The Grateful Dead's history is intertwined with South Florida's thanks to the band's love-in at Greynolds Park in 1968 and the three Miami Arena shows in 1994, shortly before Jerry Garcia passed away. On May 19, local Deadheads have a new way to celebrate the music of the iconic jam band when Jazz Is Dead!, a band that reimagines the Grateful Dead's songs as jazz standards, stops at Revolution Live.
Jazz Is Dead! started in 1998 when keyboardist T Lavitz invited bassist Alphonso Johnson and a few other Los Angeles-based musicians to his home.
"We got together and started listening to their songs," Johnson tells New Times. "I always knew there was a place for Grateful Dead songs to be improvised with jazz roots. So we'd listen and think of different ways to approach their songs. We'd say, 'Let's play this part but with 7/4 time.'"
The band toured for eight years, putting out three albums, before going on hiatus in 2006 — seemingly permanently after Lavitz passed away in 2010. The current iteration sees Johnson on bass with Steve Kimock and Bobby Lee Rodgers on guitar, and Pete Lavezzoli on drums.
"This is a different setup of how we used to do it. There's no keyboard; it's all strings and drums," Johnson explains. "It is jazz arrangements of Grateful Dead songs. When you're playing jazz, you compose new melodies and phrases and improvisations of overwritten music. It's highly improvisational, but sticking to the original song forms and chord progressions."
Johnson had been familiarized with the Grateful Dead's work well before joining the band. In 1982, he played in Grateful Dead guitarist Bob Weir's side project, Bobby and the Midnites. And then, in 2000, Johnson joined Weir's attempt to continue the Grateful Dead legacy with the Other Ones.
"For that, I sat with Bruce Hornsby, and he got me to learn all the Grateful Dead songs," Johnson adds. "I think at one point, I had to know 50 of their songs. I just went into the shed and had all the charts written out and taped them at my feet. It was a lot of music to know."
Jazz Is Dead! celebrates the 50th anniversary of the Grateful Dead's 1973 album Wake of the Flood for this tour.
"In the first set, we play the first side of the record and sprinkle in some of our other favorite songs. Then after a break, we play the second side and sprinkle in some more of our favorites," he says.
Unsurprisingly, Wake of the Flood is one of Johnson's favorite Dead albums.
"It's a great medley of melody and arrangement. The lyrics have to do with what the country has to go through when there's a change of weather. When people can't get a hold of groceries, it affects our mood. It's a very heavy album." Not that there aren't any Grateful Dead albums Johnson can't appreciate. "I was never that big a fan until I started playing with Jazz Is Dead! Then I could admire their craftmanship and see how great the songwriting is."
Throughout his seven decades of life, Johnson has played with many bands. He started in the 1970s playing jazz fusion with Weather Report. That same decade, he put out two highly fusion solo albums and recorded for Phil Collins' first solo record and a couple of Santana albums. He's now working with Australian prog rock group Unitopia cranking out 20-minute songs, but he says he treats each project with the same integrity.
"It's all music, either good or bad. I try not to categorize," he says. "I'm going to play jazz now; I'll play rock later. All songs are like kids. Some are mellow; some are full of surprises."
Jazz Is Dead! 7 p.m. Friday, May 19, at Revolution Live, 100 SW Third Ave., Fort Lauderdale; 954-449-1025; jointherevolution.net. Tickets cost $27.50 via ticketmaster.com.