Twenty-two years ago today, Jerry Garcia‘s longtime bassist and collaborator John Kahn died in his sleep after suffering a heart attack at the age of 48. Kahn’s sudden, untimely death came less than a year after Garcia’s own tragic passing.
Few people have lived a life as interesting as Kahn’s. Born in Memphis, TN in 1947, John Kahn was adopted at birth by a pair of Los Angeles agents. He grew up in Beverly Hills, CA surrounded by the Hollywood elite, and was babysat as a child by a young Marilyn Monroe as she began to pursue her acting career. As his widow, Linda Kahn, noted in a 2017 Reddit AMA, “It’s not a rumour, she was a babysitter. John’s dad tried to get her a contract with all the studios to no avail so he instead hired her as a babysitter.”
John Kahn began to take piano and music theory lessons by the time he was 5 years old. Following the death of his father at a young age, he was mentored by acclaimed violinist Mischa Elman, his father’s cousin. As Linda noted in her AMA, “Mischa helped John. He saw the musical prodigy in John and got him into playing and theory.”
Kahn had earned a reputation as a talented jazz guitarist by the time he enrolled at Beverly Hills High School, and made the switch to double bass during his junior year. After a brief stint at USC, he transferred to San Francisco Conservatory of Music, where he was greeted head-on by the burgeoning Haight-Ashbury counterculture scene.
It was there that Kahn linked up with Garcia for the first time while working with various influential blues and folk artists as an in-demand session musician. He wound up joining a new jazz-rock ensemble surrounding Garcia and organist Howard Wales and helped them record 1971’s Hooteroll? Kahn once again joined Garcia—this time on acoustic bass—when he hit the road with bluegrass supergroup Old and in the Way. Below, listen to Jerry and John play as an acoustic duo at Oregon State Prison on May 5, 1982 via YouTube user LongStrangeTrip710:
Jerry Garcia & John Kahn – “Rueben and Cherise”
Kahn played on all of Garcia’s various collaborations with organist Merl Saunders, from Saunders/Garcia Band to Legion of Mary and beyond. He started Reconstruction with Saunders and company to occupy himself while Jerry was busy with the Dead, and Jerry naturally joined up as their lead guitarist once again while the Dead were on their late-’70s hiatus. John Kahn was the low-end backbone around which the Jerry Garcia Band eventually evolved. Watch Jerry Garcia, John Khan and company perform Bob Dylan‘s “Tangled Up In Blue” in 1977 below:
Jerry Garcia Band – Tangled Up In Blue
[Video: Grateful Dead on MV]
Kahn also played in additional limited side projects with his longtime friend and collaborator. Watch him play bass with Garcia and Bob Weir at a rare San Francisco trio performance on December 17th, 1987 below:
Jerry Garcia, Bob Weir, & John Kahn – Full Show Video – 12/17/87
He continued to collaborate with Garcia up until his death in 1995 and was the only player besides Jerry himself who remained a staple of the ever-fluctuating Garcia solo lineups. With his untimely death following Jerry’s on this day in 1996, Kahn became yet another piece of the Garcia legacy that was gone way too soon.
Rest in peace, John Kahn.