Some folks think that Jerry Garcia killed the ’60s, by suggesting to Mick Jagger that the Stones use Hell’s Angels for security at Altamont. Others say Garcia killed the ’60s in the mid-’90s, by dying — thus pulling the plug on the seemingly perpetuitous performing entity called The Grateful Dead. And some folks maintain that the ’60s — even those years which, on reflection, turn out to have really been the ’70s — will live on forever (check out the return of the Volkswagen Bug).
Whatever means we use to check for ’60s-style vital signs, we can be sure that Garcia’s death has not silenced the loose, noodlin’, easygoing improvisational music that was the Dead’s hallmark. Trade in both “official” and amateur bootlegs of past Dead shows remains brisk. And Dead cover bands are springing up all over the place, like so many … er, mushrooms.
Dead drummer Mickey Hart’s Further Festival — an ongoing cycle of artists who admire the spirit behind Garcia’s music — continues to attract attention. The JGB — otherwise known as the un-dead members of The Jerry Garcia Band — is doing surprisingly well. And bands like Phish and Widespread Panic pay regular homage to Garcia’s mastery by drawing openly from the Dead’s wellspring of spontaneity.
That said, now may be as good a time as any to remember that the Dead didn’t invent improvisation. Decades before they started truckin’, jazz combos were playing atmospherically loose, but technically tight, sets of new and reshaped old tunes — marked by flexible chording and solos (sometimes tortuous) of no preset length — laying down some of the finest flights of fancy on record.
But the Dead had a genius for translating those fluid melodic lines — so associated with intimate venues — to a stadium setting. So it may come as no surprise to generous — or is it cynical? — souls that a quartet of reigning jazz and fusion artists has gotten together to tap into that popular vein and see where it leads.
Drummer Billy Cobham’s technically brilliant and powerful work with the influential proto-fusion band Dreams, and later with Miles Davis (on eight albums, including the seminal Bitches Brew) and The Mahavishnu Orchestra, pretty much set the standard for modern jazz, art-rock and fusion drumming. Jimmy Herring, the most rock-influenced of the quartet, is a guitar god to fans of neo-hippie music, jamming with the likes of Phish, Blues Traveler and Bruce Hornsby on the H.O.R.D.E. tour. Alphonso Johnson has played bass and Chapman Stick (a 10-string electronic touchboard) with such kingpins as Weather Report, Chuck Mangione, Quincy Jones, George Duke, Lee Ritenour and Sarah Vaughan. Keyboardist T. Lavitz, co-founder of the legendary Dixie Dregs, was voted Best New Talent in 1981 by Keyboard — and, in 1992, won the magazine’s coveted Jazz Keyboard Player of the Year award. It’s said that Jerry had an especial love for T’s playing: When Dead keyboardist Brent Mydland overdosed, only T’s lack of vocal capability kept him from stepping in.
These are the luminaries who make up Jazz Is Dead. Their stated purpose, says their press release, is to perform “jazz explorations of music from [the] Grateful Dead … embark[ing] from the compass point of Garcia and company’s most complex and audacious material, culled from many periods of their storied history. From there, the musical heading is unknown … .”
Also on the bill is very special guest Merl Saunders. Live at Keystone — the recording Saunders made with Garcia, Steve Kahn and John Vitt — is often cited as the best extracurricular electric performance by any members of the Dead (trust Deadheads to have such a subheaded list). More recently, Saunders and his Hammond B-3 organ have been touring, to wide acclaim, with The Rainforest Band.
Jazz Is Dead is a spanking-new venture of the get-it-while-it-lasts variety. The band hit the road at the beginning of January to play a whirlwind 22 gigs in 26 days. No tapes are available — and the artists were too booked to interview — so it’s hard to guess what shape the sound will take. According to the omniscient press kit, the group’s repertoire will include “jazz-infused interpretations” of such Dead classics as “Blues For Allah,” “Dark Star,” “The Eleven,” “St. Stephen” and “Truckin'” — but the word “jazz” means many different things to different people. Will we be charmed and inspired by a warm and sophisticated homage to the improvisation’s popular heart? Or will we be riveted to our chairs by chilling fascination as an aural autopsy of the Dead unfolds?
Whatever happens, hearing the cool-as-ice stylings of Cobham and Co. — not to mention Merl Saunders — is bound to convince you that jazz is anything but dead.