George Gruntz: A Tribute
Pianist, composer and big-band leader George Gruntz died in Basel, Switzerland, on Jan. 10 following a long illness. He was 80.
He remained active right up to the end of his life. Only one month before he died, he recorded a big band album in New York. When he wasn’t playing music, he was composing music. And whatever he was doing, Gruntz was living music. He was one of the most extraordinary musicians I’ve ever known.
Gruntz was born on June 24, 1932, in Basel. He first visited the United States to play at the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival as a pianist in the International Youth Band. He rose to fame in the jazz world as the pianist in the European Rhythm Machine. Along with bassist Henri Texier and drummer Daniel Humair, he traveled around Europe in the 1960s collaborating with numerous jazz greats, including Dexter Gordon and Rahsaan Roland Kirk. Phil Woods loved playing with them so much that he recruited the trio to form his quartet of the late ’60s.
In 1972 Gruntz co-founded a big band, which eventually became known as the George Gruntz Concert Jazz Band. Among the artists who played with the band over the years were Gordon, Joe Henderson, Lee Konitz, Jon Faddis, Larry Schneider, Chris Hunter, Kenny Wheeler, Franco Ambrosetti, Enrico Rava, Woody Shaw, Howard Johnson, Steve Turre, Ray Anderson, John Scofield and Elvin Jones.
Gruntz served as the artistic director of Jazzfest Berlin from 1972 to 1994. I became friends with him in 1987 when he invited me to attend. He was responsible for presenting some of the most artistically visionary programs in the history of jazz festivals. One year he celebrated musical fun by gathering some of the world’s greatest accordion players. Other years featured improvising orchestras, a variety of jazz violinists, Hammond B3 organ players and even singers. (I say “even” because the Berlin audience had infamously booed singers off the stage, but that was not the case at Jazzfest Berlin the year Gruntz booked Dianne Reeves, Greetje Bijma, the New York Voices and Dave Frishberg. I remember the crowd giving Frishberg an ovation for “Van Lingle Mungo,” the lyrics of which consist solely of baseball players’ names.)
Gruntz was a composer in residence for the Zurich Playhouse and often incorporated jazz musicians into his scores, including a production of Hamlet scored only for a jazz drummer. He also composed jazz operas, including a variation of The Magic Flute relocated to New Orleans, Cosmopolitan Greetings (with a libretto co-authored by Allen Ginsburg) about Bessie Smith and ecology, and Money (with a libretto by Amiri Baraka) about a jazz musician. Singers who performed in Gruntz’s operas included Sheila Jordan, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Renée Manning, Ian Shaw and Mark Murphy.
Gruntz wrote an amazing cornucopia of music: film scores, ballets, concertos and chamber pieces. For one of his musical triumphs, he composed a piece for hundreds of traditional drummers in Basel.
In addition to being a gifted composer and arranger, Gruntz was a fine pianist who surprised anyone who thought a Swiss musician couldn’t swing. I remember attending a JVC New York tribute to Duke Ellington in which the pianist didn’t show up. Gruntz sat in and was wonderful. I also recall a Jazzfest Berlin tribute to Kansas City jazz in which the scheduled pianist could not perform. Again, Gruntz sat in and was wonderful.
Gruntz delighted in traveling the world and being creative with musicians from other cultures. Over the decades the George Gruntz Concert Jazz Band visited numerous countries, including China and Israel. A 1998 publicity photo of the band includes saxophonist Donny McCaslin and other musicians posing in front of the ancient pyramids in Egypt.
The diversity of Gruntz’s work was quite impressive. He recorded with Bedouins in North Africa. He included a rapper and a scratcher on his 1992 album Blues ’N Dues Et Cetera. He assembled jazz, blues and gospel artists for his Chicago Cantata at the 1991 Chicago Jazz Festival. At the 1991 Montreux Jazz Festival, Quincy Jones enlisted the Gil Evans Orchestra and the George Gruntz Concert Jazz Band to perform Evans’ arrangements with Miles Davis. The concert took place a few months prior to Davis’ death, and is documented on the concert disc Miles & Quincy: Live At Montreux.
I traveled with Gruntz when he created a Turkish project with Burhan Ocal, first with the WDR Big Band, then with his own band. Gruntz somehow got everyone to swing some of the most complex rhythms I’ve ever heard. In concert, the highlight of this project was Gruntz’s arrangement of traditional Turkish love songs sung by a fellow from Izmir who earned his living hauling tobacco sacks but who sang—in microtones—so profoundly that the concert halls trembled.
Among the titles in Gruntz’s discography are Happening Now!, Merryteria and Tiger By The Tail.
The George Gruntz Concert Jazz Band and the Willem Breuker Kollektief were co-winners of the category Big Band (Talent Deserving of Wider Recognition) in the 1992 DownBeat International Critics Poll.
Another career highlight happened in 1992, when Gruntz took his band to China. He insisted that the concerts be not just for consular officials, but open to ordinary Chinese people. He brought along Chicago blues musicians Billy Branch and Carl Weathersby, and when you heard the audience reacting to jazz and blues, one got the sense that many in attendance were passionately cheering for music they were hearing for the first time.
In the cover photo for the album Beyond Another Wall: Live In China, Gruntz is dressed like an emperor and laughing heartily. It’s his laughter that I’ll remember best. George Gruntz was one of the most joyous people I’ve ever known. He loved life, and you can hear happiness resounding in all of his marvelous music.