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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