It's a good thing that David Grisman is a horrible saxophonist.
After being mentored on mandolin as a teenager by bluegrass picker Ralph Wexler of the Green Briar Boys, Grisman decided to switch instruments. "I thought that if you wanted to play jazz, you needed to play a jazz instrument," says Grisman via phone from the Dawg Pound, his California recording studio. "There weren't that many jazz mandolinists that I'd been exposed to, so I bought an alto sax. Then I realized I had no innate ability to play the saxophone."
Grisman didn't become the next John Coltrane, but nonetheless became a musical trailblazer by rededicating himself to the mandolin. In the past 35 years, Grisman has spearheaded his own genre -- dubbed "dawg music" by old friend Jerry Garcia -- and widened the appeal of the mandolin with a swirling blend of bluegrass, jazz, classical, world and ethnic music. His virtuosity has led to collaborations with mutual admirers Stephane Grapelli, Doc Watson, Bonnie Raitt, the Kronos Quartet, Vassar Clements and Taj Mahal.
Grisman first started breaking down barriers after he enrolled at New York University in the early 1960s and immersed himself in the wide-open musical sensibilities of the Greenwich Village scene. "It was a great time and a great place," remembers Grisman. "I would get recording gigs for commercials and record sessions, and they would want me to play some kind of part, and it wasn't bluegrass. I had this mindset that I could hear all different things on the instrument."
Following his New York tenure, Grisman packed his bags and headed to the West Coast, stomping grounds of the Grateful Dead. Grisman and Garcia became friends at a 1964 Bill Monroe show in Pennsylvania -- "Jerry had traveled across the country to get to this place," remembers Grisman -- and Grisman reconnected with his fellow bluegrass aficionado in California. Grisman guested on the Dead's classic 1970 album, American Beauty, lending sweet accompaniment on "Friend of the Devil" and "Ripple." In 1973, it was informal jamming with Garcia and guitarist David Rowan that led to the recruitment of legendary fiddler Vassar Clements and the formation of bluegrass outfit Old and In the Way.
"It was like a dream come true," says Grisman. "I was kind of awestruck, but Vassar's such a down-to-earth guy. I was gushing all over the first day, and he told me, 'Hey, I'm just like you, I've just been here longer.'" A live album from the band was released in 1975, but it was merely an afterthought. "The band was so informal, we didn't even break up," Grisman says. "It was a real extracurricular thing."
His masterstroke came with the formation of the David Grisman Quintet -- the band's 1976 self-titled debut album remains essential listening for anyone interested in the glorious possibilities of acoustic instruments. Grisman expanded on the blueprint of guitarist Django Reinhardt and violinist Stephane Grapelli's seminal Hot Club of France recordings, taking original compositions and classics like "Take Five" on extended rides that sound like gypsy jazz from Appalachia.
The quintet has continuously evolved over the years, and Grisman has been a superb bandleader in the mold of Muddy Waters, Miles Davis and John Mayall. Throughout inevitable personnel changes, Grisman has always shown an intuitive knack for recruiting special talent. Notable alumni of the band include Mark O'Connor and Mike Marshall, and Grisman has featured percussion, flute, and bossa nova guitar in different incarnations over the years. "I think it's important that I never looked at it like somebody had to replace somebody else or be like them," he says. "I've always ended up with people who were like-minded, because I never really put out the word and auditioned people for the band. I met people because they were interested in the music and would want to come over and jam."
His independent streak led Grisman to form his own label, Acoustic Disc, in 1989. Using "100% handmade music" as the label's motto, the Acoustic Disc catalog now contains more than 20 albums, featuring Grisman's albums, Garcia/Grisman collaborations and reissues from early mandolinists like Jethro Burns. "I especially like to do concept albums, where there's more than one element involved, such as the Tone Poems project," says Grisman, referring to the project that features Grisman and various collaborators playing vintage instruments. "I could have just made records of us doing duets, or Joe X plays vintage guitars. But there's two concepts working there, and it has musical value and another existence as a historical or educational thing."
Even with the recent 3-CD set DGQ 20 -- a Twenty Year Retrospective of the David Grisman Quintet under his belt, Grisman isn't spending much time looking back. The current DGQ is performing a healthy batch of new material, and Grisman continues to inspire a new generation of players. But that doesn't mean the older Dawg is giving up his top spot on the porch.
"There are young kids now who are technically really scary," says Grisman. "They have more chops than I do -- but I'm still louder." David Grisman has collaborated with Jerry Garcia, Stephane Grapelli, Taj Mahal, Vassar Clements and Bonnie Raitt.