|"whaddya think, John, is that a flatted 5th or a raised 4th?"|
Some inchoate notes on Jerry and jazz circa mid 1978:
Thanks to JGMF, we now have some public documentation of a very brief but very interesting moment in the JGB story, a brief side trip into a parallel universe where Garcia, Kahn, and Godchaux were a jazz piano combo.
JGMF once quoted (edit: here) an interview with John Kahn from 1987 where he casually mentioned the eyebrow-raising fact that, since 4/5 of the JGB lived near each other, they would regularly get together at the Godchauxs' house (mostly without Ron Tutt) and just play:
"We'd go through everything. We had Dylan songbooks and we'd do stuff like play everything from Blonde on Blonde. Then we'd do all sorts of Beatles songs. It was great. Most of it never even got past that room.
"We were real close for a while. We had this trip where we'd call ourselves the Front Street Sheiks and we'd play dumb piano jazz and stuff like that. We did some recording down at the rehearsal place [Front Street in San Rafael] right after they got their 24-track, just to see if the machine worked. We'd be down there every night of the week playing these old songs like "All the Things You Are," "Night in Tunisia," things like that." (Golden Road, Winter 1987, 29-30)
Tantalizing! Both Kahn and Godchaux had jazz backgrounds, and Garcia of course had dabbled in jazz a bit under the guidance of Merl Saunders. But now thanks to information that has been shared at the wonderful new Jerrybase site (seriously: it is wonderful), the picture comes slightly more into focus with four documented sessions at Club Front in June 1978 as either "Le Trio Clube" or the "Front Street Sheiks."
The "repertoire" is made up of some pretty old and conservative standards; Kahn mentioned using songbooks and it's possible that one of them owned a copy of The Real Book (a popular grey market 'fakebook' of common practice jazz tunes). Garcia was already comfortable with "My Funny Valentine" and "Georgia On My Mind" from the Garcia/Saunders days. "Satin Doll" (Ellington) and "Don't Blame Me" (a 1930's showtune recorded by dozens of singers and instrumentalists) are things that Godchaux would have likely played many times in his pre-Dead life as a cocktail bar pianist. Although Donna Godchaux is not mentioned in the Jerrybase info, Kahn did mention "Keith and Donna were always together, so Donna sang with us, too" and all of these songs were standards for vocalists as well as jazz instrumentalists. Kahn also mentioned "A Night in Tunisia" and "All the Things You Are," both bebop-era warhorses. That instrumental could be anything. A few months later the JGB played Miles Davis' "So What" live, seemingly out of the blue, but perhaps that was in the mix here as well.
Corry and Joe have done the heavy lifting with the late 1978 timeline as it relates to Reconstruction, when a lot was happening on both the GD and JGB fronts. It is worth familiarizing yourself with:
But for my own purposes, I will reiterate a bit from their posts:
- Garcia, Kahn, and Godchaux are messing around with jazz standards sometime in June 78 (and possibly earlier?).
- The gear at Front Street is upgraded from a 16-track to a 24-track machine in June 78 (presumably for the Dead to record Shakedown Street there) and GKG take advantage of this to hang out and lay down some of these jazz tunes.
- The Dead then get busy for most of August (recording Shakedown Street, with Kahn pitching in on overdubs and mixing duties) and September (going to Egypt, then canceling shows in London to return home and finish the album).
- Garcia sits in with Merl Saunders' band for a one-off benefit gig at a Haight/Ashbury club on 10/3/78. afaik, this is mostly still a mystery. The band's style is fairly similar to Reconstruction (no horns, though), but the setlist includes a somewhat stylistic outlier: "So What."
- The Keith & Donna JGB play their last known gig on 11/3/78 and, for the first known time, play "So What."
- The Dead are on tour in November, Garcia is hospitalized with bronchitis, shows are postponed, and the Dead are back on the road intermittently from mid-December through January.
- Reconstruction debuts with Garcia on 1/30/79, after a week of rehearsal during a break in the Dead's touring schedule.
Kahn described Reconstruction as a project he put together in Dec 1978 to play more jazz and to be able to gig when Garcia was on the road with the Dead, but also to potentially include Garcia when he wasn't: "I wasn't really planning on Jerry being in the band originally, and then when he was in the band it sort of changed everything from what the plan was" (Jackson, Garcia, 306). It must have been an appealing fit for Garcia, who for the first time in eight years had no side-band of his own: the timing was good, the environment was appealing (a no-commitment, no-hassle gig), and the both concept and the material were fresh and challenging. As the narrative has it, Garcia rose to the occasion for nine months in a final flash of inspired glory, but GD politics pulled him away, and Reconstruction's breakup symbolically marks an end to Garcia really pushing himself musically and settling into a more complacent rut for most of the next decade (see also: heroin; Garcia had moved in Rock Scully in this same period).
Is that narrative this changed by the fact that Garcia was actually "playing jazz" of his own accord six months before Reconstruction began? It might be, it might not. Given that Kahn seemed to suggest a lot of Garcia's material (starting with Compliments in 1974), it would make sense that he nudged Garcia this time as well. Maybe it was just for laughs -- or maybe the idea of a JGB that incorporated jazz tunes (as Garcia/Saunders and Legion of Mary had done) was a viable option in their minds in mid-1978?
Also: I feel like "Russian Lullaby" is always left out of these discussions of Garcia engaging with jazz, but it's a jazz tune by pretty much any metric, and he played it regularly before, during, and after this period.
Also: This "Front Street Shieks" era of jazz is very different from the stripe of jazz that Reconstruction played -- I have more to say at some point re: Reconstruction as a jazz band -- which was different, for that matter, from "So What," and from the slightly earlier 20's-era swing Garcia played in the Great American Music/String Band in 1974 (see here). And heck, also from some of the other jazz tunes played by the Legion of Mary. That's a wider range of jazz music than I had expected and may warrant a separate post.
Also: One thing that did also come to mind was a story that drummer David Kemper told about working with Bob Dylan. Dylan would assemble his band to rehearse for a tour and they would spend days playing in a certain style and carefully learning material that Dylan didn't seem to intend for performance. Garcia and Kahn playing old jazz chestnuts doesn't seem to quite fit that model, but I don't know.
Or, of course, it's possible that all this timing is a coincidence and that we
shouldn't make too much of these few "jazz sessions" in the bigger
scheme of things. But, for now, please to add refutations, corrections, additions, speculations, etc.