During his 48 years on the planet, Don emerged as one of the rare musicians who could play, compose, and produce brilliantly in a host of different genres: jazz, pop, R&B, and Latin music.
But jazz was the music that first captivated Don, and it was always the music closest to his soul. During his lifetime, Don made several stunning jazz recordings under his own name, featuring his own inventive and soulful compositions. And he wrote, produced, and played for the cutting-edge jazz musicians of his time, like Michael Brecker, Peter Erskine, John Scofield, Bob Berg, and Mike Mainieri.
Jazz, Don once said with sly understatement, is an art “in which the risks are great, the rewards subtle.” But it was always his truest passion. As a youth growing up in Levittown, New York, Don became captivated by the sound of jazz. He once told an interviewer, "My father took me to see Count Basie, and I just went crazy. I didn't know why or what it was, it was just swinging so hard -- and I didn't even know what swinging meant." His first instrument was the accordion, although he soon switched to his grandparents’ piano.
The young musician began to immerse himself in the sounds of blues, bebop, and post-bop. He absorbed the music of Erroll Garner, Cannonball Adderly, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Bill Evans, Ray Charles, Sonny Rollins, Bobby Timmons, Wynton Kelly, Herbie Hancock, McCoy Tyner, and Horace Silver, to name just a few. While still a teenager, Don began to write songs and arrangements.
Don went on to attend Tufts University, majoring in philosophy. Sometime during his college years, he met up with saxophonist Michael Brecker. After he left Tufts, he formed the jazz-rock band Fire & Ice with Ken Melville on guitar and Stuart Schulman, his friend since childhood, on bass guitar. They were the opening act for B.B. King, The Jeff Beck Group, and the Velvet Underground at Boston clubs like the Boston Tea Party and The Ark. This was Grolnick's first foray into rock and blues as a performer, and he began to write within the medium as well. Grolnick moved back to New York in 1969 and joined Melville in the jazz fusion band "D." That year Michael Brecker asked him to join Dreams, a pioneering fusion group.
In a short time Don became a sought-after session musician. Don eventually worked on hundreds of recordings with artists like Linda Ronstadt, Steely Dan, and Bonnie Raitt. In 1974, he began what was to become a long musical partnership with James Taylor. He eventually produced several fine albums for Taylor: Never Die Young, New Moon Shine, and Live.
Meanwhile, Don continued to pursue jazz. In 1975, he joined the first incarnation of the Brecker Brothers. In 1979, he became part of Steps (later Steps Ahead), a band that evolved out of late-night sessions led by vibes player Mike Mainieri at the Seventh Avenue South nightclub in New York. Don's compositions became part of the defining sound of these two groups, as did his keyboard style.
In the early 1980s, Don began to bring his own groups into Seventh Avenue South. (He gave one of his bands a typically quirky Grolnick name: "Idiot Savant." Michael Brecker later said, "I sometimes felt like we were the idiots and Don was the savant.") At some point, Don decided that it was time to take his own music into the studio. In 1983 he made a fusion-oriented record called Hearts and Numbers, with a stellar lineup of players, including Michael Brecker, Peter Erskine, and Hiram Bullock.
As the 1980s rolled on, Don continued to work as a top-flight pop and jazz sideman. But he found himself wanting to hear and play more of the acoustic bebop and post-bop jazz that had thrilled him when he was young.
So, in 1988, Don decided to take a complete break from jingles, pop tours, record dates, and producing, and make some space for the music that was building in his mind. For several months, he shut himself in a room with his Steinway, listening, playing and writing. In early 1989, Don took a stack of new tunes into the studio and recorded Weaver of Dreams with an all-star ensemble: Michael Brecker, Randy Brecker, Barry Rogers, Bob Mintzer, Peter Erskine, and Dave Holland. The players and engineers remember some unusually stress-free sessions, where the music simply flowed. Don said later, “It was the most fun I’ve ever had in my whole life.” Blue Note picked up the recording and released it in 1990, to critical acclaim. “Five stars,” said Downbeat, “...a gem of uncut jazz...startlingly fresh and full of soul.” The Los Angeles Times called Weaver of Dreams “an intense blend of mystery, suspense, and driving post-bop.”
Don followed up in 1992 with Nighttown, also on Blue Note. It, too, offered adventurous acoustic jazz for four horns plus rhythm section. During the late 1980s and early 1990s, Don also worked as the producer of three solo albums for Mike Brecker, the second of which won Michael his first Grammy. The two musicians collaborated on a number of compositions for these recordings.
The early 1990s were a productive and creative time for Don. He married jazz singer Jeanne O'Connor. He brought his own music to premier clubs like New York's Sweet Basil and The Blue Note, as well as the concert stages of Europe and Japan. He continued to perform with James Taylor and other pop luminaries. He served as musical director for one of Sting’s star-studded Rainforest benefit concerts at Carnegie Hall.
As the 90s progressed, Don's restless musical imagination turned to Latin music. In 1994 he recorded Medianoche, with a lineup that included Michael Brecker, Andy Gonzalez, Mike Mainieri, Steve Berrios, Milton Cardona, Dave Valentin, and Don Alias. It was first released on Japan's Pony Canyon label. Sadly, Don did not live to see the record released in the U.S. on the Warner Brothers label. It was nominated for a Grammy award in 1996. Several years later, Peter Erskine released a CD from a live performance of Don and his group, titled The London Concert.
“A jazz musician needs more than courage.
He needs talent, imagination, discipline, and intensity
as well. He may also need a day gig or generous parents.“