Alphonso Johnson: Feeling the Room with Bobby & the Midnites, The Other Ones and Jazz Is Dead

Dean Budnick on January 18, 2023
Alphonso Johnson: Feeling the Room with Bobby & the Midnites, The Other Ones and Jazz Is Dead

In 1998, Bassist Alphonso Johnson joined his longtime friend and fellow jazz luminary, drummer Billy Cobham in co-founding an all-new instrumental project. The pair teamed with keyboardist T Lavitz and guitarist Jimmy Herring to interpret the music of the Grateful Dead in the aptly titled Jazz Is Dead. This ensemble has performed intermittently over the years in various incarnations, with Johnson enjoying the longest tenure in the group.

Following a seven-year hiatus, Jazz Is Dead has returned to the stage in January to mark the project’s the 25th anniversary. Steve Kimock is slated to appear on guitar, reuniting him with Johnson more than two decades after they first appeared together in the post-Grateful Dead collective The Other Ones, alongside Bob Weir, Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzmann. Jazz Is Dead XXV also will feature guitarist Bobby Lee Rodgers and drummer Pete Lavezzoli.

The quartet will celebrate another occasion as well this winter, performing the Grateful Dead’s 1973 album Wake of the Flood. Jazz Is Dead initially explored Wake of the Flood while on tour in 1999 and documented the results with Laughing Water—a live record that captures the second iteration of the group, which featured Johnson, Herring, Lavitz, Jeff Sipe and Rod Morgenstein.

When Johnson first embarked on a musical career in 1968, the Grateful Dead was far from his mind. The then 17-year-old Philadelphia native, who had studied bass with Duke Ellington Orchestra alum John Lamb, landed some early touring gigs in traditional jazz contexts. By the time he was 21, Johnson was performing and recording with Woody Herman’s band. That’s when his career took on a new trajectory.

Johnson remembers, “Chuck Mangione had just lost Tony Levin and Steve Gadd, bass player and drummer, because they decided that they were going to move from Rochester down to New York, where they started getting really busy with studio work. Joe LaBarbera and me were playing with Woody Herman, and Joe is from Rochester, so he invited Chuck to a gig. Chuck heard us, and he asked us to come play with his quartet. As they say, ‘The rest is history.’”

Following a couple of years with Mangione, that history included a stint with the pioneering fusion band Weather Report. The bass player recalls, “We were on tour with Chuck Mangione and we happened to be opening for Weather Report in my hometown. So all my homies were there from high school, the old neighborhood, and my mom was in the audience. The way Chuck’s quartet was set up, he played piano and flugelhorn. During the first part of the song, he would play the melody with Gerry Niewood on tenor and soprano sax. Then during Gerry’s solo, Chuck would sit down and play piano. At times, Chuck would kind of step back and I would take a solo. It just so happened that night, my solo was one of those rare moments where you get out of the way and everything falls into place nicely.

“Then I looked over and Wayne Shorter was standing off to the side of the stage. After the set, the promoter came back and said, ‘Wayne wants to meet you.’ So I went over to Wayne’s dressing room, and while I was talking to Wayne, Joe Zawinul walks in. They asked me to come out to Los Angeles to audition for the group, which just kind of blew me away. Here were two of my heroes asking me to come play with them. So I did it, obviously, and that was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.”

Johnson recorded three records with Weather Report between 1973 and early 1976, before making another musical transition. “I first met Billy Cobham and George Duke in Washington, D.C., during December of 1975,” he says. “The band was opening for Rick Wakeman from Yes. So I drove down from Philly to hear what they were doing. I immediately knew that if anything should happen with the bassist Doug Rauch, I would want to be on their first call list. When I met everyone backstage, George Duke pulled me aside and asked me if I was interested in joining the band. I agreed to, but I needed to make sure that Weather Report had a replacement first. That’s when Joe met Jaco [Pastorious] and cleared the way for me to leave the band.”

Over the intervening years, Johnson, who was awarded the 2010 Lifetime Achievement Award by Bass Player, has continued to perform with Cobham, Shorter and many other acclaimed musicians, including a six year stint with Carlos Santana.

His first direct connection with the Grateful Dead world—a precursor of things to come—took place in 1981 when he and Cobham joined Weir’s Bobby & The Midnites.

“Later, when we did a tour with Jerry Garcia’s band on the East Coast, that’s when I really got a full awareness of, ‘OK, these guys have this huge following,’” he recalls. “At that point, I think the only thing I knew about the Grateful Dead was the song ‘Truckin’.’”

How did you initially come to perform with Bob Weir?

At the time, I was endorsing Ibanez and they put on an annual show at this event called NAMM, the National Association of Music Merchants. Ibanez wanted to make a big splash this one year, so they got all of their artists to come together. They asked Bob Weir, Billy Cobham, Steve Miller and a few others to put some songs together and play a show. We all agreed, we played and it just kind of clicked. There weren’t any egos and it was great. So when Jeff Hasselberger, the representative for Ibanez, asked us if we wanted to do another show, we all said yes. That show was basically Bob Weir asking us to become the next version of Bobby & The Midnites.

When we first played together, it was fun. But I think another reason why he asked Jeff to sound us out about playing with his group was that he could see that we were going to challenge him. He likes that; he wants to be challenged.

To what extent were you familiar with Bob or the Grateful Dead at that time?

Not at all. [Laughs.] I haven’t been familiar with much of the music that I’ve been asked to play. I just have a good ability to listen, take in what’s going on and be spontaneous with it.

Bob’s music wasn’t your typical folk or rock-and-roll compositions. There’s some depth to it. That’s what drew me in. I also thought it was interesting that he would do standards like “Little Red Rooster” but the audience was into it. Then, I realized that they were into receiving whatever he seemed to offer.

On Bobby & The Midnites, you and John Perry Barlow are credited as the co-writers of “Me, Without You.” How did that come about?

I originally wrote “Me Without You” for a group that I put together. We were trying to get a deal over at Elektra Records at the time but that never happened. The song sat on the shelf so I brought it up to Bobby. He seemed to dig it, then he asked if he could come up with some additional lyrics. So he called his friend John Barlow, and that was how the collaboration happened.

Did you sit with Barlow?

No, I pretty much just said, “Do whatever makes you comfortable.” So I guess Bobby got together with John, and that’s what they came up with.

Bobby & The Midnites didn’t perform much of the Grateful Dead repertoire. In 2000, you would explore that material with Bob as part of The Other Ones. Two years earlier, you initially began to dig into the Dead catalog with Jazz Is Dead. What prompted your involvement in that group?

I got a call from my friend T Lavitz. He said, “I know this guy named Michael Gaiman. He’s come up with a concept for a band and wants to know if you and Billy want to be part of it.” I said, “What’s the concept?” He explained, “We’re playing jazz arrangements of Grateful Dead material.” I said, “You’re joking, right?” He told me: “No, it’s called Jazz is Dead.” I thought, “Wow, that’s a cool name.” It reminded me of that Frank Zappa saying, “Jazz isn’t dead, it just smells funny.” So I told him: “OK, I’m in. Where and when do we rehearse?”

We got together and started listening to all these songs. That’s when I said, “I think rather than trying to copy what Phil Lesh is doing, I’d rather create my own slant on it.” T said, “Yeah, definitely. We’re not just going to be a copy band. As a matter of fact, what’ll make us stand out from the other groups is that we’re gonna be all instrumental.”

The idea was that we would allow the audience to engage in the songs, so that they were actually the vocalists. Whether they were doing it out loud or in their heads, they would be singing the songs as they were hearing the melodies. That way, they could still connect with the instrumental side of it.

What are your memories of taking on that material?

It was a pretty open process. T Lavitz, Jimmy Herring, Billy and myself had all played with different artists over the years, and we came to the table with different assets. Jimmy and T Lavitz probably knew the material better than Billy or I, so they would hash out the melodies and how they were gonna phrase them. As I was listening to the harmonies, I would put my two cents in.

Then Billy and I would coalesce around what we thought the groove should be. Of course, we added a couple of odd bar measures here and there to keep it interesting. That’s pretty much how it developed for the whole time we were together. We would use that same working platform.

Given the personnel in Jazz Is Dead, my recollection is that the group’s early gigs drew in a large contingency of jazz fans before Deadheads began to discover the band. Do you have any memory of that, and did it impact the music in any way?

My approach to any audience is that I’ll look out and get a feel for the room. If it’s a big place, I’ll get a feel for the first 30 rows.

I’ll see if people are tapping their feet or bobbing their heads and ask myself: “Are they having a good time?” If they’re dancing on the side, I say to myself, “Oh, yeah, those must be Deadheads,” even though they might not be.

But in general, I really won’t think about whether it’s a rock audience or a jazz audience. I just like to get a feel for the room, which is what dictates the song that you might call next, even if you might already have a setlist.

I’ve also said that one thing that I’ve learned from being on tour with Jerry Garcia is that you can start the set with a ballad and it will be OK. Whereas most jazz musicians would say, “No, we’re not starting with a ballad.” [Laughs.]

In 1999, Billy Cobham moved on from Jazz Is Dead. He’s said that it became a bit challenging traveling to gigs from his home in Zurich. Initially, Jeff Sipe and Rod Morgenstein each did half a tour because they both had prior commitments. Then for a little while, you toured with two drummers. Can you talk about that musical transition?

When Jeff Sipe joined the band, his drumming style was so different from Billy Cobham’s style. It was the same thing with Rod Morgenstein, who had been playing with the Dixie Dregs. He was more of a fusion powerhouse type of drummer. It was my first time working with two drummers, so it was interesting. But in the end, we all agreed it was a little too much for what we were trying to do with the music.

You would revisit the two[1]drummer format on a much larger scale with The Other Ones. Your Jazz Is Dead bandmate Jimmy Herring later joined that band for a stretch after you handed the bass role back to Phil Lesh. Jimmy has said that when he first came on board, he found the sheer number of songs in the repertoire to be daunting. It was somewhat agonizing for him to get up to speed at the outset. Since you’ve said that you didn’t initially know much of the catalog, what was that like for you?

I shared Jimmy’s agony. [Laughs.] It’s a lot of material. But Bruce Hornsby helped me out a lot. Mark Karan helped me out. People were supportive.

Originally, they were going to build a teleprompter onstage, where I could trigger the screen and read the music but I didn’t want it to be that obvious. So the roadies built this box for me on the floor that I could look down at. It looked almost like a floor monitor if you were standing in the audience, but inside there were six, seven or sometimes even eight pages of sheet music. That’s pretty much how I got through the first couple weeks of playing that music. I was basically reading these charts.

Then, when Steve Winwood sat in with the band one night in San Diego, we started to play “Can’t Find My Way Home,” and for some reason my mind just went blank. I had become so used to just reading these charts that my brain just kind of shut down. So I was standing next to Mark Karan and he was yelling the chords to me. [Laughs.]

You had previously performed some of those compositions with Jazz Is Dead. Can you recall any variances with The Other Ones’ arrangements that were particularly notable?

The one thing that struck me was that when we did “The Eleven,” the Grateful Dead’s approach was that we would play the main part of the song and then, at some point, half the band was going to play 11 bars of 4/4 and the other half of the band was gonna play four bars of 11. So when Mickey gave the downbeat, the two bands would start playing onstage, and it just sounded like a big cluster. [Laughs.]

But apparently, the fans knew about it. So when we both clicked at the end on the other side, there was a roar that went up in the audience and it sent chills up my spine. I said to myself, “Wow, they got it.” The fact that they were in on it was really amazing. When we played it with Jazz Is Dead, we didn’t approach it that way. We were just kind of playing it as a jam.

Thinking back to Chuck Mangione’s band or Weather Report, there weren’t any guitar players in either group. By contrast, there were three of them when you toured with The Other Ones. Do you have any preference one way or the other?

No, not really. When I later played with Santana, he always had two guitar players. I kind of got used to playing with different configurations earlier on in the ‘70s because I did a lot of recordings with different artists, and there was always different instrumentation playing with people like George Duke or Flora Purim.

So I wasn’t uncomfortable with it. My approach was: “This is what you’re dealing with now.” You might have five people and then, one day, it could be four. Then it might be, “Oh, it’s going be a trio today.” You just kind of adjust.

The biggest challenge for me was the number of songs in the repertoire.

Steve Kimock will be joining you in Jazz Is Dead. Did you first meet Steve through that Other Ones gig and what are your memories of performing with him at that time?

Yes, that was the first time I met Steve. He and I later played together in his group [with fellow Santana alum Rodney Holmes].

What I remember is that when Steve would take his solo, he really did evoke Jerry a lot in his sound and his space between the notes. He has a very unique way of playing that reminded me of Garcia. But again, my head was so wrapped around trying to get my parts right that I almost didn’t hear the other stuff. I was trying to lock in with Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey, while I was looking at Hornsby and Karan for my cues. Then I would come off during the break and go, “Oh, my God, how did I do?”

How did this new version of Jazz Is Dead come together?

I contacted Jeff Pevar, who was in the last version that I toured with, and asked him if he was interested in doing it again. He was already doing another project, though, so I asked him if he thought Michael Gaiman, the manager, would mind if we used the name. Then Michael called me and said, “You know what? I was just thinking that it’s the 50th anniversary of Wake of the Flood and that you guys haven’t played this music in a while.” Then, he pitched me the idea of going out in January and doing Wake of the Flood. So I said, “Yeah, let’s do that.”

Michael contacted Steve Kimock, which I thought was an excellent choice. He also knew Pete and Bobby from other gigs that they’ve done together. So that’s how it all came together.

When you performed Wake of the Flood back in 1999, I remember “Row Jimmy” being particularly memorable. I had previously thought that the song hung on Jerry’s soulful vocals, but hearing the instrumental version was a revelation.

It’s a great song. That’s the thing—to me, they’re all great songs. I wasn’t aware of that initially but it was something that I learned really quickly. It’s why we’ve been able to connect with audiences the way we have with Jazz Is Dead.

When you really think about it, the Grateful Dead wrote some great songs. There’s the material on Wake of the Flood as well as “Unbroken Chain,” “Terrapin Station”—I could go on and on. [Laughs.]

What can people expect above and beyond Wake of the Flood on the upcoming tour?

I can guarantee you that every night is going to be different. We want to do the music as a quartet, but also sometimes as a trio and sometimes as a duo. Sometimes we might even play a song with a solo approach.

We want to keep it interesting for us, which I hope will keep it interesting for the people in the audience. There will be a lot of surprises.