I was born in 1961, and I actually grew up where I am sitting now in Newton, Massachusetts.   My father was a professor at Boston University, and the chairman of the visual arts department. My grandfather on my mother’s side was a composer.  He had been a concert pianist in the early 20th century and after his best friend, who was a fighter pilot during World War II, was shot down, he decided he was not going to spend his life playing other people’s music.  And he had played town halls, you know all of the big concert places in New York, and the like.  So he started composing and his genre was post 12 tone modern classical.  So he composed a lot of pieces with not much air play.  But you know I grew up listening to very challenging music. 

Then my mom was also a musician, and she was part of the folk scene in Cambridge, Massachusetts.  So she grew up— she was friends with Ralph Rinzler, who was the archivist at the Smithsonian and was the producer for that record Blow Boys Blow, which Jerry and Grisman gleaned some songs from.  And so I grew up with a lot of these influences.  

And then my uncle on my dad’s side was also a jazz musician who had played with Woody Herman and Stan Kenton, way back in the day.  So that was all floating around the house.

When I was three, my mom started teaching me the recorder and then I played piano and clarinet and then I listened to what was around.  The Beatles  were a thing when I was growing up and stuff that was on the radio.  And things like that.  And then when I was 12 years old, in 1973, my little sister’s babysitter left a copy of Europe 72 at the house.  And that was about the time that I dragged out this big old tube powered record player from the basement and started listening to every record that I could find.  So when I put that on especially, the “Prelude” and the “Epilog,” I thought, wow, this is different and listening to my grandfather’s music had opened my ears to listening to things that were a little out of the ordinary and that was when I also really started listening to the bass.  Bass can do this?  I want to do that. 

So then I started listening to all the records that I could find, a lot of them Grateful Dead. I sort of became entranced by, well, I think the thing that really attracted me was the sense of musical conversation and, you know, the way that Phil played in my mind was more like a cello player in a string quartet.   You know you have the first violin with the cello playing counterpoint or melodies with each other then you have the second violin and the viola filling in all of this stuff in the middle.  And having listened to a lot of string quartets at the time and that arrangement really appealed to my ear.  So for the next few years I was listening to it. 

When I started in 7th grade in junior high school my main instrument was the oboe.  And I joined the junior high school orchestra, and I had a fair amount of ability at that point for a 12 or 13 year old.  And there was also a flute player in the orchestra who was fairly advanced so the conductor spent all of his time with remedial work with the rest of the orchestra.  So we sat there bored.  

And finally we would hang out in the back room where all the electric instruments were and it turned out he knew how to play “Johnny B. Goode” and all these Dylan songs and all of this stuff.  And I would sit there watching him, thinking I want to play with him.  So I started playing the bass, and I never really got any training on it at that point.  I just sort of kept up with what he was doing, watching his left hand and that kind of thing.  And then we started a band, Orange Scream. 

And you know, obviously we were pretty terrible for a while but that band lasted all the way past the year after high school.  We played our first club gig at the Rat, which is famous club in Kenmore Square and all the punk bands used to play there.  I didn’t have a whole lot of use for punk which in retrospect was probably not very good.  Because I blew off seeing the Talking Heads there, and all kinds of bands that came through there in the early days, but you know, live and learn. 

We played mostly originals.  It was a four piece—guitar, bass, drums and keyboards and vocals.  I don’t know how to describe it.  It was you know it was its own thing.  I mean, early on we played originals because copying other people’s music was too difficult.  But you know we had all these friends who were poets and artists and everybody was doing all kinds if creative things so we decided that we are going to be just as creative as everyone else was in our group of people.  

At the same time, I was becoming a Dead Head.  My first show was 6/11/76 at the Boston Music Hall.  So you know it was around 1974, ’75 that I was really getting into them but I had this sense that maybe they would never tour again, and I was also too young to go see them.  So when I was 15, I saw that show and then the next year I saw them at the Boston Garden for the 5/7/77 show and saw them as much as I could. I saw Jerry and Kingfish in ‘76, I think.  And got a lot of records.  And I remember walking home from the record store here in Newtown Center with Aoxomoxoa going, “What’s Become of the Baby,” I wonder what this is about?   In some ways it’s my favorite Grateful Dead song because it’s truly them; no one else could have done that. 

I graduated high school in 1979.  It was the Commonwealth School, which is small school in downtown Boston.  And they had a fantastic music program when I was there.  So as an oboe player I got to play the first oboe part in a Bach B minor mass.  The director put together a chorus and orchestra and we were doing everything from Gregorian music to modern classical stuff with tone clusters, and it was amazing it was a great ear opening experience.  

And also in the summers I went to couple different music camps that were pretty heavy duty.  An hour lesson every day, chamber groups every day, orchestra and chorus every day, those were great experiences too.  That is where I learned to become an ensemble player.  We had coaches who were at the professional level, this was near Tanglewood, so it was associated with that.  And the idea of group phrasing and then learning dynamics, that you can start a phrase and then you dip a little bit to let somebody else’s phrase come over that and group dynamics, and how to research all of these things, were great skills to have. 

I took a year off after high school.  And Orange Scream played for a year after high school and then I went to UC Santa Cruz.  One of my big musical experiences there was taking Gordon Mumma’s history, literature and technology of electronic music class.  He was ground breaking.  He was there at the beginning of all kinds of musical breakthroughs for electronic music.  He started the tape music studio in Ann Arbor.  He liked to say he and Berry Gordy went to the same bank at the same time, to get loans, one for an electronic tape center and the other for Motown. 

Gordon had this amazing collection of tapes that he had made at various musical events and you know he also had as part of the listening there was Pink Floyd.  There was I think Grateful Dead stuff on there.  And just a huge range of things.  And again it opened my ear to hearing sound as music and some of it was very out there.  There was one piece that he called “Rain Forest” where a friend of his had a party in an old barn that he hooked up to an 8-channel sound system with speakers everywhere all over the barn and he invited people to bring things and he put transducers on them and ran signals through these objects and then would run them around the whole room.  And you would wander through and it sounded like a rain forest around you of very bizarre noises.  And – 

I only stayed a UC Santa Cruz for a year.  I had this girlfriend back east so I went to U Mass Amherst. And took some of the jazz classes there and got to see this great performance with Dizzy and Max Roach and Illinois Jacquet, Richard Davis.  A lot of great music there.  That is also when I saw Gill Scott Heron, and he was hugely influential because he had his whole political thing going on.  And at that point he had a long commentary about Ronald Regan and the war mongering that was happening.  And you know the change in American identity from ask not what your country do for you, to you know what am I getting out of this, and all of that.  And the grooves were great.  And he had a fantastic band full of jazz musicians.  

And I was like I want to do that.  So I talked to U Mass about becoming an electric bass major.  They said well, no, we don’t do that.  So we will give you an oboe scholarship.  But you are on your own through the electric bass.  So I decided to go to Boston during the week and went to the Berklee College of Music, and went to the bass department.  And said who will give me lessons on the weekend?  And so Bruce Gerts said he would.

For my first lesson I drove through a raging snow storm all across Massachusetts to get there about 11 am on a Saturday morning and the streets of Boston are just silent, covered in snow. I knock on his door and he comes out looking at me all blearyeyed and he says yeah, I forgot, I canceled all my lessons.  I had a gig with Stern last night, and we haven’t gone to sleep yet.  But you came all this way, so come on, here.  

And this sort of guy with greasy long hair comes out of one of the back bedrooms and leans across my chest and falls into the kitchen and I had no idea who he was.  It was Mike Stern, who was playing with Miles Davis at the time, who I saw two weeks later at EMS.  And so at that point, I started getting aware of the jazz scene that was happening in Boston.  And ultimately I decided to apply for the summer session at Berklee and then I went there for the full course of 8 semesters.  

And then I also decided to study music production.  It was the first year that they started offering that.  And I sort of had misgivings about Berklee, because I remember being in a class, it was a large lecture class, the teacher had played with Charlie Parker and, you know, all these heavy weight guys from New York, and when he tried to assign homework, the class would shout him down and refuse to do it.  Yeah, I was appalled.  But on the other hand there was a lot that I got done there, that was not necessarily in the realm of the classroom.

And my friends and I did the recital that made the school decided that they needed rules about recitals.  It was leap year day of 1984 the year of George Orwell, so we thought that was very auspicious.  We played some tunes and I think we used Steve Swallow’s “Falling Grace.”  And so the first half of the recital was fairly straight forward.  But for the second half we employed these two women who did political street theater, everything from nuclear war to food issues.

They had 13 pieces that they had put together and we just used that as a score to back them up.  So we would improvise with them and gradually themes that came out that we used during the performance.  And so at the end of that we passed out instruments percussion instruments to the audience to have a percussion jam.  And here you have got a Berklee School of Music with these amazing percussionists, these guys from Brazil, and actually my grandfather was there playing a cowbell.  I think it was the only time he got to see me perform.  

We had these two guys in the band playing guitars through these little tiny amps, playing just feedback.  So we could actually play recorders over the feedback and still hear it.  And you know all kinds of crazy stuff, synthesizers and what not.  And the administration came in and turned on the lights before we were done.  They could not handle it.  But our professors loved it.  And it was just a great experience.    

I ended up in this band called Chakra and probably the best known member of Chakra these days is Dave Watts, who has a band called the Motet that tours a bunch.  So we started playing around here.  And there was a guy living the band house who was doing merch for Phish.  So we became good friends with those guys and I gave Mike Gordon a couple bass lessons, and taught him how to play funk and things like that.  

That band ran its course in 1994.  And we had played in Colorado a lot and helped open up the Fox Theater and had all kind of adventures out there.  And so my wife and I decided to move out to Colorado.  She is asthmatic.  So the weather here was kind of killing her.  So then I joined another band with Dave Watts and went through a whole lot of different kinds of changes and then eventually got a location recording company happening and was playing with a lot of singer song writers.  Then I was trying to figure out what to do, and a friend of mine said hey, Great American Taxi (Vince Herman of Leftover Salmon’s side band) needs a bass player.  We should hook you up.  So they came over to my house and we had a little rehearsal and Vince said so, ready to go on the road?  And the next three years were spent touring all over the place and playing big festivals and just having a great time with those guys.  

 I was approaching 50 and I decided that boy, you know if I don’t use my brain now, I might just lose it.  So that is when I went to law school.  And a week before law school started the drummer from Shakedown Street called me up and said hey, you want to do some gigs because I hear you are off the road now.  So all during law school I was playing with them.  And Shake Down Street has been together for 37 years.

In Colorado with different members.  In fact we’re having our 37th anniversary show at the Boulder Theater on the 26th of this month (December, 2023.)  And so during that time we went through some personnel changes and over the last like 14 years, the band has really developed and it’s gotten I think better than it’s ever been.  And so we’ve been getting really good crowds and we have really started developing that group mind thing.  

As to my own playing, personally as a bass play I ask myself, what would Steve Swallow do?  Phil Lesh is in there, of course.  But I don’t know —  it’s interesting because Steve Swallow and Phil Lesh have a lot in common.  They were both born around the same time.  They both started playing hollow body basses with a pick, and they both have a very melodic style.  And I just want to bring something a little bit different. I treat the material sort of like a jazz session, so that I can play through the changes and let each song be what it wants to be.  At that time of course there are licks that I will hit and then you know the rest of the band will also bring their own unique flavor to it, playing the music I have played with the lead guitar player, Josh Rosen, for God almost 30 years, and we’ve done a lot of different kinds of music together.  And a lot of different kinds of gigs.  And it’s  it’s been an interesting journey with these guys and to be part of this.  So there are a lot of aspects that are traditional in what we do.  And we try to serve the music as best we can, but inevitably our own personalities just come out. 

During most of the ‘80s I wasn’t going to shows because I was working on my own music and listening to a lot of other stuff but it was always there with me and I would sometimes get together with friends and go play a gig at a college and play some of that music.  But I think it’s amazing to come full circle and now be playing in a Grateful Dead band.  I am able to bring all of this stuff.  I spent a lot of time playing funk and African music.  While the influences aren’t necessarily overt in what I’m doing now, it’s still there.  So if we play “Shakedown Street” or “Hard to Handle” or something like that, I can throw some of those things in.  

And it’s just really amazing to have this language, because it’s more than music, it’s a language.  It’s the way that you approach music.  So it’s a language you can speak with other people.  I had a lesson with Carol Kaye the great L.A. session bass player.  She said that when she was coming up in the ‘50s, she was a West Coast jazz guitar player and people would come back from the East Coast having gone to the clubs and listening to the musicians there, and they would come back and sing the lick to West Coast musicians and they had this whole nonverbal musical language going on, and these licks and styles and phrases would make their way around the country. 

 And I think that the Grateful Dead language is very similar to that.  So that I can sit down with almost anybody who has played the music and go through these songs, and have a real connection with them.  And I can also play it in front of people and have a connection with the people which is an amazing thing.  I mean we have been playing the Levitt Pavilion in the summers in Denver, we get crowds of 10,000 people and it’s an incredible experience to see all these people out for this music.  And they are into it.  We can play the spacey stuff the rock and roll stuff, everything, they want to hear it all.  And especially in this day and age where people are suspicious of each other, the idea you can go play something that is really not mainstream and have people listen and communicate gives you hope, because you realize within everybody is that desire to expand their consciousness or expand their experience and be part of community who can live outside the corporate lines. 

Photographs by Andrew Wyatt

See Edwin Hurwitz with Shakedown Street at Skull & Roses Festival