When Jazz Legend Ornette Coleman Joined the Grateful Dead Onstage for Some Epic Improvisational Jams: Hear a 1993 Recording

The influence of modern jazz on classic rock extends far beyond too-cool poses and too many drugs. In the 1960s, writes Jeff Fitzgerald at All About Jazz, “a few players were venturing beyond the sacred three-chord trinity and developing some serious chops.” John Coltrane’s “extended improvisations on his unlikely top-forty hit version of ‘My Favorite Things’” gets credit for inspiring “not only long-form rock hits like The Doors’ seven-minute ‘Light My Fire’ and CCR’s eleven-minute “I Heard It Through the Grapevine,’ but later jam bands from the Grateful Dead to Phish.” But of course, the “breakthrough moment for Rock-Jazz relations” arrived when Miles Davis “developed a Jazz/Rock hybrid called Fusion.”

Davis’ Bitches Brew had much crossover appeal, especially to one of those aforementioned jam bands, the Dead, who—a month after the album’s release—invited Davis and his electric band to open for them at the Fillmore West. (Read about, and listen to, that unique event here.)


The pairing made sense not only because Davis’ long-form grooves hit many of the same psychedelic musical receptors as the Dead’s extended free-form sessions, but also because Jerry Garcia was something of a jazz-head. Especially when it came to free jazz pioneer and inventor of “Harmolodics,” Ornette Coleman.

“The guitarist had been a long time devotee” of Coleman, writes Ben Djarum at Ultimate Classic Rock, and contributed his distinctive playing to three tracks on Coleman’s 1988 album Virgin Beauty (hear them together on “Desert Players” above). Garcia’s devotion marks him as a true rock connoisseur of avant-garde jazz. (Perhaps the only other Coleman fans in the rock world as indebted to his influence are the also-legendarily-drug-fueled indie experimentalists Royal Trux.) It turns out the appreciation was mutual. “Coleman himself was aware of musical similarities between the Dead and his own group, Prime Time,” which also had two drummers.

"Each emphasizes both melody and look-Ma-no-limits improvisation," wrote David Fricke in a 1989 Rolling Stone article about “jazz’s eternal iconoclast finding a new audience” through his association with Garcia and company.  Upon witnessing the Dead play Madison Square Garden in 1987, and awed by the fans’ ultimate dedication, Coleman found himself thinking, “’Well, we could be friends here.’ Because if these people here could be into this, they could dig what we’re doing.” It would take six more years, but Coleman finally played with the Dead in 1993 at their annual Mardi Gras celebration at the Oakland Coliseum. Where the Davis/Dead match-up 26 years earlier had been a diptych, showcasing the strengths of each artist by contrast with the other, the Coleman/Dead pairing was a true collaboration.

Not only did Coleman’s Prime Time open the show, but the saxophonist joined the Dead onstage during their second set—in the midst of an open jam called “Space” (see in playlist below). His horn became a prominently integrated feature of what one fan remembered as “singularly the most intense thing I ever witnessed.” Such exaggeration from Deadheads seems routine, and sadly we have no video, nor could it ever replicate the experience. But some pretty spectacular live recordings of the entire Dead set may bear out the extremely high praise. “The Other One,” at the top of the post, first stretches out into very Coleman-like territory, and the band keeps up beautifully. After the verse kicks in halfway through, the song soon erupts into “walls of sound, screams, meltdowns, explosions….”

“The Other One,” was “a wise choice,” writes Oliver Trager in his The American Book of the Dead, “as its rhythm-based power allowed Coleman to continue his broad brush strokes.” After a “languorous” rendition of “Stella Blue,” the penultimate tune, “Turn on Your Love Light,” above, “provided Coleman with the perfect show-ending raveup to let loose in the fashion of an oldtime, down-home Texas horn honker.” In an interview later that same year, Garcia called Coleman “a wonderful model for a guy who’s done what we did, in the sense of creating his own reality of what music is and how you survive within it. He’s a high-integrity kind of person and just a wonderful man.” As for the night itself, Garcia remarked:

It was such a hoot to hear him play totally Ornette and totally Grateful Dead without compromising either one of them. Pretty incredible. Good musicians don’t do that kind of characterizing music. like this is this kind of music and that is that kind of thing.

Coleman should be remembered as one of the most refined examples of such a musician for his championing what he called “Harmolodic Democracy.” You can hear the full Grateful Dead set from that February, 1993 Mardi Gras concert at Archive.org. The night went so well, notes Trager, that “the musicians repeated the formula with similar results in December 1993 running through a nearly identical song list at the Sports Arena in Los Angeles.” One can only imagine the  audience was equally mesmerized.

Related Content:

The Night When Miles Davis Opened for the Grateful Dead in 1970: Hear the Complete Recordings

Jerry Garcia Talks About the Birth of the Grateful Dead & Playing Kesey’s Acid Tests in New Animated Video

Hear Ornette Coleman Collaborate with Lou Reed, Which Lou Called “One of My Greatest Moments”

Philosopher Jacques Derrida Interviews Jazz Legend Ornette Coleman: Talk Improvisation, Language & Racism (1997)

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness


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  • Marky says:

    Yes the problem with this is you’re quoting people who don’t deserve that respect. You start by Quoting an incredibly patronising, and incorrect article. Which among other hopeless inaccuracies, including describing all rock ‘n’ roll as “pap”, says “a few players were venturing beyond the sacred three-chord trinity and developing some serious chops.” – A writer (Jeff Fitzgerald) who in that simple phrase displays they have a very thin and received understanding of musical structure, Rock ‘n’ roll music or its development and Influences.

    Sorry

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