Grammy winner Gregg Karukas returns for DC show

Keyboardist/composer Gregg Karukas performs with guitarist Peter White at Blues Alley in Washington.
Keyboardist/composer Gregg Karukas performs with guitarist Peter White at Blues Alley in Washington. (Ken Weil, Handout)

Gregg Karukas was sitting in his car, waiting to meet someone, watching the afternoon Grammy awards ceremony stream on his iPhone for about 10 minutes, when he found out he won.

Karukas, a Maryland native who will return to the area for a show in March, produced, co-wrote and arranged Omar Akram's album "Echoes of Love," which won Best New Age Album at the 55th Grammy Awards on Feb. 10.

Since he didn't attend the ceremony, his immediate reaction was "total butterflies in my stomach and excitement at the same time," he said.

"It was one of those things where I thought it was very nice to get a nomination, but I didn't think there was any chance we'd win," said Karukas, who performs with British guitarist Peter White March 8-10 at Blues Alley in D.C. "I think it's crazy because it's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and I've watched the Grammys for many, many, many years and I've had many, many friends who have been nominated in lots of different categories."

The win is even more significant to Karukas, because this is the third album Karukas has produced for Akram, and his involvement on each album has increased. On this album, he produced, arranged and wrote much of the music.

Besides producing and composing, Karukas, a self-described musical jack-of-all-trades, is a jazz keyboardist who has played with some of the best-known musicians of the genre, touring the world over.

Karukas got his start in Maryland, where he attended McDonogh School in Owings Mills, before transferring to Bowie High School to play for its jazz band, The Starliners. As a child, he took piano lessons on and off.

"I was definitely not a child prodigy by any stretch," Karukas said. "But I also had a good ear."

When he was in 9th grade, Karukas got a call to be understudy for The Starliners, because their piano player was a senior about to graduate. He accepted.

"I got involved and it changed my musical directions and tastes completely," he said. "I really got into jazz and jazz fusion."

The Starliners played big band music, but Karukas got into jazz by hanging out with other band mambers, listening to records and comparing notes.

After graduating high school, Karukas started the band East Coast Offering, and played with them for about four years. They made two records and opened up for The Beach Boys at the 1976 Washington Bicentennial. He was also in the studio at the time, working on jingles for the television and radio, and playing on other people's demos.

After East Coast Offering split up, he moved to California. Though he stayed there — he lives in Thousand Oaks now, just north of Los Angeles — Karukas returns to the Baltimore-Washington area every couple months to play shows, catch up with friends and family, and visit his "old stomping grounds," he said.

Karukas, now in his 50s, likes to come back to Maryland because he gets to re-visit places he went as a kid. He played Capital Jazz Fest at Merriweather Post Pavilion last summer.

"I saw The Who there, and Joni Mitchell, and then to end up playing there over the past 10 or 15 years, it's very cool," he said. "It's still the same and it's always fun."

He also plays in Ocean City and Rehoboth frequently when he comes back to the east coast, because of the musical connections he has there. It brings back childhood memories, he said.

"That's cool too, because when I was a kid that was our vacation spot," he said. "I've taken my kids to the shore to keep those roots."

While finishing a CD after working on it for months is a great feeling, Karukas says what he enjoys most is playing live, especially with the perks of traveling to exotic locations.

Now, he is busy in his role as musical director of the Dave Koz & Friends cruise, which travels to Italy and Greece with performances by top acts in smooth jazz. Karukas is in charge of scheduling and coordinating all the groups. He is also in the middle of working on his 12th solo CD and will probably start touring the east coast again in the fall, he said.

As for his Grammy-winning CD, Karukas says he's going to have to live with his decision not to attend the awards ceremony.

"I just got off the phone with the Grammy people to get the trophy information correct," Karukas said. "It will end up coming through the mail in late April, so I'll just be sitting tight to get the actual proof."


If you go

Gregg Karukas performs with British guitarist Peter White March 8-10 at Blues Alley, 1073 Wisconsin Ave. N.W. in Washington. Show times are 8 p.m. and 10 p.m. each day. Call 202-337-4141 or go to bluesalley.com.

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