Thursday, July 19, 2012

Jerry Garcia and Merl Saunders Band Members, 1971-75

Live At Keystone, Fantasy Records, 1974, credited to Merl Saunders/Jerry Garcia/John Kahn/Bill Vitt
What is a rock band? This may seem like a simple question, and perhaps it is, but if you have a serious interest in rock music the problem is subtler than it appears. Prior to The Beatles, rock groups were just entertainers, essentially "High Concept" marketing vehicles, although such a term would not have been used at the time. Did anyone really know who was in The Coasters? Even if they did, would it have mattered if different people sang the parts? In that respect, early rock groups were like The Ice Capades: what was presented was more important than the actual participants. The Beatles changed all that.

The Beatles were fully self-contained: they wrote, they played, they sang, one for all, and all for one. The Beatles effect was just as powerful on musicians as it was on fans. Folk musicians like Roger McGuinn or Jerry Garcia saw A Hard Day's Night and decided more or less in the movie theater that being in a rock group was where it's at. The Byrds, the Grateful Dead and a thousand other groups would follow. Yet who were "The Beatles?"

There had been pre-Beatles groups like The Quarrymen, and the very first version of the Beatles featured bassist Stuart Sutcliffe and drummer Pete Best. Sutcliffe died, and Best was fired, and once Ringo Starr joined they were the "real" Beatles. Did that mean the six shows that The Beatles played in early 1964 with substitute drummer Jimmy Nicol when Ringo was very ill were not "real" Beatles shows? Clearly not. So what is a rock group?

Rock's first and best prosopographer, Pete Frame, inventor and author of The Rock Family Trees series, has gone the farthest in codifying our views of rock groups. In general, most rock fans--and me-- feel that a "group" is equal to more than the sum of its individual parts. Something magical happens when a certain set of musicians play together in the studio or on stage. As a concession to reality, most fans implicitly feel that there are core members of groups, and perhaps some peripheral members can change without affecting the group. However, when a key member leaves or joins, the group evolves. Frame addresses the problem by dividing bands into periods: The Byrds #1, The Byrds #2, and so on. Rock fans implicitly accepted this. Some went further, and started blogs.

Almost all Grateful Dead fans, for example, consider the version of the Grateful Dead that recorded Blues For Allah in 1975 and toured "different" than the lineup that preceded it, even though the only change was the return of Mickey Hart on drums. By the same token, the few shows in early 1979 when Donna Godcahaux was not present did not constitute enough of a break with the group zeitgeist to make those performances "non-Grateful Dead."

How, then, to consider the recording and performing history of the Jerry Garcia and Merl Saunders collaboration? I have gone to great lengths to detail the personnel of the Jerry Garcia Band, the New Riders of The Purple Sage, Old And In The Way, Bobby and The Midnites and several other groups. While it's necessary to account for the occasional substitute drummer of fiddler, by and large the Pete Frame superstructure works very well. Rock groups have "periods," and they change when personnel changes, as all the current members see the new members as a chance to re-think and re-work their approach to their own music. However, after much struggling, no such configurative history works for Garcia and Saunders. There is no meaningful Garcia and Saunders #1, nor #2, and in fact the whole Frame concept that my historical analysis is generally based on does a disservice to Garcia and Saunders.

Pete Frame's Rock Family Trees is profoundly appropriate to rock groups, but not to all music. The Garcia-Saunders group was best understood as a jazz group, and only makes sense in that context. As it happens, the Garcia-Saunders group was a jazz band that played rock music, but they still had a jazz approach and configuration, particularly from a financial and professional perspective. This post will look at the history of band members in the various Garcia-Saunders collaborations from 1971 through 1975, and in so doing will explain how the very conception of the group was opposite to rock groups such as The Jerry Garcia Band which would soon follow it.

An ad for Miles Davis' appearance at San Francisco's Both/And Club for the week of April 11-17, 1967 (from the April 13, 1967 San Francisco Chronicle)
What Is  A Jazz Group?
In the 1950s and 60s, the concept of a jazz group or "combo" was very different than that of a sixties rock group. Over time, the jazz and rock conceptions have merged for a variety of commercial reasons, but when Jerry Garcia and Merl Saunders started playing together in the early 1970s, they would still have been working off a 60s conception of jazz groups. Merl would have been a member of such groups, and Jerry would have been a fan and consumer, but their concept would have been the same.

Jazz musicians are generally profoundly talented. You could inadvertently spill ink on music paper, and the Miles Davis Quintet could make it sound great. Since jazz musicians are so talented, they can rarely find a platform for all of them to use all their ideas at once. What evolved from the 1950s onward was the idea that each jazz live or studio session had a leader and sidemen, and the music evolved from that. The leader picked the band, defined the concept and picked the tunes, and the members played accordingly. Of course, much of the music was improvised, but the improvisation was subsumed under the leader's plans. For example, many Blue Note Records albums from the 1960s have the same players, but the records sound different based on the leader. If Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock played on a Tony Williams album, they followed Williams' ideas; if Williams and Hancock were on a session for Shorter, they followed his ideas. And yet, all of them were in Miles Davis's great quintet at the time, where they followed Miles' directions.

By the same token, if you saw Miles Davis at a jazz club in the late 60s, you expected to see a group led by Miles, playing his music. If you were lucky, and probably in New York, you might get to see the "Great Quintet" with Shorter, Williams, Hancock and bassist Ron Carter. If you were in San Francisco, you might see a sextet lineup with both Shorter and Joe Henderson on saxophones, but with Albert Stinson on bass, as Ron Carter rarely toured. A "jazz group" meant that the leader or leaders defined the music, and the best available players played it. It was still Miles Davis, and it was still jazz. Garcia and Saunders were built on the Miles Davis model, not that of The Beatles.

Garcia/Saunders History
I have dealt with the genesis of the Garcia/Saunders partnership at length, and will only briefly recap it here. Drummer Bill Vitt and organist Howard Wales were responsible for hosting Monday night jams at The Matrix in early 1970. Over time, Jerry Garcia and John Kahn became regulars with them. Wales had some hesitation about the popularity associated with playing with Jerry Garcia, and after some brief flirtations with Vince Guaraldi, Kahn brought Merl Saunders into the jams at The Matrix. Initially, Garcia, Saunders, Kahn and Vitt only played at The Matrix, but starting in 1971 they started to play out a little more. Since Garcia was a rock musician, they were considered a "rock group", but really they weren't. In fact, Garcia and Saunders' partnership was built on a jazz concept, whatever music they happened to be playing.

By early 1971, the Garcia-Saunders group had started to play somewhat regularly. Mostly they played The Matrix, until it closed, and then they mostly played The Keystone Korner. In the tradition of jazz groups, they had a core membership, but there seems to be evidence that it was fluid. In general, ias long as Garcia and Saunders were present, it was "The Garcia-Saunders Group." John Kahn was usually the bassist, and Bill Vitt was usually the drummer. In jazz terminology, Kahn and Vitt were the "first call" rhythm section, meaning they got the first phone call, as they were the preferred choices. However, if one of them was booked, someone else got the call, and it was still the Garcia-Saunders band. From what limited evidence we have, Bill Kreutzmann played drums on a number of occasions. There were probably substitutions on bass as well, when John Kahn was booked. This would have been standard operating procedure for a jazz group: Garcia and Saunders were the leaders who defined the music, Kahn and Vitt got the first call, and others filled in when required.

A Keystone Korner flyer for October 1971--should we read anything into the fact that John Kahn is not named on the flyer?
Garcia-Saunders 1971-1973
When thinking about "Garcia and Saunders" as a rock band, it's important to note that the group did not even have a name. "The Grateful Dead" may have been known informally as "The Dead" or occasionally by some 'substitute' name like "Jerry Garcia And Friends," but The Grateful Dead was a very real entity. They toured and recorded as The Grateful Dead, and a concert or album booked or sold as The Grateful Dead explicitly implied a certain repertoire and personnel. To some extent, the identity associated with their own name is what distinguishes a rock group from other musical aggregations.

When Jerry Garcia and Merl Saunders played a nightclub or concert in the early 1970s, they could be booked any old way: "Jerry Garcia and Merl Saunders," 'Garcia and Saunders," "The Garcia-Saunders Band" and so on. The implication was clear in any case: Garcia and Saunders would lead the band playing their unique jazz/rock hybrid, and other players would join them as available. Indeed, some interviews from this period refer to the Garcia-Saunders band as "The Group." Bill Vitt and John Kahn were generally seen as the 'other' members, but great care was taken to never define them as a rock band. As far as I know, whatever money was made was split between the individuals who played. A few bucks may have been passed on to Ramrod or other crew, but in general the musicians split the take evenly.

By the end of 1971, rhythm guitarist Tom Fogerty was playing at least some gigs with Garcia and Saunders, but he was more of a 'participant' than a 'member,' just as the others were. By the end of 1972, Garcia and Saunders seemed to have been experimenting with adding additional players to the group. Sarah Fulcher sang with the group from late 1972 until late 1973, but she didn't play every show. Guitarist George Tickner played several shows in Spring 1973. Will Scarlett occasionally played harmonica, and Martin Fierro played tenor sax one day in 1973 (July 19). At other times, different players would join the group for a song or two, often on an apparently casual basis, possibly simply because a band member had invited them on stage. All this was typical for a jazz group, but not a rock group.

From a jazz perspective, the Garcia-Saunders aggregation looked like this from 1971-1973:
Jerry Garcia-lead guitar, vocals
Merl Saunders-organ, keyboards
John Kahn-bass
sub: Marty David or others-bass
Bill Vitt-drums
sub: Bill Kreutzmann-drums
plus: Tom Fogerty-guitar (1971-72)
       Armando Peraza-congas (Spring 1972)
       George Tickner-guitar (Spring 1973)
       Sarah Fulcher-vocals (Dec 1972-Oct 73)
      Will Scarlett-harmonica (1973)
      Martin Fierro-tenor sax (July 19 1973)
and occasional guests on trumpet or other instruments for a number or two
Of course, given the limited number of tapes and reviews in our possession, there may be a wider number of subs than we may know about now. I would note that of the relatively few surviving Garcia/Saunders tape from this era, Bill Kreutzmann drums on a lot of them. No one really has any idea if Vitt played most of the shows, or only half of them, or what. At the time, besides being a session musician, Vitt was also a member of The Sons Of Champlin, so he may have had a lot of conflicts. Kreutzmann, of course, would not have been working if Garcia had a gig, so he would have been readily available.

John Kahn also had a parallel career in the early 1970s. Besides working as a session man in San Francisco and Los Angeles, Kahn performed regularly, if intermittently, with Brewer And Shipley, in the studio, on TV and on tour. So the occasional Garcia/Saunders show without Kahn (such as January 19, 1973, with Marty David on bass) were most likely conflicts with Brewer And Shipley. I think Kahn played more consistently with Garcia/Saunders than Vitt did, but truthfully we don't know for certain how many of those shows he actually missed.

The important point to consider here, however, is to dispense with the idea that the Garcia/Saunders aggregation had "members" in the sense of The Byrds or even the Jerry Garcia Band. If Armando Peraza was present, he was in the band; if he wasn't, he wasn't. In neither case was he exactly a "member." in the sense that Chris Hillman had been a member of the Byrds. Certainly, John Kahn and Bill Vitt were the first call players, and they were members in the sense that Ron Carter and Tony Williams had been members of the Miles Davis Quintet from 1964 to 1968. Albert Stinson and a few others played bass for the Quintet many times, but Ron Carter was no less a "member" for not making every show. Garcia and Saunders' music only required Garcia, Saunders and a rhythm section. Kahn and Vitt were the first and best rhythm section, but the music was played in any case.

As I have discussed at length, Jerry Garcia's first independent contract after he and the Grateful Dead left Warner Brothers was an agreement to make an album on Fantasy Records, the early 1974 album Live At Keystone. Tellingly, the artists on the record were not "Garcia and Saunders" but "Garcia, Saunders, Kahn and Vitt." This was a very jazz conception for a rock album, and I think a telling one. JGMF has marshaled some solid evidence that the quartet was experimenting with other players in early 1973, such as Sarah Fulcher and George Tickner, in consideration of future recording, but they seem to have gone with the core quartet. Garcia and Saunders were playing rock, if improvised rock, but their musical and financial conception of their band was that of a jazz group, not a rock band.

An obscure flyer for the Garcia/Saunders show at USF Gym on Halloween 1974. They are billed as Jerry Garcia, Merl Saunders and Friends. Opening act is Osiris, featuring Kevin McKernan.
Garcia And Saunders 1974-75
Bill Vitt stopped playing with Jerry Garcia and Merl Saunders by the end of 1973. As usual, no reason or explanation was ever given. According to my theory, it's likely rather than that he "quit the band" or "was fired," he just stopped getting calls. The Garcia-Saunders aggregation had started to become more successful, thanks to the Dead's growing popularity and the attention that came with the Live At Keystone album. As a result, they were less able to always act like a casual jazz group who played the same few Bay Area nightclubs over and over.

'Membership' in the Garcia-Saunders aggregation for 1974-75 appears from the outside to be a very confusing story. I have made sense of it by dividing the known performances into three separate configurations, all of which overlapped with each other. You'll have to temporarily bear with some of my naming conventions until I explain them fully. The three concurrent configurations were
  • "Garcia-Saunders"
  • "Merl Saunders and Friends" and
  • Legion Of Mary
After Bill Vitt 'left' the Garcia-Saunders group, or at least stopped getting phone calls, the band played their shows with Bill Kreutzmann on drums. Meanwhile, during the Winter of 1974, John Kahn, Merl Saunders and finally Jerry Garcia were recording Garcia's second solo album in Southern California, which is how drummer Ron Tutt came into their orbit. After what appeared to be a live dry run with Ron Tutt at the tiny Inn Of The Beginning in Cotati, Tutt did not play with Garcia and Saunders until December 1974.

In the meantime, Bill Kreutzmann played Garcia/Saunders shows at smaller auditoriums and weekends at the Keystone Berkeley. Late in the Summer, the great Paul Humphrey played drums for some gigs--it's hard to pin down the exact date--and by the time the Grateful Dead had gone on touring hiatus, Humphrey was the regular drummer for Garcia/Saunders. Humphreys played the notable Bay Area shows and the out-of-town shows throughout most of 1974. At some point, tenor saxophonist Martin Fierro became a regular part of the band as well.

By the end of 1974, Ron Tutt had joined Garcia/Saunders. Although there seems to have been a bit of confusion on the part of promoters, the name Legion Of Mary appears at the end of 1974. From December 1974 through July 1975, the lineup of Garcia/Saunders/Fierro/Kahn/Tutt was known as Legion Of Mary. What is confusing, however, was that if a show was booked with a different drummer, then it was billed as "Garcia-Saunders." A good example was June 8, 1975, at El Camino Park in Palo Alto. Someone other than Ron Tutt, an African-American (possibly Paul Humphrey), played drums, and the show was booked as Garcia-Saunders

It is not a relevant point here if a show was billed as "Garcia/Saunders Band," "Jerry Garcia And Merl Saunders" or some other slight variation. Both Legion Of Mary and Garcia/Saunders played more or less the same material. Legion Of Mary was conceived like a real rock group, like The Byrds, with a fixed membership; Garcia/Saunders had some fluidity, like a jazz group.

However, the real confusion with Garcia and Saunders performing lineups in 1974 and '75 has to do with what I am artificially naming here as "Merl Saunders And Friends." From mid-1974 until Summer '75, although the Grateful Dead made two studio albums and Garcia started working on the Grateful Dead movie, relatively speaking Garcia had more time on his hands than he had at any other time in the decade. After 1974, the Dead simply stopped performing; and even before that, Garcia only had one working band. Jerry was Jerry--if he had a free night and a guitar, he was going to play.

Garcia's access points to pickup shows was Merl Saunders. Garcia had long since passed the time when he could simply "drop in" and jam with someone without a hullabaloo, and in any case it was clear that Garcia didn't consider playing a ragged version of "Hideaway" with some strangers to be a fulfilling evening. Independent of Garcia/Saunders shows, however, Merl Saunders was a working musician with his own career. On his own, Merl was much jazzier, in the tradition of organ groups, and played with a rotating cast of players. Saunders played a lot of shows with just Martin Fierro on sax and a rotating cast of drummers, and his son Tony Saunders on bass when he was available. If Garcia was free--remember, the Dead weren't touring for much of this period--Garcia dropped in to play as well.

The reason we have any history at all of Garcia from places like The Sand Dunes, a tiny joint near Ocean Beach (at 3599 Taraval in San Francisco), or The Generosity, or The Inn Of The Beginning, another distant watering hole, was plainly that Saunders had booked the gig for his own band, and Garcia managed to make the show. Of course, Merl, the club owner and even Jerry were all hoping that any and every Merl gig featured a guest appearance by Garcia, but Merl was playing the show regardless. It seems clear to me that in some cases Garcia could give enough advance warning that the club owner--much to his delight--could actually advertise Garcia's presence. In other cases, Garcia seems to have just dropped by.

The important thing about club bookings is that they have to be scheduled 30 to 60 days in advance. A large club or an Auditorium wasn't going to book Saunders without Garcia, but a smaller place had to be open most nights anyway. Saunders had a regular Monday night gig in 1974 at The Sand Dunes, for example. My guess is that there were usually about 50 people there, although maybe various people came and went and the total head count was larger. At least once Garcia seems to have dropped in. The night's music was mostly instrumental jams, much looser and freewheeling than the rock-focused sound of the Garcia/Saunders band.

Tony Saunders usually played bass for his dad's gigs, although not always--Merl could play the bass with his foot pedals if needed. Various drummers sat in: E.W. Wainwright, Bob Steeler, Gaylord Birch and probably others, too. A variety of other musicians seemed to have dropped in, in the jazz tradition. Everybody wanted Jerry to show up, but even if he didn't, Merl was going to play anyway. The "Merl Saunders And Friends" shows, however they were variously billed, was a final year where Garcia could find a free night and sit in with a willing but talented band of friendly players and just lay it down, opportunities that all but disappeared after the Summer of 1975.

The June 1975 Keystone Berkeley calendar has billings for both Garcia/Saunders and The Legion of Mary (among many other interesting bookings)
Garcia & Saunders Band Lineups 1974-75
Garcia/Saunders, February-November 1974
Jerry Garcia-guitar, vocals
Merl Saunders-organ, keyboards, vocals
John Kahn-bass
Bill Kreutzmann-drums
then> Paul Humphrey-drums Aug-Nov '7
various subs>Paul Humphrey (Jun 8 '75) Gregg Errico (Jun 22 '75)
late 1974> Martin Fierro-tenor sax, flute
It's my current contention that Martin Fierro was a regular in Merl's band throughout 1974, but not necessarily in Garcia/Saunders. However, once it was clear that the Grateful Dead would be going on hiatus, I think Fierro became a "permanent" member of Garcia/Saunders and then Legion Of Mary. 

It remains uncertain exactly when Paul Humphrey first performed with Garcia and Saunders, but it appears to be August 11 or 12, 1974. It's also uncertain exactly when he became the regular drummer, and indeed when he was replaced by Ron Tutt. I can assure you that checking The Jerry Site won't help, since many of their sources were derived from me (via Deadbase IX) and I can vouch for my own mistakes there. The whole problem stemmed from a mistaken notion on my part that the drummers were "leaving" and "joining" the Garcia/Saunders "Band" as if they were members of The Byrds.
Merl Saunders & Friends with Jerry Garcia mid-74-Sunmer '75
Jerry Garcia-guitar
Martin Fierro-tenor sax
Merl Saunders-organ
Tony Saunders-bass (sometimes absent)
EW Wainwright, Bob Steeler, Gaylord Birch, others?-drums
various guest musicians on various instruments
By definition, Merl Saunders played numerous shows in this period with similar lineups, but without Garcia. For my purposes, it's not important how these shows were billed. The "Merl Saunders And Friends" period seems to have gone from late Summer 1974 through June 1975. I myself have not made the attempt to determine which shows might qualify as "And Friends" date. At this point, I am simply trying to assert and defend the proposition that Merl Saunders and Friends with Jerry Garcia was a different animal than Garcia and Saunders, even if they were sometimes billed the same way. There may have been more such appearances by Garcia than we initially realized.
Legion Of Mary December 1974-June 1975
Jerry Garcia-guitar, vocals
Martin Fierro-tenor sax, flute
Merl Saunders-organ, keyboards, vocals
John Kahn-bass
Ron Tutt-drums
Legion Of Mary began when Ron Tutt joined the group in December 1974. Any Garcia show that had the following lineup counted as a Legion Of Mary show. If Tutt wasn't present, the show was billed as Garcia/Saunders, not Legion Of Mary. For my purposes, it's moot if a few promoters called Legion Of Mary shows "Garcia-Saunders" shows. Tutt's arrival foretold the idea that Garcia's side band would be a regular, working rock band, with a name and a fixed membership.

Once again, I have not been been able to pin down Ron Tutt's first appearance with Garcia and Saunders in late 1974, and hence the beginning of Legion Of Mary. Ironically, Tutt's first appearance may still have been followed by dates with Paul Humphrey on drums, so that too clouds the trail. In a strange twist, the next-to-last show billed as Legion Of Mary, on June 22, 1975, featured Gregg Errico on drums, so by my system it would count as a Garcia/Saunders show, but you are free to make your own decision.

Garcia And Saunders, to the extent it was a "band," was institutionally a jazz band, even though they played rock. Certain players like John Kahn and Bill Vitt got the first phone call, but their absence on any given date was part of the professional life of the band. Both Garcia and Saunders put out solo albums from 1971 through 1974 featuring various players, and a live album was released with the core four of Garcia, Saunders, Kahn and Vitt. If you look at the careers of working jazz musicians during this period--Freddie Hubbard, Joe Henderson, anyone you like--that was what their recorded output was like. Different leaders made records using their various collaborators, and they shared credits on a live album.

When Garcia and Saunders stabilized in mid-1974 to become more like a rock band, first with Paul Humphrey and Martin Fierro, and finally with Ron Tutt, it foreshadowed the future Jerry Garcia Band. The Jerry Garcia Band had a fixed lineup at any given moment, and many of the members of the group stayed in the band for years. The practical realities of touring meant that there was the occasional substitute on bass or drums, but those were kept to a mere handful.

What was lost, ne'er to be seen again, was anything resembling Garcia's guest appearances with Merl Saunders' group. For almost a year, Garcia had enough time to drop in on Merl's little gigs, and just funk out on whatever jazz the band was playing. In some ways, this was a reflection of what Garcia apparently had enjoyed in the 1969-70 period at the Matrix, but that scene had disappeared with the Matrix itself. In some ways, the 1979 band Reconstruction may have been designed to provide an encore. John Kahn had alluded to the idea that Reconstruction would continue without Jerry, and indeed they played a few obscure gigs, but it ground to a halt. If Reconstruction had stood on their own, however, it might have provided a forum for Jerry to just drop in, without having to lead the band. It was not to be.

The last sign of a Garcia appearance with what I am calling "Merl Saunders And Friends" was at The Shady Grove in San Francisco, on October 2 and 3, 1978. The Shady Grove was a popular little musician's hangout, at 1538 Haight Street, between Ashbury and Clayton, that was under threat of closing. Merl played there regularly, and Garcia came out to play for one and possibly two nights, sitting in with Merl's band. A tape endures of October 3, and Garcia gets to jam away in some tiny joint, an opportunity that was already largely denied to him even by that date. The substantial legacy of Garcia and Saunders and Legion of Mary has left Garcia's final run at being one of the boys in the band largely obscured by clouds.