Jerry Garcia Life Lesson #2

by | Aug 2, 2013

To make or provide from available materials.

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 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