Ringing the Luminator

Does the name George Gruntz ring a bell? In case not, or if it is just a distant sound, I believe it is about time to change this. Here is why:

  • George Gruntz played in 1958 at the Newport Jazz Festival as part of the Newport International Band and was on stage together with Louis Armstrong.
  • As a piano player, he was on tour with Dexter Gordon, Roland Kirk, Donald Byrd, Lee Konitz, Chet Baker, Johnny Griffin, Gerry Mulligan and Art Farmer.
  • With his own big band, he was the only European to rank top positions in the critics poll of Down Beat more than ten times in a row.
  • His music has an extremely ample scope and is a lot of fun to listen to.
  • He is likely the most important Swiss Jazz musician (ok, not so important for non-Swiss).
  • If you still don’t believe me, read the Down Beat tribute to him

No worries, I will not recite his biography here. If you are interested in an overview, go to Wikipedia. If you are interested in all the details, and speak German, buy his autobiography Als weisser Neger geboren.

Instead, with the examples below I hope to be able to demonstrate what amazing musician George Gruntz was. Which should be more fun than reading a dry bio.

To put his work into perspective, please let me elaborate briefly what the musical environment was like, when Gruntz was about to launch his career.
In the early fifties of the last century, he turned twenty then, the golden era of Swiss Amateur Jazz was about to start. There was a large number of Jazz orchestras active but they operated pretty much all on a non-professional basis. The Zurich Amateur Jazz Festival, which was celebrated the first time around 1950, was a key element in the development of Jazz in Switzerland, provided a platform for these bands and was a stepping stone for some to a professional career.

On the other hand, there was hardly any Jazz education available and therefore people learned to play Jazz by listening to records from the stars. Who could afford it travelled to Paris, Europe’s Jazz epicentre at that time. George Gruntz drove several times there on a Friday evening to see Bud Powell playing!

Given the non-professional status and the lack of education, it does not come as a surprise that the majority of Swiss orchestras and musicians of that era were following the trends and idols from the US – Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker and obviously Miles Davis.
But there were a few which developed their own style. One which clearly stuck out was George Gruntz, who could count on a classical music education. After winning prizes at the Zurich Amateur Jazz Festival in 1954, 55 and 57 his career took off, he started touring the world and was able to live off his music.

Gruntz was a pioneer in the early Ethno / World music
He was born and raised in Basel, a city very proud of its carnival which involves piccolo and drum music.

In 1966, Gruntz brought drummer from two Basel Guggemusigen (carnival bands) and Jazz musicians together in a project called Drums and Folklore: From Sticksland with Love. 

The concert happened in the Stadttheater in Basel. Involved in this very percussive experiment were, besides the two Swiss carnival-bands, George Gruntz – piano, Nathan Davis – sax, Franco Ambrosetti – trumpet, Jimmy Woode – bass and the four drummers Charly Antolini, Pierre Favre, Daniel Humair and Mani Neumeier.

Around the same time, during vacations in Tunisia, Gruntz listened to the local music from the bedouins. He immediately recognized the similarity of their music and modal Jazz, which inspired him to a initiate a collaboration and the result was Noon in Tunisia.

Gruntz brings together Jazz and Classical music

As mentioned above, George Gruntz had gone through a classical music education at the Zurich conservatory. And although he was attracted to Jazz in young years already, he did not lose his ties to classical music. It was very natural for him to bring the two genres together, for example in the Jazz goes Baroque recordings.

But also to write a Jazz opera was part of Gruntz’ ambitions. In 1982, parts of Money: a Jazz opera, which he had written together with poet Amiri Baraka, were played in NYC. Together with poet Allen Ginsberg he later wrote Cosmopolitan Greetings and finally in 2003 it was time for The Magic of Flute.

Gruntz put six piano player together on stage
1974 George Gruntz brought the Piano Conclave to live. Out of a changing pool of ten leading European pianists, he would bring six to the concerts. Amongst the ones who contributed to the piano conclave one finds the likes of Wolfgang Dauner, Jasper van’t Hof, Joachim Kühn, Adam Makowicz, Fritz Pauer, Martial Solal or Gordon Beck. And obviously George Gruntz himself.

They used various keyboard instruments from harpsichord to synthesizer and worked with a rhythm section.

And Gruntz is a great piano player
Although Gruntz played the piano together with the greatest Jazz musicians and also in his own band, it often gets overlooked what brilliant piano player he was. He did not release a lot of piano solo records, but on Ringing the Luminator he is in great shape.

His most important project however was The George Gruntz Concert Jazz Band
As you can hopefully appreciate from the above, George Gruntz was up to very different and challenging things. But amongst the myriad of projects he was engaged in, the George Gruntz Concert Jazz Band, or CJB, was certainly the most famous one and the one he spent most energy in. Founded in 1972, initially under the name The Band, by father and son Ambrosetti, as well as Humair and Gruntz, it was renamed the CJB in 78, when Gruntz took over the group.

It became a successful and stylistically broad outfit that produced more than 20 records and toured the world, including places like China (in 1992 already), Russia and Egypt. CJB was a mainstay at European Jazz festivals and sometimes American ones.

Many see Gruntz’ way of leading the band as very similar to what Duke Ellington had been doing some fifty years earlier. Both were a very inclusive leader and wrote, respectively arranged, music specifically for the individual members of their band. Gruntz generally would write at least two featured spots per gig for all his soloists on the band’s tours, gave them generous solo time and frequently featured band-members’ original compositions.

The music played by the CJB reflected much of the Jazz history, from Ellington and Basie through Evans and beyond, into free improvisation, funk, electronics and, on the 1992 record Blues ’N Dues Et Cetera vinyl-scratching D.J.’s.

The CJB was playing with Miles Davis during his farewell concert at the Montreux Jazz Festival in 1991.

Thanks for reading all the way to here! Hopefully, I have been able to convince you that George Gruntz was an outstanding Jazz musician.

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