Jerome Garcia grew up in The Mission District. His dad was a professional musician. You live what you learn.
What Jerry learned was to make things from available materials, and make things happen with the people and talent at hand. Phil Lesh, for instance, did not know how to play bass when Jerry asked him to join the band as bass player.
Phil was a budding composer of classical music, and Jerry liked he musical mind, so he taught him to play bass.
Jerry Garcia Life Lesson: Improvise
Jerry’s brother, Tiff, accidentally removed his little brother’s middle finger with an axe one day 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.
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.
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 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) where 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 many 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. Improvisation is scary. It’s risky and the chance of failure is high. But when you fail to fail, or succeed, 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 the Merry Prankster’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.
So many entertainers feel the need to reproduce their hits precisely as performed in the studio. Grateful Dead didn’t have a hit record until 1987 — 22 years into their journey as a band. Deadheads didn’t want a repeat performance night after night. Same for the band. What we all desired was to be together in a musical experiment that transcended mere concert going. We sought the joy of letting go in a crowd of like-minded people. We wanted to be free to play, and to make it up as we went along. Plans are great but the ability to adapt and thrive in the moment is even greater.
This article was originally written in 2013 and published on davidburn.com to celebrate “Nine Days of Jerry,” which takes place each year from August 1 to August 9. To read the entire series of Jerry Garcia-inspired articles, click here and let the good times roll. #9DaysofJerry