Friday, May 28, 2021

A memorable piano lesson

As the years have passed, and this blog’s status has risen via Google searches, I’ve occasionally heard from first-time visitors eager to share their long-ago “Guaraldi encounters.”

 

This is a good one, courtesy of a lovely woman named Peggy Tillman, who — way back in the day — unexpectedly found herself seated alongside Guaraldi, on his piano bench.

 

But that’s getting ahead of things.

 

Sonoma State College — in Rohnert Park, California, just a few minutes south of Santa Rosa — opened to 274 students in the fall of 1961. Because the campus still was far from completed, many of the classrooms and other key activities took place in leased buildings within the city.

 

Peggy transferred into Sonoma State in the fall of 1963, her sophomore year; she remembers the still-gestating state of affairs. “Our ‘library’ was built as a grocery store,” she laughs, “and after we moved out, a few years later, it became a grocery store.”

 

The student body, still quite modest, included a disproportionately large percentage of adults: either working folks looking to secure credits for a long-delayed graduation, or retired individuals with the time to enhance their knowledge. “The joke,” Peggy recalls, “was that the average age of the student body was higher than the average age of the faculty. When school administrators sought input on the creation of a school mascot or symbol, somebody suggested a rocking chair.”

 

Jokes aside, these “returning students” were a challenge. “They were tough competition: far in advance of us, because they had life skills, better study habits, and often were taking only one or two classes, whereas we younger students were taking a full load.”

 

Peggy entered as an education major, with an eye toward teaching, but — as luck would have it — California changed its academic requirements that year, mandating a fifth year of post-graduation instruction in order to obtain a teaching degree. Preferring to graduate in the planned four years, Peggy switched majors and entered the psychology department.

 

Toward the end of her junior year, the campus Concert and Lectures Committee booked the Guaraldi/Bola Sete Quartet for a performance on April 5, 1965. Since Sonoma State did not yet have a performance hall, the gig was scheduled into the nearby Cotati Veterans Memorial Auditorium. Admission was free to students, and $2 for the general public.

 

By this point, Peggy had become one of the three people who made up the college’s fledgling audio/visual department; thanks to her experience as campus photographer during her high school career, she stepped into that same role for Sonoma State. One of her psychology department professors, Dr. Frank Siroky, was doing research on the body postures of people, as they listened to music; he hired Peggy to take pictures of the audience during the upcoming Guaraldi/Sete concert.

 

(Ah, such innocent times. It’s an intriguing research premise, to be sure, but it’d never fly in today’s hyper-vigilant era of privacy concerns.)

Tuesday, May 18, 2021

An appeal for Jerry Granelli

“Jazz isn’t a style; it’s a way of life.”

The speaker is Jerry Granelli, evoking singer/activist Nina Simone, who famously said, “Jazz is not just music; it’s a way of life, it’s a way of being, a way of thinking.”

 

Granelli makes this comment toward the beginning of Colin MacKenzie’s 2002 documentary, Jerry Granelli: In the Moment. The 51-minute film can be viewed at Granelli’s richly informative web site, which traces the deservedly famous drummer’s impressively varied career.

 

Right now, Jerry could use our help.

 

Just before his 80th birthday, this past December, Granelli suffered a near-fatal case of internal bleeding while at home in Halifax, Nova Scotia. He spent the next two months in a hospital ICU, followed by almost two more months in hospital, while being stabilized. He finally was able to return home a few weeks ago, but he now faces six to eight months of recovery that will involve extensive physical therapy, at-home caregivers and special intravenous feedings.

 

It’ll be expensive, and his family has set up a GoFundMe campaign. Details are here.

 

Regular visitors to this blog are quite familiar with Granelli, as the drummer in the third of Vince Guaraldi’s early great trios. Alongside bassist Fred Marshall, Granelli can be heard on Vince Guaraldi/Bola Sete/And FriendsThe Latin Side of Vince GuaraldiFrom All Sides, portions of The Eclectic Vince Guaraldi, and the soundtrack to A Charlie Brown Christmas. Granelli can be seen in the Jazz Casual episode that features Guaraldi and Sete, which debuted September 25, 1963 (the audio of which was released in 2001 by Koch Jazz). Granelli also gets considerable screen time in 1963’s Anatomy of a Hit, when he anonymously stands in for Colin Bailey, during a Fantasy studio sequence where Guaraldi pretends to record “Cast Your Fate to the Wind” for the first time.

Marshall already was working with Guaraldi when Granelli joined the trio in early 1963 — replacing Bailey — during a February 21-23 gig at a Sacramento venue dubbed The Berry Patch. They remained together until the end of May 1965, which also encompassed most of the time that Sete transformed the combo into a quartet. And although Granelli then became a member of Denny Zeitlin’s trio for the next few years, he continued to work occasionally alongside Guaraldi until the end of the 1960s; Granelli even did some of the drum work for 1969’s big-screen Peanuts film, A Boy Named Charlie Brown.

 

Granelli’s approach to his craft was quite Zen; as the years passed, he would come to think of himself less as “just” a drummer, and more as “an artist.

 

“The people I really learned from,” he acknowledges, also in MacKenzie’s film, “were the people I was willing to surrender to.”

 

I find it ironic — for a guy who spent the bulk of his later career embracing free jazz, acid jazz, psychedelic and experimental jazz, alongside talents such as Zeitlin, Mose Allison, Bruce Frisell, Ornette Coleman, Jamie Salt and Anthony Braxton — that Granelli’s first lengthy gig was as a member of Guaraldi’s mainstream, gentle bossa nova combo.

 

But hey: We’ve all gotta start somewhere, right?

 

I spent several lengthy sessions with Jerry back in 2010, while preparing for my Guaraldi biography; he was, by far, one of my most articulate and passionate interview subjects. And, much more recently, he chatted with me again — while still hospitalized — to bring me up to date on his more recent activities.

Which, as Canadian fans know, have for the past several years included an annual “Tales of A Charlie Brown Christmas” concert tour each December.


Granelli is one of the very few sidemen still with us, from Guaraldi’s early days. Let’s help ensure that he’ll again be where he belongs: seated at a drum kit, once more rejoicing in his “lust for being on the cutting edge.” 

Friday, May 14, 2021

Exploring BMI (and no, I don't mean body mass index)

I recently took another deep dive into Guaraldi’s entries in the Broadcast Music Inc. (BMI) Repertoire database; far too much time has elapsed, since the last time I investigated.

Quite a lot has changed.

 

A bit of background first, for readers unfamiliar with this organization. BMI was founded in 1939, with the belief that all songwriters, composers and publishers have the right to be paid for the use of their intellectual property, no matter how that property is used. Thus, BMI is a music performing rights organization, which represents songwriters — even when they’re also performers — as well as film, television, musical theater and classical music composers and, of course, music publishers. BMI collects money from the entities and businesses that use such music in the course of a given time period, and then pays out that money as royalties to the composers and publishers of the songs and compositions that have been played. 

 

BMI maintains an ongoing list of any composer's work, and Guaraldi is no different. The information is fascinating, both from the standpoint of what is on the list, and what is not. It also has become obvious that Guaraldi's selections live on, and continue to be used extensively long after his death. He certainly wasn’t with us, for example, when some of his themes wound up as background cues for Live with Regis and Kathy Lee. And, of course, bits of “Linus and Lucy” have turned up on numerous TV commercials, most famously for MetLife.

 

The BMI database includes most of the songs and themes Guaraldi wrote during his career. You’ll find most of the familiar Peanuts themes, along with “Cast Your Fate to the Wind,” “Star Song,” “Treat Street” and many, many more. But not everything; quite a few aren’t registered here. (Further details can be found at this web page.)

 

You’ll also spot several unfamiliar titles: songs that Guaraldi is known to have performed during his career, and which he copyrighted via the U.S. Library of Congress, but which he never got around to recording. They include “The Big Movie Theme,” “Lethargy,” “My Loneliness,” “Sand and Sea” and “Twilight of Youth.”

 

Other entries are simply unusual. What are we to make of “Eddie Bone,” “Lanza Tus Penas Al Viento” or “Sunset Music”?

Thursday, May 6, 2021

Calling Dr. Funk

By the late 1950s, Vince Guaraldi was known by two nicknames: The Italian Leprechaun, and Dr. Funk. Indeed, "Calling Dr. Funk" is a Guaraldi composition that debuted on the 1956 album, Modern Music from San Francisco.

As it happens, a Dr. Funk is a popular libation at tiki bars and restaurants. 

Are the two related?

At first blush, it seems possible; San Francisco's Tonga Room and the Bay Area-based Trader Vic's — initially in Oakland, later in San Francisco and Emeryville — were well-established by the mid-1950s. These and many other bars and restaurants constantly competed with each other, to concoct popular drink recipes. Guaraldi was quite a presence in the greater Bay Area, with his distinctive mustache and vibrant piano chops, and he certainly wouldn't have been the first celebrity to have a drink named after him.

But no.

The drink actually is quite old, and was named after a German doctor by the name of Bernard Funk, who practiced privately in Apia, Samoa, in the 1890s. We know this thanks to an entry in Frederick O'Brien's 1921 book, Mystic Isles of the South Seas

“[The potion] was made of a portion of absinthe, a dash of grenadine -- a syrup of the pomegranate fruit -- the juice of two limes, and half a pint of siphon water. Dr. Funk of Samoa, who had been a physician to Robert Louis Stevenson, had left the recipe for the concoction when he was a guest of the club. One paid half a franc for it, and it would restore self-respect and interest in one’s surroundings when even Tahiti rum failed.”

Whether Bernard Funk developed the potion on his own, and how it transitioned from a sort of patent medicine to tiki libation, remain unknown. But it became a staple on the Trader Vic's drink menu, where Vic Bergeron re-named it Doctor Funk of Tahiti, and modified the recipe thusly:

• 1 cup crushed ice
• 1 ounce gold rum
• 1 ounce dark rum
• 1/2 ounce lemon juice
• 1/4 ounce lime juice
• Dash of grenadine
• Dash of simple syrup (sugar syrup)
• Dash of Pernod
• 2 ounces sparkling water
• 1 sprig mint and squeezed lime half, for garnish

Bergeron never claimed to have created this drink, but he did invent a droll relation that he dubbed Doctor Funk's Son, which he insisted was far superior. It's built as follows:

• 1 cup crushed ice
• 2 ounces dark rum
• 1/2 ounce lemon juice
• 1/4 ounce lime juice
• Dash of grenadine
• Dash of simple syrup
• 2 ounces sparkling water
• 1 sprig mint and squeezed lime half, for garnish
• 1/2 ounce 151-proof rum, floated atop the drink once all other ingredients have been mixed

That 151-proof float was a rite of passage. Timid drinkers bypassed it with a straw, allowing the rum to dilute via blending; braver souls gulped.

I guess the remaining question, then, is whether our Dr. Funk ever ordered a Doctor Funk of Tahiti ... or his Son. I suspect chances are very high; how could he have resisted?

(Thanks to the Mountain of Crushed Ice blog, for the passage from O'Brien's book.)