Five Musicians Remember Jerry Garcia

Music Lists Jerry Garcia

Jerry Garcia would have turned 70 this month. This year also marks the 45th anniversary of the Grateful Dead’s self-titled debut and the 40th anniversary of Garcia’s first solo record Garcia. Over the course of his career, he was involved in too many musical side projects to count. We talked to five musicians who played with Garcia in various groups as they reflected on their time spent with the Grateful Dead frontman.

1. Melvin Seals, Jerry Garcia Band
Seals began playing piano when he was a young boy; he got started in the church, as his father was a musician, choir director and pianist. “There was a piano in the house,” he recalls, “and you know when you ain’t got nothin’ to do, I sat down and started messing with it.” After his father observed his interest in playing, Seals was given lessons, and “it took off from there.”

Seals connected with Garcia through John Kahn, one of Garcia’s longtime collaborators outside the Grateful Dead, but he didn’t know what he was in for. “John heard me several times and kind of offered me the opportunity to play in a band, which was the Garcia Band,” he said. “I didn’t know it at the time; he didn’t say who it was. It was just another band.”

The first time Seals met Garcia was at a rehearsal. Seals knew who the Grateful Dead was but didn’t follow the band or know the names of its members. He remembers his first experience meeting Garcia: “I didn’t understand the organization. I didn’t know much about them at all. When I first went to rehearsal at their warehouse that they owned I saw all kinds of banners and posters of the Grateful Dead with skeletons—a skeleton with a violin in his hand, a skeleton with a rose in his hand, skeleton, skeleton, skeleton—I knew nothing about it. You start thinking it’s that Jim Jones cult. So I was quite nervous going out of town with them because I didn’t know what I was getting into. But, you know, I quickly learned that these are some of the most loving people in the world. No one I’d rather be with.”

One of the most striking memories Seals has of Garcia was his generosity—when one of the girls in the band, Gloria Jones, wanted to buy a house, Jerry co-signed for her. “Have you ever heard the term that someone would literally give you the shirt off their back?” he says. “Jerry was that person, he really was. Anything that you needed, he wanted you to have it. People don’t know much about that kind of stuff, but it’s real. He did a lot of things individually for folks as they needed things and was glad to do it.”

Every Christmas Seals and the other musicians would go to Garcia’s house for a small gathering. Seals recalls one particular Christmas gathering, “One year I went up there and just kinda sat in Jerry’s chair. He had a big designer cushioned chair. I just sat there all night. I didn’t get up and play the piano or anything. I just sat there until I left.” Garcia said to Seals, “Man you sure do look comfortable,” and Seals replied, “Man, this is a great chair.” According to Seals, that’s all he ever said, “and two days later that chair was delivered to my house. I didn’t ask for it or see that coming. I just said that I enjoyed sitting in it in his house and he had it delivered to me.”

2. Richard Greene, Old and in the Way
Richard Greene, who’s been called “one of America’s most influential fiddlers,” began studying classical violin as a young child until he became a teenager and lost interest in playing. He started playing again in college after he was invited to play in an old-time trio with guitar and banjo, and fell in love with that music. A couple of years later, Greene met fiddle player Scotty Stoneman, who Jerry Garcia called the “bluegrass Charlie Parker.” According to Greene, Stoneman “completely transformed my life. Hearing what he did on that instrument was a monumental change for me, and from then on I decided to be a non-classical fiddle player.”

Greene first met Garcia in the early 1960s, before Garcia was a member of the Grateful Dead. Greene believes it was around 1963 or 1964 when Garcia was playing with the Pine Valley Boys. Greene remembers, “Jerry was only at that time a banjo player. He would come around, and we would start jamming. He was quite a nice guy and I liked him.”

After their initial introduction, Greene and Garcia were reacquainted when they played together in Old and in the Way. According to Greene, he joined the band when David Grisman asked him to play, “I think Jerry asked David to ask me.”

According to Greene, even though Garcia had become a star by this time, he acted the same way he did when Greene knew him in the ’60s prior to his rise to fame. “One time I was in his car and there was this glove compartment full of checks,” Greene remembers. “He didn’t even understand or care about money, so he would get paid by someone for something and he would just throw it in the glove compartment, and that would be the end of it.” Greene commented, “there must have been thousands of dollars in the glove compartment.”

According to Greene, Garcia never changed. “He was a really sweet guy and always was. He was just the nicest, unselfish, generous person, and unusually so. And throughout my entire association with him, that’s the way he was. I think that’s the way he was all the time with everyone—very giving.”

3. George Marsh, Garcia/Grisman

George Marsh, a San Francisco-based jazz drummer, composer, and educator, is currently the drummer for the David Grisman Sextet.

It was when Marsh moved to San Francisco in the late 1960s that he first met Garcia through The Committee, a San Francisco-based improv comedy group. However, the first time Marsh played in an organized setting with Garcia was in the early 1970s. At this time, Marsh was playing with the Jerry Hahn Brotherhood, and they had a performance at club called The Matrix in San Francisco. “You know he had his own group and I met him then and I was in the Jerry Hahn Brotherhood and we played there also,” Marsh says. “So one of those times, it was set up that Mel Graves, the bassist, and myself and Merl Saunders played with Jerry one of the nights at the Matrix.”

When asked about their first time playing together, Marsh recalls, “I was able to really feel it, and I knew he was really, really deeply listening. So we were really listening to one another, and the music went to that other place. … Music is dull, from my view point, when some of the players, for whatever reason, aren’t listening deeply and there are many reasons for that, but there is a deep way of listening and he was there all the time. He was all about the music. He wasn’t a superstar at that time. He became one later, where at the Matrix, there might be 25 people there. But in my mind, he was already fantastic at that time. In my mind, he was one of the great guitarists by that time and he really listened.”

When asked about Garcia’s personality, he describes Garcia as “very warm, very ‘with you’ when you talked to him and loved to talk about music.”

Marsh was one of the musicians on Jerry Garcia’s final recording session in July 1995, which was a version of the song “Blue Yodel #9.” Garcia left for the Betty Ford Clinic the next day and died two weeks later. Marsh remembers that the session was last-minute, “I don’t know why [Grisman] called me or if there were any other extenuating circumstances but I just came on in. It was fun. And we recorded at David’s home at that time. He had a little studio in Mill Valley.”

Marsh commented that Garcia was happy to be playing acoustic music. However, he noted Garcia seemed “troubled” after the last concert the Grateful Dead played before the recording session because “there was some kind of riot that had happened.” Marsh is referring to the Grateful Dead’s concert on July 9, 1995 at Soldier Field. This was Garcia’s final show, and he died exactly one month later.

According to Marsh, “[Thelonious] Monk said ‘just be who you are and that’s what defines a genius.’” He continues by saying Garcia “was who he was,” and, “The fact is that he became a superstar and at that time he was but it wasn’t any different than when I first met him. We were just together playing music and that’s what I liked about him. He didn’t care about that. I have played with some people whose noses are way up in the clouds, but Jerry wasn’t even close to that. He was another musician.”

4. Ed Neumeister, Reconstruction
Neumeister, who, in recent years, has been working as an orchestrator with Hans Zimmer on films including The Dark Knight Rises, Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, and Inception, first began playing music when he was five years old after finding his father’s trumpet in the closet. When he was nine, he joined the marching band. He recalls, “The band director looked at my mouth and saw I had a chipped front tooth. And he looked at my chipped tooth and said ‘you know, you should play trombone because the trumpet might damage that nerve.’” However, Neumeister believes “the real reason was that he needed trombone players, and he was looking for any excuse to convince somebody to move to trombone.”

Neumeister met Garcia through the band Reconstruction. Kahn and Garcia had formed the band, along with keyboardist Merl Saunders, drummer Gaylord Birch, and saxophonist Ron Stallings. Neumeister recalls how he became part of the band, “I think they rehearsed once or twice and they decided they would get another horn player, so Stallings recommended me, and actually Ron called me. He said, ‘Yeah, we’ve got a gig on Saturday and we’re rehearsing Thursday. It’s just a door gig.’” Neumesiter knew who Garcia was but did not follow the Grateful Dead, “I had no idea to be honest the following that Jerry had. I showed up for that first gig and there were wall-to-wall people. It was at Keystone Berkley.”

The first time Neumesiter met Garcia was at the rehearsal for the performance at Keystone Berkley. He remembers that Jerry was “just a guy, just a guitar player.” As Neumesiter walked into the rehearsal room, John Kahn was the only person he knew at the time, so he “shook hands all the way around” before starting the rehearsal. He describes Jerry as “a very humble, just quiet guy.” The band consisted of “just five guys in a room having fun.” Neumesiter said that Garcia “never gave the aura of superiority in any kind of way even though he was the one drawing the crowd. There was no doubt about that…there was no ego involved. None of that superstar, whatever comes with being a superstar. I only noticed it when we showed up to the gigs. Jerry was just one of the cast. That’s what he wanted to be.”

Neumeister recalls Garcia’s dedication to music. “He practiced all the time, or at least he always had his guitar in his lap. He was playing all the time, so whenever we had a rehearsal, on the breaks or before it started, he was moving on the guitar. He played really 24/7 it seemed like.”

Neumeister recalls one specific instance of Garcia’s devotion to his craft during a recording session. Neumeister, who had written the horn arrangements for the session, was discussing the arrangements with Garcia, “He decided for the recording we would extend the horn section—trumpet, some trombones—and we actually double tracked some of it so it was six horns. Jerry sat in the recording studio and not in the booth, so he could hear the track being mixed with the horns. He sat in with the horns, and he was very, very focused and concentrated and extremely detail-oriented. You wouldn’t think this about Jerry sometimes, but he was looking for perfection. We were there until we got it absolutely perfect. He was really into it being really, really clean and tight. Of course that’s what you want but on the other hand you think of Jerry as being this loose improviser.”

5. Peter Rowan, Old and in the Way
Rowan, a Grammy-award winner and six-time nominee, has a career that spans over five decades, including his time with bluegrass pioneer Bill Monroe. Rowan grew up playing music in Massachusetts and left college after three years to pursue music professionally in 1964. Rowan, who called Garcia the “reigning human genius of a certain era,” played with Garcia in Old and in the Way and during that time wrote the songs “Moonlight Midnight” and “Mississippi Moon,” which were both recorded by Garcia.

In the late ’60s and early ’70s, Rowan collaborated with musicians including David Grisman in the band Earth Opera and Richard Greene, who he had played with in Bill Monroe’s band, in Seatrain. “Richard and I joined forces again in a band called Seatrain, and it ended up taking me to the West Coast,” said Rowan. He took a few days off the tour and went to see his good friend Grisman, who was living at Stinson Beach and was producing an album for the Rowan Brothers, Peter’s brothers. Rowan originally met Garcia through Grisman, “David and my brothers were living there at the beach—and he brought me up to Jerry’s house one day.”

After Seatrain, Rowan began playing with Garcia. Rowan and Grisman spent their mornings playing bluegrass on Stinson Beach. And one day, according to Rowan, “David said let’s go up and see Jerry. That’s what you do when you have bluegrass in your blood, you play all the time to try to further the music. And we went up to Jerry’s house and there was Jerry standing outside in his garden with that banjo strapped on and he was playing. He played the banjo, just laughing, standing in the gardens. David and I drove up and we took our instruments out and just started playing out in the garden.”

Rowan reflects on the period around the time Old and in the Way began, “We didn’t exactly know what we were doing but we enjoyed going through the old song books.” Rowan continues, “It was a great outlet for Jerry and someone told me that I didn’t know how important this was for him. Of course we didn’t know how important it was for him because we were all young and stupid. And he was touring with the Dead all the time and I figured that was his gig.” Looking back, Rowan realizes the importance of that time in Garcia’s life. In the evenings, after Garcia’s children were in bed, Rowan and Garcia would play, and according to Rowan, “That was really a special time. We would just take out the songbooks and sort of really marvel at what was there in terms of what was there in bluegrass. Jerry was rediscovering his whole connection with the music and I think that was kind of connection that went back to his youth.” Rowan continues, “Bluegrass represented a happy time for him, a time of growth, a time of discovery. And so every time that we played together, he was getting off on the sense of discovery that originally the bluegrass had been for him. He discovered something with Old and in the Way that made him really happy. And, to be around him, his happiness was infectious.”

After hearing the news of Garcia’s passing, Rowan wrote the song “Swimming in the Deep Blue Sea” for his friend. Rowan recites a few lines of the song, “I’m going swimming in the deep blue sea/Just these lonely whales and me/Deep down in the blue Pacific glow/Everybody’s got a song to sing/Everybody’s got a bell to ring/Ring it, sing it, all night long/First we’re here and then we’re gone/I know it won’t be long/Till you’re right back in my arms again.”

According to Rowan, “it’s a little picture of him in my mind’s eye.” Rowan says, “I was thinking about him and I had a guitar in an opening tuning. And I entered that space we always shared and those were the words that were there. I didn’t try and write it. It just seemed to me the way Jerry probably felt deep down in his soul.”

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