David Grisman :: The Aquarium Drunkard Interview

Teenage mandolinist David Grisman met 21-year-old banjo-picking Jerry Garcia in the parking lot of a performance by bluegrass pioneer Bill Monroe at Sunset Park in Pennsylvania on May 31st, 1964. Both were in the midst of their own bluegrass odysseys involving intense devotion to their respective instruments, live tape collecting, and long road trips to see their favorite musicians – odysseys that resulted in both musicians leaving bluegrass behind for more uncharted territories.

Jerry Garcia would co-found the Warlocks in 1965 (with Grisman providing their first national press via an item in Sing Out!), finding success when they changed their name to the Grateful Dead. David Grisman would find his own voice in a hybrid of bluegrass, jazz, folk, and myriad other styles called Dawg music (a nickname bestowed on him by Garcia). In between, the two played together in the briefly-lived but long-impacting Old & In the Way, as well as Grisman’s proto-Dawg outfit, the Great American String Band. 

Fifteen years later, after Grisman founded his own label, Acoustic Disc, they reconnected for an equally influential half-decade of sessions that (so far) has yielded a half-dozen full-length albums, including the 1998 jazz collection So What, assembled by Grisman after Garcia’s death. Applying audiophile standards to his acoustic recordings since starting to produce his own albums in the ‘70s, like all of the projects from Grisman’s Dawg Studios in Mill Valley, their sessions were captured on analog tape, now the source of an expanded double-LP of So What from ORG Music. And, like all their sessions, nearly every take catches Garcia in an intimate acoustic mode he only embraced all too briefly. If reviving folk songs with Grisman was musical comfort, the jazz material on So What represents late-life musical challenges for Garcia, applying decades of electric guitar vocabulary back to acoustic.

David Grisman’s label Acoustic Disc continues to go strong, as well, lately including a podcast, a series of deluxe Acoustic Oasis digital releases (including an entire alternate version of Garcia/Grisman’s 1990 debut), and a brand new Old & In the Way archival release from their last full show in November 1973. The mandolin legend spoke with us about jazz, mandolin, when Bob Dylan hit him up for lessons, and his long partnership with Jerry Garcia. | jesse jarnow

Aquarium Drunkard: Mandolin has a pretty rich history with jazz, at what point in your own learning did you connect with that?

David Grisman: I started listening to jazz in a serious way in the early 1960s. It was a bluegrass banjo player, Winnie Winston, who turned me on to the first jazz album that I remember hearing, an unusual album that was called Bass Ball by a French bassist named Francois Rabbeth. It’s just bass and drums. And this guy is an amazing player. And they’re all his compositions. It’’s not typical jazz at all, but it really turned me on to something. And then I started buying jazz albums. And the first two albums I bought were A Love Supreme by John Coltrane and Eric Dolphy Live at the Five Spot, I think Volume Two. And then it just went from there. I just realized that jazz was such a wide open category that encompassed so many different styles and players like Thelonoius Monk, Bill Evans, Ben Webster, Benny Goodman, and every time I discovered one of these jazz icons, it just blew my mind out how different it was from the last one. And I guess simultaneously Jerry was kind of discovering all that stuff himself.

AD: And once you drill far enough back into hot jazz, you get to acoustic music, like Django Reinhardt.

David Grisman: I discovered that around the same time as well. And [in the Old & In The Way era] Jerry turned me on to Oscar Alemán. He was a contemporary of Django Reinhardt. He was from Argentina. But he went to Paris in the 1930s, where he secured a job with Josephine Baker as her guitar player, and he and Django were both friends and rivals. We released a 2-CD set on Acoustic Disc, it’s out of print, but you can download it.

AD: Were you playing any jazz in that era?

David Grisman: Well, no, I was trying to learn how to play bluegrass. And jazz was kind of a mystery to me. And one day another friend–a bluegrass banjo player, as well–Steve Arkin and I found a record by Homer and Jethro, Playing it Straight, which was a jazz instrumental album. These two comedians, essentially, who made a career out of doing parodies of popular songs. And I’ll never forget, we brought it to Steve’s house in Brooklyn, and put it on the turntable and inadvertently the turntable was set for 45 RPM, and the first song on there starts real slow, so  we didn’t quite realize what was happening until later in the song and we realized it was playing at a faster speed. But nevertheless, Jethro’s playing blew my mind. 

I actually got interested in jazz to the point where… I figured you had to have a jazz instrument to play jazz. So when I was on tour with Earth Opera in 1968, the day of the Cleveland riots, Pete Rowan and I went to a pawn shop and I bought a King Super 20 alto sax. But I had no ability to play sax. I just couldn’t get one note out. So I gave up on that and went back to trying to figure out how to play this stuff on mandolin. 

AD: Did you have any particular break-through playing jazz on mandolin?

David Grisman: I had a lot of break-downs. [laughs] I don’t know, I don’t consider myself a legitimate jazz player [except]  in a sense. When ultimately I realized that jazz is largely about self expression. You know, you can learn the notes to something on an instrument. But styles are harder to learn. You can’t really learn a style, you have to sort of assimilate it. And I did this in bluegrass by getting to play with some masters of bluegrass and just paying attention. And ultimately, that’s how I learned whatever jazz knowledge I might have other than learning the tunes. I think listening is the biggest component in music, just paying attention.

AD: How did you hear it coming out in your own music?

David Grisman: I started trying to write bluegrass instrumentals, because I noticed that all my mandolin heroes wrote original mandolin tunes. And so I started doing that. And at some point, they diverged from being what you would call bluegrass.

AD: Old & In The Way was towards the end of your time focusing on more traditional bluegrass.

David Grisman: I thought that bluegrass at the time was regressive. I was on my path towards Dawg-dom. And I guess I also subconsciously realized that even though Jerry wanted me to be the bandleader, he was the reason people were showing up. I think we both had other musical fish to fry. I felt I had played [bluegrass] already. I played with the Kentucky Colonels for a week in 1964. And I played with Red Allen in 1966. I figured I’d already played bluegrass, but Jerry never really did. I think this was his bluegrass experience. Listening back to it, I realized that it had a lot going for it that was unique and special.

AD: Supposedly, Old & In the Way made a studio album that never came out?

David Grisman: Yes, we did. Mickey Hart had a studio and we spent a few days there. Somebody found the tapes a number of years ago. It was towards the end. Vassar [Clements] was there. And as I remember, we didn’t think it was all that good. I was pretty critical at the time. I shouldn’t have been, but I was.

AD: Garcia was around for the Great American String Band, which was sort of your transition between bluegrass and what became Dawg music.

David Grisman: That was kind of the precursor to my band. That was a partnership with Richard Greene, violin player and we kind of fell into playing gigs together. This was right after Old & In The Way in early 1974. We started out being kind of a loose aggregation and Jerry played with that band a lot and so did Taj Mahal on upright bass. I met Taj on a plane to LA. He was going to take a bass lesson there and I was going to do a session and I had a mandolin and mandola and we ended up playing them on the plane

[Richard Greene and I] both came out of bluegrass music where it’s largely vocal style, or it’s mostly the songs. And so these first few gigs, we hired the guitar players that sang. And then one day it kind of dawned on us that maybe we can just play instrumentals, but we realized we couldn’t just play hoedowns for 90 minutes. We started arranging and playing Duke Ellington tunes, Django Reinhardt tunes, just different kinds of material, and I immediately started composing more because I had an outlet for it. Necessity is always the mother of invention. And that was successful because we got hired to open a lot of shows for a lot of singers because most acts want something totally different than what they do to open the show. So we got a lot of mileage out of that. And one day Richard was offered a job with Loggins & Messina and he went bye-bye and I was left with a concept and a bunch of tunes and then went from there.

AD: I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask about a story I heard about Bob Dylan taking mandolin lessons from you in this period?

David Grisman: I got a call in 1974 out of the blue from Bob Dylan, which I thought was a joke, wanting to take a mandolin lesson. So I said, “come on over” and an hour or two later he was my back porch. He came over for three days, during which I believe we went over to Jerry’s house. He still owes me money for that! I charged $15 a lesson.

I also introduced him to Bill Monroe shortly after that. He was really interested in Bill Monroe and bluegrass and I said, “Hey, man, you just get on the bus [with Monroe], just go.” That was during the Great American String Band. We had a gig [opening for Monroe] at a place called the Palomino in Pasadena coming up about a month after these lessons [on 10/28/74], and I invited Bob, I said “come to this gig and I’ll introduce you,” and that’s what happened. [Just after that, Dylan would play mandolin on record for the only known time, overdubbing a part on “If You See Her, Say Hello,” on Blood on the Tracks.]

AD: During the ‘80s, you played in more situations that might be described as jazz.

David Grisman: I had a kind of period, around 1986/1987/1988, where I added a jazz drummer, George Marsh, and Jim Kerwin was my bass player. There was kind of a warehouse-type scene in the Mission District in San Francisco where a bunch of jazz musicians hung out and rented little spaces and just jammed. I knew George Marsh, but we ended up on a plane ride back from LA together, and he invited me to come down and jam. We called it the Clubhouse. And that’s where I met Jim Kerwin. I always wanted to play that music, but I didn’t know how to get involved with it beyond my own group. I was mostly focusing on my own compositions, but I always found tunes I love to play and, through the years, adapted a lot of material – John Coltrane’s “Naima,” I did [Duke Ellington’s] “In A Sentimental Mood.” And I got to play with Stephane Grapelli, Svend Asmussen, and Ray Brown on some sessions. It just started rubbing off.

AD: Just after then is when you reconnected with Garcia.

David Grisman: We hadn’t played together for about 12 or 13 years and we ran into each other at a recording session for [Watchfire by] Pete Sears. And I had a long talk and some other things happened. Once a year, [through the Rex Foundation] the Grateful Dead gave out what they called the Ralph J. Gleason Award for a musician, which was actually money. And one day I went to my mailbox and found a check there, and they gave me that award. I found out Jerry was behind it. I called him up to thank him and invited him over to play. He walked in the door and he said, “I know what we need to do, we need to make a record so we can have an excuse to get together.” I just built this studio and started a CD company. And I mentioned that, and he said “Good, we’ll do it for you.” And we walked downstairs and started. It was pretty open-ended. I figured every time we got together, I’d just record. It wasn’t like a normal record situation where you have a budget and list of songs and you knock it out. I had a really good engineer, Dave Dennison. And I could call him up and he’d come over and we’d just do it.

AD: When you started playing with Garcia again, how quickly did you fall into the jazz and non-traditional material?

David Grisman: I don’t exactly remember who suggested it or how it came up. But I know it was before we added the rhythm section because I just found a duet version of [“So What”]. We  would just suggest things that popped into our head. “Bag’s Groove” I had already played with my band.

AD: Did you listen to versions of the songs before you played them or look at the music or anything?

David Grisman: No, I think we just hit it. I don’t think we used charts or studied the records, maybe for “So What.” It was kind of informal. With the Shady Grove folk material, we used books to get the words for the songs. But we never used music or a written source for these. 

AD: How did the So What album evolve?

David Grisman: When Jerry passed away, I had all this material and I figured I’d try and put together albums, according to genres. Shady Grove was the first one. There weren’t really enough different songs for a jazz album, but there were different takes. When I started rebuying jazz albums that had been released on CD, a lot of times they would put alternate takes on. An LP can only hold about 22 minutes a side, maximum. And a CD can hold up to 80 minutes, almost capable of putting out twice as much material. In fact, this [So What] LP is a double-LP. And I added two extra cuts. There are alternate versions of “Grateful Dawg” and “Dawg’s Waltz.”

AD: Though Acoustic Disc was very much a CD company, you were recording all this stuff on tape.

David Grisman: I came out of the analog experience and I don’t think digital recording was as well developed as it is now. That was just the start of CDs. For Acoustic Disc, we decided to form a record company and realized that LPs were just on the way out, and CDs were coming in. So we just made the decision to bypass LPs. And a couple of years ago, when my wife Tracy and I bought out our partners in Acoustic Disc because they wanted to retire, other than my manager, Craig [Miller], the first thing we decided was to stop making CDs, and just go all digital. But that allows us to put out high-definition downloads. I’ve been producing records since I was 18 years old in 1963. That’s 60 years of making records. Now I’ve tripled my record production output since going digital. And not touring.

AD: Were you pretty much just always recording?

David Grisman: Everything we played got recorded. I look at it all as one big rehearsal. You’re practicing your craft while you’re doing it. It was pretty freeform, there was never a plan of what we would be doing. We just had a real simpatico musical relationship. We didn’t really have to arrange material. It fell together really naturally. I’d suggest something and he’d know it. I had the idea to make a kids’ album [Not For Kids Only], and he didn’t even want to do that at first. I just thought it was a good idea and sort of pushed him into it. But we didn’t have a deadline or anything. We did most of that just the two of us and then I overdubbed other things. I’ve got over 50 tracks of just the two of us that have never been released and I’m hoping to be able to do that someday.

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