Jazz saxophone great Branford Marsalis celebrates yet another trip around the sun on August 26th. The accomplished musician has fit over a lifetime of accomplishments into his 63-year voyage, from playing alongside Sting in the 1980s, leading The Tonight Show band in the 90s, winning a Grammy in 2001, being awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Music from Berklee College of Music (where he also attended in the mid-80s), and so much more. But what many in the live music scene know Marsalis best for is his frequent collaboration with the Grateful Dead.

Throughout the ’90s, Marsalis sat in with the Dead many times. His handiwork can be found on numerous official live releases including Without A NetSpring 1990 (The Other One)Infrared Roses, and of course Wake Up To Find Out with its glorious “Eyes of the World”. His collaborations with the members of the Dead didn’t stop in 1995 either, as he would sit in with the post-Jerry Garcia incarnation The Dead on April 28th and 29th, 2009 at the IZOD Center in East Rutherford, NJ, and helped Dead & Company close down LOCKN’ back in 2018.

Let’s take a look at Branford Marsalis’s long and illustrious history with the Grateful Dead and what made his collaborations with them so special.

Okay, let’s take a step back. A lot of people sat in with the Grateful Dead, right?

That’s right. The Grateful Dead had over 100 different guest artists sit in with them over three decades. There were the tried-and-true regulars who lived in the Bay Area (John Cipollina, Matt Kelly, Hamza El-Din), the rock ‘n’ roll Hall Of Famers (Carlos Santana, Janis Joplin, Steve Miller, Duane Allman), the legendary brass players (Ornette Coleman, David Murray, Clarence Clemons, Carter Beauford), as well as the chaotic (John Belushi) and the ridiculous (Barney the Dinosaur). Most of the time their guests would sit in for a couple of songs, and occasionally would play for half a set.

Yet Branford Marsalis’ appearances with the Grateful Dead stood out among all these folks?

Branford Marsalis was easily the best ongoing guest collaborator that the Grateful Dead had over their 30 years, and from their first collaborative notes, the relationship was based on a deeply exploratory approach that coincidentally mirrors the overall spirit and intent of LOCKN’. It all started in March 1990, when Branford accepted the Grateful Dead’s invitation from bassist Phil Lesh to see the band at Nassau Coliseum on Long Island. The following night, Branford returned, this time with his instruments, and Grateful Dead publicist and historian Dennis McNally recounted it as such:

The finest musician to fall into the Dead’s orbit at this time did so at a Dead concert. … At first the band was cautious and “auditioned” Marsalis by asking him to sit in on “Bird Song,” late in the first set. Never did a musician prove his brilliance faster, and about one verse in, (lead guitarist Jerry) Garcia and Marsalis were trading licks like they were old friends…They flew off the planet to a “Dark Star,” skated along the heavens with “Eyes Of The World,” and generally played one of the finest shows with a visiting musician the Dead ever managed. Since the Dead actually listened and reacted to their guests, an outsider almost always held them back. But Branford was exactly there with them and pushed them straight to their strength – highly innovative improvisation…Marsalis would be a welcome guest a number of times over the next years. In addition to his towering gifts as a player, he brought to the shows a sweetness of disposition that made even the grumpiest drummer smile when told that Branford was coming. (Dennis McNally, What A Long Strange Trip It’s Been: The Inside History of the Grateful Dead, p. 581–82)

And what did this allegedly grumpy drummer—also known as Bill Kreutzmann—remember about the show and about Branford?

We brought Branford up for a now-legendary version of “Bird Song” during the first set, and it was so good, that we invited him out for the entire second set. Branford played with us four more times over the next four years, usually for the entire show. Those were good nights. Branford became a friend of ours and he said something about us that I’ll never forget: he said we all had big ears. Coming from a monster jazz guy like that, it was a monster compliment. We may have helped introduce improvisation to rock ‘n’ roll, but the jazz cats had been jamming since before Chuck Berry even picked up his first electric guitar. Having Branford validate us like that really meant something to me. He told us that we showed him what’s possible within rock ‘n’ roll and that playing with us was one of the greatest thrills of his life. That, in turn, was one of the greatest thrills of mine. (Bill Kreutzmann, Deal: My Three Decades of Drumming, Dreams and Drugs with the Grateful Dead, p. 293)

Branford himself was no less effusive in his praise of that first show and the Grateful Dead:

  • “Those guys can play music. They’re much better than most people give them credit for. They have big ears and real chops, and they’ve got 18,000 tie-dyes dancing along. I’d never seen anything like it. … They’re fantastic.” (McNally, WALSTIB, p. 582)
  • “Phil was playing in one tempo, the drummers were playing in another, and Jerry was in another – there were three different tempos going – actually Jerry wasn’t even in a tempo. I love playing like that.” (As quoted in an essay by Blair Jackson contained in the Spring 1990 [The Other One] box set book, p. 57)

Branford even wrote a thank-you note to the band after the show, which he graciously allowed them to share: “On Thursday night I had the best time I’ve had in my entire life. I now know that playing rock and roll can be all that I have envisioned it would be” (McNally, WALSTIB p. 582).

What about Branford Marsalis’ other collaborations with the Grateful Dead?

Branford Marsalis played a total of five shows as a guest artist with the Grateful Dead, and on every occasion, his appearance generated one of the top shows of that year. After that initial March 1990 show at Nassau Coliseum (commercially available as Wake Up To Find Out), Marsalis again joined the Grateful Dead nine months later on New Year’s Eve in Oakland. During the New Year’s Eve show, Marsalis was featured in a 5-song, 100-minute second set that started and finished with “Not Fade Away” (one of only four times the Grateful Dead ever did this) and also contained both “Dark Star” and “Other One” (one of only six times this happened after 1972).

Branford Marsalis’ third appearance was in September 1991 at New York’s Madison Square Garden and had Phil popping his bass strings funk-style for the opening “Shakedown Street”. The second set featured an all-time version of “Slipknot” and yet another “Dark Star”. These two shows also occurred while pianist Bruce Hornsby was a member of the band. The fourth and fifth shows were in Los Angeles in December of 1993 and 1994, when Branford was able to get away from his “day job” on The Tonight Show and jazz up final-era songs like “Eternity” and “Samba In The Rain” along with some of the more hallowed and obvious choices like “The Other One” and “Scarlet Begonias” > “Fire On The Mountain”.

Fifteen years later in 2009, Branford also sat in on back-to-back nights with The Dead—the spinoff band featuring core-four members Lesh, Weir, Hart, and Kreutzmann along with Chimenti and guitarist Warren Haynes—on their final tour at the Izod Center in East Rutherford, New Jersey. Among other things, the band used the occasion to play “Milestones”, the Miles Davis number that’s been known to appear on some of Dead & Company’s hottest nights.

What do Deadheads have to say about the Grateful Dead’s collaborations with Branford Marsalis?

Okay, here are some in-the-know reactions in the wake of that first Nassau show with Branford Marsalis in March 1990:

  • “This concert was what ‘IT’ was all about – that all-too-rare ‘miracle’ show that one spent years pursuing.” — Johnny Dwork, editor, Dupree’s Diamond News
  • “When the Dead spiraled into the ozone, Branford stayed with them, adroitly maneuvering through the time-bending vortex that the band created…of all the guest musicians who shared the Dead’s stage throughout the years – and they were many and varied – none embodied the Dead’s adventurous, questing spirit and their obsession with beautiful melodies and accessible structures quite like Branford did.” — Blair Jackson, editor, Golden Road Blog on Dead.net (the Spring 1990 [The Other One] box set book, p. 57–58)
  • “At one point (during Eyes Of The World), Jerry began a solo using a MIDI Choral / Flute combo and continued a theme that Branford had been playing with his sax. It sounded like angels were flying into Nassau Coliseum! And (Dark Star’s post-verse jam) was eleven minutes and nine seconds of the most outside, exploratory music I’ve ever heard thrust out of the Grateful Dead’s PA. … This was easily one of the best shows I’ve ever attended. I still get chills up my back when I listen to the tape.” — David I. Greenberg (John W. Scott, Stu Nixon, & Mike Dolgushkin; Deadbase 1990: The Annual Edition of the Complete Guide to Grateful Dead Songlists)

Meanwhile, Grateful Dead archivist and legacy manager David Lemieux had this to say about the September 1991 show with Branford at Madison Square Garden, which was commercially released as part of the sold-out 30 Trips Around The Sun box set in 2015:

Branford had played with the band for the first time at Nassau Coliseum in March of 1990, and more than any other guest artist, he fit in with the Grateful Dead sound absolutely perfectly. A musician’s musician, Branford shared the Dead’s sense of adventure and improvisation and could pick up what was going on between the band members – he elevated their performance, as opposed to a lot of special guests for whom the band might have had to tone it down….they most certainly were on, when the played perhaps the best show of the year as well as one of the most requested shows in the vault. (30 Trips Around The Sun, 1991 CD liner notes)

And here’s another insightful reaction from Thomas Bellanca on the December 1993 show at Long Beach Arena in Los Angeles:

Branford pushes Jerry, as well as the rest of the band, in a way no other musician can do (Bruce Hornsby excluded!). His playing is not forced into the music and blends with exceptional ease. When hearing him play with the Dead, it makes me think that these songs were written to include a horn player. He not only plays the notes that matter, he plays the notes between the notes, and I think that it what really separates him from the others. He really listens to what is going on and is able to pick what and when to play, and the result is magic. (John W. Scott, Stu Nixon, & Mike Dolgushkin; Deadbase 1993: The Annual Edition of the Complete Guide to Grateful Dead Songlists)

However, while there is plenty of praise circulating around Marsalis’ sit-ins with the Grateful Dead, unfortunately, there are also cautionary tales to be told. DeadBase editor John C. Scott missed the initial 1990 show, and he was not happy about it:

I was always paranoid about missing the big one…and I missed the biggest of the big ones. For me, the jazz influences on the Grateful Dead have traditionally led to any of their finest improvisations. Two of my favorite years in Grateful Dead music are ’73 and ’74, because of the strong jazz influence My other interest in is tapes with guest musicians performing with the Dead. This night was my wildest dream come true. It took me a long time to come to terms with this tape. Sour grapes stood in the way of appreciation for a long time. (John Scott’s review of the Grateful Dead’s 3-29-90 show)

And in a second stroke of bad luck, Mr. Scott also missed the September 1991 Branford show despite attending 12 of the Grateful Dead’s 15 northeast shows on the Fall Tour, electing to skip only the first three of nine shows at Madison Square Garden:

Carefully I examined all the relevant factors – from the normal cadence of a long MSG run (typically building a slow, solid momentum to a last-night peak) through the impracticalities of having to make to make two round trips to NYC (six hours each way) to calculated suggestions from connected friends, runes, the tao, and chicken bones. All the sage advice I could muster for this fateful run failed me in a dramatic fashion…On the third night, however, my packing was interrupted by an alleged friend, eager to run salt into wounds I didn’t even know I had….It is only many months later that I have overcome the trauma and am able to acknowledge this as the finest show of the year, above even the first and last shows of the Halloween run, as well as any at Boston….It isn’t that Branford is on top of every song, rather having him onstage seemed to inspire the band to be on individual best behaviors….in the end, my only criticism of this wonderful show that the Dead put all of their eggs in one basket on this night, leaving the rest of the stand barren by comparison….given their special guest, and the level of execution on this night, it was not necessary to play so many special songs in one concert. (John W. Scott, Stu Nixon, & Mike Dolgushkin; Deadbase 50: Celebrating 50 Years Of The Grateful Dead)