Grateful Dead guitarist Jerry Garcia collaborated with several musicians outside of his work with the legendary band. Bassist John Kahn is among those with whom Garcia shared a lasting and fruitful relationship, performing together in various groups and configurations for 25 years. In concert and in the studio, Kahn was a trusted partner of Garcia’s, becoming one of the latter’s most consistent collaborators outside of the Dead.
Kahn and Garcia first crossed paths at The Matrix in San Francisco, where keyboardist Howard Wales led weekly jam sessions. Beginning in early-1970, both Garcia and Kahn, along with drummer Bill Vitt, were regulars at The Matrix.
Garcia told Blair Jackson about the first few times he played with Kahn:
So they used to have this Monday night jam session, but Howard [Wales] gradually sort of took it over. Howard’s this amazing organ player – difficult person, but wonderful musician. And for some reason he liked our playing, John [Kahn] and mine. We didn’t know each other, John and I.
In fact we played with Howard for almost a year before we even actually started talking to each other. Really.
We would just show up, plug in, and play. About half the set I’d be whispering to John, I’d be saying, “Hey, man, what key are we in?” Howard didn’t have tunings or anything, he just played.
One of the nights at the Matrix was recorded and released in 1998 as the Garcia/Wales album, Side Trips, Volume One. The same lineup of Wales, Garcia, Vitt and Kahn, with several guest musicians, recorded the 1971 studio album, Hooteroll?.
Kahn came to the Matrix jams with previous experience playing with Brewer & Shipley, Mississippi Fred McDowell and Mike Bloomfield, among others. Another Bloomfield associate, Nick Gravenites, was working as a producer in the Bay Area and invited Kahn and keyboardist Merl Saunders to Wally Heider Studios to work on the 1970 debut album of singer-songwriter Danny Cox. Later that year, at the suggestion of Kahn, Saunders replaced Wales at The Matrix jams. Kahn continued to regularly back Garcia and Saunders for the next five years.
In an interview originally published in May 1996 (weeks before Kahn’s death), Kahn shared his recollection of The Matrix scene:
I actually got to know Jerry because of this Monday night jam session gig at a club called the Matrix in San Francisco. This goes pretty far back this is like 1968. It was a Monday jam session gig. It was Jerry, Howard Wales, the organ player and Bill Vitt. Bill Vitt was the drummer with the Bloomfield Band at that time, and he turned me on to the gig. I had never met Jerry, I had met Howard once before. It turned out to be a lot of fun, and I just kept doing that. We played Monday nights when everybody was in town. Nobody came, there was maybe five or six people there. We’d split up maybe $10 amongst the four of us. It went on for a while like that, I mean nobody ever came. Then finally one night there were a lot of people out there, and Howard realized that that’s not what he [wanted] to do, and he stopped doing it. So I got Merl Saunders, and that’s when it turned into the Jerry Garcia Band, and it’s been going ever since.
During that same era, Kahn and Garcia formed the bluegrass band Old & In The Way. Garcia went back to his banjo playing roots while he and Kahn were joined by mandolinist David Grisman and guitarist Peter Rowan. The group originally included fiddler Richard Greene, who was briefly replaced by John Hartford, with the role finally going to the renowned Vassar Clements.
The all-star bluegrass band released their self-titled debut album in February 1975, which was a recording of a performance held in San Francisco in October 1973. By April 1974, Old & In The Way had dissolved, according to jerrygarcia.com it was “due to fighting between Rowan and Grisman, but there were plans for a comeback before Jerry’s death in 1995.”
Old & In The Way | Midnight Moonlight – October 1973
Kahn produced Garcia’s second self-titled solo album (Compliments), which was released in mid-1974 and featured the song “Midnight Town” that Kahn co-wrote with Grateful Dead lyricist and Garcia’s songwriting partner Robert Hunter. Kahn also earned producer credits on Garcia’s 1978 album, Cats Under the Stars and 1982’s Run For The Roses. Those albums contained additional Hunter/Kahn co-writes “Leave The Little Girl Alone” (Cats) and “Love In The Afternoon” (Roses).
In late-1974, Kahn joined Garcia and Saunders in the short-lived Legion Of Mary whose lineup also included drummer Ron Tutt and saxophonist Martin Fierro. The project played around 50 shows, the last in July 1975.
Kahn was a member of the initial Jerry Garcia Band lineup that debuted in August 1974 with Tutt and keyboardist Nicky Hopkins. The JGB lineup would continuously evolve over the next 20 years. Garcia’s official website names 24 musicians that were at one time a member of JGB, with Kahn the only consistent member (and bass player) listed alongside Garcia.
In 1987, Garcia reunited with his former New Riders Of The Purple Sage bandmate, guitarist David Nelson, in forming the Jerry Garcia Acoustic Band. Lasting a little over a year, the lineup also included Kahn, as well as early-Garcia collaborator, multi-instrumentalist Sandy Rothman, drummer David Kemper and fiddler Kenny Kosek. Primarily an opening act for the electric Jerry Garcia Band, the acoustic lineup performed around 30 shows, the last in July 1988.
Garcia and Kahn collaborated on other projects beyond JGB. Garcia’s website states, “Kahn formed Reconstruction in early 1979 around Jerry Garcia and a quartet of jazz players.” Another short-lived band with Saunders, Reconstruction played around 50 shows, but the project was abandoned by year’s end. From 1982 to 1986, Garcia and Kahn played several acoustic performances as a duo.
The final Jerry Garcia Band concert, featuring a lineup of Garcia, Kahn, keyboardist Melvin Seals, drummer Donny Baldwin and vocalists Jacklyn LaBranch and Gloria Jones, was held on April 23, 1995 at the Warfield in San Francisco. Garcia died months later, on August 9, 1995 at the age of 53.
Less than one year later, Kahn was just 48 when he died from a heart attack on May 30, 1996.