Who loves jazz? I grew up with jazz in the house. The Grateful Dead eventually got my attention when I finally heard the long jams on Europe ’72.
The long list of songs performed by the Grateful Dead show us the wide range of influences and styles they incorporated into their music. Jerry’s fondness for jugband, folk, and bluegrass were evident as early as Mother Mcree’s Uptown Jug Champions. Pigpen brought the blues to energizing life in the Dead’s music.
Then there was Phil’s love for jazz and classical avant-garde to expand ever outward their realm of influences.
Phil’s interest in jazz was soon shared by the rest of the band.
It’s only fitting that musicians who played with Miles Davis would find their way into playing with our boys. Branford Marsalis was the first notable Miles alum to sit in. Later Phil would be joined by John Scofield, Robbin Ford, and Bill Evans.
From Lesh’s book, Searching For The Sound: “..we played a four night stand at the Fillmore West, where we were faced with the unenviable task of following the great Miles Davis and his most recent band, a hot young aggregation that had just recorded the seminal classic Bitches Brew. As I listened, leaning over the amps with my jaw hanging agape, trying to comprehend the forces that Miles was unleashing onstage, I was thinking, What’s the use. How can we possibly play after this? We should just go home and try to digest this unbelievable shit. This was our first encounter with Miles’ new direction. Bitches Brew had only just been released, but I know I hadn’t yet heard any of it. With this band, Miles literally invented fusion music. In some ways it was similar to what we were trying to do in our free jamming, but ever so much more dense with ideas – and seemingly controlled with an iron fist, even at its most alarmingly intense moments. Of all of us, only Jerry had the nerve to go back and meet Miles, with whom he struck up a warm conversation. Miles was surprised and delighted to know that we knew and loved his music, apparently other rockers he had shared it with didn’t know or care.”
From Miles’ autobiography: “We opened for the Grateful Dead, but another group came on before us. The place was packed with these real spacy, high white people, and when we first started playing, people were walking around and talking. But after a while, they all got quiet and really got into the music. I played a little of something like Sketches in Spain and then we went into the Bitches Brew shit and that really blew them out. After that concert, every time I would play out there in San Francisco, a lot of young white people showed up at the gigs.
...it was through Bill (Graham) that I met the Grateful Dead. Jerry Garcia, their guitar player, and I hit it off great, talking about music – what they liked and what I liked- and I think we all learned something. Jerry Garcia loved jazz, and I found out that he loved my music and had been listening to it for a long time. He loved other jazz musicians, like Ornette Coleman and Bill Evans.”
Praise from Miles Davis, especially for non-jazz players, was rare indeed. Ornette also eventually sat in with the Grateful Dead. Jerry was even invited to play on Ornette’s album Virgin Beauty. That would give Jerry recognition as the jazz musician he was.
The emotional and powerful music of John Coltrane was also imprinted into the Grateful Dead’s approach to music. Coltrane was playing half-hour long songs as early as 1961 at his legendary Village Vanguard shows.
Weir: "We felt at that time, when we were listening to Coltrane, that we were hardly fit to grovel at his feet. But still, we were trying to get there - our aims were the same."
Lesh: '“What do I have to say about ’Trane? His music is very florid, convulsive, evocative, volcanic, and it all moves very steadily in its flow. It was a logical extension of what we wanted to do. The improvisation over the drone note derives from ethnic music practices the world over, and helped us figure out how to play longer in new, more interesting ways.”'
From Lesh’s book: "I urged the other band members to listen closely to the music of John Coltrane, especially his classic quartet, in which the band would take fairly simple structures ('My Favorite Things', for example) and extend them far beyond their original length with fantastical variations, frequently based on only one chord."
Garcia: "I've been influenced a lot by Coltrane, but I never copped his licks or sat down, listened to records and tried to play his stuff. I've been impressed with that thing of flow, and of making statements that to my ears sound like paragraphs - he'll play along stylistically with a certain kind of tone...for X amount of time - then he'll change the subject, then play along with this other personality coming out, which really impresses me. It's like...his attitude's changing, but it changes in a holistic way, where the tone of his axe and everything changes."
Jerry went on to record the Miles Davis classics Milestones and So What with David Grisman.
Phil got the post-Jerry Dead to play Milestones as well. Hints of Miles permeate Phil and Friends to this day.