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Halifax jazz drummer Jerry Granelli dies at age 80

His son said the San Francisco-born percussionist and teacher died Tuesday morning surrounded by friends and caregivers at his home in Halifax
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TORONTO — Acclaimed Halifax jazz drummer Jerry Granelli, who provided the smooth and subtle percussion for the beloved 1965 TV special "A Charlie Brown Christmas," has died.

His son, musician J. Anthony Granelli, said the San Francisco-born percussionist and teacher died Tuesday morning surrounded by friends and caregivers at his home in Halifax. He was 80.

The New York-based Granelli said his father suffered from a bout of internal bleeding in late December and spent months in hospital undergoing treatments that uncovered and exacerbated underlying health issues.

He'd been home for a couple of months and making steady progress, even teaching music to a small group in-person this past Sunday, said Granelli.

But there was "a cumulative strain on his body over these past bunch of months, which was considerable," he added.

"He really wasn't expected to make it multiple times," Granelli said from his home in Brooklyn, noting his father's death was still unexpected. 

"All of his children live outside of Canada, so we weren't there. It's impossible for us to get there anytime real soon. But he was not alone. He had people with him."

Granelli is survived by three children and five grandchildren.

The self-described sound artist played jazz music for the hit CBS adaptation of Charles Schultz's "Peanuts" comic strip as a part of the Vince Guaraldi Trio, which had the titular musician on piano and Fred Marshall on bass.

At turns upbeat and melancholy, with tunes including "Christmastime is Here" and "Skating," the soundtrack has been a holiday staple for five decades and is an inductee into the Grammy Hall of Fame.

But As Granelli tells it, when the trio recorded the album, they "didn't know necessarily, at the time, it was going to be wedded to this TV show."

And they made, well, peanuts from it.

"I think they made $68 from that recording session," Granelli said.

"For a long time, it was kind of a sore spot for him." 

Granelli came around about a decade ago when he and his trio started to perform holiday concerts across Canada featuring music and video clips from the TV special. He saw how audience members of many generations loved it.

"A lot of people made a lot of money off of that (TV special) — he didn't," said his son.

"I'm just glad that he finally came to a place where he could embrace it and see how much joy it gave people."

In a 2010 interview with The Canadian Press, Granelli said he didn't get any royalties for the soundtrack unless it was appropriated for something new.

"But people would always hear it and like it. And over the years, I think I began to be grateful for that, that gee, you made something that touched somebody. A lot of somebodies. Millions of somebodies. Generations of somebodies," he said.

"My kids saw it, and my grandkids saw it.... I hear it sometimes and I think: 'That's really good music. There's nothing sellout or corny about that. That's jazz. It's really good jazz.'"

A child prodigy on the drums, Granelli played many percussive instruments and got his start in the San Francisco jazz scene, with venerable groups including Sly and the Family Stone, the Denny Zeitlin Trio and the Kingston Trio. His own jazz band had a three-month opening spot for comedian Lenny Bruce and toured through Europe with the Grateful Dead.

Granelli was a skilled and bold improviser who loved exploring ways to use sound with groups including Light Sound Dimension (LSD), which put on psychedelic light shows. 

He could never sit still and was always trying to learn and push the boundaries of what music could be, said his son, who recorded several albums with his father and toured Europe, Canada and the United States with him. 

"He is one of those guys that's a link back to that time. There's not many of those people left," said Granelli.

"He was a direct line back to learning jazz in clubs and then through the avant-garde thing and then into electric music." 

Granelli also travelled the world as a gifted teacher, not just of music but also of meditation and Tibetan Buddhism. The religion brought him to Halifax in 1987, said his son, noting his dad was a devotee of Tibetan teacher Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche and followed him to the city. 

For Granelli, Buddhism and the arts were linked. And through the Creative Music Workshop program, which he founded with his son and ran in conjunction with the Atlantic Jazz Festival, he taught musical improvisation but "also how that intersects with mindfulness practices," said his son. 

In 2010 Granelli recorded his first solo drum album, "1313," released by Divorce Records. 

He was also an avid painter, drawer and writer. 

Granelli, who last saw his father in person when he was in an intensive care unit in Halifax in February, said he'd been feeling better lately and was planning to go to Europe with his son next year to play music for a couple of weeks. 

"He was looking forward to what was next, which was his thing his entire life," he said. "He was never one to sit wherever he was. He was constantly moving forward."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 21, 2021.

Victoria Ahearn, The Canadian Press

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