By Trevor Morelli
CALGARY – Jerry Granelli is a happy-go-lucky guy. He’s best known for drumming on A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965, Fantasy Records), and he doesn’t mind that at all. As the last remaining member of the Vince Guaraldi Trio that created the seminal jazz piece, the Amercan-born, Halifax, Nova Scotia native now tours and performs the record with his own trio.
For Granelli, the magic of A Charlie Brown Christmas is not only that it’s a Christmas classic, but that it serves as a catalyst for bringing multiple generations of families together. It’s about celebrating the human spirt all year round and not just during the holiday season.
Granelli was kind enough to talk to us from Colorado, where he was teaching at a two-week retreat. He talked to us about why he thinks A Charlie Brown Christmas has endured for so long, the fun of performing the album with local children’s choirs, and the joy he gets out of bringing jazz to fresh ears young and old.
Why has performing A Charlie Brown Christmas become an annual tradition?
Because people want it (Laughing). It’s that simple. Last year I missed it because I was sick, very ill, and I couldn’t travel. But people ask and it comes back, and it’s because it’s a really lovely community experience of time for generations to be together and time for some people to come to their first real jazz concert, and it’s just a joyful experience.
Are you seeing a lot of kids coming to the concerts?
Of course. They’re coming with their grandparents; they’re coming with their parents. That’s the reason that I do it, is because it is multi-generational. It’s a chance for families to go to something together that they’re all going to enjoy, and that’s really it. That was the motivation for doing it, and that’s the only motivation to continue to do it, you know?
Have you guys ever tried to change up the songs since the original release of A Charlie Brown Christmas?
There’s no point. I mean, we play them totally in a brand new way every night, like you would blues, but the material is part of what makes the fabric. And it’s not about recreating the recording. It’s not about that at all. It’s just this is wonderful material. I’m not going to write anything better for that moment, you know? (Laughing)
Every year around Christmas season, T.V. is flooded with Christmas shows and holiday specials. Do you watch A Charlie Brown Christmas if it happens to come on, or do you immediately shut it off?
Usually I’m travelling or miss it. I mean, what’s more important is that millions of people turn it on. I don’t need to. Every once in a while, I’ll watch if I’m with my grandkids or something, but I don’t listen to my own records a lot either, so …
Yeah, that makes sense.
Part of it is that I’m working on something now and I know it was good, so it’s fine. But every once in a while…
Is it hard being so strongly associated with this one project?
Not really anymore. Well, no one’s every going to be as exposed to my work as a leader. That record sells millions and millions and millions and generated industries based on that. I’d have to have a huge hit record to get that kind of exposure, which I’m not seeking. I’ve grown up enough to not have any problems with being associated with it or wanting to ignore it, you know?
Partially, really truly, because I finally quit being so selfish and realized that it’s genuinely touched people, and that’s a great gift. At this point in my life, I’m feeling gratitude for even doing it.
You perform A Charlie Brown Christmas with local children’s choirs in every city you go to. Is it hard to get the kids on the same page with your band? Or do they usually know their stuff?
No, no. The choir teachers know their stuff. It’s usually me coming into the rehearsal and making sure the kids have fun, you know, because they’re really ready. It’s a big walk out on the stage, some of them with 1,000 people, and they’re not used to that, so I’m like, ‘It’s uncle Jer here!’ and I talk to them during the show.
We have fun. They have pizza. They know I like to yell at ‘em before the show (Laughing). You know, ‘Okay, who’s eating sugar? I’m going to check your pockets for sugar. If you got sugar, I’m going to kill you!’ and we have a lot of laughs. It’s really, you know, it’s not Christmas spirit, it’s a human, heartwarming experience. That’s why I do it. I love it. I love people, you know?
At this point, does take a lot of rehearsing to get back into the Charlie Brown Christmas mindset?
No. It’s pretty much I just spend time on the practice pad and get my old, tired muscles all in shape. The music’s there, and it’s there for the guys (Simon Frisk on bass and Chris Gestrin on piano) and yeah, we do it. It’s all good, if there’s any questions, we answer it for each other, but it’s all good.
What else are you working on these days?
Well, the last record Dance Hall (2017, Justin Time Records) with Bill Frisell and Roben Ford has been out there, so right now there’s a lot of stuff milling around. We did a long tour, all the jazz festivals, and we’re playing again in January, but I don’t have any time ‘til January. I’m working on forming a quartet with Michael Blake and Peggy Lee and Chris Gestrin. So yeah, I don’t have time to sit at a piano. I won’t get to my drums until a week before the concerts start because I’m travelling and teaching.
Do you have any plans to retire from music?
Not really. Should I?
No, not as long as you enjoy doing it and people enjoy seeing you.
I love it. I mean, the hard part about almost dying, with this lung infection and pneumonia and everything, was I didn’t get to play, and at some point I was just listening to some music and started crying because I realized I love to play. Whether anybody’s going to come to anything I play, I still love to play the drums.
What else do you want to say about A Charlie Brown Christmas or anything else you’re doing?
It’s just a joyful experience. Go out and get Dance Hall because it’s a great record. I’m looking forward to it. It’s fun, you know? You get to play every day. It’s hard work, but it’s fun.
Jerry Granelli performs A Charlie Brown Christmas Dec. 1 at Central United Church (Calgary) and Dec. 15 at Arden Theatre (St. Albert).A Charlie Brown Christmas, Arden Theatre, Central United Church, Fantasy Records, It's a Charlie Brown Christmas, Jerry Granelli