This post came out of a discussion about whether the Dead were influenced by Miles Davis, particularly his fusion period.
There is a lot about the Dead's jazz (and other) influences in the first parts of my Dark Star piece, including the encounter with Davis:
I haven't repeated those quotes here, so this piece is meant as kind of a postscript....
The Dead were fans of Miles' music - Lesh in particular has spoken about how awed they were about playing after him at those Fillmore '70 shows, and how much he admired that kind of music. (At the time, it would've been new to him - Bitches Brew was only released in April '70.)
From Lesh's book:
"As I listened, leaning over the amps with my jaw hanging agape, trying to comprehend the forces that Miles was unleashing onstage, I was thinking, 'What's the use? How can we possibly play after this? We should just go home and try to digest this unbelievable shit.' This was our first encounter with Miles' new direction. Bitches Brew had only just been released, but I know I hadn't yet heard any of it... In some ways, it was similar to what we were trying to do in our free jamming, but ever so much more dense with ideas, and seemingly controlled with an iron first, even at its most alarmingly intense moments. Of us all, only Jerry had the nerve to go back and meet Miles, with whom he struck up a warm conversation. Miles was surprised and delighted to know that we knew and loved his music."
[Miles' 4-10-70 show was later released as the Black Beauty CD. It's worth noting that his live shows then featured keyboards & horns, not the guitar so prominent on the studio albums. I don't know what Miles thought of the Dead, but he had a low opinion of most the rock groups he opened for, feeling they were limited musicians and his band could play the same music much better. He did like Santana's music, though, and was deeply inspired by Hendrix, which was one reason he added electric guitars to his sound.]
I don't know if the Dead really took much from Davis' fusion style at the time (Keith apparently did on the electric keyboard, a couple years later), but you can tell at the 4/12 and 4/15/70 shows, the jamming is especially inspired. As Kreutzmann put it, they were "totally embarrassed" following Miles - "we played really free, loose, but I couldn't get Miles out of my ears."
I think it's interesting that Lesh said Miles' fusion music was similar to what the Dead were doing. But I don't hear much similarity, nor do I think their music was influenced by his 'fusion' phase too much, at least in ways that I can hear, unless it's in the 'free' playing style. In A Silent Way (Miles' first big step into fusion) came out in '69, and was quite a bit calmer than most the Dead's music, though they might have taken inspiration from its spaciness. By then Miles was in his modal phase of stretching out a long jam in one chord, somewhat like the Dead were doing in Dark Star. He also had a heavy keyboard sound, and at that point the Dead just had the classical-sounding Tom Constanten (and, in 1970, often no keyboard at all).
Those April '70 Fillmore West shows don't go on many unusual excursions (though, alas, we don't have the Dark Star from 4/11 or the Caution from 4/10). I'm not sure if the Dead would even have been prepared to go freeform at that time....they were never really a freeform band, in the sense of the jams being truly open-ended. There was always a destination and a time-limit (though that got looser in '73/74). Also by '73, with Keith in the mix, there is a bit more sonic resemblance to Miles' sound.
Miles' earlier period with Coltrane did rub off on them - Coltrane was indisputably a huge influence on them way back in '66. In interviews, the band referenced Coltrane a lot more as someone who influenced them even from the start. They were very enthusiastic about the 'modal jamming' style that Davis & Coltrane initiated (basically, improvising in one chord or scale, rather than through a song's chord progressions) - Viola Lee & Midnight Hour were the first tunes where they tried this out.
Lesh said, "It was the simplest thing to do, because you didn't have to remember any chords." Weir agreed: "The first thing we learned was to rattle on in one chord change for a while....that was good for me, because I didn't know many chords."
In his book Lesh talks about how, as they got better, they used Viola Lee to all solo simultaneously, like jazz musicians, rather than just backing Garcia. "We electrified the song with a boogaloo beat and an intro lick borrowed from Lee Dorsey's 'Get Out of My Life Woman', and we tried to take the music out further - first expanding on the groove, then on the tonality, and then both, finally pulling out all the stops in a giant accelerando, culminating in a whirlwind of dissonance.... I urged the other band members to listen closely to the music of John Coltrane, especially his classic quartet, in which the band would take fairly simple structures ('My Favorite Things', for example) and extend them far beyond their original length with fantastical variations, frequently based on only one chord."
You could hardly find a clearer example of the Dead being directly influenced by jazz techniques! Jazz was very much "in the air" among rock musicians at the time, with Coltrane's style particularly important. (For instance, the Byrd's "Eight Miles High" is a tribute to him.)
(Here's one introductory article about examples of modal jams in rock music -
And from the same blog, a post about another "jazz" musician that Garcia closely listened to -
It's also notable that in Garcia & Lesh's guest-DJ radio show in April '67, they play a couple longer jazz pieces, one by Charles Mingus and one by Charles Lloyd. Garcia even says he wants the Dead to work with Lloyd's group, after having such a good experience playing together at the Rock Garden! This never happened, though. At the time they were looking forward to their first trip to New York, where Lesh was surprised to meet Charles Mingus checking out their 6/1/67 show: "I was too intimidated to ask him what he thought of the band's sound!"
For those who haven't seen it, there's a lengthy discussion of Charles Lloyd & various flute-players with the Dead at:
Lloyd would have been especially important to the Dead in '67, as he was playing an early form of "fusion" music, and was one of the first jazz crossover artists to play at 'rock' shows - he was quite popular in San Francisco, and had an impact on many musicians. (Miles Davis thought enough of Lloyd's group to snatch some of the bandmembers for his own band, and was influenced by Lloyd in his own approach to fusion.)
The Dead's influences were many & wide though, and they created something totally distinct. Garcia was especially influenced by bluegrass & old-time stringbands, what he called "conversational music", the way the instruments related to each other. Lesh had the most avant-garde leanings in the group, and he was the happiest to go to the noisy side (as he did with Ned Lagin). The band got into Indian music heavily after '67, which Hart was studying, and this left a big imprint in their playing.
And so on.... The point is, you can rarely point to any single artist or piece of music and say, "That influenced the Dead's style!" For example, Garcia was a big Freddie King disciple when he was learning electric guitar: "Freddie King is the guy I learned the most volume of stuff from. When I started playing electric guitar with the Warlocks, it was a Freddie King album that I got almost all my ideas off of, his phrasing really." But by '69 there's hardly a trace - they keep transcending the things they learn from.
Also, as musicians, I think they listened differently than most of us - Garcia's quotes in the Dark Star article, for instance, show that he was listening very specifically for what you might call the "voice" in the playing - one horn player's silences, or another's phrasing. (His playing in Dark Star might sometimes echo Miles, the way he stays out for a while, or plays a short burst of notes.)
Here's Garcia talking about one tune that influenced the early Dead - the Junior Walker instrumental 'Cleo's Back': "There was something about the way the instruments entered into it in a kind of free-for-all way, and there were little holes and these neat details in it - we studied that motherfucker, we might even have played it for a while... It was the conversational approach, the way the band worked, that really influenced us."
And when getting into jazz-Dead, we can't forget Keith.... Having to play after Miles in April '70 may have been humbling, but their material didn't change that much for the rest of that year, and in '71 you could argue they were even heading away from a jazzy direction into tighter, more succinct jams.
Keith was primarily a jazz player, and I see him as the catalyst here after he joined in fall '71. Checking out what happened to Dark Star between, say, October '71 and April 72, there's a big jump - the type of jam is the same as before Keith joined, but they're tackling it at a higher, more expansive level.
That's not to say they wouldn't have gone in this direction without him - they'd been jazz fans in '65 too, and it was always dormant in them - sometimes one possibility in their music takes the lead, sometimes another. As Garcia said in '71: "We still stretch out....we've never accepted any limitations....we have lots of possibilities." In this case it was the combination of talent, lots of practice, a driving ambition to keep the music fresh & changing, and having a jazz piano-player drop in their laps.... (Garcia had been playing with Saunders & Howard Wales as well, which certainly broadened his guitar skills, and his knowledge of jazz standards. He brought some of the 'space-jams' he was doing with Wales in '71/72 into the Dead's jams as well.)
The question of whether the Dead even played "jazz" has been debated - just the fact they're playing with electric guitars instead of horns makes a huge difference - not only that, but their style is so unique from other bands anyway. To me, the connection is clear - even from early '68, the whole idea of medleys of jammed songs linked together, many of them directly quoting jazz (Clementine, Spanish Jam, New Potato in a way), using 'feedback' and 'space' as musical concepts, composing several improvised jam-songs that go on long wordless musical journeys...
'73/74 are thought of as the jazziest years because of these big jams where the Dead skitter around from one theme to another, dropping into noisy spaces or funk-jams or unknown spontaneous melodies at the drop of a hat - there's not much like that in rock music. The Blues for Allah period was perhaps the peak of jazzy Dead - in those '75 studio sessions we hear them playing with many new themes like Slipknot or Stronger Than Dirt just like a jazz combo.
And then there's the September '73 tour where the Dead directly embraced jazz by adding a couple horn-players for the jams. Although that tour with the horns is interesting because it seems like the Dead didn't want to get TOO experimental.... The horn players have their place in Weather Report, Eyes, a couple other spots, and as a result we get a whole lot of second sets with an Eyes>Weather Report. Did they get to sit in on Playing or Dark Star or the Other One? Heck no. In fact, the Dead seem to have decided, let's just not play Dark Star or the Other One very much....we'll drop Bird Song out of the set, too! So (to generalize) that tour gets that squawking free-jazz sound in places, but doesn't get as many deep jams as we find in the rest of the year.
Garcia, though, was happy to play jazz pieces in his shows with Saunders & Fierro (and in later years as well). That's not even mentioning the '90s shows where famed jazz horn players would join the Dead onstage. This was a band that thrived on variety, and added many genres to their musical stew - they were open enough to try anything.
There's a wider sense in which jazz influenced their music early on, in the idea that their songs could be changeable and stretched-out, and played differently each time. Various rock groups in the late '60s were taking up this improvisational challenge (Cream the most famous, but also many California bands), so it wasn't exclusively a jazz concept. But the Dead keep improvisation within a 'rock' context - the jams are always kept within a limited space in a few select songs, and always return back to familiar ground.
So, the Dead's music is not quite jazz, not quite rock, but like some of Miles' fusion albums, somewhere on the border. I think we can call the Dead a 'jazz' band to the same extent we can call them a 'country' or R&B band, it's all part of the diverse mix.... That unique way they play is what's so compelling, regardless of what influences went into it.