Jerry Granelli, drummer with the Vince Guaraldi Trio, dies at 80

Jerry Granelli, the American-born Canadian jazz drummer best known for playing with the Vince Guaraldi Trio on the beloved soundtrack to A Charlie Brown Christmas, has died. He was 80.

Throughout a career spanning more than 60 years, the highly regarded musician recorded more than 30 albums and performed alongside the likes of Charlie Haden, Mose Allison, Sonny Stitt, Sly Stone and Ornette Coleman.

Granelli’s work has been recognized by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the National Library of Congress Sound Archives, the Grammy Awards, the Junos and the ECMAs.

Granelli died Tuesday morning at his home in Halifax, according to a post on his Facebook page.

Born in San Francisco on Dec. 30, 1940, Jerry Granelli was introduced to the city’s rich jazz scene when he was still a youngster. He started gigging on the city’s hard-bop circuit in the early ’60s at the age of 17, and he got his first big break at 21 when he went on the road with the Johnny Hamlin Quartet and landed a spot with the Vince Guaraldi Trio upon his return.

It was with the Vince Guaraldi Trio that Granelli recorded many of the scores for Charlie Brown television specials, including the classic A Charlie Brown Christmas, an internationally beloved jazz treasure that includes the instantly recognizable theme Linus and Lucy. Due to “carelessness” on the part of Fantasy Records, Granelli never received royalties from the TV special or its triple-platinum-selling soundtrack — but he still looked back on it fondly. “It’s become one of the soundtracks of people’s lives,” Granelli said in a 2019 interview. “There is such a human quality to it.”

In 1964, Granelli left the band and joined the Denny Zeitlen Trio with Charlie Haden, while also gigging with Carmen McRae, Jimmy Witherspoon, Lou Rawls and Mose Allison. As a session musician, he played on We Five’s You Were on My Mind, which soared to No. 3 on the Billboard singles chart in August of 1965 and won a Grammy Award.

Granelli continued to record and perform with a variety of jazz luminaries throughout the decades, recording almost an album a year since the mid-’80s. His latest album, last year’s The Jerry Granelli Trio Plays Vince and Mose, paid tribute to two of his mentors.

Granelli moved to Halifax in the ’90s and became a Canadian citizen in 1999. He was known as a supportive community leader and mentor. He was instrumental in the establishment of the Halifax Jazz Festival and was the co-founder and creative director of the festival’s Creative Music Workshop, an intensive summer education program.

In December, Granelli had suffered a nearly fatal case of internal bleeding and was hospitalized for more than two months. However, he eventually recovered and was able to return home. Just two days before his death, he had given a workshop as part of this year’s Halifax Jazz Festival.

“One reason why people like improvised music is that it’s a direct reflection of life, not something we thought up,” Granelli once said. “It scares you, makes you think you’re going to die for a moment. Do you have the courage to play?”