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: 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.
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.