Â I guess I’m just a home town boy. I feel safe and comfortable here. I’m not a very competitive person, so I’ve never had a burning desire to go mix it up in New York or L.A. I didn’t want to go anywhere; I like it here.
On a rainy April evening, at the grand opening of Yoshida’s Fine Art Gallery in Portland’s Pearl district, Tom Grant is playing “Hometown Boy” from his new CD, “Solo Piano.” Few of the 300 guests hear him. They’re carrying small plates of food and talking. Grant’s eyes roam above the grand piano, he nods and smiles a greeting, his hands move over the keys.
The gallery opening is also a release party for the pianist/singer/composer’s nineteenth CD. With cover art by nature photographer Steve Terrill, the disc looks right at home in the gallery, as does Grant. Wearing a dark suit with no tie and a green shirt that sets off his black hair, he plays his role gracefully.
And if you listen to the music from that first solo CD — its sweet optimism, its touch of bluesy regret, its familiar American rhythms — you’d say that Grant is indeed the hometown boy of the song, a Norman Rockwell character, subtle and skilled yet cheerful, accessible but resonant. That persona has made him one of the city’s most popular performers during a career that spans 35 years.
There’s more to this homeboy, though, than the pleasant corporate entertainer. Of course the good looks and listenable sound, as well as his professionalism and social ease, have contributed to his appeal. And they also helped Grant achieve national success as a smooth jazz pioneer with recordings on the charts for a decade while he led a polished touring band.
But behind the pop singer stands a man who has worked for years to become a skilled interpreter of the Great American Songbook. Behind the racks of keyboards stands his command of the acoustic piano, both as a solo instrument and in the classic jazz combo, a role he first learned in apprenticeships with jazz legends as well as the best local players. And behind the smooth jazz radio host — Grant had a weekly show on KKJZ for two years — stands a community of musicians who line up to sit in with him at jam sessions.
Classic jazz has always been the foundation of his work, and when smooth jazz moved too far from those roots, Grant drew back to his base, stopped touring, and continued the quest that animates all serious musicians — the development of his own voice. Grant’s story is a microcosm of the multiple personalities jazz has developed in the past 50 years. And it shows how they can be integrated by staying right in your own back yard.
My mother wanted me to be a school teacher.
Grant was born on February 22, 1946, and for most of his young life, his jazz-loving father owned a record store. Al Grant’s Record Store started out on the corner of Northeast Broadway and Williams Avenue, the heart of the city’s thriving black entertainment district in the ’40s and ’50s.
“On the green windows,” Grant recalls, “in big block white letters, it said, ‘From Boogie to Bach, Beethoven to Bop.'” Soon, his older brother, Mike, became a jazz pianist, and, recalls Grant, “I tried to do everything he did.” While his beatnik brother inspired him (his father was a self-taught jazz pianist as well), Grant’s primary teacher was the late Gene Confer, mentor to many of Portland’s earlier generation of modern jazz pianists.
The path to jazz didn’t run straight, however, despite his early interest. First, his brother left music to become a member of the Hari Krishna organization, where he is today a top official. And all through college (a bachelors degree in Political Science and a masters in Education from the University of Oregon), he didn’t perform professionally. In 1968, he joined a folk rock band in L.A. but soon returned to Oregon and a teaching position in Mill City, a logging town in the Santiam Valley east of Salem.
On the weekends, though, he was driving to Portland to play with the iconoclastic Native American saxophonist Jim Pepper, one of Grant’s most important mentors.
“That was the start of things,” he recalls. “I thought Pepper was beyond cool. He was so magnetic and powerful. His look was exotic, and he could be fierce, even menacing. But when he wanted to charm, he had a deep warmth.”
Pepper had integrated Native chants into jazz, and Grant later played on the album, “Pepper’s Pow Wow,” before a falling out kept them apart until shortly before his mentor’s death in 1993.
After two years in Mill City, the dual life broke down. “It was such a nutty thing to go from this conservativeÂ logging community to Portland to be around jazz musicians,” he remembers. Finally, at the urging of Portland drummer Ron Steen, Grant moved to the city, where he played with Steen and bassist David Friesen for five years; among others, they worked with trumpet great Woody Shaw as well as Grammy-winning saxophonist Joe Henderson, with whom they toured Europe.
At that point, Grant was still learning: “It took me a long time to really tap into my inner core and have my playing be an expression of myself,” he says. “I didn’t have my own voice until long after I played with those guys.”
His greatest lessons may have come during his two years with drummer Tony Williams, the prodigy who transformed Miles Davis’ sound in the ’60s and then helped pioneer jazz-rock fusion. When Grant joined him in 1979, Williams had left Davis – with whom he recorded the seminal “In a Silent Way” — to lead his electric Lifetime units that initially included guitarist John McLaughlin. Williams fusion was as loud and blazing as rock but remained improvisational and rhythmically free.
Playing with Williams also provided Grant his greatest thrill: “The first night of my first gig with Tony Williams,” Grant recalls. “I had such a rush of emotion, (I was) sleepless the entire night.”
And leaving Williams’ band remains his greatest regret.
“I was going out on my own before I had taken full measure of the precious apprenticeship under such a huge musical spirit,” he says. “The record I made (it was Grant’s first) was called “You Hardly Know Me,”Â (but) it could just as easily have been called “I Hardly Know Myself.”
We were a real band.
Grant’s national reputation is based on a series of smooth jazz recordings he made during the 1980s and early ’90s that had long runs on New Adult Contemporary and Smooth Jazz charts. In fact, he was a smooth jazz pioneer. Even before the term existed, the pianist — on his first national hit in 1983, titled “Tom Grant” — emerged with a mix of pop and jazz unlike the fusion of Chick Corea, the funk of Herbie Hancock, or the instrumental R&B of David Sanborn and Tom Scott. In Grant’s new sound, in-the-pocket beats and pop melodies were balanced by a spontaneity in solos and execution.
He developed that music not as a purely commercial venture, though it did provide a good living, but in an attempt to recreate what he had played with Williams.
“When I started playing smooth jazz, I was trying to ape the people I admired,” he explains. “I was doing music that I thought was growing out of the Tony Williams experience, even though you wouldn’t think so . But remember,” Grant adds, “Tony tried to convince Miles to open for the Beatles in the ’60s — he was always thinking outside the box.”
So smooth jazz is what resulted when the jazz-rock fusion of Tony Williams was filtered through the sensibilities of a shy Portlander, a former high school teacher and fraternity man who was raised at his dad’s record shop.
And for a while, that was exactly what America wanted. The Tom Grant Band (the longest-running unit included Carlton Jackson on drums, Jeff Leonard on bass and Dan Balmer on guitar) crisscrossed the country, and the song he had learned from Pepper, “Witchi-tai to,” became the anthem for outdoor summer music festivals in the ’80s.
But circumstances beyond Grant’s control slowed his success.
“Bad timing has dogged me,” he explains, listing album after album that had just started to take off when the record label folded or reorganized. Two additional factors contributed as well: the market and the man.
“Smooth jazz was becoming so syndicated, that by ’94 I couldn’t even buy airplay,” he says. “I was trying to fit into a format — one I helped create, but then I was copying other people who had developed it. On most smooth jazz now, there’s not much soloing in a jazz style.
“Besides,” he adds, “I was getting to the end of my patience with being a popular bandleader doing smooth jazz. It was the same old story with every band I had — you play together long enough, and some guy will not like the other guy. So I’ve had to learn to play by myself and not rely on a lot of bombast from a band.”
I’m doing pretty much what I want to do
Grant’s return to Portland’s mainstream jazz scene over the years since he abandoned smooth jazz, along with his improving command as a singer, has helped him integrate his disparate experiences musically. But more important personally is his connection to the local community. He’s happiest at jam sessions or working with old friends, where he feels like one of the guys.
“Tom’s kind of had a charmed life,” says Steen. “He likes to have fun playing music, he’s smart and witty; he’s (also) unbelievably gracious and one of the most humble musicians I’ve ever met.”
Steen speaks for many who also respect Grant for his beautiful sound and the compelling logic of his ideas, who recognize a strong player who now speaks confidently in his own voice.
Though his smooth jazz career was hindered by bad timing (see sidebar), he left a respectable legacy, and Grant’s playing retains the sunny, spacious charms of the best of that style: the happy, believing sound of peace and prosperity. “Solo Piano” represents a synthesis of the rhythmic variety and harmonic depth he acquired from straight jazz, with the simple, open melodies of his best-selling albums.
Those melodies, and the heavily-arpeggiated spelling of chords associated with New Age or smooth jazz styles, may deter jazz enthusiasts from completely embracing that new synthesis. But “Solo Piano” represents only one of the multiple styles in which Grant feels at home. For him, the key is the sound.
“I’m getting more to the heart of the sounds I can get out of the piano that I don’t’ hear other people doing,” he explains. “I’m just trying to get my sound.”
That sound, according to Steen and others, is the pianist’s main strength, and he’s seeking it more often these days in jazz clubs, where he sings standards and plays bebop, or in duo and trio concerts, like the one he presented last month at Grant High School in Northeast Portland, where he was a member of the class of 1964.
He couldn’t get much closer to home than that, and here in his own backyard Grant has integrated the multiple personalities of contemporary jazz most completely — not by chasing the market but by simply tracing his sound back to its source.
Sidebar — Highlights of Recording Career
Tom Grant (1983)
“My greatest accomplishment — a fresh look and sound that stood apart from what was coming out of the music business machine at that time. And it was recorded pretty much live in the studio — minimal overdubs, compared to (how I worked) later. It stayed around on the charts for months.”
Mango Tango (1988)
“This was climbing right up there and it was going to sell a ton, but then the record company went out of business. It made it possible for me to get my deal with Verve/Polygram, though . A lot of the vocals I did were written by Dan Balmer; they were the ones that got the most airplay. He had some tunes that probably would have been big hits if they’d been sung by Peabo Bryson or Freddie Jackson. People loved ‘If You Were My Girl.'”
Tune It In (2000)
“Phil Baker and I co-produced this one. (Grant had a #1 song with Baker’s ‘Love and Desire.’) In many ways my best smooth jazz record, and it would have done very well except that Windham Hill was gutted right after it came out, and my record got lost in the corporate reshuffle.”
“A greatest hits record I put out because Polygram owns all my other recordings. These were the songs people requested the most.”
Solo Piano (2003)
“I’m getting more to the heart of the sounds I can get out of the piano. A lot of the tunes are using tenth (chords) in the left hand as the foundation for the song … Rhythm is always a big part of things. It’s how I learned how to play. My father was a tap dancer. My first instrument was drums.”