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Being Grateful: Defining the Jazz Years Part One - 1973

Jacob Hobson By

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Jazz, like the Grateful Dead, has never been particularly easy to define. It seems jazz, in its most simply defined meaning, is improvised music. The Grateful Dead have been called a thousand different things since its official formation in 1965, but has rarely been called a jazz band. There have always been and will always be heated debates about which years were the best, which tone of Jerry Garcia's was the best, which keyboardist was the best. I've heard it all: endless interpretations and conversations that go on for hours at college parties and crowded parking lots of Phish and Widespread Panic shows: "The Drug Years," "The Heineken Years," "The Best Years," "The Worst Years" etc. For many, the Dead's career gets divided by decade as the band's lineage conveniently splits itself, for the most part, into neat categories with different pianists/organists being the dividing line: Pigpen Ron McKern and Tom Constanten in the 1960s, Keith Godchaux, in the 1970s, Brent Mydland in the 1980s, and Vince Welnick and Bruce Hornsby in the 1990s. This first installment of "Being Grateful" focuses on a post 1960s Dead in an attempt to examine why 1973 is one of the band's most jazz heavy years.

The 1960s and the acid tests with Ken Kesey, Neal Cassady and the Pranksters living all out beatnik, glow paint, tie-dye inventing, flute playing, Kerouac envying, free- loving lifestyles had given the Dead, formerly the Warlocks, a chance to discover themselves and their potential as an improvising unit without too much, if any, negative criticism coming from the fans. These early years of risk and self development eventually led the band to the famed 1972 Europe tour that had them sounding tighter and cleaner than ever before. The 1960s and early 1970s had readied the band for a new, more adventurous sound, and in returning home from Europe their musical and improvisational creativity exploded, creating one of the best and most risk taking years in the Dead's career: 1973.

The emerging bands and albums surrounding the Grateful Dead in the early 1970s had to have had an influence on the band's expanding sound: In 1971 the Mahavishnu Orchestra released their first album Inner Mounting Flame, by 1973 Weather Report had already released three albums including Sweetnighter the same year, Miles Davis' Bitches Brew had come out in 1970, and John Coltrane had died a few years earlier in 1967 leaving behind numerous avant-garde albums. Dead biographers never point directly to any of these albums as influences, although Phil Lesh has talked about the importance of Coltrane in dealing with the Dead's evolving sound, but like Percy Shelley wrote in 1821, "it is less their spirit than the spirit of the age." Even though the band pointed to bluegrass, rock n' roll, and blues as primary influences, by 1973 the surrounding spirit of funk and jazz fusion had entered the soul of the Grateful Dead.

After Pigpen's departure from the Dead in 1972 the band had developed into a freer, more exploratory band. I hesitate to make any claim that the Dead were ever anything but free-form, but 1973 brought with it a more comfortable Keith Godchaux, a cymbal heavy Bill Kreutzman, and some of the longer sets of the band's thirty year career. There's no polite way to say that the band's music improved artistically and stylistically after Pigpen's death, but Pigpen was a blues man and the Dead were looking to tread deeper and more fiercely into the complex melodic improvisations found more in jazz and fusion than in the rock n' roll and blues of their day . Members of the band have repeatedly talked about the fact that Pigpen didn't mind to sit out during the extended exploratory jams, but that had to have taken a toll on the band and created some sort of mixed feelings. Whatever the feelings, I've always thought the 1972 tour held a bit of timidity and reservation in terms of improvisation; of course I can't speak for the band, only for the music and of the footage of the Europe tour with a weathered Pigpen sitting, sunken-faced and red-eyed, behind the B-3 adding a touch of color to the jams here and there and only singing a few numbers. In Playing in the Band: An Oral and Visual Portrait of the Grateful Dead by David Gans and Peter Simon, Garcia speaks on a post Pigpen band: "It's not a question of better of worse—it's just different. Getting Keith [Godchaux], we became a different band."


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