Q&A: Jazz guitarist, UI Music lecturer releases album Bésame Mucho!

BY DI STAFF | APRIL 18, 2013 5:00 AM

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Audio: Steve Grismore

"Besame Mucho"


"Alice in Wonderland"

Steve Grismore has had a major effect on the jazz culture in Iowa City. Not only is he a lecturer in the University of Iowa School of Music, he is also a cofounder of the Iowa City Jazz Festival. Most importantly, he is a jazz guitarist, and Bésame Mucho! is his most recent CD release. Partnering with jazz organist Sam Salomone and drummer John Kizilarmut, the group has created a trio bringing a jazz sound to Iowa City.

Grismore made Bésame Mucho! as a celebration of and homage to the sound of the instrumental work of Jimmy Smith, whose 1960s trio and quartet records on Blue Note Records defined a smooth, funky sound during that era. The recording strives to grasp the vibe of Grismore’s performances at the Continental Jazz Club of Des Moines. 

Daily Iowan:What influenced your most recent album?

Grismore: Great musicians who range in instruments from organ players, guitarists, and drummers influence us. For this session, we did a combination of tunes from some of those artists as well as our own interpretations of a couple of jazz standards. Over the years, I have played with several different drummers on this gig, but for this particular recording, it was my pleasure to include a fabulous young drummer who lives in Des Moines and teaches at Drake and Grinnell College, John Kizilarmut. Sam, of course, is a legend throughout the Midwest and is a true torchbearer of the jazz-organ tradition.

DI: What is it about jazz and music that makes you so passionate about it?

Grismore: I have been playing guitar since 1965, and I am 67 years old. As a kid, I started playing what was popular at that time, such as the Beatles and Rolling Stones — it was a rock and roll era. In high school, I played in the jazz band, then in college at the University of Miami, where I majored in music. Music was a big part of my life. I still play rock ‘n’ roll and blues, but jazz is my main thing.

The great thing about jazz music is that it involves improvisation. That’s the exciting part of it — you can create your own music. The songs are not following the original tune, but we play the song the way we want to. Each time we play, it’s different. When we go out and play a gig, we don’t know exactly what we will play every night, because it’s mainly improvisation. When we go and perform together, it’s easy because we are older and have been doing this a long time.

DI:When and how did your love for music begin? Did you have someone you looked up to or aspired to be?

Grismore: My mom had to actually drag me to guitar lessons at first. She wanted me to get involved in music. But then, I liked it, and it became fun.

What really changed my life with music and pointed my career in that direction was when I was in sixth grade. The English teacher put together two sixth-graders, two seventh-graders, and an eighth-grader. Since 1967, I have been with some kind of an official organized group.

DI:Do you ever get tired of playing music because you have been doing it for so many years?

Grismore: No, not really; being the founder of the Iowa City Jazz Festival since 1991, with Mark Ginsberg, kept me really busy, but I loved it at the same time. It helped create more of a jazz culture presence here in Iowa City. After doing that for 20 years I retired, not because I didn’t like it, but because I had done a billion things for it and had worked hard for many years. I needed a break to focus more on teaching and playing. Ever since I did that, it has given me more time to go back to just being a musician. I have had more time to play gigs two or three times a week and also to create more music.

DI:Did you always know you wanted to be a jazz musician or did you try out other genres of music as well?

Grismore: I have been a musician now for so long I don’t know what I would do. I love to play in several bands, but my central career is teaching. But I love guitar, so if I really had to choose something else for a career in the music industry, it would be designing guitars. One of the things I like with music is that even though my main focus is jazz, I have played in a salsa band, have done some percussion, and played piano and bass sometimes. It hasn’t all been purely jazz music that I have played. I’m not much of a classical musician. I am very eclectic in my approach, even though I consider myself to be a jazz musician.

DI:What do you think set you apart from other jazz artists? What about your music?

Grismore: Within realms of jazz, I don’t play just one kind of jazz music. As teacher, it’s important for me to cross over into different genres. I don’t just play the traditional style jazz in one way. It’s more of a fusion-based genre from influences of the ’50s and ’60s. Some jazz musicians are much more limited — they play one thing, and that’s all they do. For me as a teacher, I try to cover a lot of bases. I try to demonstrate to students how to play all styles. Anything from the salsa, samba, avant-garde, and any other genres of music I teach. The music I talk about in class, I try to play as well.

DI:What would you say has been a major turning point in your musical career?  

Grismore: When I finished my master’s degree in 1990, then when I became a teacher and the director of the Jazz Department in the spring, it was an important change in my life. The changes pushed me into teaching and allowed me to have a career with music at the same time. In 1993, when I recorded for Accurate Records [Boston] with the Grismore/Scea Group, it was also a huge turning point in my career because my name was out there with a national record. Basically, that 1990s period defined my career. I taught music and was part of a community of jazz players. I was able to really focus on my music at that time.

DI:What is the process like for creating this kind of music? What about the recording process?

Grismore: Every group I record with, the process can be different. This recording-record label was called Blue Notes, a famous jazz label. Sam Salomone, the jazz organist of the group, is old-school and didn’t want to use headphones while recording. Well, you can imagine, that created an interesting problem. There was no separation of sound. So, if we made a mistake while playing, we couldn’t go back and fix it. For the recording, we decided it would be done with open mikes. This is a tradition with jazz bands when they record. Instead of a studio adding the drums at one time, then the bass, guitar, and singer, the whole performance from every member of the group is recorded at one time. We recorded every song two or three times, then chose what we thought was the best take. Because of that, we chose two alternate takes —two different recordings of the same song but played in a different way — like a bonus track.

DI:Who has been the most influential person you have performed with and why?

Grismore: I have had a lot of really great teachers over the years and people I have been influenced by. There was a gentleman a long time ago from the 1980s, Paul Smoker. He was a jazz player and was very influential on my outlook and whole process of playing. Smoker, in particular, challenged me to look deeper in the music and appreciate how much work it took to become a good player and understand the history of the music. Another individual, Tom Davis, who was head of the Percussion Department at that time, was a big influence on my career as well.  Davis was a good role model for me as a teacher. He had great ideas when working with different combinations of music and ideas for how to organize classes for more of a direct academic effect.

DI:Where has been your favorite place to perform and why?

Grismore: When the Sancturary Pub over on Gilbert still had jazz nights, we played there for many years. It was a great setting for an intimate show. I don’t have a favorite place in general that I have played jazz, but what I do prefer is a small club. For example, venues such as Clinton Street Social Club, the Mill, Mendoza Wine Bar & Music, and Gabe’s. I like the intimacy of smaller clubs — most jazz musicians do.

DI:Why did you decide to help create the Iowa City Jazz Festival in 1991? Do you think that has influenced the presence of jazz here?

Grismore: I think it has, it is a great event that brings world-class musicians to the city. What makes the Jazz Festival unique is that we have side stages in addition to the main stage. The event also allows an opportunity for college kids, local musicians, and even high-school students or younger to get involved with the music. United Jazz Ensemble — a combination of students from City High and West High — has been part of the festival now for 20 years. All the kids who start playing there continue to at college somewhere or even here, but they always come back to the festival for the summer and play.

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