Monday, July 27, 2015

Jerry Garcia + symphony orchestra

I'm not talking about that Warren Haynes + symphony tribute thing, and I'm not talking about the Dead Symphony #6 from a few years back.  It seems that Garcia himself was planning on performing orchestral pieces?  That was news to me when I stumbled upon this.  On 9/17/93 Garcia and David Grisman did an interview for NPR in New York to promote their new Not For Kids Only album -- the Dead were in the middle of their fall '93 Madison Square Garden run, and Garcia & Grisman had been on Letterman two nights before.  During the long interview, an orchestral project that was apparently in the works comes up twice in passing.  The recording circulates (here's the info file), although it's a pre-FM recording of their studio feed and not of the remote interviewer, so all you hear are their answers, not the questions. 

First, in response to a question about their arrangement of "Shenandoah" (track 8 @6:58):
Grisman: Jerry's commissioned me to write a guitar concerto for him, or some such orchestral piece of music.  I sort of thought that "Shenandoah" would sound good with a string section, so I thought I'd try and write a chart for it.

And again, in response to a question about the various styles that they play (track 12 @6:24):

Grisman: Well, we haven't played with orchestra -- I mean Jerry's about to do that --
Garcia: Yeah I'm about to break into that world… I'm doing this thing with a local symphony orchestra… I'm getting some things written, David's writing one of them, six or seven or eight pieces that are short pieces for me and a symphony orchestra.  They'll all be different, stylistically I mean, and I'm not sure what they're gonna be like, but that's the format, and the idea is just that I want to be able to play with a symphony orchestra.  Actually, the conductor of this symphony, the Redwood Symphony down the peninsula in San Francisco, asked me if I'd be interested in doing some collaboration of some kind.  I got thinking about it for a while and thought this'd be an interesting to do, so it's gained momentum and it's now the stage of the various composers who are involved are starting working on pieces.  They'd be short pieces like 5 to 7-8 minutes long, something along those lines.  But I'd like to be able to build up a repertoire of these things so I could do them with orchestras anywhere in the world… Well I don't know whether I'm gonna have white tie and tails or not.  I suppose if I really had to.
Grisman:  No, actually everyone in the orchestra is going to be given black t-shirts and sweat pants.

Whaaat?  Both of them had deadpan responses to spare that morning, but this doesn't sound like he's being sarcastic.  I don't remember seeing any mention of this anywhere before.  I wonder if any actual music was ever written and, if so, what happened to it.  Anyone?

This article on the Redwood Symphony from Sept 1995 mentions, "There had also been plans for a joint concert with the Grateful Dead until the death of Jerry Garcia.  Garcia's [first] daughter, Heather, is one of the symphony's violinists."  Fascinating. 

For now, though, this is what we've got.  If you haven't heard it in a while, it's a real beauty:


  1. I hadn't really caught that, but I figure it is related to his daughter's thing in Redwood City. Not sure, at all.

  2. Garcia said in his October '91 Rolling Stone interview:
    "Heather, my oldest daughter from my first marriage, is now a concert violinist. And that's with no input from me. Her mom, Sara Katz, tells me that she never particularly encouraged it, either. I actually got together with Heather for the first time in a long, long time - I hadn't seen her in like eighteen or nineteen years - and I took her to see my friend David Grisman and Stephane Grappelli, and she loved it. So I hope it's the beginning of something."

    The September '93 Rolling Stone interview also briefly mentions, "For a collaboration with the Redwood Symphony, with which his eldest daughter plays violin, Garcia is commissioning works for orchestra and guitar."

    Blair Jackson's bio has more on the story of Jerry's reunion with Heather. Sara recalled, "He was so proud that Heather was a musician, and they talked about music together, about how he would take her to the Smithsonian to play those Stradivarius fiddles, and about composers they both loved."
    Jackson continues: "Later that year, Jerry and the conductor of the Redwood, Eric Kujawsky, hatched a plan for Garcia to commission several short works for guitar and orchestra, which he would perform with the Redwood. With great glee he told Sara, 'I let him think I was doing a favor, but I've always wanted an orchestra!'
    Heather would be the musical liason between the composers and the orchestra, and would help her father learn the music. Although Jerry did contact some composers and Davies Symphony Hall in San Francisco was tentatively booked for the performance, this was one of the great plans that Garcia never managed to complete." (Jackson p.402-403)

    Heather did play in the string section on 'Shenandoah Lullaby.'

  3. I've really got to start checking the books on my shelf. Thanks, LIA!

  4. For Garcia, the idea actually went back 20 years earlier.

    Bob Weir told Cameron Crowe in the June 1973 issue of Rock magazine:
    "Garcia and me talked a while back about it being nice if we could get an ensemble together, maybe a string section and a brass section, and rehearse them to do a tour. A big production tour... I think it would be a pretty nice show if we had a huge string ensemble, or maybe not huge, but essentially a 25-piece orchestra. It'd be fun. I personally would like to hear something in the direction of Philharmonic rock 'n' roll."

    Of course, the Dead HAD actually played with a symphony orchestra in Buffalo in 1970. Unfortunately they never commented on it....but Weir at least got the chance to try again in more recent years, playing Dead tunes with the Marin Symphony Orchestra back in 2011.

    And the whole idea of touring with a "brass section"? By September '73, that had been winnowed down to two horns....