Joe Gransden leads a Johnny Mercer tribute with three “new” Mercer songs

Joe Gransden has been a key part of annual Johnny Mercer tributes since 2010. But Saturday’s Mercer concert at the Rialto Center for the Arts is special; “I’ll be singing Johnny Mercer songs no one else has ever performed,” says the Atlanta trumpeter and singer.

Gransden will lead the Georgia State University Jazz Band in tribute to the Savannah-born Mercer. It features three new songs unearthed in the Mercer archives at Georgia State, with music provided by jazz pianist Louis Heriveaux.

It’s the kind of gig you’d expect Gransden to direct. He’s been playing Atlanta with jazz, from trios to big bands, since he moved here in 1991.

“I was on tour with the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra, but wanted to finish college,” says Gransden. “My parents had moved here from Buffalo and I decided to come here and enroll for my final two years at Georgia State University.”

Saturday’s tribute to Johnny Mercer will feature vocalist Robin Latimore.

The next decade was something of a tug of war between Atlanta and New York City. Gransden, who was born just north of the city, returned there after graduating to work as a freelance trumpeter. Then he came back to “a more family-friendly” Atlanta, which also proved work-friendly. His trio that included double-bassist Neal Starkey worked virtually every night, and a weekly brunch, through the mid ’90s. Then it was back to New York for one more stint in the late ’90s that ended in 2001 with the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center.

“I had to make a decision about where to plant my roots,” says Gransden.

Perhaps it was Charissa, whom he met and married here, who settled him for good. But it was also that torrent of work that Atlanta was providing, near-nightly club gigs and more — parties, weddings, socials. His quartet and quintet were working 200-plus gigs a year.

“Still I wanted to do something different,” he says, which was to share his passion for those early 20th-century standards we know as the Great American Songbook. “I thought there was room in Atlanta for a big band.”

Enter Wes Funderburk, trombonist and arranger. Together they wrote arrangements and created a sound, big and jazz-infused. It attracted many of Atlanta’s best players, and standing-room-only audiences for Big Band Mondays at Johnny Scatena’s Café 290 in Sandy Springs.

“We were constantly adding new arrangements to the books and new players,” says Gransden. “We had a huge base of musicians and even recorded live there.” The Café 290 performances led to more work, a score of engagements for holiday parties, corporate events and an assortment of other private functions.

“It was a dream come true,” Gransden said. And it lasted 11 years, until Covid-19 took down Cafe 290 and pretty much shut down live music in Atlanta and everywhere else.

The early 2000s had already been tough on jazz in Atlanta, including the club every jazz musician wanted to play, Churchill Grounds, which closed in 2016.

“I’m so grateful to Sam Yi and Chris Dean (Churchill Grounds owners),” says Gransden. “They brought in the best jazz had to offer, some of the best jazz musicians in the world. Those nights were not only inspiring, but had a huge impact on my ability to play.”

Joe GransdenJoe Gransden
Gransden and his celebrated big band

Gransden and his Georgia State associates, including Funderburk — who like many of Atlanta’s most accomplished jazz musicians, teaches at the university’s School of Music — have been producing Johnny Mercer tributes since 2010. Each has featured a special guest vocalist, the likes of Carmen Bradford. , Francine Reed, Maria Howell, Kathleen Bertrand, Tierney Sutton and Atlanta’s beloved Theresa Hightower.

Saturday, the special guest will be Robin Latimore and the music will include three new, yes new, Mercer songs. The songs come from manuscripts of hand-scribed and unpublished lyrics from the GSU Mercer archives for which jazz pianist Louis Heriveaux has created song titles and melodies and scored the night’s arrangements. For Heriveaux, it’s like he and Mercer “are collaborating in different decades or even different centuries.”

One of the joys of being a jazz musician in Atlanta has been the weekly jam sessions that have popped up over the years. Gransden frequently led the Tuesday night sessions at Venkman’s, another Covid victim. But as music venues have re-emerged — Gransden’s gig schedule is once again full — so have the jams, and Gransden’s new home will be Mondays at Napoleon’s Grill in Decatur.

“It’s a great location,” he says. “A great stage, and a wonderful sound man and sound system. As a young trumpet player in New York, I went to jam sessions that were very cut-throat. I promised myself that if I ever hosted my own sessions, they would be friendly. This music is about community, and everyone who wants to play will be given a chance.”

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Mike Shaw is a jazz pianist who has performed for decades in New Orleans and Atlanta. He is the author of the novel The Musician. He is the founder of Shade Communications, a marketing company.

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