|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.
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
NOJ: The music you played back then was American Songbook music?
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.
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)
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.
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.