Mr. Charlie Grano: Master Instrument Repairman in Chicago's Loop
The unfortunate thing about the Internet is that it largely acts as a record of history starting in the mid-1990s. Many magazines and newpapers have not put their repositories of information from before the 1990s online unless you are willing to pay for them. Unfortunately, a lot of history is being forgotten because it is not made publicly available for free on the Internet.
Mr. Charlie Grano was a very kind, jovial and gentle soul. I met him in the late 1980s when I started playing the saxophone. In my last years of high school (1989 and 1990), I worked at a grocery store near the southern border of downtown Chicago. The grocery was about two blocks from Chicago's Jazz Showcase (at that time, the Jazz Showcase was a tenant in Chicago's Blackstone Hotel). The grocery store where I worked was about a 5 or 10 minute bus ride from Chicago's Loop, where Charlie Grano Instrument Company was located.
As far as the Internet is concerned, Charlie Grano barely existed: there is almost no information about him online, and that is truly a tragedy. So I wrote this story to try to correct that by sharing some of my memories of Mr. Charlie Grano.
Charlie Grano Instrument Company was located in an area of downtown Chicago called the "Loop" at 218 S. Wabash Avenue, Chicago, Illinois 60604. The phone number for Charlie's establishment was 312-427-6888. Charlie Grano's business was in a small multi-story building on Wabash right below the "L", Chicago's elevated train system. That area of Chicago was ALWAYS bustling: there were thousands of businesses in downtown Chicago, so there were always people moving everywhere by foot, car, taxi, etc.
Once you entered 218 S. Wabash, you had to take an elevator to get to Charlie Grano's shop. I have long forgotten what floor of the building his shop was on. However, the building right next to 218 S. Wabash housed another well known Chicago music establishment: Kagan and Gaines Music. I used to frequent both Charlie Grano Instrument Co. and Kagan and Gaines Music. I bought saxophone reeds and mouthpieces, saxophone repair services, and saxophone accessories like reed holders and neck straps from Charlie Grano. I bought things like etude books from Kagan and Gaines Music. I don't remember the exact affiliation, but I remember that Kagan and Gaines Music was somehow affiliated with Carl Fischer Music.
Charlie Grano was a short man, maybe about 5 foot 5 inches tall. He had a very neat mane of white hair, and he was a jovial man who frequently had a smile on his face. He was chubby, and he kind of reminded me of Santa Claus without the beard. I could tell that he had a real passion for musical instrument repair, and you could also tell by the pictures of famous people who used his instrument repair services posted throughout the shop. If have long forgotten who was in those pictures, but I think that I remember signed pictures of Dizzy Gillespie and James Moody in his shop. I think that there were also pictures of prominent Chicago musicians like Von Freeman. I would estimate that when I met Charlie Grano in around 1988, he was probably around the age of 60: maybe a little bit more or a little bit less.
Charlie Grano was a very kind and gentle man. I remember that I made a huge mistake, and Charlie Grano saved me. Somehow, I got it into my mind that I wanted to start playing the flute in addition to the saxophone. At this point, I was completely incompetent on the saxophone, and the last thing that I needed to do was to add another instrument to my repertoire. The year of this story would have been somewhere around 1988. My best friend John and I went to a music store (it might have even been a pawn shop) somewhere around 47th street on the South Side of Chicago looking for a flute. The owner of the shop pulled out what looked like a student flute with a silver body and keys. I think that he wanted around $75 for it.
When I got the flute home and started playing with it, I realized that I had absolutely no desire to learn how to play the flute, much less master it. I believe that the store that I bought the flute from had a strict no return policy. I called my friend John, and we talked about the situation. I asked John "I want a new saxophone mouthpiece; I wonder if Charlie Grano would accept this flute as a trade-in for a new metal alto saxophone mouthpiece?" At that time, I was playing a rented Bundy student saxophone with a stock black plastic mouthpiece; a metal mouthpiece would have been a HUGE upgrade.
The next day, John and I went to Charlie Grano's shop to try to negotiate the flute-to-mouthpiece trade. I asked Mr. Grano "I would like to please trade this flute for that metal alto saxophone mouthpiece" as I pointed to the mouthpiece that I wanted in the display counter. Charlie carefully opened up the flute case and pulled out the flute. I don't think that he ever played the flute, but he looked intently at all of the pads and keys for about 1 or 2 minutes. "Done deal" he said. I was elated! He said it was an even trade: the flute for the mouthpiece; I would not have to pay him any extra.
That is the kind of man that Charlie Grano was: the interests of the customer always came first. He knew that if he treated you kindly, and if he made good deals with you, you were more likely to come back. I used to go to Charlie Grano's shop a lot, but I don't remember the last year that I actually saw Charlie, but it was probably somewhere around 1992 or so. In 1993, I moved from Illinois to Florida, and it was years before I came back to Chicago. All that I know is that Charlie Grano Music Instrument Company is long gone, and it is unlikely that Charlie Grano is still alive because he would be EXTREMELY elderly now.
I will cherish the great memories that I have of Charlie Grano for the rest of my life. He never explicitly told me how to treat people, but I learned so much from the way that he treated me, and from the way that I saw him treat other customers. He was very patient and very kind. He had an encyclopedic knowledge of musical instruments, and he was always willing to share his knowledge. He also knew a great deal about musicians, and music history. Again, if you ever asked him a question, he was always willing to share what he knew. I would ask him about the musicians in the pictures posted in his shop, and Charlie would tell me stories that would help to bring that musician to life in my mind.
Let us please take a moment to remember Mr. Charlie Grano: a great human being and a Master of Musical Instrument Repair.