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From Dregs to Dead: An Interview with T. Lavitz.

By Brian L. Knight

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During the fall of 1967, the entertainment media were predicting the fall of the jazz idiom. The headline of October issue of Rouge Magazine read "Jazz is Dead…………Folk is Dead………Long Live Rock." Simultaneously, the October 5, 1967 issue of Downbeat Magazine stated "Jazz As We Know It Is Dead". After the Summer of Love and the successful releases of the Door’s Light My Fire, Jefferson Airplane’s Surrealistic Pillow and the Beatles’ Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band, there was little doubt that rock and roll was on its way up. Meanwhile, jazz was going through some profound transformations - Coltrane was heading to the darkest depths of free jazz and Miles Davis was slowly transitioning from acoustic and electric. On the side, musicians like vibist Gary Burton and Herbie Mann were showing that jazz and rock and roll belonged together just fine.

In 1997, the term "Jazz is Dead" re-entered everybody’s vocabulary when drummer Billy Cobham, keyboardist T. Lavitz, bassist Alphonso Johnson and guitarist Jimmy Herring joined together to record Blue Light Rain under the name Jazz is Dead. The album consisted of jazzed-up interpreations of Grateful Dead songs. Two years later, Rod Morgenstein replaced Cobham, and the band released their second album, Laughing Water, which is the band’s take of the Grateful Dead’s 1973 classic Wake of the Flood. The band got its name from an obvious play on words, but they also set out to refute the words first uttered in 1967. Through the band Jazz is Dead, jazz is actually alive and well.

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Jazz is Dead is a group of equals. Through their own experience, each member provides their own flavor to the Jazz is Dead sound. In past issues, we have spoken to Alphonso Johnson and Billy Cobham and now we get to hear from the talented T. Lavitz. As we will soon discover, T is an extremely interesting individual who has a lot to say about playing the piano, his relationship with the Grateful Dead and his other band, the Dixie Dregs. Originally a native of Lakewood, New Jersey, the Vermont Review spoke to T from his home in Santa Monica, California.

Vermont Review: Were the keyboards your first instrument?

T Lavitz: Yeah, actually it was. My father was a musician and I wanted to play trumpet of all weird things. He said ‘you can play whatever you want but all the theory, you know harmony and all the theory behind music, is laid out on the keyboard. I really think you should play piano for awhile.’ I was only seven, I didn’t know anything. I am glad I did it because I fell in love with it.

VR: Have you picked up a trumpet since then?

TL: No. I don’t know why I was thinking about doing that. I did play saxophone for many years. I played all the way through grade school, high school and college. I even played on a couple of albums. One with the Dixie Dregs and one with the Bluesbusters. I stopped about ten years ago.

VR: Who were the Bluesbusters?

TL:: It was a put together band of guys from different groups. It featured Paul Barrere from Little Feat, Catfish Hodge, myself and (guys from Bonnie Raitt’s and Jackson Browne’s bands). A bunch of rock veterans. It was a pretty cool band.

VR: Any thoughts of getting that band back together?

TL: It so hard because every so scattered doing there own thing. I was actually talking to Barrere about trying to do some gigs in January with not Bluesbusters, but another jam band type of thing. But, he doesn’t know if he can do it. He is out with Phil and Friends right now. He is going to do until November 1st and then I heard rumors that Warren Haynes was taking over.

VR: What keyboard/piano players do look towards as influences?

TL: When I was a kid, the first one I remember hearing that I loved was Keith Emerson. When I was a teenager, Emerson, Lake and Palmer was huge. With the whole rock star thing, he looked so cool. He was great too. When I was a little bit older, somebody turned me onto Chick Corea. And for jazz, he was really accessible and really great. Then I went to school for music, and they said ‘ wait, lets back up here.’ They took me back to all the old masters – Bud Powell and Oscar Peterson and Bill Evans. Then, of course, I heard Herbie Hancock. There is so many.

VR: Did you ever get to hear Emerson, Lake and Palmer live?

TL: I did when I was about age 17 in Washington D.C. It was a quad system! You got to remember that this was 1973 or something. It was a big deal. A huge P.A.! Lots of theatrics. It was pretty cool.

VR: I just read that Keith Emerson did the equivalent to his piano to what Hendrix did with his guitars………………

TL: I think he used to stab his organ with a dagger and hold a note down.

VR: That must not have been too good for the organ………

TL: It’s just so hard to keep them running anyway.

VR: Out of all different keyboard instruments – organ, piano, synthesizer – which do you prefer the most?

TL: I started on the acoustic piano and I learned about classical and jazz on the acoustic piano. I think it is really good for something who is serious about learning the art of music and hearing really pure notes without them being tainted by electronics. I play all the synthesizers – Clavinets and Rhodes. Lately, the past three years, I have been playing the (Hammond )B3. I have been playing that mostly, like in the Dixie Dregs reunion and of course, Jazz is Dead. It is a lot of fun. It has a great sound.

VR: Do they still make the Hammond B-3?

TL: No. But there is a company in Connecticut who buy them in parts and whole units. They fix them up, refurbish them and then sell them or rent them out. It is really a vintage instrument.

VR: I don’t think that I have ever seen one that wasn’t tattered or beaten up around the edges….

TL: You are right. I haven’t said this in a long time, but I am fortunate because I am old enough that I grew up on the acoustic piano, but I am young enough so that I love all of the electronic stuff. I came into it at the right time, I guess.

VR: The mid to late 1960s was a big transition period for the piano……

TL: Yep. This is going to make me sound really old, but I ….(a short period of silent counting) started piano lessons in 1963. By the end of the 1960s, I was well into that kind of jam, so to speak.

VR: Do you like Les McCann at all?

TL: Yeah. I got to meet him last year. He came to a gig and he was really nice.

VR: Do you find any similarities with the two bands that you are playing in – Dixie Dregs and Jazz is Dead?

TL: It is funny, we are so different but the same in the one way – it is good people and really good musicianship. With Jazz is Dead, it is learn the music and then jam. I tell people it is Grateful Dead but think Miles Davis. We probably do only 45 minutes of "music", but we play for two hours. There is 45 minutes of worked up part. The bulk of what that band does is jam because there are such good players, everyone listens and plays off each other. With the Dregs, it is mostly all orchestrated except for your little breaks , little solo improvisations. It is all note for note. It is all Steve Morse compositions. It is also fun because it is challenging to try to execute the licks and play his music. The similarities are just that they both have good players and you really have to concentrate each night.

VR: How would you classify Dixie Dregs? Jazz? Progressive?

TL: When I first joined them, it was definitely called fusion. That was when Return from Forever, Headhunters, Weather Report – these were the big bands. Spyro Gyra and Pat Metheny were just starting to come up and do records. So the word fusion was o.k. and it meant "really cool instrumental music that put jazz and rock elements together." Just that one word is kind of a stigma. I have heard really cool descriptions of the Dregs – "Thinking Man’s Boogie", "Electric Chamber Music". I call it "rock, jazz and everything else".

VR: Just the name itself makes you think you are going to hear……….

TL: …….a hoedown. Well, we also do one or two things like that but that just rounds out the versatility. The name came from Andy West and Steve Morse started the band when they were teenagers but they had another band called Dixie Grit. When they broke up, one of them to the other "I guess we are in the Dregs now." By the time I got to the band, we were touring around and DJs would come up to us with their mouths open and eyes all wide and they said "I had no idea. I took your first two albums and threw them away." They didn’t need another Marshall Tucker. It was kind of funny but it did hurt us.

VR: Steve Morse or Jimmy Herring. Which guitarist is louder?

TL: (laughter) That’s a great question. (more laughter) Who is louder? I couldn’t tell you because Jimmy is all the way on the other end of the stage so it is a nice mix. On the Dregs reunion we just did, Steve and I set up on top of each other and it was so loud. You know what – you just brought it all home for me. I am so lucky. I am playing with the, I really think, best two guys out there. I am just above average but those two guys are stellar.

VR: You were just mentioning the Dregs reunion tour. I read somewhere that you pulled out some Frank Zappa songs.

TL: We talked about doing some things that the band did a million years ago or that we never did. We did Jessica by the Allman Brothers. That was cool. We did Peaches En Regalia (Frank Zappa) and Dweezil, you know Frank Zappa’s son, came a played with us. We did three nights that we recorded but he came only one night. I hoping that night gets picked (for a new live CD).

VR: How long were you in Widespread Panic for?

TL: Just one year. Capricorn was being put together and my name came up through those circles. The guys in Panic knew about the Dregs of course. They came up in Athens and were based down in Atlanta. My name got thrown around. I didn’t know who they were because they were just a regional band at that time, about to break out. I was living out here (California). We came, we jammed and it was instantly pretty crazy. So I stayed and did all the recordings. They really took a lot of time and did it right. At the end, they said "why don’t you just come with us?"

I just jammed with them. I saw them two weeks ago at the Santa Monica Civic Center. I pulled up, saw one of the roadies, got a laminate, came back later that night, walked in, went back stage, they saw me, someone motioned, came out on stage and played with them. It was so funny. It was two minutes from house. It was like "I guess I will go play rock star for a minute." Boom! Go there, people screaming, thousand lights, huge PA. I was back in bed watching Law and Order or ER that night. They sounded good.

VR: Are you a fan of the Grateful Dead?

TL: I would consider myself a Deadhead although I only saw them three times. In played with them one of the times. So I played with them once and saw them two other times. To me, that is a real fan. To a deadhead, they would laugh at me. They would be impressed that I jammed with them but they would be "3 times? You have to see them 50?" I saw Weather Report twice. Am I not a fan of Weather Report? Everybody would agree that I am. I love them. I bought their albums. I saw them twice. I am fan. With the dead, that doesn’t count. You a got to throw away a school year or summer or something.

VR: You are all right. One of the first articles or snippets that I read about being a Deadhead was a story of "true" Deadhead who only possessed side 1 and 3 of Live Dead.

TL: If you like their music, aren’t you a fan. I don’t know the music nearly as well as………..well, my manager, who put the band together. I went up to him and said "I need to work up a new solo piece for the Fall tour." He said "Mountains of the Moon". I said "I don’t know that." And he looked at me like how other people would look at me I guess. I just finished it an hour ago. Pretty good song.

VR: Is there any difference between Laughing Water and Blue Light Rain?

TL: To me, it is so much more evolved. We were together for only three weeks before doing the first album. And then we played a million gigs between then and Laughing Water. We spent a lot more mixing it, so I think is sounds a lot smoother. I like that. We pulled it off! It was a miracle! With all the gigs we did on the road, the producers would say "we are recording here and we are recording here. You better be go." The first one sounds like some really good players playing some songs. The second one sounds like we really got into it.

VR: Why did you choose Wake of the Flood?

TL: Our manager suggested that we should do a concept thing and do a whole album. He suggested that one. And then we started listening to it and like so much of their stuff, it seemed like it would be a challenge. Not too much in the notes, but in not trying to sound like a cover band. Take their stuff and interpret it.

VR: What is the favorite song that you are playing?

TL: I think it depends on what everything sounds like that night. I love doing something like Scarlet Begonias because it is so straight-ahead and melodic. Everybody dances and loves it. We do Blues for Allah and we do it really weird. That is fun. We just starting doing St Stephen. Sometimes the Eleven.

VR: I personally love King Solomon’s Marbles on Blue Light Rain.

TL: That is so hard to play. Again, if the energy is up and it’s just a weird night, it is a blast. I think a lot of it is what kind of mood you are in. How far you travel. I you get a nice shower and dinner……………then sometimes, you want to play the normal stuff.

VR: do any non-Grateful Dead songs make it into your repertoire?

TL: We are doing a song of mine called Justice which is kind of a fast, freight train country kind of thing. And part of a song of Alphonso’s called Two Sisters.

VR: I will say six names. Where do you think you belong? Tom Constanten, Pigpen, Keith Godchaux, Brent Mydland, Bruce Hornsby, Vince Welnick.

TL: I have would have to say Bruce because, to me, he is such a great keyboard player. I also have a personal thing with him. I have know Bruce since we were teenagers. We went to school together. When I auditioned for the Dead, he helped me get into that.

VR: What was the audition?

TL: When Brent died, they brought me up there for the day. We jammed for about three hours and had lunch. It was big time for me. There I was: "Me and the Grateful Dead in the Practice Room." It was really good. I closed my eyes and Jerry was soloing forever. I remember this one chord where it was going forever and I just closed my eyes and played variations of it. "That’s pretty cool. I am hearing the Grateful Dead around me." It was August of 1990. I don’t sing so………..but I can relate to Vince too. Six years later, we wound up sharing a tour bus together. We got to be really tight. I like him because his not a wallflower. He is cynical and funny. He’s always thinking I guess.

VR: How is Rod Morgenstein filling in for Billy Cobham?

TL: I think it is great. Billy is a living legend. When I was a kid, to think that I would ever shake his hand…..you know what I mean. I did a trio with him and Jeff Berlin in 1990. We went around the world and stuff. So I knew him before and we had a blast. In a way, maybe Rod’s heart is in it more. Rod is like a brother, so I have know him for 21 years. He is such a great guy. It is easier to say Rod: "Hey try this or try that." He would be really open. He always wants to be the best that he can be. 

VR: Last two questions: is T your real name?

TL: Next.

VR: Any plans for the Millennium?

TL: That night?

VR: Yes. Are you going to play or go hide?

TL: Go hide.

T Lavitz will be taking Jazz is Dead on the road as well as get involved with some other jam orientated projects. For more information on T and his latest endeavors at http://www.tlavitz.com. As for Jazz is Dead, they will be at the Higher Ground on November 18th and at the Somerville Theater on November 19th. Their information can be found at http://www.jazzisdead.com/.