes Funderburk has been the principal arranger for your big band music. How and where did you meet Wes and how did he start arranging for the large ensemble?
   JG: I met Wes years ago at Georgia State University. We played in the jazz band there and played in countless settings over the years. We have always been friends and he has always been a talented arranger, but he really started to pour it on more in the early two thousand’s . With this band, as much as I wanted to play the stock arrangements of the old days to kind of pay tribute to that sound, I also wanted the band to have it’s own sounds. Since I don’t arrange for big bands, I had the option of going to someone who was well known for arranging or getting a guy that is in the band, who knows the abilities of each musician, who knows my abilities as a singer and a musician and who can arrange. That is why I said Wes you got to be the guy. He loved it. Early on, the first three or four years, he was writing like crazy and I would go over his house twice a week saying “yeah I love that," or "take that out, I can’t sing that.” Now he knows me so well that and I know him so well , we have such a great working relationship that all I have to do is say is I need an arrangement on this tune, with this tempo, this beat and he doesn’t have to ask me anything its always just right.
                                              Wes Funderburk

NOJ: Did Wes have any mentors and if not who does he pattern himself after as an arranger?
   JD: I know he loves Nelson Riddle, Billy May, but I really never had a long conversation with him about that. As a trombone player he loves JJ Johnson, Bill Watrous.

                                      Nelson Riddle and Frank Sinatra

NOJ: Do you want to pursue composing more of your own music or is that something that doesn’t interest you?
    JG: It is on my plate. It does interest me, I just have to make the time for it.  I do want to record an album of all originals in the next couple of years. I have written a handful of songs. I don’t focus on that and sometimes I am bothered by that, but I have had many musicians say to me you can’t do everything.

NOJ: The sound of a truly well-oiled big band is like no other. You are taken yours to the Blue Note Jazz Club in NYC next week July 11, 2016 . I know it’s not your first time there, but it must be exciting to be given the opportunity to play this famous club once again. Tell us about the whole experience.

 JG: It is an amazing experience. This will be our fourth time so the unknown factor has sort of been removed. Every time we play the club for some reason we follow The Dizzy Gillespie All Star Big Band, they play Tuesday through Saturday and then we play Monday. So we have big shoes  when we go up there. Actually playing at the club is unbelievable. You get on that stage and you realize the history of that place, everybody has been on that stage. When you get here you think oh it’s a little club, but then you go in the dressing room and you think who else has been in this dressing room? You get on that stage and they announce your name and New York City so it’s always a great crowd. The house is usually big and they turn the lights on and it’s a feeling of magic and energy that is hard to explain. For us, we work so hard with this big band, it’s like a retreat, once a year..

NOJ:  I guess it’s almost like validation of some sort.
   JG: Yeah I think it is. We are playing the Blue Note, they are asking us to play this place. They know the financial risk.  They know it is hard for us. They have given me the option bringing in a smaller group, but they love the big band. We fly up, we go to dinner in Little Italy, it is just an awesome experience

NOJ:  It seems like you have generally avoided teaching as a supplement to your musical career? Do you  teach now?
   JG: I do teach. I teach privately at my studio at my house. I have between five to eight students a week. I only take very serious musicians, mostly take jazz trumpet players and I enjoy it.  I always said that I wasn’t going to let teaching get in the way of my performing. My wife who is a great flute player is one hundred percent dedicated to the education of her students, that is what she wants to do. If she was offered to play principal flute in some symphony I am sure she would say no. She would much rather help kids further their education musically. It’s not that I don’t want to help kids further their education, but it is just that my brain is wired to want to be on stage. As far a later in life would I be interested in teaching, I think I would be for sure.

NOJ: As if your musical endeavors are not enough you are also pursuing a career in acting. How did that come about? 
   JG: It was actually at the Blue Note. When I first met Clint Eastwood everybody started razzing me saying you are going to start make movies. On many occasions, because he liked Chet Baker so much and knew him, I asked him if  he had ever considered making a movie about Chet’s life? He said he definitely would be interested, but that he had never seen a screen play that he liked. So  myself and two other people wrote a screen play about Chet’s life. It took us two years and right about when we were ready to present it. this movie with Ethan Hawke comes out so that was that.

Back to the Blue Note, it was about three years ago. A guy came up to me after the show, he was getting ready to start a movie and asked me had I ever done any acting. So I said yeah, I totally lied. So I went to Jersey somewhere and took a screen test for this movie. He didn’t give me the  part, but he did say I think you can do this. Go back to Atlanta for six months and take some acting lessons, study and come back. I did just that. I studied with Shannon Eubanks, great actor, great coach. So I went back six months later and re-did the screen test and he gave me the part. It was a great movie and I was going to play the part of the best friend of the lead actor, and I had tons of lines and a lot of scenes. I was going to be very much over my head. But the film ran into financial and ownership problems, and unfortunately, to this day, the movie was never made. It is still on hold.

NOJ: Tell us how you got introduced to Clint Eastwood and where that relationship has taken you?

                                        Joe Gransden and Clint Eastwood

 JG: Clint I met maybe thirteen years ago. I have a friend in town who has produced a few of my cds. He loved my music and would tell me that I needed to get my music in front of people in the entertainment business. He told me to write a letter to Clint Eastwood and that he would get it to him. I thought he was crazy, but I did what he asked and sent a copy of one of the cds my friend  helped produce.  About a month later I got a call from Clint’s wife who said they had received the letter and the cd and that they would love for me to come to Carmel and play a party that they had coming up.  I fly there and picked up some local musicians from the area to play at this member party for his golf club. I stayed an extra two days and played golf with Clint and hung out and we talked about Gerry Mulligan and Chet Baker.  He knew them back in the day, and it was great. We really hit it off in the sense that we both were into this music. That turned into many subsequent appearances at various functions for him and people he knew. I got to play along with Glen Campbell and Huey Lewis and Kenny G. That’s how I meet Kenny G. When the gig was over Kenny liked my playing and asked me to come to his house in Malibu and write a smooth jazz record together. At the time, I was more of a purist. The next day I was playing golf with Clint and told him that Kenny G wanted  me to do a record with him and I asked him should I do  it? He told me “What are you nuts, of course.” So that’s how I got to work with Kenny G. We did this record called Close to My Heart. Since then I have been friends with Kenny. Clint has influenced my career so much.

NOJ:  How did you overcome the reticence that you must have had to play this formulaic smooth jazz that Kenny is so famous for?  
   JG:  There were a number of reasons. One was it gave me a chance to be on a major stage. Secondly I liked him. He was a wonderful person to be around. I was hanging out with him a  little while at his house in Malibu and the guy is an amazing musician. I’d play him little riffs that I picked from listening to Freddie or someone, and if he liked it he would listen to it and pick it right up. These were the same things that took me months to pick up. So I could see he 
was a talented musician. Whether you’re a fan of his or not, the guy can play a melody. He has found a niche for himself and over a hundred million people have bought his records, so a lot more like him then don’t. I love him. When I get to play with him and his band it’s so professionally done. I am fully aware that when I  play this music it’s not the same as when I play really swinging jazz, but that’s true of a lot of pop music.

                                             Kenny G and Joe Gransden

I’m working on a pop song that is coming out soon, with the smaller section of my big band. Kipper Jones wrote this song for me it’s a great tune it’s called “Go Getta.” I think it could be a hit for us, but when we were recording this song, it was different from my usual gig. It was like what you’re talking about, maybe a bit more formulaic, more about let’s put the chorus here, or how can we make this a hit, or this section is too long for people’s attention. It was very little about creating and improvising in the studio and I didn’t take this as being a 
negative thing. What we were doing was a different side of music. Kenny G is the top of this side and Wynton Marsalis is the top of the other side and you can’t really compare those two musicians because they are both great at what they do.

NOJ: What new projects do have coming up after the Blue Note gig?
JG: As I said, the biggest thing is getting this pop tune out ,“Go Getta,” and releasing it at the right time and possibly producing a small, short video for it. We just converted from paper charts to all electronic charts on individual foot operated I pads for the big band. That was a huge project that has taken six months to get it where it is.

I also want to be a recording with the big band in the studio with a live audience, maybe thirty or forty people and I want to record the music like the old day. The big band and me right there in front of this audience. It might even make this a “Go Fund Me” type project. We as musicians are always working in and out of the studios, but I think it would be cool for some of the people who like the band and want to contribute to this project to get a chance to experience the recording studio atmosphere. It is a lot of pressure to have to sing and play live on a record it because there are no retakes, but I think we are ready for it.

NOJ: Got any anxious thoughts about the Blue Note gig?
  JG:  I have one. I ‘m going home after this to practice this new song that Clifford Brown wrote for his wife. It is called “La Rue” it is a ballad that Clifford wrote and this guy Rich Pullen wrote the lyrics to it and it has never been played. Bobby Shew turned Pullen on to me and he thinks I would be perfect to sing this. It is a Clifford Brown melody which is to say it is a trumpet melody and it is  difficult to sing. It’s a beautiful ballad so I’ll do my best, but we will premiere it at the Blue Note so I’m a little revved up about that.

NOJ: Any words of wisdom for any up and coming musicians who may be reading this?
  JG:  The most important thing as a musician is putting in the time early, practicing so that the technique is second nature and do the homework to listen to what came before you. If you love it, you have got to pursue it. Also learn to sight read well. The musicians that work the most are the musicians that can sight read the best.

NOJ:  Thanks Joe and good luck at the Blue Note.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Man with the golden horn :Part One of An Interview with Trumpter/Vocalist & Big Band Leader Joe Gransden

Joe Gransden leading his Big Band
The trumpeter/vocalist Joe Gransden has become a fixture around the Atlanta and Southeast United States jazz scene. Originally from upstate New York, after several stints in the Atlanta area, including college at Georgia State, he became a full time Atlanta area resident starting in 2001.  Joe was recently recognized by the Jazz Journalist Association as a Jazz Hero for all the work he has put in over the years promoting jazz in Atlanta and its surrounds. He is a ubiquitous presence in the local area playing various gigs in the duo, trio, quartet and quintet format, but his most recent success has been the result of a seven-year love affair with his big band.

The Joe Gransden Big Bad is a seventeen-piece ensemble that hearkens back to an era when the Great American Songbook, swing music and the big band sound was all the rage. In this time of digital overload, where music is often formulaically produced by synthesized sounds, electronic drum machines and auto-corrected vocals, Gransden and his band have challenged convention and found an audience that still appreciates the incredible sound that can only come from hearing a finely tuned big band with all the power, beauty and awe that it can produce in a live setting. For the last seven years that stage has been John Scatena’s Café 290 in Sandy Springs on the first and third Monday of every month.

Notes on Jazz spoke to Gransden at length in a little coffee shop in Decatur where he came to meet me. Doffed in gym shorts, a stubble beard and a baseball cap he was the antithesis of the image he portrays on the band stand. That image was best captured on the cover of a recent feature article in Points North Atlanta magazine where Joe is pictured in front of his band - blue suit, coiffed hair, cufflinks and ascot, with his golden Monette trumpet in one hand and a microphone in the other-and of course that million-dollar smile.

Gransden is an enormously personable character. He exudes friendliness, confidence and charisma. He also has a reservoir of indefatigable energy and an unquenchable desire to succeed. These qualities, along with his boyish good looks, his natural showmanship and an engaging voice, make him the ideal front man for his big band. It also doesn’t hurt that he has been able to convince some of the most talented musicians in the Southeastern United States to stick with his vision of a powerhouse big band for the last seven years. Here is Part One of this interview with this interesting and driven musician. You can link to Part Two by clicking here.

NOJ:  Joe you come from upstate New York in the Buffalo area is that right? What was it like growing up in the snow belt?   

JG:     I was actually born just north of Manhattan in Yonkers. It wasn’t until I was seven years old that  we moved to Buffalo. It was nineteen seventy-seven, I was eight years old, right after the blizzard. As a kid growing up there was awesome.  I was a hockey player and that is really what my first love was. I think Buffalo was the greatest place. Everybody knew each other. In             fact if I didn’t play music for a living I would probably be selling insurance or being a school teacher in Buffalo, it’s a  great place to raise a family.

NOJ: How long did you stay there?

 JG:   My father was transferred from Buffalo to Atlanta in 1989 roughly, my family all moved here and I stayed and did two years at Fredonia State College. I just didn’t want to leave. Half way through my second year I got a call to audition for the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra. I took the audition and got that gig, so I left college and went on the road. We went all over the world,                 South America, Europe with this band. This is the early 1990’s and Buddy Morrow was leading the band at that time.Buddy knew my uncle, Eddie Tuttoni, who was an established music contractor, great bass player and singer in Manhattan. Booked everybody. Everybody knew him.

NOJ:  So a good portion of your extended family stayed in New York?

   JG:  Yeah, NY, Long Island, New Jersey. Uncle Eddie used to contract the music for the Rainbow Room (atop the then RCA Building in Rockefeller Center) and The Algonquin hotel (probably The Oak Room at the W 44th Street hotel). When I was a kid, we used to go see him  play when we visited New York. He was great. He would sing like Billy Eckstine and played the bass and always had bands. His stage name was Eddie Tone.

NOJ:    So there was always music in your family? Your father was also a musician?

   JG:    Yeah, his name is Robert, a great piano player, a good singer and a handsome dude, he could certainly have been a star in popular music, but early on he chose to get a job and raise a family. He didn’t put the music fully aside but took a regular gig selling sugar, fructose and corn sweeteners for a big company and then played on the weekends. He chose to have the health insurance and the steady paycheck and stuck with that his whole life. He is retired  now and he is still playing, has a couple of gigs here in Atlanta and still sounds great. He was extremely influential.

NOJ:   At what age did you start music lessons and was your first instrument the trumpet?

   JG:  When it was time to choose an instrument in fourth grade for the band, I chose the trumpet. I liked the piano, but that wasn’t going to be part of the wind ensemble at school. My grandfather played the trumpet, that is all he did. This is my father’s father. He played the trumpet with Joe Venuti ( the great jazz violinist) . He played in all the big bands that we all know. His name was William Ashton Gransden. He was great. He wasn’t a high note player and he wasn’t an improvisational lead player, but he was the guy you went to for solid section playing and he worked all the time.

NOJ:  What nationality was your grandfather?

  JG: He was English and a little bit of Swedish. My mom is Italian. My mom’s uncle,my Godfather Rudy, was on Broadway his whole life. He played Bernardo in the original production of West Side Story and helped teach Sinatra the role of Pal Joey  because the movie was made after the show. For three or four days my uncle hung out with Sinatra. My uncle was great, unfortunately he got Parkinson’s at about thirty-six years old and then his career was over. He lived to be about seventy-five. Definitely the whole family was in music at some point.

NOJ: Sounds like it. It’s in the genes. What music did you grow up listening to?

  JG: The Great American Songbook for sure. It was always on in the house, whether it was Nat Cole, Frank Sinatra, Mel Tormé.

NOJ: Singers?

   JG: Singers and musicians. My dad had Miles Davis on it was just constant. My sister didn’t take to it, but I loved it from the very beginning. I didn’t know that this was what I was ultimately going to do, but I loved it. 

NOJ: You grew up when the music of the Seventies and Eighties was in full swing. That music must have affected you didn't it?
JG:  I wasn’t really a jazz or music snob, but I didn’t really like pop music. There were a couple of bands that I liked when I was a  kid, like the Who and Van Halen. All my friends liked them so we were always listening to them. But I would always go back to my jazz. I have to admit hat  that I was a stickler for melodies. If pop music was going to be in the mix at all  it had to have melody.I loved Lionel Ritchie’s ballads, I used to listen to them all the time, I loved
Barry Manilow and Elton John’s ballads. I didn’t necessarily buy those records and have them all the time, but they stuck. For some reason I could always appreciate a good melody.

NOJ: Did you play in garage bands when you were young?

  JG:  Yes, I had one. In sixth grade I put together a dance band for the sixth grade dance. We rehearsed in my mom and dad’s garage. We had four or five charts and we were going to be featured at this dance. We rehearsed for six weeks and we played. We were in the band in school, the wind ensemble. I do remember the it being a cool experience. I remember being in front of the band and enjoying the sound coming right at me, as opposed to sitting in a horn section. I remember the joy and nervousness of playing a trumpet solo out front
for sure.

NOJ:   The music you played back then was American Songbook music?
  JG:    Yeah

NOJ:  Did you ever try to emulate any of the rock music that was being played at the time like The who  or Eddie Van Halen?

   JG: No, I never did. I had no interest. My sister played the music around the house all the time. The Grateful Dead, The Allman Brothers. When Prince came around he was always on. Didn’t do it for me. I did like Bitches Brew, I did like Miles when he was doing that. I just liked the trumpet really and I have to honestly say I never tried to emulate any of those rock guys.

Joe Gransden

NOJ: Where did you go to High School? 

  JG: I went to high school in Buffalo. It was called Williamsville North High School. It was a great school with an incredible band director who just recently passed. His name was Geoff Richter. He was a great trumpet player from the Eastman School of Music.

NOJ: He must have been an influence?

  JG: Yeah, when I went to middle school this was my guy. Not only did I see him every day at class he was one of my private trumpet teachers. I had another jazz trumpet teacher, Jeff Jarvis, who I am still friendly with today.  Geoff Richter was more of a classical player. He would occasionally bring top notch players from the Buffalo and Rochester music scenes and it was these guys that made my early adult musical educational experience so great.

 NOJ:   Other than music what were your other interests?

    JG:   Hockey was huge. Hockey was a big interest. It was always a tossup. If there was a hockey game that fell on the same night as a concert, and I was supposed to be involved in both, it was a problem. I remember specifically one time Jeff Jarvis was a guest artist at one of our high school concerts on a night I also had a hockey game. Jeff always tells the story that I did both; I played the hockey game and then ran to the concert and came out on stage with my hockey and shoulder pads still on to play trumpet. I was such a nerd!

 NOJ:   What made you choose between the two?

   JG:   I really loved both and it wasn’t until I heard Allen Vizzutti play with our band and I heard the way a trumpet could be played live like that, that I decided that is what I want to do. I knew instantly, that was it.  I had heard trumpet players before, my grandfather William Ashton Gransden was a fantastic trumpet player and used to play all the time,but Allen is one of the best ever. We were in Rochester; our band was chosen to play at some Eastman School of Music festival  and Allen was our guest artist and he came to do a rehearsal. I told him "this is what I’m doing for the rest of my life." Now sometimes when I see him at an event or around the scene, we know each other, and I always tell him that the reason I’m playing is because of you Al.  He always says "I’m so sorry."(Laughing)

Allen Vizzutti
It was flat out proof that the education system works, because when these band directors bring in special guest artists to play with students, it can have a tremendous impact as it did to me. I didn’t quite hockey, I didn’t turn into a different person, but after that experience I started to practice literally every day for hours and hours. It was like a drug, I couldn’t get enough. I wasn’t even playing jazz back then, I was just trying to become a great trumpet player. Which I never really achieved (laughing) so I started singing.

NOJ:  After high school you attended college at SUNY Fredonia in the Buffalo area. You did two years  there. Talk about that.

  JG: I literally got dropped off at college by my parents as they were leaving to move to Atlanta. I didn’t want to leave the area, I had a girlfriend and friends in Buffalo, but I was pretty much on my own.

NOJ:  You did two years there and then what made you decide to leave?

  JG: A got a gig with Tommy Dorsey’s Orchestra and I did a year with that band and really enjoyed it. I got to travel a lot.

NOJ: Who was leading the band at that time? 

  JG: Buddy Morrow was the leader.

NOJ: How did you get that gig?

 JG: My trumpet instructor Jeff Jarvis was called for that gig and he couldn’t make it so he recommended me. They gave me a shot. What they do is they give you a couple of  weeks and play with them and they either like you so you stay or they give you a ticket home. They kept me so I stayed and there were a couple of rough spots. We were in Europe and I was sort of phoning it in. I was playing fourth trumpet and I didn’t think my chair was important. I was kind of a young punk, and they were going to fire me. I was told unless you get it together, cover your part or you're gone. So I did. The  lead trumpet player liked me a lot, he said “starting tonight you play as loud as you can on that fourth trumpet, I don’t care what the dynamics of the music are and maybe you’ll keep your job.”  So I did and it must have worked . My uncle Eddie knew Buddy Morrow and asked him to look out  for me. I think those two talked and my Uncle gave me a hard time about me holding my own. So I came around.

Buddy Morrow leading the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra

Eventually after a year of traveling I quit that band and went down to Atlanta where my parents were living full time. There was nothing left for me in Buffalo, so I auditioned at Georgia State with Dr. Gordon Vernick. He gave me a nice scholarship so I moved down here.

NOJ: How different did you find the musical education scene comparing Fredonia to Georgia State?

  JG: For me there was a pretty big difference. Fredonia was small and I lived on campus one year and the second year used to live together with several of my fellow musicians off campus in a house we called the Blue Note. Here in Georgia I lived in Roswell, so I didn’t have much community with other musicians. I went to class at Georgia State, we had our rehearsals, we played our concerts and then I never saw these guys again.  In Fredonia we had a band in the house and had jam sessions every Friday night. We’d make pasta and charge five-dollar admission. The house was a wreck, we had a jack holding up our floor. It was an incredible, creative growing experience for me though. Georgia State was more like now it’s time to get down to business. I had to drive an hour each way. It was a commuter experience.

Both schools had equally talented musicians and a fantastic faculty. Dr. Vernick is an incredible educator and trumpet player. Dr. Geoff Haydon was my piano teacher at Georgia State, he teaches all the piano studies at GSU and he plays in my big band now. But for me my experience at Fredonia was magical.

NOJ:     Did you ever get a chance to gig in New York City?

  JG:    I finished two years at GSU which was my final two years and graduated with a Bachelor of Music. I moved to NYC the day after my recital. Bryan Lopes, a tenor player from Atlanta, and I got an apartment on the upper west side that my uncle Eddie owned. Thanks to my uncle I started getting gigs, right away. My third week in NY I played in a band at the Rainbow Room. I realized once I started gigging that the training that I received in college was really great. I could read charts, I had decent chops, I knew how to be a professional, show up on time and wear the right clothes and have the right equipment. But I didn’t have an  ear yet. I couldn’t go to play a wedding gig and if they called a tune that I knew, but maybe in a different key for a singer, I couldn’t make that transfer. I didn’t have the ear to transpose that in my head. I wasn’t playing by ear, I was more mathematical. I was a solid trumpet player, but I wasn’t playing from the heart yet.

Smalls Jazz Club W 10th St, NYC
So I would go to Smalls (Jazz Club on the West 10th street) and I think it was every Monday night Joe Magnarelli had a jam session. I was twenty-two years old and he was probably thirty-two, established. That’s a big difference in development. For some reason, I made him laugh the first time I met him and we just really hit it off. He treated me like I was his younger brother. I would walk from 94th street down to the West 10th in the Village. I walked there every week because I couldn’t wait to hear this jam session. Joe would call me up, he knew I wasn’t ready, but he would call me up and let me play a song, usually one that I picked and knew. Then he would let me sit in with some of the guys. I was so anxious and would ask him if I could play another song. He told me no, but to grab a napkin, sit down and listen and write down the songs that I didn’t know, because back then I didn’t know a lot of songs. He said to "go home and learn them and don’t come back next week unless you know them." That went on for a few months when I finally said to him “Joe I have all real books, I have the Charlie Parker Omni books, I have all the great solo transcriptions I can buy, why can’t I play like you and the other guys?" He got a puzzled look on his face and he said “When you go home tonight take all of those books and throw them out. Buy these records…”, he gave me a list of cds to buy.“Close your eyes sit down and play along. When you hear Lee Morgan play something you dig,  if you have to stop and rewind it a thousand times until you get it, then that is what you have to do.”  At first he gave me easier solos so I could get it.

He got me to get my head out of the music. When I see the music, or a written out melody, I can decipher it and transfer to the horn. But for some reason, at least for me, it skips my ear it’s almost like auto pilot, it skips my heart. Now Joe got me to close my eyes, to listen, hear and feel the music. I think within the week  I went back and Joe could see that I was feeling the music and my playing was noticeably better. I fell in love with the music instead of just playing the trumpet. That opened me up to listening to Dexter Gordon, to John Coltrane and buying records that had nothing to do with trumpet. It changed my life. So Mags was definitely my second great influence.

Joe Magnarelli
Three or four months after I changed my approach to music Joe gave me a chance to play a blues with him, Roy Hargrove, Valery Ponomarev and Marlon Jordon. I had no business standing next to these guys, but they didn’t vibe me, they were cool and understood I was a young dude and Joe was trying to bring me along. It was a great learning experience, one that I will never forget.

Joe Gransden and the big Band at the Blue Note Jazz Club

In part two we will talk about some of the great trumpet players of the era and Gransden's take on their music and their affect on him. We will talk about the work life balance of a working musician, his association with the actor Clint Eastwood and the musician Kenny G, his acting career, his future projects  and his work with the Big Band. The Joe Gransden Big Band will be playing for its fourth time at the Blue Note in NYC on Monday July 11, 2016 at 8pm.