Lessons from Our Masters: Grassella Oliphant on Keeping Jazz's Legacy Alive

Grassella Oliphant

News | Aug, 24th 2017

Grassella Oliphant kicks off the Lessons from Our Masters series on his 88th birthday, opening ourCoca-Cola Generations in Jazz Festival. Oliphant played with Ahmad Jamal in 1952, Sarah Vaughan through the late 1950s, managed Dizzy Gillespie, and released acclaimed albums featuring heavyweights like Bobby Hutcherson, Clark Terry, and Grant Green. It’ll be a festive evening of music as we celebrate Oliphant’s birthday and launch our2017 Coca-Cola Generations in Jazz Festival!


JALC: You were last at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola in May for a Late Night Session. Are you excited about being back at Dizzy’s?

Grassella Oliphant: Always when I’m going to New York City! It’s been a long time since I last played in New York City. I took 40-year hiatus after I got married to raise my two children. They’re all grown now so I’m getting back into the music scene. I’m so thankful Dizzy’s is around and giving me a chance to take the stage again. And it’s becoming a family affair now. When I did the Late Night Session in May, my son rented an entire bus for all of us to go together. I think that’s the plan again. 

JALC: Generations in Jazz is about celebrating the history and future of jazz. What would you like people to know about the legacy of jazz? 

GO: I was born in Pittsburgh and raised in Western Pennsylvania. My brother and I used to tap dance on the radio. My first introduction to jazz was when my mother bought jazz records from the store – then called “race records.” She bought me a Duke Ellington record and a Count Basie record. Then I saw a movie with Mickey Rooney playing drums and that started the ball rolling. In my life, I had the chance to work with a lot of jazz legends. One of my first jobs was managing Duke Ellington and that was the highlight of my career. During my hiatus, I produced and managed Dizzy Gillespie, booking the big band a lot. All of these guys and places like Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola keep the legacy of jazz alive. 

JALC: Are there any artists you have your eye on? 

GO: I’m hung up on the guys in my band. My trumpet player Freddie Hendrix is one of the top guys out right now.

JALC: Camille Thurman and Charenee Wade will be doing a tribute to Sarah Vaughan later in the month, September 13–14. Their set is titled: “To Sassy with Love.” Having played with Sarah, do you have any advice for them or things they should look out for? 

GO: Don’t try to sound like her. Sing her tunes but don’t try to sound like her because no one is able to do it. Sarah had perfect pitch and can’t be duplicated. No artist can be duplicated. It’s my advice for any artist to find your own voice and your own rules. That’s what keeps jazz alive. I cannot sound like Max Roach and vice versa. There is no drum solo that can be duplicated in jazz. There is no mistaking Art Blakey, Lester Young, Sonny Stitt, and Ahmad Jamal if you hear them on a record. These are guys that I’ve played with and worked with over the years. I came to New York in 1952 with Ahmad Jamal.

JALC: What’s next for you? Are you working on any projects or any upcoming performances? 

GO: I’m looking forward to putting together a Miles Davis tribute show at Dizzy’s in the near future. Be on the lookout!


Get ready for our2017 Coca-Cola Generations in Jazz Festival by listening to our curated Spotify playlist of artists featured, which kicks off with Grassella Oliphant.

(Photo courtesy of the artist)

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It’s almost September, and that can only mean one thing: the Coca-Cola Generations in Jazz Festival is just about here! Find out more and listen to a playlist featuring selections from participating artists.


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