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Published: 2000/03/15
by Dieter Rogers

Inside With Merl Saunders

On a recent Friday evening, I enjoyed sharing a Japanese meal with the “Mayor of Haight Street”, Merl Saunders. An undisputable legend, Merl Saunders has traded solos with the Grateful Dead, Phish, Widespread Panic, Miles Davis, Blues Traveler and String Cheese Incident. And, through his many experiences, he has become both an ambassador and expert of improvisational music. Throughout his decades of experience, this charismatic, engaging, and talented musician has earned a loyal populace of fans who well appreciate his growing legacy. And, even with all his success, Merl continues to be active in the contemporary music scene as he plays with the emerging generation of players. In short, Merl Saunders is a both a musical hero and treasure whose wealth of knowledge and experience should be heard.

DR- Let’s start things off by talking about your upcoming Birthday Bash. You must be looking forward to celebrating with your funky friends, at the Great American with all of your fans [editor’s note: this show took place on Valentine’s day].

Merl- Yeah, it’s kind of a traditional thing that we do that. Last year it was at the Fillmore. This time we’re doing it at the Great American Music Hall for a couple of reasons. Because its more intimate and it’s one of the first places Jerry and I opened in ’72. And, I’ve been playing there since ’71 and ’72.

DR- And is the Great American your favorite venue in the city?

Merl- That and the Fillmore. I lean towards the Great American Music Hall.

DR- Let’s talk a bit about some of your Funky Friends. As far as the jamband scene goes, it seems like you’ve done it all. You have played with Phish, Widespread Panic, and The String Cheese Incident to name just three. What does it mean to you to continue to be so involved with the contemporary generation of musicians?

Merl- Well, it reminds me of when I was coming up. I was thirteen, fourteen, fifteen and sixteen and I was playing with guys older than me. Now it gives me a chance to experiment with these groups. And, it gives me a chance to play with the younger, better musicians. It keeps me thinking young. If I was playing with musicians that weren’t young I’d be sitting around at nine o’clock at night.

DR- It seems like you are always popping up in the middle of someone’s set, it must be amazing to you to know that these younger musicians look up to you and respect you. They know you can hang and that you can push the envelop.

Merl- Yeah, they’re good. That’s one thing, I like them because they are good. The first time I went up with Phish, it was in Atlanta, Georgia. And, I got on stage and I thought, “well I’ll just play the blues”, that’s probably all they got. And they say, “What do you want to play, Merl?” And I told them, “Let’s play the blues.” And they say, “You know Caravan, let’s play Caravan.” And I said, “what Caravan are you talking about, the Duke Ellington Caravan?” They said, “yeah, let’s play that!” And I thought “Yes!”, they won my heart. They reached back and played Caravan, and they played the hell out of it. They did their homework. All the groups, Widespread and Blues Traveler, I’ve been affiliated with them before they were big. I could tell they were going to be big, I predicted it.

DR- You have made so many guest appearances, is there any one that really stands out beyond all the others?

Merl- In every guest appearance, there is something that happens spontaneously. I walked up on stage with David Grisman, and he didn’t know I was there. Once, I was playing in San Francisco, and I look up, and all of a sudden Miles Davis walks up and grabs the trumpet out of the trumpet players hands. And I’m just thinking, “Wow! There’s Miles Davis, he left his club to come up and play with me!” That’s a flash. Playing with the Grateful Dead at Kezar Stadium for the first time.

DR- I want to talk for a bit about the San Francisco music scene. The scene here is simply legendary, there is so much history. What does it mean to you that you to be part of the scene. You are an ambassador of the scene. What does that mean to you?

Merl- Well, it means a lot. I got my roots here, and my family is here. I just saw some pictures of the first time I played the panhandle (of Golden Gate Park) with Jerry. There were some pictures of my son, 19 years old, playing with me and Jerry. I had a great time playing back in those days. Before that, I was playing when I was thirteen and fourteen years old. I had a high school band. I used to play a theater called the Ellis Theater. They had a talent show every Monday night, well I won the best band every Monday for four solid years. When I was about seventeen, I used to hang out in Bop City and play jazz until two or three o’clock in the morning.

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