David Grisman - Biography

By J Poet

David Grisman has bravely gone where no mandolin player has gone before and in the process created Dawg Music, a unique style that draws from Django Reinhardt’s jazz manouche, bluegrass, folk – both American and Mediterranean - and modern jazz. One of the founding fathers of newgrass, a blend of old time bluegrass, pop and jazz, Grisman can’t be easily contained by one category. Tony Rice, Mike Marshall, Mark O'Connor, Darol Anger, and Rob Wasserman all graduated from Grisman groups to fame as acoustic musicians and he’s been a sideman on over 100 albums by other artists including Bela Fleck, the Grateful Dead, Emmylou Harris, Chris Isaak, Dolly Parton, Bonnie Raitt, Linda Ronstadt , Earl Scruggs, and James Taylor Grisman may well be the best mandolin player in the world, constantly seeking new avenues of musical expression with collaborators that include original Hot Club fiddler Stephane Grappelli, bluegrass songwriter and singer Frank Wakefield, Argentine born bossa nova guitarist Enrique Coria and klezmer great Andy Statman. He started his own Acoustic Disc label in 1990, which allows him to be as adventurous and prolific as he likes. He’s made almost 70 albums for the logo landing three Grammy nominations in the process.


Grisman was born and raised in New Jersey. He grew up playing the piano and sax, but took up mandolin after meeting Greenbriar Boy, folklorist and mandolin teacher Ralph Rinzler at age 16. His piano teacher told him mandolin wasn't a “real” instrument, but he was soon picking with the best of them in the style of Bill Monroe. In 1962, he moved to New York to major in English at NYU and spent Sunday afternoons playing in the open ended Washington Square Park hootenannies. With 12 friends, including Maria D’Amato (later Muldaur) and John Sebastian, he started the Even Dozen Jug Band and cut the forgotten hippy folk classic The Even Dozen Jug Band (1963 Elektra). A meeting with Frank Wakefield led to his first credit as a producer on Red Allen, Frank Wakefield and the Kentuckians (1964 Folkways). Wakefield also signed him up to play second mandolin in The Kentuckians. Playing in The Kentuckians allowed Grisman to met and learn from Bill Monroe and Jesse McReynolds, one half of Jim and Jesse. He tried playing rock with Peter Rowan’s Earth Opera where he contributed his expertise on mandolin, mandocello, guitar, piano and sax. They cut two albums Earth Opera (1968 Elektra) and The Great American Eagle Tragedy (1969 Elektra) before breaking up. He began composing music, but his reputation as a mandolin player kept him from starting his own band. He played sessions for a panoply of artists on well-known albums including The Grateful Dead’s pop break though American Beauty (1970 Warner).


In 1974, tired of playing other people’s music, Grisman formed the Great American Music Band with fiddler Richard Greene. The band didn’t last long, but Grisman was determined to find his own musical path. Two notable digressions later – Garcia (1974 Rounder) a collaboration with Gerry Garcia and Old and In The Way (1974 Rounder), Garcia’s bluegrass project with pals Vassar Clements and Peter Rowan – Grisman was leading the first David Grisman Quintet with Tony Rice on guitar, Todd Phillips on bass and Darol Anger on violin. Their debut The David Grisman Quintet (1977 Kaleidoscope) kicked off the newgrass movement and still sounds startlingly original today.


Grisman soon had the attention of the majors and the Quintet made a batch of well regarded albums including Hot Dawg (1979 A&M) with contributions from Stephane Grappelli, Quintet ’80 (1980 Warner), Grappelli-Grisman Live (1981 Warner), Mondo Mando (1982 Warner) and Dawg Jazz/Grass (1983 Warner) another collaboration with Grappelli that blended swing and bluegrass.


The Quintet splintered in 1984 with the other members moving on to other projects and Grisman put together The David Grisman band with jazzmen Jim Kerwin, bass, Dimitri Vandellos, guitar, and drummer George Marsh for Svingin’ with Svend (1987 Zebra Acoustic) with swing fiddler Svend Asmussen. Home is Where the Heart Is (1988 Rounder) marked a return to bluegrass with a super session that included Doc Watson, Ricky Scaggs, Del McCoury, Tony Rice, Sam Bush and Red Allen.


Grisman started his own Acoustic Disc label in 1990 with his manager, Craig Miller and friends Artie and Harriet Rose. The logo allows Grisman to be as prolific as he wants; he’s released 70 albums on the label including sets by Tiny Moore & Jethro Burns, Bill Monroe, Red Allen and Frank Wakefield, and John Cohen. Notable catalogue items include Dawg ’90 by the David Grisman Quintet (1990 Acoustic Disc), Garcia/ Grisman (1991 Acoustic Disc), Dawgwood by the David Grisman Quintet (1993 Acoustic Disc) Tone Poems I by David Grisman and Tony Rice (1994 Acoustic Disc), Dawganova by The David Grisman Quintet with guitarist Enrique Coria (1995 Acoustic Disc), Tone Poems Vol. II with Tony Rice, (1996 Acoustic Disc), Dawg Duos by Grisman and guests like Zakir Hussain, Mike Seeger, and Béla Fleck, (1999 Acoustic Disc), New River, jazz duets with pianist Danny Zeitlin (2001 Acoustic Disc), Dawgnation a new Quintet outing (2002 Acoustic Disc), Life of Sorrow (2003 Acoustic Disc), a hard core bluegrass album with Ralph Rinzler, John Hartford, Ralph Stanley and Del McCoury, New Shabbos Waltz (2006 Acoustic Disc) a low key klezmer date with Andy Statman, and DGBX (2006 Acoustic Disc) a traditional bluegrass album with the David Grisman Bluegrass Experience.


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