He is, without doubt, one of the most influential musicians of all time. The work of Miles Davis is only dwarfed by his incandescent connection to all things musical. Throughout his shimmering career, through his beginnings in jazz, his palpable devouring of rock music and even posthumously influencing generations of artists, Davis is rightly considered one of the most essential performers around. Over time it has made him one of the most potent musicians ever.
Davis has enjoyed some incredibly fruitful partnerships over the years. Not only has he worked with Stevie Wonder, impressed Public Image Ltd and essentially informed the entirety of Radiohead’s output — not to mention the supergroup he tried to be a part of with Paul McCartney and Jimi Hendrix — but the performer also seemingly completed the musical performance set by joining the wondrous talents of the Grateful Dead on stage. Of course, musicians joining the Dead on stage isn’t anything new.
If there’s one band who was always likely to throw out a hand and invite you up on stage to jam with them, it would be the Grateful Dead. Across every one of their incarnations (acquiring and losing members of the band throughout the years), the group maintained that the sense of freedom one feels while on stage should be extended to everybody worth their weight in artistic gold. It goes hand in hand with the band’s principal ethos of continuously evolving their sound while under the spotlight.
The group, led by Jerry Garcia and Bob Weir, has always gathered fans up like taking handfuls of the very dirt they’re standing on. Using their unique live show style, they enthralled audiences, providing them with a sense of escapism that simply wasn’t available anywhere else. Though there were undoubtedly some extra-curricular activities happening all around the band and in the crowd, the truth is that they demanded the attention of their fans by allowing them the freedom to express themselves fully. There was no judgement for the Deadheads and seemingly not for any act who wanted to join them on stage.
The Grateful Dead have often been regarded as a poor studio band, something Jerry Garcia even said himself, remarking that he didn’t like many of the band’s albums. But they still had the respect of the industry for what they did on stage. It wasn’t only an evolutionary form of performance, using the band’s intent and measure to create jams that could last hours and hours, but a truly revolutionary moment too.
One such moment came when band promoter Bill Graham was inspired enough to pair the Dead and the mercurial jazz musician. Joining the rock band for a run of shows in April of 1972 at the iconic Fillmore West, the jazzman delivered some spellbinding moments that will likely live in the memories of those Deadheads in attendance for years to come. Davis would call the event an “eye-opening” affair, and in his memoir, he wrote of how “the place was packed with these real spacy, high white people.” The jazzman also wrote: “I think we all learned something. Jerry Garcia loved jazz, and I found out that he loved my music and had been listening to it for a long time.”
“That really blew them out,” Davis continued. “After that concert, every time I would play out there in San Francisco, a lot of young white people showed up at the gigs.” The jazz performer gained a huge fanbase that evening, including members of the group. Phil Lesh of the band confirmed how he found himself “leaning over the amps with my jaw hanging agape, trying to comprehend the forces that Miles was unleashing onstage,” he wrote in his autobiography. “I was thinking, ‘What’s the use? How can we possibly play after this?’ With this band, Miles literally invented fusion music. In some ways, it was similar to what we were trying to do in our free jamming, but ever so much more dense with ideas and seemingly controlled with an iron fist, even at its most alarmingly intense moments,” Lesh added.
It’s an extraordinary moment in music history and certainly deserves revisiting. Listen to Miles Davis live at the Fillmore West, opening for Grateful Dead.