At 86, Oscar-Winning Composer Dave Grusin Is Ready to Tour Again When the COVID-19 Pandemic Subsides

Jon Burlingame
·4-min read

Oscar-winning composer, Grammy-winning arranger, jazz pianist and bandleader, pioneer in the digital recording world: Dave Grusin could retire on his laurels. But at 86, he’s itching to get back on the road and perform again.

“Oh, if they ever let us,” he tells Variety from his Montana ranch. “Not to have anything to do, it’s disconcerting to say the least.” Adds Grusin’s longtime bandmate, guitarist Lee Ritenour: “He’s gotten used to it, traveling the world and being appreciated. I think he enjoys that.”

And yet, if the pandemic continues to torture artists throughout 2021, there are still all those Grusin soundtracks to appreciate: the fragile beauty of “The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter” (1968), the atmospheric colors of “Three Days of the Condor” (1975), the hymn-like simplicity of “On Golden Pond” (1981), the delightfully upbeat “Tootsie” (1982), the Mexican folk influences of “The Milagro Beanfield War” (1987), the late-night jazz of “The Fabulous Baker Boys” (1989), the clever solo piano score for “The Firm (1993), and nearly 60 more.

“His signature sound is in our collective DNA,” says filmmaker Barbara Bentree, whose documentary “Dave Grusin: Not Enough Time” has won awards at festivals from Houston to Rome over the past year and is streaming at http://www.grusinfilm.com. “We have been listening to his music for our whole lives, and it is something that connects us.”

As noted in the film, Grusin’s career path has been unlike that of any of his film-scoring colleagues — although there was a time, in the mid-1960s, when he was composing TV music at Universal and sharing space with future fellow Oscar winners John Williams, Lalo Schifrin and Quincy Jones.

He was born in Littleton, Colo., the son of a violin-playing Latvian father and an American Midwestern mother, and studied piano from the age of 5. He had begun postgraduate studies when singer Andy Williams called, needing a pianist-arranger-conductor for a tour. That led to becoming music director of Williams’ NBC variety show in 1963, and its executive producers, Norman Lear and Bud Yorkin, subsequently offered him a movie, “Divorce American Style,” released in 1967.

Grusin is modest about his abilities as a composer, but it was obvious from the start — on shows like “It Takes a Thief” and “The Name of the Game,” that along with writing a memorable theme, he knew how to convey emotion and heighten drama.

“There was a time when it became very clear that the theme is all well and good, because you could make it musical and interesting, but is that going to work for what’s happening on the screen? That was always fascinating to me,” says the composer. “Nobody sat me down and explained it,” he adds. “I just kind of figured it out.”

The result was eight Oscar nominations over a 15-year period and a win for Robert Redford’s “Milagro Beanfield War.” He has worked with other top filmmakers including Warren Beatty (“Heaven Can Wait”), Franco Zeffirelli (“The Champ”) and Norman Jewison (“And Justice for All”).

Looking back, he singles out favorites including “The Yakuza,” a 1975 thriller set in Japan and the first of his 11 films with Sydney Pollack either as director or producer; Mark Rydell’s “On Golden Pond,” which took him to New England to capture the ambience of the setting for Henry Fonda’s final performance; and “The Goonies,” the 1985 romp that offered an opportunity to work closely with executive producer Steven Spielberg.

Pollack once said of Grusin: “His range is amazing. He can write the most symphonic, acoustic, classical score ever needed and next time be as hip, electronic and contemporary as any group out there. I don’t think there is anything he can’t do with film.” Says Grusin of Pollack: “I loved working with him. He was a big music fan and was fascinated by the process. Working with somebody like that was a major gift.”

Together with his friend, former drummer and engineer Larry Rosen, Grusin founded GRP Records in 1978, a visionary jazz label that led the way for digital recording and the compact disc as a delivery medium. “The technological part of it was a wild ride for me,” Grusin recalls.

For director Bentree, Grusin’s body of work puts him in rarefied company. “Dave will go down in history as a uniquely American composer … in the same pantheon as Aaron Copland, Leonard Bernstein, George Gershwin and Henry Mancini.”

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