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Jack Grassel (born September 3, 1948) is an American jazz composer, inventor, author, teacher, and guitarist from Milwaukee, Wisconsin known for his many awards, books, recordings, and concerts. He has created 70 compositions, authored eleven books and an instructional DVD, and recorded 18 CDs as a bandleader. During his career, which has spanned nearly six decades, he has exceeded 12,000 performances and continues perform around the world. Many of Grassel's former students: Kirk Tatnall, Scott DuBois, Steve Peplin, Roger Brotherhood, Ramie Espinoza, Don Linke, Jeff Schroedl, Mike Mueller and others attribute their skill and fame in part to his advice.
Grassel was born September 3, 1948, in Milwaukee, the oldest of four boys. At the age of two, upon learning to walk, Grassel reached his arms over his head to play his mother's piano, correctly copying melodies heard on the radio. Seeing Grassel struggling to stretch his fingers to play the huge piano keys, his father got him a small accordion (a popular pre-Beatles era instrument) and lessons. By age 4, he was touring as a solo act with the "Bar O Ranch" variety show. He was seen often on talent shows via a new medium called television. Starting in 1958, he won the Wisconsin State Music Festival three times. At age ten, he added a drummer and began playing weddings and dances with his duo.
In seventh grade he purchased a bass guitar to play professionally two nights per week in "The Triumphs" rock band. Modern Music Center hired Jack at the age of 13 to teach piano, bass, and accordion. By the end of the decade, he was performing seven nights per week in dance clubs with a six-piece Rhythm and Blues band "The Rivieras" working over the James Brown and Bobby Bland song books. In 1966 at 17, burned out by a life of constant musical performance, he quit playing and enrolled in Pharmacy School at the University of Wisconsin. It did not take long for him to miss music. He began to visit a record shop to be educated in jazz history by clerk Mitch Covic. Hearing his first jazz concert by Charles Lloyd's band with Keith Jarrett and Paul Motian in 1968 was a turning point. Soon Grassel was spending his food allowance on jazz records, finding it much more interesting than rock music and school. He decided to play music again, jazz, but not with the bass or accordion. He bought a guitar to practice 15 hours every day for six months, falling asleep late at night with the guitar still in his hands.
Grassel's first employment as a guitarist came in 1970 with the rhythm and blues band "The Chevrons" playing the "teen bar" circuit. Now amazingly proficient on the guitar at age 21, he formed the revolutionary jazz-rock band "Matrix" which worked until 1974. With Matrix he recorded the first LP of his compositions. His teaching accelerated in 1971 when he secured a job designing the new jazz guitar degree program at The Wisconsin Conservatory of Music. At WCM, he wrote his first two books, Guitar Seeds and Monster Chops, to challenge his advanced students. A big break came in a call to audition for the show "Jacques Brel is Alive and Well In Paris". When the first call guitarists were unable to play the challenging music, Grassel succeeded. Hearing of his music skills, famous musicians touring the area asked Grassel to back them. Among them were Al Martino, Trini Lopez, Tom Jones, Anna Marie Albergetti and Carol Channing. He accompanied comedians Bob Newhart, Jay Leno, Bob Hope, Pete Barbutti and Jerry Van Dyke. He became the guitarist for The Barnum and Bailey Circus band, The Holiday on Ice Orchestra in addition to performing with symphony orchestras conducted by Lukas Foss and Kenneth Schermerhorn. Grassel also enjoyed financial success wearing the many hats of a studio musician performing jingles on radio and television. This decade saw him working 300-600 gigs per year. A typical day would be playing in "The Larry the Legend" radio show band 5-9am, teaching at the Conservatory or playing jazz concerts in elementary schools 10am-4pm, playing Broadway shows at the Performing Art Center 7-9pm, then playing jazz with his trio at Ciro's Nightclub, concerts with "What On Earth" band at the Water Street Art Center, or accompanying name acts at The Crown Room 10pm-2am.
The disco era began replacing musicians with recorded music. With a new family to support, Grassel turned to teaching music and playing jazz locally. His shift to jazz resulted in gigs accompanying name artists Rosemary Clooney, Slide Hampton, Ed Thigpen, Stanley Jordan, Nancy Wilson and more. He created the "Occupational Music Degree Program" at Milwaukee Area Technical College and wrote the books Big Ax and Super Ax. He formed his own record company "Frozen Sky Records". As a result of the first two records of his compositions, "Magic Cereal", and "If You're Too Crazy", he was featured in the "New Talent" section of Guitar Player magazine, and became a contributing writer there.
The 1990s found Grassel playing jazz seven nights per week in duos, trios, quartets and with the 12 piece Chuck Howard Superband. A high point for Grassel was playing duets on classical guitar in concert with noted tenor Luciano Pavarotti. Jack studied 1990-93 with George Van Eps working on solo guitar technique resulting in his first solo guitar CD, Solo Burner. The CD immediately sold out and is in its third printing. From 1994 to 1998 he studied with Tal Farlow. Farlow taped some of their duo sessions which Grassel captured on the CD Two Guys With Guitars. To facilitate studying with Farlow in New Jersey while living in Wisconsin, Grassel secured a teaching job at the National Guitar Workshop in nearby Connecticut. Many recordings followed as Grassel continued composing music for new CDs. By the end of the decade, he had invented an instrument he named the "SuperAx" which enabled him to play bass and guitar simultaneously. His friend, guitarist Kirk Tatnall, built one also. With various drummers, they performed as a trio for 12 years at The Uptowner, producing two CDs of Grassel's compositions: Live @ The Uptowner and Ghost Ridge. Working part-time for music publishing giant, Hal Leonard, Grassel wrote the book trilogy Jazz Guitar Favorites, Jazz Guitar Standards and Jazz Guitar Classics.
The new century began with Grassel endorsing Hofner guitars. The company hired Grassel to record a solo promotional CD, Guitar Smoke, on the Hofner Jazzica guitar. The purchaser of every new Jazzica found a copy in his guitar case. Also in 2000, the readers of Guitar One magazine voted Grassel "one of the 10 best guitarists in America." As Grassel's solo guitar abilities developed, he joined (and married) vocalist Jill Jensen. The duo recorded two CDs: It's About the Music which received three WAMI nominations, and Seems Like Dreams with their Chicago quartet. Throughout the decade, they worked 2-5 nights per week as a duo. The popular couple enjoyed residencies at countless venues. Grassel continued to write books, producing Power Practicing, Brain Training, and 131 Axercises. He also created the DVD Top 20 Jazz Guitar Lessons. In 2004, Grassel was struck down by a near fatal staph infection. His body, heart, brain and nervous system were damaged. He had to stop playing music. It took many years for him to recover his musical abilities. Upon regaining his skill, it was obvious he had reached a new musical level, but he was too weak to continue teaching full-time at Milwaukee Area Technical College and ended that 22-year partnership.
The new decade saw Grassel still recovering from the staph infection that struck him down in 2004. He teaches occasionally at Musicians Institute in Los Angeles and plays concerts in the duo format with vocalist Jill Jensen. Grassel and Jensen released the CD Live at the Carlton Grange commemorating 3 and a half years of employment there. In September 2010, the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music presented a concert of 26 of Grassel's 70 compositions commemorating the 40th anniversary of his first composition performed there. At the beginning of 2011, seldom leaving home, Grassel began giving Skype lessons to guitarists around the world. His guitar/voice duo with Jensen continues to develop and gain popularity. A live recording of a California concert was released towards the end of 2011.
Technique and influence
The Grassel family boasts a long history of professional musicians and band leaders, including Jack's mandolin-playing grandfather Joseph, accordionist great-uncle Percy Grassel and his Orchestra, and multi-instrumentalist aunt Adeline and accordionist/pianist aunt Iris. Adeline's band of the 1930s, "Star and Her Five Points" was well known. In the 1940s, Adeline's popular all-girl big band toured as "The Sunshine Girls." Jack's father Lawrence played trumpet. Jack's brother Steve is a professional pianist.
Grassel is recognized as a technically advanced, emotionally charged modern jazz guitarist who sounds like himself. He has developed his own techniques of melody, chords, bass, and percussion to sound like three guitarists playing at the same time. He creatively combines standard picking technique with classical finger techniques, using them simultaneously to surpass each technique alone. To accomplish not sounding like other guitarists, he refrained from listening to any music produced with a guitar for ten years, 1971–1981.
Grassel endorses and uses the Raezer's Edge Jack Grassel model JG-10 speaker cabinet. He currently plays the Jack Grassel Artist model JG-1 guitar marketed by Smocke Guitars. George L cables transmit his sound to the Walter Woods amplifier which has been his constant companion since 1975. Moshay has been his pick choice since 1968. He has endorsed Hofner, Guild and Gibson guitars.
Awards and nominations
1958 - First place - Wisconsin State Music Festival
1961 - Third place - Wisconsin State Music Festival
1964 - Second place - Wisconsin State Music Festival
1986 - Showcase for new talent - Guitar Player Magazine
1988 - GRAMMY award nomination - Jack with Lukas Foss - 9 Ways of Looking at a Blackbird
1992 - WAMI award - Jazz artist of the year
1994 - WAMI award - Guitarist of the year
1996 - WAMI award - Jazz artist of the year
1996 - Midwest Jazz Master award nomination
1998 - WAMI award - Jazz artist of the year
2000 - WAMI award - Jazz artist of the year
2001 - First Place - MOKKA award - Jazz/Pop Duo - Jack w/Jill Jensen
2000 - Named one of Guitar One Magazine's Best Guitarists 
2003 - WAMI award - Jazz artist of the year
2003 - WAMI award - Guitarist of the year
2007 - WAMI nomination - CD recording of the year
2007 - "Best of Milwaukee - Jazz artist of the year" -Shepherd Express reader's award
2007 - WAMI award - Guitarist of the year
2007 - WAMI nomination - Jazz artists of the year Jack w/Jill Jensen
2008 - WAMI nomination - Jazz artist of the year Jack w/Jill Jensen
2008 - WAMI award - Jazz artist of the year
2009 - "Best of Milwaukee - Jazz artist of the year" - Shepherd Express reader's award
- 1963 - Rebound Baby w/ Ron and the Continentals
- 1973 - Stimulus for the Auditory Nerve w/ Matrix
- 1986 - Magic Cereal
- 1987 - If You're Too Crazy For Your Body
- 1988 - The Adventures of Jack and Hans
- 1989 - Music Lingo
- 1994 - Solo Burner
- 1995 - Thunder Stones
- 1996 - Bob and Jack: What We Do
- 1998 - Tracks w/ Melvin Rhyne
- 1998 - Christmas Presence
- 1999 - Trinity Seas w/ Sigmund Snopek III
- 2000 - Seems Like Dreams w/ Jill Jensen
- 2001 - Guitar Smoke
- 2002 - 10
- 2004 - Two Guys With Guitars
- 2005 - Live @ The Uptowner
- 2006 - Secret of Life w/ Ellen Winters
- 2006 - Ghost Ridge
- 2006 - It's About the Music w/ Jill Jensen
- 2009 - El Refugio w/ Guillermo Espinasse
- 2009 - I Said w/ Del Bennett and Kris Kringel
- 2010 - Live at the Carleton Grange w/ Jill Jensen
- 2011 - Hot in LA w/ Jill Jensen
- 1974 - Guitar Seeds
- 1976 - Monster Chops
- 1992 - Power Practicing
- 1994 - Big Ax
- 1996 - Super Ax
- 1998 - Jazz Guitar Favorites
- 1998 - Jazz Guitar Classics
- 1998 - Jazz Guitar Standards
- 2004 - Brain Training
- 2004 - 131 Axercises
- 2008 - 70 Jazz Compositions
- 2008 - Top 20 Jazz Guitar Lessons (DVD)
- 1997 - "Super-guitar" for playing bass and guitar simultaneously
- 1998 - "Fretless-quarter tone-seven string guitar"
- 2007 - Jack Grassel model constructed and marketed by the Raezor's Edge company
- 2010 - Jack Grassel model solid body guitar constructed and marketed by Smocke Guitars
- 1987- 1989 Guitar Player - Master Series
- 1995 - Art Muscle - concert reviewer
- 1996 - Madison Music Cooperative - Power Practicing column
- 1996 - Minneapolis Jazz Newsletter - Power Practicing column
- 1995- 1998 City Edition - record reviewer
- 1996 - 2004 Just Jazz Guitar - educational features
- "Upon hearing him seamlessly weave bass lines, rhythm chords, and melody lines - all at the same time- as well as noting his incredible command of the instrument, we knew Jack Grassel was a shoe-in for 'Best in the U.S.'" Mike Mueller, Guitar One Magazine, March 2000
- Guitar One Magazine - "One of the 10 Best Guitarists in America"