Thursday, May 8, 2014

A different kind of Groundhog's Day

Posted By on Thu, May 8, 2014 at 2:35 AM

Errol Grandys star in front of Madame Walker Theater.
  • Errol Grandy's star in front of Madame Walker Theater.

Exactly 30 years ago this week, Indy mayor Bill Hudnut proclaimed May 6 Groundhog's Day in our city. Hudnut's gesture wasn't directed toward Punxsutawney's famous four-legged marmot. Rather, the distinction was intended to pay honor to pianist Erroll "Groundhog" Grandy, one of Indy's most historically significant musicians.

I understand if Erroll Grandy's name doesn't ring familiar to most readers. Grandy's fame has never come close to equaling his importance in jazz, and, sadly, his legacy remains virtually unknown outside the world of music historians.

In many ways 1984's "Grandy Day" proclamation was an attempt to set that discrepancy straight. The occasion also served as a fundraiser for the ailing musician. 

"Erroll plays with his right hand because a nerve disorder keeps him from using his left," jazz authority and veteran radio host Ralph Adams told the Indianapolis Recorder in a period article previewing the 1984 "Grandy Day" event. "He is almost blind, and all his relatives are gone. He lives in a small apartment in the 2500 block of Boulevard Avenue. He is flat broke and virtually forgotten,"

A later Recorder review of the concert noted that it took the assistance of two men to usher the frail 63-year-old Grandy on stage, but once there, Grandy played a six-hour set before taking off for a late night gig at an Eastside jazz club. Such was Grandy's passion for his art.

Some of the greatest names in Indianapolis jazz were on hand for that 1984 celebration: the Hampton Sisters, Jimmy Coe, Everett Greene, James Bell of the Highlighters and Paul Weeden were just a sampling of the musicians who paid tribute to Grandy during the eight-hour marathon concert. Musicians were eager to give back to the pianist who had given so much of himself to the Indianapolis arts community.

Despite touring the country with the Jimmy Coe band, Grandy never found national fame for his prodigious piano chops. But he did earn a reputation as one of the top club musicians during the prime years of Indianapolis jazz, frequently backing big name stars like Billie Holliday, Dinah Washington and Lionel Hampton as they toured through the Midwest. 

Today, Grandy is remembered by jazz-connoisseurs for mentoring some of the genre's greats, a role that's prompted some to label Grandy as the "Godfather of Indianapolis jazz." Wes Montgomery, Alonzo "Pookie" Johnson, Slide Hampton, J.J. Johnson, Leroy Vinegar and Freddie Hubbard are just a few of the legends who studied under Grandy's tutelage. 

"He's the one who taught Wes and the rest of those giants all of those chord changes and all the things that go with composing," drummer "Killer" Ray Appleton told Jazz Times magazine in a 2013 interview. 

"If you consider Indiana Avenue as the Black Jazz Conservatory of Music, then Groundhog was the dean," drummer Willis Kirk told David Williams, author of the recently published Indianapolis Jazz.

While the 1984 Grandy Day celebration may have failed to lift the pianist's name outside the margins of jazz history, it did at least establish the Indianapolis jazz community's appreciation for Grandy. "We love Erroll and if he doesn't know that already, he damn sure will now," Ralph Adams told the Recorder, before the big day. It was also a sort of last waltz for Grandy, who would retire from public performance the following year. Grandy passed away in 1991.

As we look back at Grandy on the 30th anniversary of Indy's Groundhog's Day, it's rather tragic to note that no commercial recordings of Grandy's work have ever been issued. But Grandy's relentless artistic spirit lives on in the work of his famed proteges and jazz fans around the world will remember Grandy as a musician who overcame physical disabilities and the racism of Jim Crow-era America to inspire the greatest generation of creative artists Indiana has ever produced.

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