Hermosan Tom Gruzo was longtime fixture in the jazz world

Hermosa Beach Sunset. Photo by Nick Shattuck

by Garrick Rawlings

Tom Gruzo was a great friend for over 30 years. During the first 13 years we were across-the-street neighbors. I moved into an apartment on Loma drive, next to Clark Stadium right after my divorce in ’96. Tom and his young daughter Niki moved across the street from me a few months later. He passed away on Feb. 11, 2024.

We weren’t fast friends, more like polite neighbors. I was playing a lot of hard rock, roots rock and old school folk and punky country, which didn’t turn him on. Then one day he heard me playing some Frank Sinatra with the Duke Ellington Orchestra, which drew him over to my place for the first time. Thus, an incredibly, mutually supportive friendship was born.

He was born in Warsaw Poland in 1957. Gruzo was a criminally underappreciated artist, a talented bop pianist, composer and transcriber, teacher, a dedicated single dad and a survivor – he regaled me with tales of blowing up Soviet tanks with Molotov cocktails in Warsaw, Poland as a teen during the invasion. He gave his daughter a piano lesson every weekday.

I have so much respect for this man, raising a daughter in Hermosa on a jazz man’s wages. He also taught piano to students all over the South Bay for years, both young and old. I’ll never forget when Niki started at Mira Costa and she came back home with the list of things he was supposed to buy for her – the backpack and all the stuff that was supposed go in there along with traditional school supplies, which added up to several hundred dollars, I still don’t know how he did it year after year.

He had a weekly gig at the old version of Splash in Redondo Beach. He always put a great band together and was one of the most joyful performers I’ve ever seen. His eyes always naturally twinkled and sparkled. But on stage, he simply shined gloriously. He would come to some of my gigs as well. We played a lot of tennis, but I’d say 90% of our face time was just hanging out in the neighborhood. The other 10% was at The Mermaid.

After 13 years of being neighbors, I took off for my 10-year Prescott, Arizona experiment, but we never lost touch and I always stopped by when I was in town. I moved back a few years ago and picked up where we left off. I had to drive down from West LA to visit now.  We’d hang out there on the corner of 10th and Loma and have a cigarette, the one vice he couldn’t give up, I don’t even smoke but I’d always have a couple with him.

He had a multitude of health disasters over those years, which led him to quit all the bad stuff. The doctors and drugs nearly killed him several times, with misdiagnosis and wrong  prescriptions. Bravely and admirably, he became his own advocate (as we all should). He was an avid reader and researcher and figured out what was really going on – long story short, he needed to change what he put into his body.

I learned so much from him about nutrition and how dishonest the food/health industry is, with its focus on drug treatment rather than how to avoid disease through proper nutrition and exercise. I thought he was going to outlive me.

He was going to play on my next album. He played on an early version of the title track of my first album, crudely recorded on a 4-track cassette in my garage on Loma. I was beyond honored. This guy had pedigree, he toured with the late great Clifford Jordan, the last great bop tenor sax player on the esteemed jazz label Blue Note in the classic era. He made $1,000 a gig as a sideman touring Japan and Europe with Clifford only to come back and play $50 gigs in cigar stores here around LA. This is why many jazz and blues artists go expat, to countries that appreciate and support artists. 

Folks would hire this guy to transcribe previously un-transcribed works of classic jazz tunes by the likes of Monk and others – it looked like hieroglyphics to me. When he asked me for a chart I asked him to help me out on a song, I think of the look on his face when I handed him a piece of paper where I wrote down,“I think it’s in G.”

He released only one album of originals, the highly regarded “Say When”  in 1987 on the New Winds label with LA jazz legends Bobby Shew on trumpet, Herman Riley on sax, Sam Most on flute, and clarinet, Louie Spears on bass, and Albert “Tootie” Heath on drums. If you dig Monk, Bill Evans, Horace Silver, Bud Powell, Phineas Newborn Jr. and the like, you’ll dig Tom’s music. He also self-released two albums of Standards (Standards Volume III & Volume IV) with his trio in 2003; Clarence Robinson on bass and Giovanni Nickens on drums. 

So many great memories while observing the Hermosa changes and our lovely little street that’s really more like an alley with retired LAPD Bill Halletts’s annual post St. Patrick’s Day parade block party on Loma, with the LAPD Emerald Society bagpipes a wailin.’ 

He taught me so much about jazz. He was both a student and a master, he was a wealth of information. The last time I saw him was right beforeChristmas. We did our newly vested tradition, having a smoke, then walking down to Mickey’s Deli where he’d watch me eat a large turkey and swiss with everything, oven toasted. ER


comments so far. Comments posted to EasyReaderNews.com may be reprinted in the Easy Reader print edition, which is published each Thursday.