It’s a cool, but comfortable spring Tuesday evening in the Old Fourth Ward. Cars come and go, finding parking along the streets or in the modest parking lots along Ralph McGill Boulevard. One building, formerly the NuGrape Soda Factory, is bustling with activity as people pile through the front door and into the warm glow that is now Venkman’s. Guests talk animatedly amongst themselves, sipping cocktails and eating their dinners as the musicians – pianist, bassist, drummer and trumpeter – mill about on stage getting their instruments tuned and set up.
Joe Gransden’s Jazz Jam is about to begin.
Gransden is a transplant from New York who has carved out a niche for himself in the city’s jazz repertoire. “I knew at 10 years old that I was going to be a jazz trumpeter for the rest of my life,” Gransden said, and he’s made good on his promise and built a sizeable fanbase both locally and around the world.
Growing up in an artistically charged household, Gransden benefited from a father who was a jazz pianist and singer, his mother who was a theatrical choreographer, and his grandfather before them who was a big band trumpet player. One afternoon, after returning from school, he found his dad had left a record, Chet Baker’s “Diane,” on his record player and Gransden was instantly hooked on jazz.
In his youth, Gransden gravitated mostly towards music by artists such as Kenny Dorham, Frank Sinatra, Miles Davis and Chet Baker. After graduating from high school, he attended the State University of New York at Fredonia where he pursued a degree in jazz trumpet, but ultimately dropped out after two years to tour worldwide with the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra for a year. Eventually Gransden’s family relocated to Atlanta and he followed along, enrolling at Georgia State University where he attained a Bachelor’s degree in Jazz Studies.
“I have lived in a few different places, but Atlanta tends to be the most friendly for musicians,” Gransden said, noting the sense of friendship and camaraderie, with everyone pulling for one another and socializing together outside of their performances. “I owe a lot to the Atlanta jazz scene. It’s a very strong circuit here.”
In his 20s, Gransden’s career began to seriously take off, and he established regular gigs playing at venues in the city as well as touring with ensembles and booking independent musical acts. One of those regular gigs was Churchill Grounds, the jazz club once located in the Fox Theatre (recently transformed into The Marquee Club).
“When I first met Joe, he was a young man who was really beginning to delve into jazz music,” said Sam Yi, owner of the now-closed Churchill Grounds. “He was a really good musician to begin with, a really good trumpet player.”
Throughout the two decades that Churchill Grounds was open in Midtown, Yi saw many talented musicians come through its doors. “A lot of times we would do seven straight nights of live music,” said Yi. Musicians from far and wide, local, national, and international alike graced the stage at Churchill Grounds, with big names such as Wynton Marsalis, Junior Mance, and Harry Connick Jr. stopping in throughout the years. “We even had Lady Gaga in our last year come in and sing with a band – it was pretty cool,” Yi recalled.
A steadfast relationship and friendship formed between the young and ambitious Gransden and Yi.
“Sam Yi’s Churchill Grounds is really where I learned how to play jazz,” said Gransden. “I learned how to be on a bandstand, how to be a leader, how to work a crowd, and how to be a businessman. I owe a lot of my career to Sam and him taking a chance on me early on.”
Yi hopes to reopen Churchill Grounds in the future and is currently looking for the perfect spot. Gransden will, no doubt, grace the stage when the club evenutally reopens.
Meanwhile, you can find Gransden and his house band on Tuesday evenings at Venkman’s beginning around 8 p.m. The weekly jam session is open to participants who can take the stage to jam or sing along with the band. On the first and third Mondays, Gransden has a standing gig with his 16-piece ensemble at Cafe 290 in Sandy Springs. On Wednesday nights, he performs at Valenza Italian Restaurant in Brookhaven alongside Kenny Banks Sr. on piano.
To keep up with Gransden’s performances and purchase his albums, visit joegransden.com.