Through the years jazz has come to mean different things to different people, branching and rejoining itself in a myriad of styles. Here is one jazz performer defining and redefining what jazz means today.
A San Jose native, who later moved to the Los Angeles area, Geissman grew up on the sounds of the Beatles, Eric Clapton, surf guitar music and later jazz/blues greats B.B. King and Kenny Burrell. Geissman was a senior at Cal State Northridge when he was recommended by a mutual friend for a gig with Chuck Mangione. Although Geissman has many achievements as a composer, recording artist and session player for TV and film and despite his launching a jazz career with five years touring with the flugelhorn legend, it's still "The Solo" which has given the guitarist his greatest notoriety.
Geissman has collaborated with Quincy Jones (Q's Jook Joint), Paula Abdul, David Benoit, Julio Iglesias, John Tesh, Keiko Matsui and Sheila E to name a few.
JazzReview.com: What were your earliest experience and your introduction to music?
Grant Geissman: My first cognitive memory of how cool the guitar was when I was a little kid in elementary school. There were some kids who were a few years older than I. They had a surf music band and they would play the Ventures and other kinds of surf music. They were over the mountains from Santa Cruz, which was a big surf spot. I use to go watch these guys play music and I'd say how cool these guys were . But I didn't think about getting a guitar, not quite yet. Until I heard the Beatles and I said, "that's it".
That was such an incredible era anyway, because for you to have a Beatles album and something by Aretha Franklin, and you'd have The four tops, and Cream. The top 40 radio was all jumbled up with this amazing music.
It was a great time to be a little kid and trying to figure out what they were doing. There were so many different styles out there and they were all good, and all you had to do was pop on your radio and hear what would be coming out. Because of that I developed an eclectic kind of style. I pulled from a lot of influences.
JazzReview.com: Who would you say were some of your influences ?
Grant Geissman: Apart from the ones I mentioned --- When I went to college I use to play in the jazz ensembles in school. I would organize small groups and we would play Charlie Parker tunes and Coltrane and whatever. I use to listen to records by Wes Montgomery and Jimmy Smith and guitar records like that of B.B. King. Really all kinds of music as well as pop stuff.
JazzReview.com: Do you recall a specific time when you decided you actually wanted to make a career in music?
Grant Geissman: I'll tell you the experience, I remember it distinctly. It actually wasn't anything to do with anything musically. I was in the 8th or 9th grade and they were having a career day at school where you have to figure what you want to do And so I came home and said to my mom, They are having a career day and I don't have the slightest idea what I want to do. And she said, to me "Don't you like to play the guitar?" I said, yes and she said, Why don't you just do that... I couldn't believe it, I said, I could actually do that, she said to me you can play at a club, you can be a music teacher, whatever way you want to go but yes, you can make a career out of music. I said that's it- and that's all I've ever wanted to do from then on. That was really cool because so many of my friends' parents hated their music and they moved. In my case my parents encouraged me and said if that's what you love, you do it.
JazzReview.com: Were your parents musicians?
Grant Geissman: No my parents weren't but my grandparents were hobbyists. My grandmother played a ragtime piano and my grandfather love to pick around on this banjo that he had. So there was definitely music in the family but no one really did it professionally . It was something my family loved . We use to go to my grandmothers' on Sunday and she would make a big dinner and inevitably after dinner we would get out the guitar and banjo and sit around and play these songs.. A little bit older songs like "Bye Bye Blackbird'. And it was a great family thing that would happen. So yes, it was kind of a musical family but I'm the only one who became professional.
JazzReview.com: What's the process you go through when you are composing music?
Grant Geissman: Sometimes its as simple as dreaming a song literally and those are the easy ones like the tune I did "Did I Save" on my newest album. I swear to you I woke up with that song literally in my head, you know when you're half awoke .and you say I have to wake up and remember this. I literally got up and wrote the song down on a scrap of music paper without the guitar. It was that burned into my head. There've been a couple of tunes like that, that come to me. I called them "Free Ones". That was a free one. Apart from that it's just sitting down. You try to get an idea and you just keep hammering away at it until it sounds good to you. It's like the old saying, writing a song its 10% inspiration 90% perspiration (laughter). But once a while you get lucky and they just pop right out. Those are the kinds that are special.
JazzReview.com: The track "Did I Save" you know that's everyone's nightmare. Did I save it when your computer crashes?
Grant Geissman: It has that sort of bluesy kind of feel -but more of an modern approach. So I thought the older blues guy would write tunes about "I'm broke and I lost my woman" but this is modern blues ..this is the stuff that goes through your head when your computer crashes
JazzReview.com: Which is dangerous.
Grant Geissman: exactly ...Did I save ...Did I save (laughter)
JazzReview.com: In the tune "In with the Out Crowd" you pay homage to the great mid-60s particularly Ramsey Lewis's classic "In Crowd". What prompt you to explore the timeline of the 60s and 70s?
Grant Geissman: Part of it was just a great time like the top 40s radio -if you have a tune like the " In Crowd " instrumental hit alongside all this other stuff. It's just such a happy kind of fun party kind of record. It sounds like it was recorded in a night club, it may have been. You could hear the people in the background, everyone's yelling and whatever. This is fun and I was trying to recapture some of that feeling.
JazzReview.com: That fun feeling was recaptured!
Grant Geissman: Thanks, but that's what it a fun time it was to hear this music.
JazzReview.com: What's your favorite part of what you do? Is it composing, recording or performing?
Grant Geissman: I guess I like composing music and I like recording it to hear how it comes out. I do like performing . But I would have to say the most fun part is writing and the recording of it. Having this idea and going in and seeing it realized. That's probably the most satisfying to me.
JazzReview.com: Being a musician requires you to be on the road a lot and also makes for a complex schedule . Has this presented a lot of problems in terms of trying to balance family with career?
Grant Geissman: Yes, it causes problems and truthfully my balance now is not so much time on the road and more time at home which is really the way I want it. Because of family stuff which is so important, as I said earlier I do a lot of session work around Los Angeles, and if' you're gone too much that's it . The ranks close in behind you...your slot has been taken by someone else. So I do spend sometime on the road .In fact the last couple of years I have been doing a few gigs here and there with Chuck Mangione (my old boss) It's a lot of fun because it's not a lot of time out, it's weekends or a week here or a week there . Its been great. In a way I think that it's balance just a few fun things out of town and the rest I'll work at home.
JazzReview.com: You've worked with Chuck Mangione on many occasions and I've read where he's dubbed you as General Grant
Grant Geissman: He likes to give people nicknames and that was mine.
JazzReview.com: What is it like working with Chuck Mangione?
Grant Geissman: Its' great Chuck is one of those guys to his credit, that really lets you do what you do. He might say play a little less or have some suggestion here or there but basically you are there because he likes what you do, and that's what he wants you to do. And he wants you to be yourself and that's important and really that's the secret of being a successful bandleader. Because what's the point of just getting people that you just dictate everything to? That's not really bringing their own vision to the table. Chuck definitely has that going for him and that's all important.
JazzReview.com: A lot of people don't like naming names but I wondered if you could tell me some of the most memorable gigs you've ever had...
Grant Geissman: A few stand out when I was on the road with Chuck in the late 70s. We would be gone 3 weeks out of 4. Other times we would be in the city .You would see the airport and hotel and the gig and that's it. You wouldn't have any memories of this place. But the stuff that stands out in my head with Chuck was the time we did the Hollywood Bowl, which was completely sold out. It was 18,000 people and it was just an incredible experience. To sell out something like that was pretty major. Around the same time or not long after we did an European tour and played with the London Palladium . Places like that stand out. We did some great things in New York too with Chuck. I remember they had a Dr. Pepper jazz festival in Central Park ..I don't know how many but thousands and thousands of people were there, but it ended up pouring rain. But no one left and they had umbrellas and rain coats and in the middle of this down pour ..The gig goes on..
JazzReview.com: That's New York.
Grant Geissman: It's amazing.
JazzReview.com: Since the turn of the century jazz has gone through many eras, many things, from bebop to free jazz. Do you feel there's a new era on the horizon?
Grant Geissman: There's always a new era on the horizon but the point is jazz and even music in general always evolves. So its started out as Dixie land in a way, it really started out as blues then it developed into Dixieland and then swing and bebop. It's always a new generation that bring their own new stand to it. So yes, there's always something new on the horizon and the trick is to keep your ears open and check out what's out there. You read these stories about when Dizzie Gillespie and Charlie Parker came on the scene. To the older swing musicians they didn't understand what they were doing. It seemed random but of course it wasn't, it was structured . But it was so out of the blue to them that they couldn't relate. The trick is you have to keep growing with whatever developments are out there, so you can relate and continue to be viable as a musician. And it is a trick sometimes.
JazzReview.com: Do you think there's a strong resurgence in the popularity of jazz?
Grant Geissman: I think its never really gone away truthfully . Thankfully there's a lot stations now that are playing jazz type of music and even pop jazz kind of music. But the truth is it never really went anywhere, its always been there and I think it will always be there.
JazzReview.com: What are some of your goals for the future?
Grant Geissman: I would like to do more albums, of course. And hopefully they will be getting played like this one is doing which is great. And I'd like to get myself into the writing side, maybe some TV shows and films or do some composing for that type of thing. I think that's my next big long term major goal.
JazzReview.com: Are there any specific person that you would cite as your greatest musical heroes and inspiration?
Grant Geissman: I don't think there is any one specifically, there's so many from Coltrane to Charlie Parker, clearly innovators. There's a lot people I've been influence by but there really isn't any one major hero.
JazzReview.com: Is there any person that's has been a major influence on the guitar?
Grant Geissman: So many from Eric Clapton, I've always enjoyed Pat Metheny's work. There's so many people. But there's isn't any one person who I follow that's my guru and again it has to do with my eclectic influences. There's so many different kinds of music I like to draw upon. There's no one major person or style that I'm drawn to only.
JazzReview.com: What inspires you typically to write a tune? I know we've touched upon it earlier, but maybe you can elaborate on it further......Is it how you're feeling or is it a particular person or a combination of things? What do you think about when you write a song?
Grant Geissman: I hate to say it but some of it has to do with deadlines. Because when its time to make an album you may need a couple more songs,(laughter) that can be a pretty good incentive .Sometimes you dream them or you get an idea that pops into your head, and you say yes that's it! But sometimes it's a matter of getting down and bashing it out and it's really no magic, it's just sit down and make your self do the work. So you need an outside incentive like someone yelling at you about your deadline. But apart from that you're messing around on your guitar and you'll get a little idea and say that's cool. It's like putting a jigsaw puzzle together and at the end you have a song and hopefully it's a good one.
JazzReview.com: Is there a certain thing you search for musically?
Grant Geissman: I guess it's the feeling, the overall kind of mood, you try to make some kind of mood and not break the spell as you go along.
JazzReview.com: You've done a lot of work in TV. How do you compose work for TV? Do you look at the topic or subject of the show?
Grant Geissman: Usually if you're specially doing music for a show. They have told you where they want the music to be and so it becomes very technical in a way because they'll say the cue is 30 seconds long and then you'll have to go from a-b in 30 seconds. It becomes a technical exercise as well as a creative exercise .So it's a matter of mood again but must fit each parameter.
JazzReview.com: Tell me about the collection of Mad magazine you have?
Grant Geissman: It's kind of a hobby I've had since I was a kid. About 10-12 years ago .I decided to go back and find this really rare stuff I never had as a kid and it became a really fun hobby. I started putting ads in antique papers and collectibles publications and amassed this really big collection. Then It occurred to me I could probably write a book about this stuff. So I actually wrote a letter to propose the idea to a guy named William M. Gaines, who is the publisher of Mad magazine. He subsequently wrote back and said yes, it's a good idea and I think you should do it. So I was stuck. I had to write it. It took me about 4 years from the time I proposed it to when it was released. The book is called "Collectably Mad". It was published by a company called Kitchen Sink Press . They do a lot of comic reprints. The book is out of print now but I'm thinking about doing an updated edition . But it did quite well .And became a side thing that started out as a hobby.
JazzReview.com: How many do you have in your collection?
Grant Geissman: I have every issue there is. In terms of issues it's not as many as you may think . They're up to 350 issues plus annuals and paper backs. The stuff I was really interested in, is that they make jewelry with Alfred Newman's face on it. They make T shirts, buttons, statues of him and all that crazy kind of stuff. It's just a fun little hobby and gets me out of a music head into a different kind of head. Many times people have hobbies collecting stamps and coins, My hobby is collecting Mad magazines. So what are you going to do (laughter)
JazzReview.com: I remember as a child reading Mad magazine.. I loved to read them.
Grant Geissman: They're crazy and from them you get: Never trust anything you hear and take everything with a grain of salt. The what me worry attitude ..Now the whole culture has that attitude. They were there first and I think it has something to do with the way things are today. It's a little more cynical, like Don't trust the politicians and you find that turns out to be absolutely right... It's a healthy view point.
JazzReview.com: What advice would you give some one wanting to make a career out of music?
Grant Geissman: Learn as much as you possibly can. Try to put yourself in as many playing situations so you're very well rounded. That's the way I did it. There are certain people who play one style and they're phenomenally successful but the way I did it was to absorb myself in all kinds of different music so I'll have the ability to do more than one thing. And then played with as many different people as I possibly could . Organize a few jam sessions and just keep practicing and working out, experimenting and never let go of your dream basically. That's what worked for me.
JazzReview.com: You've traveled all over the world playing music. Can you tell me some of the differences you've notice in the fans in different parts of this country or the world, and where are some of your favorite places to play?
Grant Geissman: That's' a little tough. Audiences are a little different, I haven't been everywhere I've been to Europe and Japan and places like that. Japanese audiences are the strangest to play for if you're American. Here, if you're playing the blues everyone is jumping up screaming. There, they will wait until after the song is over and then they'll applaud but they won't stand up and scream. It's not their culture. They don't want to disturb the people around you. They have more respect for the music than that. They want to listen and enjoy when it's over they will react . But it's a little different at first experience . Do they like it or what and they do but it's a different way of approaching it.
JazzReview.com: Were you trained in Classical music?
Grant Geissman: Not until I got to college and studied classical guitar. I studied guitar but it was more pop and jazz. When I finally got to college I had to buckle down and learn a little more about classical.
JazzReview.com: Do you think more records companies are putting more money behind the marketing of jazz records now and allowing the artistic freedom that the musicians need?
Grant Geissman: There are a lot of labels out there and getting into the market place and getting on the radio .plus plenty of places you can go to if that's the kind of music you want to make that you're drawn to. But I keep saying it's not a new phenomenon. This music has always been there in one form or another. There's always been labels wanting to release jazz and that'll continue.
JazzReview.com: Do you have any thoughts for the new musicians? What would you tell them?
Grant Geissman: I don't know particularly .If it's working for you keep doing it. I don't necessary impose what worked for me on other people . The only thing I can say is the way I did it. And that's not to say that the way I did it would work for other people. But basically it's whatever type of music you love or whatever type of instrument you love and are drawn to or whatever your form of expression is, if that's your dream it's what you really have to do .Then go for it! Do everything you can so it doesn't get stifled or lost because so many people are unhappy in their jobs. Music is a gift and if you're blessed with that gift, you have to pass it along and express it. That's really all I can say about it.
JazzReview.com: How long does it take to actually record and complete an album?
Grant Geissman: As for recording I've done it in as little as a couple of days. But the writing takes a little longer. Actually the new album "IN with the Out Crowd" I really didn't have a deadline I just did it on my own little by little. I got together with different co-writers and people with their own studios like mine. So, that record evolved little by little over a couple of years. And it's the only record I've ever done that way . I took my time and did it real slow and it was a great record to make for that reason .It was really no pressure I liked it. So lets do it.
JazzReview.com: The track "Sweet as UR" is a beautiful romantic statement.
Grant Geissman: I wrote the tune myself. Tim Heintz plays the keyboard synthesizer. The interesting thing about "Sweet as UR" (you won't believe it) is that I wrote this tune about 20 years ago. That's why I say this music has been around and will continue to be around. We use to play it around little jazz clubs around LA. I wrote this tune when I originally played with Mangione but it was never recorded. I never forgot it. It became time to get it out there. That's' why I say this music has longevity, it's not like a new phenomenon . When you can write a piece 20 years ago and have it sit in the closet and bring it out and have people still respond to it, that tells you it's not leaving and not going anywhere. The roots of it go way back. So this whole contemporary jazz movement is not going anywhere and definitely going to be around.