Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Grossmont College music professor Justin Grinnell: Hitting all the right notes

Justin Grinnell
Follow your passion.

That has been a guiding principal for Grossmont College music instructor and jazz bassist extraordinaire Justin Grinnell, who ditched plans to study mathematics shortly after enrolling at San Diego State University back in 1999 and meeting musicians “who were doing music all the time.”

Good thing. Grinnell has become an integral part of a vibrant Grossmont College music program and gigs as a pit orchestra member at myriad venues, including the Old Globe, La Jolla Playhouse, and the San Diego Civic Theatre for a number of Tony Award-winning musicals.

And now his debut disc, the Justin Grinnell Quartet’s Without You, has been nominated for a San Diego Music Award for best jazz album.

Grinnell is no stranger to awards. He is a member of the Danny Green Trio, which won the 2009 San Diego Music Award for Best Jazz Album for its debut CD. The trio’s second release, A Thousand Ways Home, reached No. 17 on the Jazz Week Charts for national radio airplay after its 2012 debut.

“I’m doing what I love,” said Grinnell, who is on track to earn his Doctor of Musical Arts in Jazz Studies from USC next spring. “The only thing I really want to do is keep working with great musicians, perform with the jazz masters and teach jazz at the college or university level.”

Grinnell has earned praise from the best in the business.

“Not only is Justin a fantastic person, but he is such an accomplished musician, a great sight reader, which is so important because we do all kinds of tricky music and having someone who is able to read so well is an invaluable asset, and he’s adept in a lot of different musical styles,” said critically acclaimed Jazz guitarist and composer Peter Sprague. “He also has just such a wonderful spirit when it comes to playing music. I’m really happy to know him and being able to play with him from time to time.”

A native of Santa Rosa, Grinnell initially planned to study mathematics and become an engineer. But after enrolling in a few music classes at San Diego State and jamming with newfound friends, he switched gears. It was while he was at SDSU that Grinnell began gigging with future Grossmont College Music Department chair Derek Cannon and met his future wife, Melonie, a pianist who also teaches music at Grossmont College.

With both a bachelor’s master’s degree in jazz performance from San Diego State in hand, Grinnell began working in 2005 as an adjunct music professor at Grossmont College. He also serves as an adjunct music professor at the University of San Diego and taught part time at Southwestern College from 2008 to 2011.

“Grossmont College is special,” Grinnell said. “It feels like family here. Everyone is part of a community that is working together on behalf of our students, doing our best to help them succeed in a business that’s hard to make a living in. That camaraderie is priceless.”

Grinnell’s passion serves him well in a business where talent alone often isn’t enough to support a family. “I tell my students all the time that if they’re looking for job security, don’t look at a career in jazz music,” Grinnell said, adding that he makes a living cobbling together his adjunct professorships, private lessons, and regular performances.

Justin and Melonie Grinnell are juggling their careers while raising two young sons.

Justin Grinnell’s debut album falls into the category of West Coast-flavored, straight-ahead jazz. He wrote six of the nine tunes on the disc, with the remaining three being covers. Especially tasty are the original “Hit the Brakes” and a jazz cover of The Beatles’ Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite.

Grinnell, however, is comfortable playing a wide variety of styles that range from classical to funk. He is a member of the Brazilian jazz-inspired Danny Green Trio (Danny Green also teaches at Grossmont College), and the modern jazz group ARC Trio, among others.

The Justin Grinnell Quintet will be playing a trio of concerts at Grossmont College in the coming weeks. Shows are scheduled for Sept. 28, Oct. 26, and Nov. 30 in Building 26, Room 220, at 6:30 p.m. A full itinerary of upcoming performances around the region can be found at

The San Diego Music Awards take place Oct. 6 at Humphrey’s By The Bay in San Diego.