When the 1950s opened Dave Grusin was a teenager playing in small local bands in Littleton, Colorado. Already creating new sounds and liking the feeling. By the end of the decade he was sharing the stage with an international superstar.
Although his precocious advances to the piano had been rewarded with formal instruction at an extremely young age, such regular lessons were abandoned in his teens for study of the clarinet. He hoped his struggles with the latter instrument would progress to learning the saxophone, but this dream never materialized (however, he did go on to become concert master of his school band). Nevertheless, the piano remained an important part of his life. Though not on a regular basis, he was frequently favored with special piano tutoring by a Julliard graduate on visits to New Mexico where family friends resided.
The Grusin home was a citadel of music. The memory was of a house resplendent with the best of the classics. But as far as the kind of sound he's most famous for, Dave Grusin admits, there was “not a lot of jazz around,” adding that as far as the genre was concerned, “I came to it all pretty late.”
Both parents were accomplished musicians, his father formerly a professional violinist, his mother a fine pianist. And when they were not indulging in the making of music, there were perpetually recordings to hear, and the inevitable weekend `visits' to the New York Philharmonic and opera at The Met via the radio.
With Denver only a few miles away, there was always the chance to sample live concert music as well - on a regular basis, the Denver Symphony Orchestra, and on special occasions - jazz. Included were concerts by Ella Fitzgerald, Lester Young, Ray Brown (whom he later recorded with) and Oscar Peterson among others.
Anyone who has enjoyed Dave Grusin's forays into arranging for the big band (check out "Dave Grusin Presents West Side Story") will not be surprised to learn that Stan Kenton was a definite favorite of his as this decade opened. And choice opportunities to hear such revolutionary sounds were an indulgence which the classically inclined Henri Grusin did not deny his son. Other musical influences included Woody Herman, Art Tatum, Count Basie and Andre Previn.
But to experiment on his own with other young musicians provided the most incomparable kick for the young legend-to-be. And of course, not to be forgotten was his enthrallment with the film scores of Max Steiner, Hugo Friedhofer, Alfred Newman and David Raksin.
At this point, it would have seemed that as was the case with his parents, making music would always remain an important, but extra-curricular part of his life. Intending to enroll at Colorado A & M in 1952, his first-choice subject was far from the world of music, with expectations towards a career involved with horses or livestock, such as veterinary medicine.
However, a last minute change of heart (or more specifically change of major) brought him instead to the University of Colorado at Boulder. This decision to give music a try proved a turning point which was to alter not just the course of his own life, but those of many others as well. The hand of destiny pointed, but not at the stable yard. Rather, to the sphere of entertainment.
Influenced by his parents' love of music, he decided to major in piano. His own innate talent plus the adventure of improvisation experienced with those small local combos, made it a natural choice. This might have led to a career as a concert pianist, but his reluctance to practice made that another dim possibility.
While he might joke that a performance degree qualified him for nothing more than graduate school, the reality was that the superior quality of that education was the foundation which enabled him to succeed in every branch of music he entered. Studying under Storm Bull, a grand-nephew of Grieg and student of Bartok, he developed the discipline which would be required as his career reached ever greater heights and demands.
Living off campus with other musicians, Dave Grusin played with college dance bands during the student years, but was often accused of putting too much of a jazz vibe on his music for the taste of the dancing public. He was also involved with a number of professionals in this period. This included working with the likes of Terry Gibbs, Spike Robinson and Johnny Smith, among whom his jazz sense was more than appreciated.
Most of all, the years at Boulder stood out for their encouragement of his intellectual curiosity and freedom of expression. “It afforded me a truly first-rate cultural environment in which to grow,” he has said. That willingness to extend borders and envision a world of music beyond the limits of the accepted horizon can be observed in anything which bears the indelible mark of the Grusin signature.
Here was fostered that quality referred to later by Andy Williams as “intelligent sensitivity,” so evident in Dave Grusin's most reflective playing and compositions, but equally apparent in his complex jazz pieces of an upbeat nature.
Writing music was becoming an ever greater lure. He says this caused him to get "waylaid into film interests" when he started thinking about composing. "I looked on what was going on in Hollywood as a last frontier of possibility for writing original music. It looked like it was wide open - There were tons of films being made."
He also cut some demo recordings while in college. An interesting one from this period found Dave Grusin accompanying the vocal group, the S.A.E. Quintet on “Reminisce,” a program of standards (for more info see 1950s Sideman Records ). The LP features ten tunes, and includes a Grusin solo on “All The Things You Are.”
One of the members of that quintet was classmate Bob Eaton. The latter, bent on a professional singing career, had borrowed an arrangement of “Red Red Robin” from Ray Charles, then musical director of the Perry Como Show. When the two college chums eventually made a visit to New York, they naturally stopped in to visit the leader of the famed Ray Charles Singers to say thank you, thereby leading to a job for the young Bob Eaton on the Andy Williams Show.
While one might have expected him to serve his military obligation in some musical capacity, Dave Grusin instead took to the skies as a Navy pilot. However, when off duty, he could be found performing in jazz clubs around Pensacola, Florida where he was stationed. This included breaking the color line, which was then an integral part of life in The South - a daring, adventurous thing to do in the mid-fifties, playing piano in black-designated nightspots.
Following completion of military service in 1958, he hung out at Aspen for a while, playing piano and skiing . Then he briefly pursued a career in teaching, but a semester as music instructor at a prep school in Denver convinced him he had been right about the performance degree, and he moved on to continue his studies at the Manhattan School of Music. While one might speculate that his principal interest could have been composition, with an eye to writing for films, a return to the University of Colorado as member of the faculty was a more realistic dream … or so he thought.
But there was that hand of destiny once more, and again she was pointing in another direction than the path he was taking. His friend, Bob Eaton, let it be known that Andy Williams was looking for an accompanist. Appropriately garbed in what he perceived to be the arranger's uniform, a blue suit, Dave Grusin sauntered into the audition. The thing was to look like an arranger, because as far as experience at the craft was concerned, he later admitted to having written no more than two proper arrangements at the time.
However, it didn't take more than a moment to convince Andy Williams that there could be no one else for the job. This was the man who would indeed `accompany' him on the beginning of a journey which took Williams from pop singer with a string of hits to legendary national institution for the next four decades and beyond.
Because he was good at everything he ventured to do, Dave Grusin found the position of accompanist to be a dozen jobs or more in one. However, while his professional life was flourishing, there seemed less and less time for his academic career. The result was that he left graduate school for the road, records and whatever else might turn up.
Whether it was fate, being at the right place at the right time or the natural magnetism which great talent generates, Dave Grusin was now on the highway which meant the next forty years of his musical life would be spent under bright lights with hundreds of byways to a myriad of fascinating journeys.
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