My Friend George
I lost my dear friend George Gruntz, who passed peacefully on Thursday, January 10, surrounded by his family. George worked and formed relationships with many great musicians over his career, and I know I am not alone feeling bereft at the loss of this dear friend.
I didn’t realize when I first went to Switzerland to work with George and the CJB that this journey would lead me to change the course of my life. That tour and the ones that followed made me realize that I wanted to leave the studio scene in NYC to return to the life of a jazz artist. This was—and still is—the life I love and my reason to be a musician. Since I made that change in 1990, the subsequent years have been most fulfilling for me musically and personally. I owe much to George for my decision to make this life-changing move.
But just as important and fulfilling has been the friendship that accompanied our musical relationship. Over our time together, George, his wife Lilly, and his daughter Philine also became friends with my wife and daughters. And I have become close to George’s son Felix and his wife Valentina. All these personal ties mean a lot to me and my family, and we value so much all the times spent together and all the experiences we shared over all the years.
I joined the George Gruntz Concert Jazz Band (CJB) in 1987 and played steadily with George and the band for twenty-one years. The only exceptions were a two-year hiatus in the mid-1990’s and my missing a couple of tours because of previous bookings. I was George’s lead trumpet player during this period, from 1987 through the 2008 tour to Russia.
As is true of all the players on the band, I was also a soloist with the group. Every player was a soloist, and George maintained a policy that the music he wrote for each tour had to include two solos for every player. This gesture was certainly evidence of George’s great respect for the musicians he asked to tour with the CJB. And there were many of them. Over the years, George called upon a “Who’s Who” of players to perform with the CJB. To see this impressive list, here’s the link:
George was a restless soul, never idle. He was a prolific composer, arranger, and musician, always creating. When finished with one tour or project, either writing or playing, he was on to the next. George was an eclectic musician, always sincere and serious about his writing. Over the years, I experienced many musical aspects of George’s writing, unusual and exciting shifts in style, texture and color. Each tour of the CJB featured a number of George’s original pieces, but also several arrangements of compositions by the then-current members of the CJB. I was highly complimented that in the later years of my tenure on the band, George arranged, performed, and recorded three of my pieces. Moreover, he and I were always the two featured soloists on each of these arrangements, something that made them even more special to me.
George and I shared numerous one-on-one times, all great fun and wonderful moments—times staying at his the cottage in the Bernese Oberlands between tours in the early years, times on the road sharing meals together, and the occasional special wines shared with his boyhood friend and manager of many years, Gerard Lüll. There were so many special moments together, and, for sure, I will miss them all.
George had a great sense of humor, and I will share one of many stories with you. During one of the last tours on which I played, he and I decided to walk back to our hotel from whatever after-concert function we attended. It was quite dark, and George suddenly tripped and fell from a high curb of sorts, scratching his face rather badly and leaving him looking as if he were in a fight. The next day, I jokingly said to him, “George, let’s tell everyone that, walking back to the hotel, we came upon two hoodlums harassing a couple of young women, and we jumped in to rescue these damsels in distress.” George laughed and agreed that this was a splendid idea. I believed he might be thinking only of joking with the musicians. Nothing more. Instead, each night of the remaining three or four dates of the tour, George explained to the audiences why his face was so banged up—that he and I had gotten into a scuffle with two hoodlums while rescuing two damsels in distress. The audience loved it, and George and I got a big kick out of it, too.
George was quite generous. He loved good food and wine, as did most of the members of the CJB. The group shared many excellent meals together, and many times, while we would pay for our food, George would pick up the bill for our wine and drinks.
Though my touring with the CJB ended in 2008, our friendship was not affected. Ours was a friendship much stronger and much deeper than a relationship built between two musicians merely having worked together. We were truly friends.
I was taken aback and saddened to learn that George became seriously ill this past fall. I knew he had dealt with various health issues over the past few years, but never imagined his condition to be so serious. Regardless, George journeyed to the U.S. this past December to record again with the CJB. I was not involved, but Howard Johnson told me that the music was very good and George’s spirits were fine though he was physically weakened by his illness. I don’t think anyone expected such a quick passing. I am positive that all who knew George are deeply saddened by his death.
George Gruntz influenced my life tremendously, more than I can find words to express. I will never lose the image of George onstage at the piano, the image that so represents who he was to me during all the times we performed together. He will always remain an important and living presence to me. Rest in peace, my friend.
Make a remark in any discussion group about “how much everything has changed” and most people will immediately think “technology.” Yes, we rode from horse-and-buggy to the moon in the 20th century. The 21st seems to be moving even faster. Young people don’t wear wrist watches anymore; they check out the time on their iPads. They have a cell or “smart” phone, too, but nobody talks into it; rather than calling a friend, they “text” or “tweet.” Television screens now might cover an entire wall; all other electronic “toys” seem to have been miniaturized. How often these days have you heard music on a cassette-player? How recently have you bought a new CD? Isn’t listening to music something an iPod is for?
For several years, a number of people have noticed and remarked to me about the many aspects of our music they feel have changed over the years that they’ve been following jazz. Some of these people are amateur musicians, but most are jazz fans; none are professional players. Since none play professionally and are not involved in the music business as are the artists they follow, they look differently upon what they hear and what they see. It’s a view from the outside. Many of them have been listening and following this music for a long time and may be quite perceptive about changes in the music scene since they first became captured by jazz.
I happen to agree with them. I, too, feel that much has changed—in the music and the music business, in the technology, and, to a degree, in the mindset of many of today’s musicians. Over my career, I have lived many of these changes, and while limited by my personal experiences, maybe I can speak to some of the issues giving these fans pause. Three issues in particular are primary: technological advances, the music business, and the tradition of mentoring.
Change is the one constant in all times, and a number of things began to change around 1985. One of the important catalysts in the jazz world in the mid-80’s was the emergence of Wynton Marsalis and the period of “The Young Lions.” I wrote about this movement in a much earlier issue of Cadenzas – Edition III. Columbia Records’ had great success recording Wynton, and other record companies attempted to replicate that formula, predicated on the concept of making “stars” of young black musicians. This meant seeking out and recording young players in their late-teens to mid-twenties, all the time ignoring those players in their thirties and older who had worked to establish and maintain a recognized professional performance level.
Most of these younger musicians, some still locked into their imitation period, lacked experience. At the same time, who could fault them for being taken away by the potential for fame that might await. The downside was the interruption of the natural rite of passage that all artists should be privileged to experience, something irrelevant to the recording companies. Meanwhile, musicians in their mid- to late-30’s and older, both black and white, fell into the cracks, and though they had “paid their dues,” they were overlooked for players ages eighteen to twenty-five. For the record companies it was all about money, not the music. The economics of this shift in recording preference hit many players, old and young, very hard. Older players were shunted aside, the effect of which produced a good bit of anger and negative feelings in the music community.
However distasteful this progression may seem, there have been lasting successes from this period—Wynton, Roy Hargrove, Joshua Redman, Christian McBride, Terrence Blanchard, and others—players of immense talent who were in the right place at the right time and really delivered the music. But there were also many other players, some with a potentially bright future, who didn’t survive. It was not that they lacked talent; they just didn’t have the opportunity to mature and grow under more positive circumstances, to be guided by and nurtured under the wings of older, experienced players as in earlier years.
Fortunately, most of the negativity engendered within the music community has melted over time and a number of things have reverted somewhat to the way they were when I was growing up. The racism from the earlier years that seemed to separate white and black musicians has pretty much dissipated. The “Young Lions,” now grown and matured, are in their 40’s and 50’s. They understand the importance of the earlier traditions of mentoring and those of the broader community, and they give generously of themselves to the younger people coming up. But we cannot deny that this period of twenty plus years affected musicians both socially and economically, and I believe that some of those changes, for better or worse, are permanent. More about that later.
The record labels didn’t believe they could make big profits with the older players, so these players had trouble finding work. At the same time, they pressured the younger players was to produce “hit” records or see their opportunity fritter way. The labels weren’t interested in developing their artists. They wanted results. If a young artist had a modicum of success, he or she was also expected to tour. Since there was neither the incentive nor sufficient resources for these talented, though inexperienced, players to invite older established players to tour with them, they turned to their peers, players as young and inexperienced as themselves. So, at a time when this new generation of young players could have benefited by playing with older musicians’ groups to gain experience and learn the musical and life lessons these older players could teach them, they were instead working with people of their own age and experience level. This series of events broke, for a time, those most important bonds of tradition, the passing of one’s art down to those who come after.
Most recording companies let go all but their top-selling artists. And while much of the social and musical interaction within the community has normalized to some degree, the mass media’s neglect of jazz, and, for that matter, classical music as well, has altered music appreciation by a large segment of the general public. But because creative people want to create, numerous jazz artists in the past couple of decades began releasing self-produced products that the new technologies made possible. It was, and in many cases still is, the only way they could get their music out there. A lot of these artists are unknown and untested; some are just out of school. Many experienced members of the community feel the negative result of this glut of jazz recordings on the market, a number of them of inferior quality. But today’s newer technologies make it possible for anyone to produce a recording, regardless of their level of talent and/or stage of development.
The development of new technology has ushered in the current era of “downloading.” Today only a small group of devoted fans buy CDs, while most others prefer to download their music from the Internet for listening on their portable devices. They never get to see the cover artwork nor do they have corresponding liner notes to read. The unfortunate consequence is that they have little opportunity to learn about jazz artists unless guided to do so by someone they happen to know who is familiar with the music or the artists.
Recording revenues have dwindled as the companies have tried to survive by learning downloading techniques and procedures. But one advantage they enjoy is no longer having to produce and maintain large inventories of CD “hard copies” as in years past. The difference is thousands of flimsy boxed CDs vs. unlimited megabytes preserved on hard drives. While they do press some CDs for those collectors they anticipate will still buy them, today they make most of their products available on the Web.
The great changes in both technology and communications, while having an enormous impact on both the recording industry and music business generally, will probably have little direct effect on musicians, the reason being that most musicians have no organization for distribution and marketing and are not yet programmed to use the Internet to its fullest potential. So whatever opportunities this new technology might produce, only those musicians who understand and possess a working knowledge of marketing, distribution, and social media manipulation will succeed.
This understanding of the evolving music business requires a lot of diligence and work on their part beyond the mastery of their instruments and the refining of their art. The old “I just want to blow my horn, man!” attitude doesn’t work anymore for most players who want to succeed beyond just being sidemen. And again, few companies, if any, have the desire or wherewithal to develop their artists. If they do sign artists to their labels, the musicians are expected to produce almost immediate results from the “get-go” or they pretty quickly get the “heave-ho.” This unwelcome predicament doesn’t mean that some still won’t succeed, but these will be among the exception rather than the rule.
Two exceptions are Maria Schneider and Dave Douglas, musicians who possess the knowledge to make the downloading and self-producing world work for them. Their know-how and ability to use the Internet and social media for marketing and product availability, as well as sales through downloading, have been essential to their success. And they have succeeded quite well.
Putting aside the subject of technology for the moment, I believe there are some things that remain constant: No matter how talented one is or how well he or she plays, there are two essential elements needed to make one’s career. Those elements are luck (or timing, being in the right place at the right time) and the help and support of members of the musical community.
In my own experience I had pretty well backed out of studio work by 1990 in favor of trying to make a life as a jazz soloist. Still, I occasionally continue to work with a number of the fine players who are doing a major portion of the work in NY and LA. It is only natural that the conversation eventually comes around to what’s going on in those cities and the general state of the music business. We talk about my NY experiences of the past, and they often speak about how things are for them now. We discuss the changes technology has made, the lack of recording opportunities, the dearth of jazz and classical music on the mass media, and other concerns affecting us all.
These players also speak often of how certain of their colleagues engage in various practices of one-upmanship to get work. Instead of pulling together as a community, they view their world as a contest for survival—the concept of “me, not we.” This outlook never creates or contributes to a good working environment, and many musicians are hurt by the practice. While probably true as well in other professions, “word of mouth” in one such as ours is the foundation upon which every player’s reputation is built. In earlier times, it was a sort of code of honor NOT to speak negatively about other players. For example, a leader might call and say, “I was thinking of hiring so-and-so to play with you, what do you think?” Maybe I would prefer not working with that particular musician, but unless the player was inadequate for the job, I would feel honor bound to say something like, “Sure, if that is who you would like, that’s fine.” But if he asked for my preference as a section-mate, then I felt free to name whomever I wanted. This kind of honor system worked because, with exception, it kept a great deal of negativity out of the work we did. I saw first-hand in both NY and LA what happens when the opposite arises.
When I came to NY, there were places in midtown Manhattan—restaurants, bars, and jazz clubs—where lots of musicians would hang out and socialize. It was a busy time, and between recording sessions or after work, players would gather for meals, a drink before going home, or to go hear other players perform. They had the opportunity to get to know each other on a deeper, more personal level. Many of them formed close friendships and socialized with each other’s’ families. Bernie Glow, bassist Milt Hinton, drummer Osie Johnson, and French horn ace Jim Buffington were all NY Giants football fans. They had season tickets for many years and attended the games together. During this period, many musicians throughout the community got together for various social functions, many that also included their wives. But of course, the basis of these friendships was their working and hanging together in the musical environment.
As the leasing and rental fees rose in Manhattan, many of the bars and restaurants that were a “home away from home” for musicians working long days and nights in the studios and theaters and on club dates during those busy years couldn’t afford the higher rents, so they closed. At the same time, the recording business located in the heart of Manhattan began to diminish. Over time, various clubs also closed, and there were no longer any central social centers for the players to hang out. As this occurred, the musicians saw less of one another, for the most part only on whatever gig they were playing. Then, instead of being able to hang out and relax a bit together, most went home. Musicians and their families still occasionally get together with one another, but the individual “hang-outs” in town and spending time in the work environment is gone. The places that were sort of exclusive to the musicians and part of their everyday environment have vanished. To an outsider, this may seem insignificant, but it was precious to the life of every musician who lived it. A culture all its own. Even those who weren’t there but have heard all the legendary stories of those times and places realize their importance to the community. These places were the glue that along with the work and the music held us all together.
The many changes over a relatively long period of time have had a tremendous effect on musicians’ lives and their culture in general. I won’t attempt to give you a complete accounting of all that has taken place, but maybe this overview from my perspective gives you some idea of what has happened.
We all are aware that everything changes over time. That is just life. I would imagine every generation to some degree bemoans this fact, wishing to hold onto those things that are most meaningful to each of them. But that is not the way it works. I don’t spend a lot of time looking back except occasionally to reflect on matters such as those I’ve just written about and to get a grip on things. There is too much ahead, and I feel too positive to dwell on the many changes that have occurred and will continue to do so, some seemingly at the speed of light. But what I experienced upon my arrival in NY and the subsequent years that followed was my fantasy fulfilled. Maybe that was the adolescence of my musical childhood and why it is so meaningful to me. But what has followed—my family, my returning to the path of a jazz musician, and all that has transpired—also has helped to fulfill that fantasy. While some of us, by luck or prescience, took a different path when seeing the “handwriting on the wall,” many of my friends and colleagues did not. Consequently, the evolution of the music business has robbed them of their dreams. This saddens me because all musicians are dreamers; all of us are seeking to live our fantasies. In a sense, this is what music IS and why it reaches everyone—performer and listener alike—on their own personal level.
I was fortunate to grow up at a very fertile time in the music. When I started to play the trumpet in junior high school in 1951, Dizzy was in his mid-thirties, Charlie Parker in his early-thirties. Clifford Brown was twenty-one years old. I mention these musicians because they were three of the major artists on the very prolific jazz scene when I started my journey. Throughout my lengthy and still active career, I have met and played with—or recorded with—a number of them, many I consider my heroes.
During the period of the 1930’s, 40’s, and 50’s, few people had television sets to distract and monopolize their attention, so a majority of the population spent their evenings listening to the radio and/or dancing to “live” music in the many ballrooms throughout the country and in hotels in many major cities where road bands crisscrossing the country several times a year played. The technology at the time was simple by today’s standards, and most people got their music from the radio or, if they were real music fans, from records—vinyl twelve-inch 33-1/3 rpm or ten-inch 45 rpm. That was pretty much all of it— “live” music, the radio, and records.
I joined the musicians’ union at age sixteen, working in Memphis dance bands and playing at social functions of all kinds. The local players were very accomplished, but the amount of work and pay structure didn’t allow them to make a living exclusively playing music, so they also needed full-time day gigs. Many of them taught in the public schools while others worked in a number of other endeavors; but they all loved to play and they took their music seriously. At that time, opportunities might be available for two or three dance gigs or shows a week, so there appeared to be enough work for everyone. I remember there being little or no jealousy among these players. One of my cherished memories is going to our local music store for my lessons on Saturdays and seeing a number of musician/band directors gathered there, trading tips, sharing their experiences, engaged in genuine camaraderie. These, along with my band directors and trumpet teacher, were my first mentors.
An age-old tradition in music provides that older musicians pass on what they know, helping to bring the younger musicians along. That tradition helped me enormously. The lessons I learned from the Memphis musicians of my growing-up years established a foundation that would carry me throughout the whole of my life. These were my first experiences in the business, and I consider the lessons learned good ones that have served me well. They were of primary importance and hold true today: “Play your horn well, do the job, show respect to your colleagues, and very important—listen!” These simple yet profound elements would open a pathway for me throughout my whole career. And because they were emphasized so strongly, I made sure to learn and adhere to them.
My experience at North Texas (UNT) continued the same traditions and life lessons as my Memphis years. Many of the older musicians at school, some of them Korean veterans, had been on the road with various bands; most were more experienced and more mature than I was. I had a lot to learn from them. And they were more than willing to teach me.
I soon started working in the Dallas/Ft. Worth area, mainly playing again in dance bands. Being a much larger city, and a rather rich one, Dallas provided a music scene much busier than Memphis. There was more work, much of which was more sophisticated because of the thriving Dallas recording industry. Many of the best players among whom I found myself playing were the musicians doing the recording work.
Dallas also had a very active jazz scene. Though still segregated socially, white and black musicians gathered to play together, mostly in the black night clubs. The Dallas Musicians Union also had a club room where, on Friday and Saturday evenings, musicians would gather after work to relax with a few drinks and hold jam sessions, sometimes playing till 5:00 or 6:00 a.m. Musicians from any of the road bands coming through Dallas over the weekends invariably found their way to the union to play in these sessions.
It was the rule rather than the exception, in those days, that the tradition of mentoring was preserved. One musician might be giving you some advice after a set ended, or he might be setting you straight about certain aspects of the music or the performance; another might not say anything at all, letting his music show you, “Here’s how it’s done!” Though it varied with the individual musician, the ever-present tradition, nonetheless, remained absolute.
This mentoring took place throughout my career. It was true on the Stan Kenton and Woody Herman bands; it was true during my two years in the Reno show bands; and it remained true when I moved to New York and began living my dream as a New York jazz and studio musician. Each rung of the ladder required new lessons in life and music—learning a new environment and working with a new group of players under new and different circumstances.
I have previously written of my relationship with three of my most important mentors, trumpeters Ernie Royal, Bernie Glow, and Snooky Young, and how they advised and helped me become, among them, one of the very busy players on the New York scene. But there were others as well: Mel Lewis, Thad Jones, woodwind players Phil Bodner and Romeo Penque; trombonists Urbie Green and Wayne Andre; and many others too numerous to list. I mention all this to emphasize the tremendous part that the tradition of mentoring has played in my life and in those of younger players of all times. Mentoring shapes the musical and personal attitudes of young aspirants.
As I grew within the world of music, I found most all my fellow musicians eager to help us younger musicians enter their world. If you played well and also showed respect for those experienced players who were already established on the scene, you were pretty sure to have their help and support. There was plenty of work and always room for outstanding players. As Bernie Glow said after my asking about the help so many were giving me, “We welcome fine players with attitudes of respect and community. This just assures us fewer times having to play next to some prima donna or musician of inferior quality.” No one had the time or desire to deal with that kind of player. All any musician had to do was show up on time, play well, and be a good colleague. The rest took care of itself.
Can anything replace that which has been lost? The new social media—Facebook, cell phones, texting, or Twitter-tweets? Though these new devices and new methods of communication have proved effective tools allowing musicians to “be in touch” and/or publicize themselves and their music, can they take the place of actual social contact? Useful though smart phones, laptops, tablets, etc., might be, they also create an insular society. People don’t talk, they text; they rarely listen to live music, they follow the latest on YouTube; they don’t answer phone calls; they “screen” or ignore them, a common practice nowadays. Too often they just insert ear plugs and “tune out.”
So what does it all add up to? Honestly, I don’t know. I just play the music. But I do know the world in which I have lived and loved for a lifetime has altered dramatically. Regardless, I love it still—more than ever. Asked many times where I think the music is headed and what the future of jazz may be, I am as ignorant as anyone. I have read and heard that the music coming out of the Swing Era caused people to ask the same questions. Bebop was such a departure that some people proclaimed the end of music. But if the outcome of the changes written about here produces the same good results as that period, then the future could be bright. However, the loss of social face-to-face disturbs me as does the lack of a social center for the community. Still, I believe the music, as it always does, will continue to evolve. But as to its future and that of its audience—who knows?