Talking Dead With Dave McMurray

The one-time Was (Not Was) saxophonist remains Grateful for the music

Dave McMurray (Image: Blue Note)

One wouldn’t necessarily think that a saxophonist first reared in jazz would necessarily find a connection with the music of the Grateful Dead.

However, after two albums of imaginative interpretations of Dead songs bearing the titles of Grateful Dedication and Grateful Dedication 2, it’s clear Dave McMurray is adapt at doing exactly that.  

Then again, the Dead’s music has always been open to the effects of imagination and interpretation.

McMurray, who was born in Detroit, was originally drawn to jazz after witnessing performances by musicians who would visit his elementary school and treated the students to the various musical endeavors. “They were playing really hard and were lost in the music on each song,” McMurray says. “I knew, right then, I wanted to be a musician or artist because of the deep expression. Detroit was a unique place, because it was a melting pot of different kinds of music. Detroit musicians were always in the forefront of music, whether it was Jazz, Soul, Rock or Gospel. I was always intrigued with festivals that would have a rock group like the MC5 and Sun Ra on the same stage. There were stations that would play Grateful Dead and then Miles Davis. That definitely influenced me. Any songs that I hear, I imagine my sax being a part of it. I always try to fit into the style, and yet interject my own personality into it.”


AUDIO: Griot Galaxy “After Dream”

After helming his own band, Midnight Sky, and playing with an avant-garde outfit known as Griot Galaxy, McMurray managed to land a gig with the group Was (Not Was.) It began a relationship with bassist Don Was that lasted over 40 years.

Nevertheless, McMurray’s first actual encounter with the The Grateful Dead’s music didn’t take place until 2018 when he found himself playing at the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival in San Francisco with Was and one of his current ensembles.

“One of the special guests was Bob Weir,” he recalls. “We played his song ‘Days Between.’  It was an odd, hypnotic song, with an extended form. The audience was transfixed by the music, and it was great!  It was different than anything I could have imagined.”

Later, McMurray had the opportunity to sit in with Bob Weir’s Wolf  Bros. in Detroit.

“I didn’t know exactly what songs they were going to play, so I to listened to a lot of their music that had saxes,” he explains. “I was intrigued. The songs had a set form, but it would change for every show. Then it hit me!  They were improvising on the form exactly like a jazz group.  It reminded me of Miles Davis or Weather Report. The show turned out great.  After that, I started to explore their whole catalogue and became a total fan of their compositions and wide open concept.  

The first song McMurray chose to record on his own was “Dark Star” and it made for an ambitious initial effort. “I always go for the strong melodies, and it had a strong opening line and a great verse that is recognizable even without hearing the lyrics,” he suggests, adding that there was a continuum that led him deeper into the Dead’s domain. “One song leads to the next. The Dead audience is such a dedicated audience that I definitely know the importance of them accepting me and me being true to the music.”

Nevertheless, there was something new to consider as well. “The audiences are different,” McMurray maintains.  “Unlike the typical jazz audience, the people actually stand up and dance!”

It wasn’t long before McMurray found success in enlisting others to his efforts as well. His first tribute album under the Grateful Deadication banner featured Weir and the Wolf Brothers performing the song “Loser.” “It was such an honor,” McMurray insists.  “I also had the great Soul singer Bettye LaVette as a guest vocalist as well. Her interpretation was very unique.  When Bob Weir heard it, he agreed to play on the song right then.”

Dave McMurray Grateful Deadication 2, Blue Note 2023

As before, the new album features another array of Dead classic songs, among them such familiar favorites as “Playing in the Band,” “Bird Song,” “Crazy Fingers,” and “Truckin’,not to mention some that may seem more obscure. One again, McMurray managed to enlist some significant guests.

“I’m fortunate to have Oteil Burbridge sing on ‘Scarlet Begonias’” he says. “He did a great job, and definitely gave me some insight into how the Grateful Dead would operate. “I also recorded  the Jerry Garcia song ‘To Lay Me Down’ and country star Jamey Johnson gives it a really emotional interpretation. Likewise, jazz pianist Bob James gives it up on ‘The Other One’ and ‘If I had The World To Give.’ He added the perfect vibe to the songs. My Detroit band —  Ibrahim Jones on bass, Jeff Canady on drums, Maurice O’Neal keyboards, and Wayne Gerard on guitar — also contribute.”

Naturally then, McMurray says he’s pleased with the results. “I wanted to do a record that you could listen from start to finish…and feel good,” he says. “We’ve played together for years, so this is a fun adventure. So far, the reaction to Grateful Deadication has been very positive.” 

He also added that he’s now looking forward to performing the album live. “The songs take on a new life in front of people,” he notes. “Different settings bring out different elements of the song.  When I’m playing I feel like I’m singing. I try to get the emotions of Jerry’s vocal, while hopefully taking the audience with me.” 


VIDEO: Dave McMurray feat. Oteil Burbridge “Scarlet Begonias”

At the same time, McMurray said that recording the two albums gave him an appreciation of the Grateful Dead he never had before. 

“When I was younger, I didn’t understand the endurance of the Grateful Dead,” McMurray muses. “I knew they had great songs, but I didn’t know what motivated their audience to follow the band across the country. Yet when you see a crowd in absolute bliss listening to this music, you can understand that. It makes them feel good. It’s not pretentious or slick.  It’s happy, but very subversive in its complexity.  The music is real.”

So too, McMurray says he now feels like a part of that particular community. “I definitely have a great affinity for the Grateful Dead family and Bob Weir’s constant exploration of the music,” he reflects. “That is very inspiring. I played at Terrapin Station before it closed, and it was one of my greatest experiences.  I didn’t know if the audience was going to accept us, but as soon as we started playing, it was on! People started swaying and it ended up being a great gig for us. More recently, I had the opportunity to play with The Wolf Bros’ extended band this year, and it was so cool as well. Bob actually gave me a lot space to play, and the band made me feel at home. It was a packed house and the audience was fantastic. My goal is definitely to be accepted into the Dead family while bringing a little Detroit flavor.”  


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Lee Zimmerman

Lee Zimmerman is a writer and columnist based in beautiful Maryville Tennessee. Over the past 20 years, his work has appeared in dozens of leading music publications. He is also the author of Americana Music: Voice, Visionaries, and Pioneers of an Honest Sound, which will be published by Texas A&M University Press early next year.

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