For more than 40 years, mandolinist and composer David Grisman has been one of bluegrass music’s greatest champions. Based in Sonoma County, Grisman has gained a reputation as both a virtuoso mandolinist and one of the world’s leading proponents of traditional acoustic music. Spark checks in on Grisman as he prepares for an evening of old-time bluegrass at Berkeley’s Freight and Salvage Coffee House.
A predominantly Southern style of music, bluegrass is a spirited combination of country, blues and gospel that emerged in the 1940s. As a teenager, Grisman picked up the mandolin after discovering the music of Bill Monroe, who is commonly credited with popularizing bluegrass. By the late 1960s, Grisman began to explore other styles, including jazz, folk and Gypsy music, to create a hybrid form unlike anything that had come before.
In 1975, Grisman founded the David Grisman Quintet, which features Grisman’s mandolin leading in a series of instrumentals that defy easy categorization. Offhandedly naming his new style after a nickname that the Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia had given him, Grisman created “dawg” music — a term that remains current in contemporary bluegrass circles.
Like other forms of roots music, bluegrass passes from generation to generation not through formal notation but rather in a live exchange between performers. In an effort to preserve traditional bluegrass, at least once a year he performs an evening of old-time music with his traditional outfit, the David Grisman Bluegrass Experience. It is an event that brings in a wide audience, including bluegrass and country aficionados, folkies, and Dead Heads. Spark is there for the 2004 performance at the Freight and Salvage.
Ever dedicated to preserving acoustic music, Grisman established the Acoustic Disc record label in 1990 in an effort to help establish a recorded legacy of traditional acoustic music from around the world. Since founding Acoustic Disc, Grisman has recorded more than 60 records by almost as many performers and in almost as many genres.
David Grisman was born in New Jersey and began playing bluegrass while attending New York University. While living in Greenwich Village, he recorded with a number of bands, gaining popularity in the burgeoning 1960s folk scene. In 1970, Grisman moved to San Francisco, where he befriended Jerry Garcia and lent his talents to the Grateful Dead classic “American Beauty.” Since then, he has recorded dozens of records, with his own bands and with artists such as Emmylou Harris, Bonnie Raitt, Dolly Parton, Earl Scruggs and Django Reinhardt’s collaborator, jazz violinist Stephane Grappelli.