David “Dawg” Grisman is a composer and mandolin player from Hackensack, New Jersey. Classically trained, Grisman took an interest in folk and bluegrass music, and moved from piano to mandolin in his mid-teens. After working in New York and Boston in various folk and rock groups, Grisman moved to northern California sometime in the late sixties, where he reunited with lifelong friend Jerry Garcia, whom he met at a bluegrass festival in 1964. Grisman contributed mandolin to two songs on the Grateful Dead’s American Beauty album. In 1973, he and Garcia helped found the Old and In The Way bluegrass band. By 1975, he had formed his own band, the David Grisman Quintet, playing an acoustic hybrid of jazz and bluegrass affectionately known as Dawg music. Eventually, Grisman also started his own record label, Acoustic Disc Records, to maintain control of his music. Grisman has remained active, recording and performing extensively throughout his life.
The David Grisman Quintet roster changed many times over the years; the most notable lineup of the early quintet is:
Other Notable Collaborators:
Matt Eakle, flute
Joe Craven, percussion, violin
Stéphane Grappelli (1908-1997), violin
Jerry Garcia (1942-1995), guitar
Tiny Moore (1920-1967), mandolin
Jethro Burns (1920-1989), mandolin
Earl Scruggs (1924-2012), banjo
Mark O’Connor (b. 1961), guitar, vioin
The David Grisman Quintet is the rare band I fell in love with at first listen. It was the summer of 1977, after my first year of college. I was hanging out at a good friend’s house; at the time he was renting a room in the back of a house off Cambridge Avenue in Menlo Park, just a few blocks off El Camino Real, down the street from the original Kepler’s Books. When I showed up, a couple of folks were playing backgammon and the eponymous David Grisman Quintet album was on the record player. “Who is that?” “Oh, you’ve never heard Grisman?” My friend was a big Grateful Dead fan, and I’m sure that’s how he discovered them. For the next few years, Grisman became my favorite musician. I bought each new album and paid attention to all his side projects. I saw him in concert several times. I introduced him to Dad, and Dad liked him too.
Over my life, few bands possess the distinction of “love at first listen”. I can’t say for sure whether The Beatles are there — it’s too long ago. It wasn’t until “Proud Mary” that Creedence Clearwater Revival became my favorite band for a few years. Then Grisman came along to fill that gap in the late seventies. A few years later, Los Lobos piqued my interest from the first song I heard, and a lifetime of devotion ensued. Louis Jordan & His Tympani Five and Howlin’ Wolf are two artists I immediately embraced, but I found them through research. It’s special when something new is randomly playing. Jonathan Richman, Sharon Jones & The Dap Kings, and to a lesser extent, The Stray Cats, also share this rare trait.
Here is one of David Grisman’s best known compositions, “Eat My Dust”, or more commonly, “E.M.D.”, played with the Rounder Records All-Stars, which includes Tony Rice on guitar and a young Alison Krauss on fiddle:
Great American Music Hall Concerts
I saw David Grisman in concert many times during the late seventies. I saw him in Davis and in Marin County, but the most memorable concerts were at the Great American Music Hall, in a dicey part of San Francisco, down the block from the notorious Mitchell Brothers O’Farrell Theater. One time Grisman brought mandolin legends Tiny Moore and Jethro Burns with him; another time he brought the great violinist Stéphane Grappelli. A small, sit down theater with tables and character, with Grisman playing hot swing music for the young and old, but not for everyone.
I ruined a tenuous friendship one drunken night by playing the lightning tempo “Minor Swing” at top volume in my car, while my terrified (and much cooler) basketball teammate was clearly thinking how to get the hell out of there. And though I consider Grisman an innovative jazz musician who integrated many styles — classical, bluegrass, jazz and even Klezmer — some critics think otherwise. Neither the Penguin Guide to Jazz, nor the Faber Companion to 20th Century Popular Music include him as a significant artist.
Consider these two quotes discussing the album Stephane Grappelli/David Grisman — Live. First from the Penguin Guide:
“This group featured two mandolinists, who make a pretty wretched sound.”
Conversely, the All Music Guide to Jazz gives this record a solid black star, identifying the album as “Representative of the best this artist (Grappelli) has to offer” and “Essential music with more than its fair share of great solos.”
After Tony Rice left the band to pursue a solo career, Grisman added the gifted teenager Mark O’Connor to the lineup. O’Connor primarily played guitar for Grisman, though much like Alison Krauss, he was a national fiddle champion as a youngster. O’Connor has had a long and versatile career as an individual performer and a Nashville session musician. Here the quintet of Grisman, Marshall, Anger, bassist Rob Wasserman and O’Connor perform the John Coltrane composition “Naima”:
My Mandolin Player
I felt a crisis of confidence when the almighty Penguin Guide failed to mention one of my favorites, which should lend some insight into my desire to have my opinions validated. The mandolin has limitations that may exempt it from consideration as a legitimate jazz instrument. David Grisman has a big footprint in my collection, the quintet records plus the Tiny Moore & Jethro Burns and David Grisman & Jerry Garcia collaborations. He’s the only mandolin player whose music I followed closely, though I do have a healthy collection of songs by Bill Monroe & His Blue Grass Boys. Tiny Moore and Jethro Burns were famous mandolin players from the previous generation. Tiny played an electric mandolin as a member of Bob Wills & His Texas Playboys, while Jethro is a recognized master f the instrument, and was a member of the country comedy duo Homer & Jethro. Around the same time Grisman achieved success, banjoist Béla Fleck and mandolinist Sam Bush, among others, were starting influential careers shaping the direction of modern string music. But Grisman was my man, at the time I was just starting to learn about jazz, playing driving music reminiscent from the swing jazz greats of the thirties. The easiest comparison is the French string band Le Quintette du Hot Club de France, with Stéphane Grappelli on violin and the great Django Reinhardt on guitar. Within a year or two of discovering Grisman, I was buying Hot Club of France records in the college record store. Because of Grisman, I moved deeper into jazz and country and bluegrass, and learned about a whole world of performers I had never heard. An engaging and emotional performer, David Grisman is an essential and beloved piece of my musical education.
A Chance Meeting
About ten years ago, I had a chance meeting with Grisman, at the Traverse City, Michigan airport. He was performing at Interlochen, and we were both heading home that day. It’s a small airport, and there I was, sitting across the gate from the Dawg and his quintet. I walked over to him, and shyly said, “You’re Dave Grisman, aren’t you?”. He said yes. Trying to be brief, I said I was a big fan, and thanks for everything, then walked back to my seat. I’ve thought about that encounter many times. Sometimes it takes me a day or two to know what to say. In retrospect I wish I’d told him that I chose “Midnight Waltz” by Tiny Moore & Jethro Burns as my wedding dance. It would have said so much.
David Grisman Song Notes:
1. “Dawggy Mountain Breakdown” features Earl Scruggs on banjo. It is also the theme song for “Car Talk”, a long running PBS program.
2. The best versions of “16…16” and “Minor Swing” feature Stéphane Grappelli and can be found on Hot Dawg. My grandmother died suddenly after I was born, and my grandpa remarried a woman whose stepdaughter I saw from time to time at holidays. She knew Stéphane Grappelli, and used to spend time with him when he came to San Francisco. She also knew guitarist Martin Taylor very well.
David Grisman Songs:
Barkley’s Bug, David Grisman ✭✭✭✭
Minor Swing, David Grisman ✭✭✭✭
E.M.D., David Grisman Quintet ✭✭✭✭
Ricochet, David Grisman Quintet ✭✭✭
Cedar Hill, David Grisman ✭✭✭
Pneumonia, David Grisman ✭✭✭
16…16, David Grisman ✭✭✭
Naima, David Grisman ✭✭
Opus 38, David Grisman ✭✭
Albuquerque Turkey, David Grisman ✭✭
Dawgma, David Grisman ✭✭
Dawgmatism, David Grisman ✭✭
Opus 57, David Grisman Quintet ✭✭
Dawg’s Bull, David Grisman ✭✭
Because (Live), David Grisman Quintet ✭✭
Neon Tetra, David Grisman ✭✭
O Solo Mio, David Grisman & Tony Rice ✭✭
My Long Journey Home, David Grisman ✭✭
Dawgology, David Grisman ✭✭
Sweet Georgia Brown (Live), Stéphane Grappelli & David Grisman ✭✭
Swing 51, David Grisman ✭
Dawggy Mountain Breakdown, David Grisman ✭
Steppin’ With Stéphane, David Grisman ✭
Key Signator (Live), David Grisman Quintet ✭
I Am A Pilgrim, David Grisman & Tony Rice ✭
Cedar Hill (Live), David Grisman Quintet ✭
Misty (Live), Stéphane Grappelli & David Grisman ✭
Pickin’ In The Wind, Mark O’Connor ✭✭
Blackberry Blossom, Mark O’Connor ✭
Naima, John Coltrane ✭✭✭✭
Naima (Alt), John Coltrane ✭✭✭
Naima (Alt), John Coltrane ✭✭
Naima, Carlos Santana & John McLaughlin ✭✭
Minor Swing, Le Quintette Du Hot Club De France ✭✭
Swing ’39, Le Quintette Du Hot Club De France ✭✭
Foggy Mountain Breakdown, Flatt & Scruggs ✭✭✭✭
My Long Journey Home, The Monroe Brothers ✭✭
Because, The Beatles ✭✭
Assanhado, Jacob De Bandolim ✭✭
Ripple, Grateful Dead ✭✭✭
Friend Of The Devil, Grateful Dead ✭✭✭✭