If you've ever known anyone who was a member of a band, even an amateur band of schoolkids, you know that even the simplest of activities generate a flurry of complications. Just agreeing on a rehearsal requires a complicated series of negotiations about time and place. These complications are magnified if the band is electric, since choices for rehearsal spaces are fewer, and equipment must be transported, set up and plugged in before any music making can take place. While professional bands have some advantages over amateur bands, in that they may have equipment crew or dedicated rehearsal spaces, working musicians have more conflicts than casual amateurs, so the endless series of decisions is extended to serious matters like booking performance dates, band transport and dividing up the money.
The practical difficulties of working in a band make Jerry Garcia's commitment to multiple bands even more remarkable. The Grateful Dead were a full-time occupation by any measure, and yet Garcia found time for numerous side projects. The most prominent of these side projects was The Jerry Garcia Band, which existed from 1975 to 1995. It's effective predecessors began in 1970, so really the group had a 25-year lifespan. The Garcia Band could not have functioned without Garcia's bassist and friend John Kahn organizing the group: hiring and firing band members, setting up what few rehearsals there were and apparently acting as bandleader for the practical day-to-day decisions that are required of any group. Kahn also worked with Garcia in a variety of acoustic settings, such as Old And In The Way and their mid-80s duets, and he was a crucial presence in the studio for Garcia's solo work from 1974 onwards.
Without John Kahn, the majority of Jerry Garcia's side projects would not have occurred, or at the very least would not have been so expansive. Presumably David Nelson and John Dawson directed the day-to-day of The New Riders when Garcia was a member, and David Grisman seems to have been the most likely organizer for some of Garcia's acoustic excursions (Old And In The Way, Great American String Band, Garcia-Grisman), but without Kahn there would have been very little live electric Garcia to share with the world. Put another way, since Garcia wanted to expand his extracurricular activities even as the Grateful Dead got famous, if he had not found Kahn he would have had to have been invented.
For all that, very few Deadheads ever consider what John Kahn brought to the Jerry Garcia Band besides his exceptional bass playing and affinity to Garcia. This post will begin a series that will look at John Kahn's musical and professional activities prior to and as he began working with Jerry Garcia, but outside the context of Garcia projects. A fuller picture of Kahn's background and musical experiences will broaden our understanding of Garcia's music and perhaps modify some casual assumptions about Kahn.
Blair Jackson Interviews and Research
The only scholar who has looked seriously at John Kahn was Blair Jackson. Blair published the first real interview with John Kahn, a groundbreaking piece that was published in a mid-80s edition of his great magazine Golden Road. Some of the interview as well as additional interview material was published in Jackson's biography Garcia: An American Life (Viking Books 1999). I will quote Blair here, as he is the best source on Kahn's musical background. Jackson reports that Kahn had been raised in Beverley Hills, the son of two Talent Agents in the movie business.
He studied piano and music theory while he was still in grade school, and in high school he added rock and roll guitar to his arsenal. "But then I got heavily into listening to jazz and all of a sudden all I wanted to do was be a jazz string bass player and listen to jazz records all the time," he said. "I loved Scotty LaFaro and the Bill Evans Trio, and I also listened to a lot of Ornette Coleman and Coltrane. So I took up the string bass and studied classical music quite a bit."
After high school, Kahn attended the University of Southern California for a semester, then transferred to the San Francisco Conservatory of Music in late 1966. Gradually Kahn became somewhat disenchanted with jazz, and he started drifting into the rock 'n' roll world that was exploding all around him. In 1967 a roommate offered him a job as bassist in a rock cover band, so Kahn traded in his electric guitar for an electric bass, and he emulated the great R&B and blues players of the day--James Jamerson, Hamp Simmons (of Bobby "Blue" Bland's band), Duck Dunn and Chuck Rainey, to name a few. "Another guy who influenced me was Paul McCartney," he said. Over the next couple of years, Kahn played in several different groups, including two that he led, Memory Pain and the Tits And Ass Rhythm and Blues Band (Jackson, p.187).Even this brief precis of Kahn's early career before he started playing in "name" bands in mid-1968 brings forward a number of very interesting points.
- Kahn was raised in Southern California, but he never really worked there as a professional. It is common to hear Kahn referred to as a "session man," but all his studio work was either in San Francisco or on sessions with people who were part of the San Francisco scene, like Jerry Garcia and Mike Bloomfield (I will get to the Maria Muldaur question in a later post). Kahn was Bay Area all the way as a musician, even if he flew to Los Angeles or elsewhere for some sessions
- Kahn was well grounded in jazz, even if he stopped playing it in 1967 or so. That made him a good fit for the jazzier excursions of the Garcia/Saunders bands, and for the jazz sensibilities of the Garcia Band in general
- Kahn spent some time in 1967-68 playing in a cover band, so he had a grounding in learning tunes quickly and interpreting them, not as typical a skill of original musicians as you might think. That also meant he knew a lot of classics like "Roadrunner," so he wouldn't have had to rehearse them much
- Kahn was grounded in formal training in piano and music theory, so he could talk to studio pros in their own language, while Garcia himself, for all his skills, was largely self-taught and more intuitive.
- Kahn did not take up electric bass until he was a trained, experienced musician on the string bass and the electric guitar. This sequence of events is surprisingly similar to Garcia's abrupt adoption of the electric guitar after mastering the acoustic guitar and banjo (among other instruments). Both Kahn and Garcia played free of cliches, to my ears, even on an off night, and their parallel yet atypcial backgrounds on their respective instruments must have been a significant factor
John Kahn's studio and recorded history is well covered on the excellent Deaddisc site, so I am not listing any of that material except in the most general way. For the balance of this post, and for subsequent posts, I will be looking at John Kahn's live performance history. The focus of this history will be trying to assess how Kahn's musical experiences provided context and substance for his future role as Jerry Garcia's chief partner in personal musical endeavors. I am aware that I will be simplifying any discussions of other musicians, particularly Mike Bloomfield, but in order to keep these posts manageable I am going to try and keep a sharp focus on John Kahn.
Tits And Ass Rhythm And Blues Band
The amusingly named Tits And Ass Rhythm And Blues Band featured Kahn on bass along with Bob Jones on guitar, John Chambers on drums and Ron Stallings on tenor sax. Jones and Stallings shared the vocals. Jones had been a guitarist and singer in the hit group We Five ("You Were On My Mind"), and both Jones and Stallings would end up in a group called Southern Comfort. Southern Comfort released a 1970 album on Columbia produced by Nick Gravenites and Kahn. Stallings (1946-2009) had been in the SF Mime Troupe, and was in many groups subsequently. Deadheads may recognize Stallings as a member of Reconstruction in 1979, and he was a latterday member of Huey Lewis And The News's horn section.
December 15-16, 1967: New Orleans House, Berkeley, CA: Morning Glory/T&A Rhythm And Blues Band
The only listing I have been able to find for the band is at Berkeley's New Orleans House, one of the earliest Bay Area clubs that encouraged original rock bands. Note that even in Berkeley the name is bowlderized (the Berkeley Barb ad is up top). For a more complete picture of The Tits And Ass Rhythm and Blues Band, see the next post.
June 11, 1968: New Orleans House, Berkeley, CA: Buddy Guy/Memory Pain
Thanks to Ross, I have found a sole marker for a performance by Memory Pain (the ad above is from the June 7, 1968 Barb). Thanks to Kahn's old compatriot Bob Jones, I have been able to find out about Memory Pain. The group mainly played blues, particularly songs by Percy Mayfield, who had written the song "Memory Pain.
Although Jones was a guitarist, Kahn had begun taking him to jam sessions at the Sausalito Heliport as long as he played drums. Although Jones had no formal training as a drummer, Kahn liked Jones's nice groove and tendency to underplay, so for Memory Pain Jones took over the drum chair. Fred Burton was the guitarist, and Ira Kamin played organ. Once again, for more on Memory Pain, see the next post.
By mid-1968, Kahn appears to have been living in Marin County, and probably in Mill Valley. According to Blair Jackson, Kahn had met and jammed with Steve Miller and Mike Bloomfield. In Summer 1968, Kahn went to Chicago to try out for a new version of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, no doubt recommended by the many Chicago expatriates in the Bay Area. For various reasons, however, Kahn did not get the job and he returned to the Bay Area (the job went to Rod Hicks).
Mike Bloomfield was the first American rock guitar hero, a giant of a musician by any standard and tremendously important to the history of American rock music in the 1960s. Thus let me say in advance that my thumbnail sketches of his career and work do not do him justice, but this series of posts is focused on John Kahn and what he contributed to Jerry Garcia's music--this is a Grateful Dead blog after all--so I have to be selective about the information I will be emphasizing about Bloomfield.
To briefly summarize Bloomfield's career up until mid-1968:
- Bloomfield was one of a few white suburban musicians who played electric blues as well as the Chicago greats, and had one of the first white blues bands (of about two) that played Chicago folk clubs around 1963-64
- Bloomfield played on Bob Dylan's Like A Rolling Stone" sessions and was part of Dylan's band when Bob "went electric" at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival
- Bloomfield was the lead guitarist for the seminal Butterfield Blues Band, whose October 1965 Vanguard album, when 4 white guys (Bloomfield, Butterfield, Elvin Bishop and keyboardist Mark Naftalin) and Muddy Waters's rhythm section showed definitively that white guys could play the blues if they were good enough
- When the Butterfield Blues Band played the Fillmore, starting in February 1966, they were far and away the most accomplished electric band playing the Fillmore (any Deadheads who have not heard live versions of the Butterfield Blues Band's song "East West" should stop reading right now and do so). All the San Francisco musicians, including the Grateful Dead, Country Joe and The Fish and Carlos Santana (to name a few) were profoundly influenced by the band's twin guitar attack and Bloomfield's exceptional playing
- After quitting the Butterfield Blues Band in February 1967 as they were about to break through nationally, Blomfield formed the ambitious Electric Flag, an eight piece band that planned to play all styles of American music simultaneously, who debuted at the Monterey Pop Festival in July of '67
- Right before quitting the Electric Flag, Bloomfield spent a weekend in Los Angeles with his friend Al Kooper, recording some loose jams on an album entitled Super Session. This best selling, groundbreaking record featured Bloomfield's best studio playing, elevated rock jamming to a level of seriousness hitherto only attributed to jazz musicians, and brought the term "Super" into rock parlance (as in "Blind Faith is a supergroup")
After the success of 1967's Monterey Pop Festival, there was another year of efforts to try and duplicate the experience of the event. The Palace Of Fine Arts was built for the 1915 Pan-American Exhibition, and the landmark had been rebuilt in 1965. This four day event was an attempt to use the entire grounds as a festival site, and the affair was not repeated. The last day of the event (September 2, 1968) featured the Grateful Dead, but in fact that day was canceled and the Dead flew to Sultan, WA for the last day of the Sky River Rock Festival. However, the event was anticipated with great fanfare in the San Francisco rock market.
We know something of the performance on August 31 from a detailed description by teenage diarist Faren Miller.The original billing was somewhat different, and Miller's diary only describes who she saw, so some of the billed acts may have played on different stages (including John Handy, Steve Miller Band and Big Mama Thornton). However, she does indicate that HP Lovecraft were a no-show.
Mike Bloomfield, at the time unaligned, since he had left the Electric Flag, played an unbilled performance on the second day by leading "The Mike Bloomfield Jam Band." At this time, Bloomfield was a bigger star than anyone on the bill, since groups like Quicksilver and the Dead were still more like underground sensations. Miller describes the event in some detail, and it featured the sort of loose, bluesy jamming that typified Bloomfield's subsequent career. Research has suggested that John Kahn was the bassist for this event. Faren Miller does not identify the bass player, and I remain uncertain as to whether Kahn actually played. I have to assume for various reasons (that will be made clear) that Kahn lived near Bloomfield, and some casual jamming had led to the opportunity to play at the Palace Of Fine Arts festival. Apparently, Kahn had met Bloomfield when he saw one of Kahn's bands at a club.
Although there remains some uncertainty, the "Mike Bloomfield Jam Band" on August 31, 1968 was probably
- Mike Bloomfield-lead guitar, vocals
- Nick Gravenites-guitar, vocals
- Mark Nafatalin-organ, keyboards
- John Kahn-bass
- Bob Jones-drums
- plus guests The Ace Of Cups (backing vocals), Steve Miller (guitar), Curly Cook (guitar), uncertain [Ron Stallings?] (tenor sax)
September 26-28, 1968: Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper/It's A Beautiful Day/Loading Zone
Al Kooper was a staff producer at Columbia, and with a breakout album on the charts (not to mention the Kooper produced Blood Sweat & Tears debut album), Kooper decided to publicize Super Session with a live Bloomfield/Kooper jam for three days at Fillmore West. For the original Super Session, Bloomfield had chosen Electric Flag bassist Harvey Brooks and Kooper had selected drummer Eddie Hoh. Keeping with Bloomfield's penchant for not repeating himself, Kooper chose a different drummer (Skip Propop, formerly of The Paupers) and Bloomfield chose (quoting Kooper) "his friend and neighbor John Kahn." At this time, Bloomfield lived in Mill Valley, so I have to assume Kahn lived there, too. On the album, Bloomfield alludes to having jammed with Kahn "a few times."
The highlights of the weekend at Fillmore West were released on a Columbia album called The Live Adventures Of Mike Bloomfield And Al Kooper. This Columbia double-lp was the first recording on which his name appeared (Kahn had played uncredited on a Bloomfield/Barry Goldberg album called Two Jews Blues). Mike Bloomfield was a big star (and Kooper wasn't nobody), so having his name on the album was an important credit for an ambitious player.
There was a curious coda to the weekend. Bloomfield, for reasons that I will discuss in a subsequent post, was uncomfortable with the idea of success, and he had a tendency to bail out when things were going well. After two great nights at Fillmore West, Bloomfield abruptly checked into a hospital with insomnia (a perpetual problem for him). This left Al Kooper without his star. The hilarious Kooper wryly recalled "I think I'd rather cut my dick off than tell Bill Graham half his show ain't gonna make it that night. As expected, he went nuts, screaming as if I'd murdered his best friend."
The interesting part, with respect to John Kahn, comes in the detailed description of the weekend provided by Kooper in his must-read book Backstage Passes And Backstabbing Bastards (1998, Billboard Books)
I got on the phone and called Carlos Santana, a local hero not known outside of San Francisco at the time, and Elvin Bishop, Steve Miller, Jerry Garcia and others. Once again San Francisco responds, and every musician in town shows up and offers his/her services. It was a helluva show that night. Steve, Carlos and Elvin all came up and did three or four songs apiece, and we ended up playing way past closing time. The audience was happy. Graham was happy. Columbia was happy (p139).Its fascinating to find out that Kooper and Garcia already had a relationship (another intriguing subject for various reasons), but more interesting to find out that Garcia was at least invited to jam onstage on Kahn on September 28, 1968. Garcia never mentioned seeing Kahn with Al Kooper, so I assume he was busy and didn't go to Fillmore West, although the Dead didn't have a show that weekend.
Now, although Garcia respected Bloomfield's playing (he wasn't deaf), the acerbic Bloomfield was never nice about the Dead, yet Garcia seems to have been friendly with Kooper, so it's hard to parse how much of Garcia's unavailability might have been a scheduling conflict. Despite Bloomfield's attitude, however, Kooper described in some detail how the Dead had loaned Kooper and Bloomfield rehearsal space and equipment for a few days prior to the show (p.137), so certainly any competitiveness Garcia might have felt towards Bloomfield was subsumed under the need for fellow musicians to cooperate.
Nonetheless it was not to be. The Garcia/Kahn meeting would wait almost two more years, while Kahn continued working with Bloomfield and various Chicago expatriates.
The next post will cover John Kahn's live performance history during 1969.