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Jerry Garcia Life Lesson #2: Improvise

Jerry’s brother, Tiff, accidentally removed his little brother’s middle finger with an axe when Jerry was young. Thus, Jerry literally did not have the finger-picking ability of other able-handed guitarists. So, he made do with what he had to work with. He improvised.

In Jerry’s Palo Alto days he lived in his car for awhile, and later in a shed behind a big communal party house. Jerry was a dedicated musician and he put everything he had into being a musician. He sacrificed and “made do” for the music. He improvised.

Of course, improvisation also has another meaning. To invent, compose, or perform in the moment. In other words, to play like you’re in a jazz band. It’s well known that Grateful Dead modeled their approach to music on jazz and classical, and that they loved Miles Davis, John Coltrane and the rest. In fact, Miles opened for The Dead at Fillmore West and Phil Lesh, for one, was horrified to have to follow Miles’ performance, such was the band’s respect for Miles’ heaviness.

I am one fortunate freaker son, in that I was there to see Branford Marsalis join Grateful Dead on stage on Dec. 31, 1990. I was in a great position in the Duck Pond (the floor of Oakland Coliseum) and I could see the interplay between Jerry and Branford pretty well. It’s not something I’m likely to forget. Here, get some of this musical magic in your ears.

Jazz legend David Murray also liked to jam with Jerry. So did Carlos Santana, David Hidalgo and César Rosas, David Grisman and Tony Rice, John Kahn and Merl Saunders, David Nelson, David Crosby, John Cippolina, and so on. He was a beloved guy, eager collaborator and gifted musician able to hold deep conversations with everyone in the room thanks to his uncanny ability on guitar.

To improvise is to create and Jerry was always making things and making things happen. I think the practical hard-working side of Jerry’s personality gets lost in the all the adulation and fandom. The man was a grunt! He practiced for hours every day and explored every new direction in music he could find by being a great listener (with open ears to go with his open heart and mind).

You improvise by cobbling disparate parts into a cohesive whole. To do it well you must have an environment of trust. You have to put yourself out there in a vulnerable position, not knowing what’s next only that you are capable and will hopefully be able to roll with the changes. Improv is scary. It’s risky and the chance of failure is high. But when you fail to fail, the rewards are so great that it makes facing the fear of the unknown worthwhile.

Grateful Dead’s live album from 1990 is titled Without A Net, and those three words capture the essence of the band’s approach to being a band. They took the stage without a net from the very beginning when they were Ken Kesey’s house band at the Acid Trips, all the way to 1995 and the dark chaos of the band’s last tour that summer. They went out there night after night ostensibly to see what would happen, and with the informed faith that they could coax something great from themselves and the music floating there in the air.

Previously: Jerry Garcia Life Lesson #1: Stretch

Join the conversation! 4 Comments

  1. Ditto.
    My chance was Spring ’90, at the Nassau Coliseum.
    The vortex of spontaneity that emerged between Jerry, Branford and Brent fed my soul to flight.

    Also, loved the machismo (not often associated with counter-cultural males by the ‘straight’ crowd) shown as Jer brought his sometimes wandering focus to bare in a ‘cutting’ session I have not seen matched to this day…

  2. Hi DB,
    You probably aren’t going to love what I have to say about this, but –

    I like the idea of your posting life lessons absorbed from Jerry Garcia, and for the most part, I think this one is true, with a couple of exceptions. You are correct that many aspects of Jerry’s life were lost in the adulation/fandom, and basically the “myth” of Jerry Garcia. Jerry’s fans created Jerry in their image and idea of what he was supposed to be, or what he was to them. It is widely known, by those who made an effort to research his life beyond the time spent as a/the blinding star on stage, that he was, as you say, a working “grunt”.
    During the early to late 70’s, Jerry’s work ethic was unparalleled. Aside from writing, performing/touring, and recording with the Grateful Dead, Jerry had a vast array of solo/side projects, produced and recorded with many of that decade’s most significant artists and performers.
    It’s mind boggling to consider the prolific nature of the output during this time, not to mention the level of quality as well, and this is just the work with the Grateful Dead.
    Let’s review:
    • Workingman’s Dead
    • American Beauty
    • Europe ’72 – and the grueling tour that yielded those awesome recordings.
    • Wake of the Flood
    • From the Mars Hotel
    • Blues for Allah
    • Terrapin Station
    On top of all this work, Jerry was also directing and co-producing the film “The Grateful Dead Movie”. This was a busy guy, and documented history seems to confirm that he loved it and would have it no other way.
    In my opinion, Blues for Allah was the high water mark of the Grateful Dead from all perspectives. Terrapin Station is close behind but I think it’s over-produced, and has a strange production quality/value, but I’m getting away from my message here. What I’m trying to say is that from about 1976 – 1977, Jerry Garcia and the Grateful Dead were at a creative zenith, and their performances were literally bristling with damn near visible energy. Large percentages of fans consider the tour(s) of 1977 to be one of the, if not the best of the band’s career.
    So, where am I going with this and what is the exception noted above??
    As with other road-weary musicians and busy entertainment professionals, the members of The Grateful Dead, Jerry Garcia in particular, discovered freebase cocaine and, unfortunately, heroin. Jerry’s addiction to heroin essentially killed his creativity and insatiable work drive. The addition of Brent Mydland to the Dead added some life to Jerry and the band, and some consider the Brent years to be some of the best. I think after the Grateful Dead released “Dead Set” and “Reckoning”, recordings of epic runs of shows from the Warfield in S.F. and Radio City in NYC in 1980, the lifelessness had begun to set in. I saw many shows during those years and sure, the band definitely had some “hot” nights and great “moments”, but the consistency was not there.
    You and others will disagree with me but as far as I’m concerned, Jerry and the Dead were basically “phoning it in” after that time. When Brent died, it totally ended for me. That was the end of the Grateful Dead to me, but we’re not talking about Brent. We are talking about Jerry Garcia.
    I loved Jerry Garcia as much as anybody else. I think he was a brilliant musician/guitarist. Heroin robbed Jerry of the joy that music and work brought him, and pretty much anything else, and it was, to me, evident watching him perform, especially after 1990.
    August 1st through August 9th is always a good week-long moment to reflect on the life of Jerry Garcia. So many reflect on the myth of the man, and the greatness, and imply his intentions and beliefs, and what he was about. But remember this, and please know I am not trying to be judgmental, as I’ve struggled with my own substance abuse issues with opiates specifically.
    Jerry Garcia was a battered old junkie who died at least 25 years before he needed to. He was robbed of his life by heroin, and in turn, robbed his family, friends, bandmates, fans, and the rest of the world of him, the decent person, and his talent and music. Yeah, he was creative, and yes, he loved to work. If only he had put that dedication, creativity and “workaholic” ethic towards getting clean, we could very well still be going to see him perform, with The Grateful Dead, in 2013.
    I miss Jerry Garcia, and quite frankly, I’m still a little mad at him for leaving us, and that goes for the huge laundry list of other artists and musicians who have met the same self-inflicted fate. I could list them here, but we’re not talking about them. We are talking about Jerry Garcia.

  3. Thanks Kenyon. I appreciate your point of view and your honest look at the issue of drug abuse. I think you clearly stumbled on another key life lesson learned from Jerry here: Don’t do heroin.

    As for the “phoning it in” claim, there is no doubt that the GD machine was just chugging along with very little but the need for more money driving it. Phil says he doesn’t even remember much of the 1985 to ’95 run. For me the breaking point was in 1993 when Jerry was propped up by a teleprompter and he still couldn’t make it through the rigors of a “Terrapin.”

    Critics also faulted Fitzgerald and Hemingway with “phoning it in” too. Yet, I am only too happy to read their every and last word. The greats are the greats — even when they are being all too human.

    Regardless of the many fumbles and the obvious human frailty and shortcomings, GD and Jerry Garcia Band in particular turned in many mind blowing, performances right up to the end. And Jerry wasn’t high all the time. I met him in the grocery store one morning in December of 1990, and he was the jovial Jerry of old.

  4. Yup, they did have some good moments. I went to all 3 nights of SLC in 95 and there was some lackluster moments during all 3 nights. Then, out of the blue, Jerry turned on like a jet turbine and they busted out a “Visions of Johanna” that knocked everybody out. – K


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