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Friday, May 20

Is Phish Jazz?

Phishy Jazz

There are few claims one can make about jazz without running into some controversy and apparent contradictions. In fact, the only definitive claim one can make about Jazz is that one can’t generalize about Jazz. This difficulty in generalization is also what makes Jazz so profoundly unique and lasting. This arises from the inherent nature of jazz being a style of playing an amalgamation of cultures and influences into its own unique voice. Early Jazz developed from African, Spanish, French, classical European influences, and  “the work song, another frequently cited predecessor to Jazz” (Gioia: 8). These work songs, the spirituals, and the blues merged together and gave birth to Jazz, which has been changing ever since. This inherent entropy in Jazz explains why Swing and Bebop, Free Jazz and Ragtime, Second Line and Hard Bop, can all be classified as “jazz.” There is another form of quintessential American music that follows almost the exact same trajectory: the music of “Jam bands.”
            There’s even less of a consensus of what constitutes “Jam music,” mostly because there is not much (if at all) academic and scholastic work done on the art form itself. In fact, if critics aren’t ignoring the music, they are usually deriding it. Vice wrote an article called “Phish Has Been a Band for Thirty Years and they Have Sucked the Whole Time,” La Weekly asked, “Can an Intelligent Person like Phish,” and Esquire wrote one entitled “No, It Really is Them: Why it’s Okay to Hate Phish,” where the author wrote “Phish knows all the right notes, but they don’t know what they mean.” This criticism however doesn’t stop jam bands from having a large, devoted following. Most fans of jam bands would say Jam Bands are just rock bands that improvise, however this is simultaneously both too broad and too confining a definition for what makes a band a Jam Band. The history of Jam bands begins with the Grateful Dead (a band whose front man, Jerry Garcia, lived a very similar life to that of Charlie Parker), however a band that exemplifies the relationship and symmetry of Jam music to Jazz, is Phish, a 4-piece band from Vermont that has been playing together since the 1980s. There’s a mathematical concept called homeomorphism, which means two spaces are the same even if they might appear from the outset like two distinct entities: for example, a coffee mug is homeomorphic to a donut topologically. I claim that Phish is homeomorphic to Jazz music, and that despite its seeming differences Jam can be thought of as a subset of Jazz.

            For this claim to hold any weight, Phish must have been influenced by the same forces as Jazz. Trey Anastasio, the lead singer, guitarist and composer of the band explained how the members of Phish “studied composition in college and always loved orchestral songs” and “a lot of these large scaled pieces for Phish are modeled on classical” music (PBS News Hour). This quote already contradicts the notion that Jam Bands are only rock bands trying to improvise, and provides a level of complexion not often associated with Jam. This level of sophistication in Rock and roll ties into the Boppers who “were concerned, with art, not entertainment” (Ellison: 455). Trey also explained how his “mother was an enormous lover of Broadway [who] used to play lots of cast album” when he was growing up, and the Swing music in New York during the 1920s and 30s greatly influenced the music of Broadway, so listening to cast albums is inherently listening to a heavy influence of Jazz (PBS News Hour). In fact, Phish would often early on “do a lot of big band arraignments,” and Trey commented on how he loves playing in different settings because he can “learn stuff you take back to Phish” within the new music (PBS News Hour). Mike Gordon, the bassist, also mentioned that they “cover a bunch of bluegrass songs” and have been “definitely influence by it” (David Bryne). The historical and spatial context that the Boppers found themselves in led them to the clubs like Minton’s as “a place to hold their interminable jam sessions” which is “the jazzman’s true academy” (Ellison: 453). Similarly, Trey explains how Phish was able to earn their chops, so to speak: “Every bar wanted a band, so when you get a gig in Burlington in 1983, it was for 3 nights and 3 sets…and the owner of the bar would come up to us and say ‘play a slow one, play a fast one, play a cover’ so we got good at playing live” (PBS News Hour). I’ve showed Phish has similar stylistic influences and historical circumstances, however the symmetry would be meaningless if it didn’t extend to the music itself.
  Bill Evans, in the liner notes for Kind of Blue, wrote how “this conviction that direct deed is the most meaningful reflection…has prompted the evolution of the extremely severe and unique disciplines of the jazz or improvising musician” (Kind of Blue). An interesting point of note here is he seems to make little to no distinction between an improvising musician and Jazz musician, a point of view that would instantly qualify Phish as a Jazz band, but I will act on the assumption that improvisation does not inherently make one a Jazz musician to more rigorously demonstrate Phish is a Jazz band. Kind of Blue, Miles Davis’s magnum opus, introduced the notion of group improvisation, an action Evan’s describes as “a further challenge” because  “aside from the weighty technical problem of collective coherent thinking, there is the very human, even social need for sympathy from all members to bend for the common result” (Kind of Blue).  This notion of group improvisation is the culmination of the gradual merging of dialog and sense of community in Jazz, both of which are personified in Phish.
            In order to reach the level of musicianship to coherently group improvise, one must put in countless hours of practice and get intimately familiar with the rest of the band. Trey talked about how “one of the things [they] do as a band is jamming exercises” because they “wanted organized jamming” (PBS News Hour). This sense of dialog within the band is exemplified during these exercises when the band “would go around in a circle and each musician would start a phrase and then the other three would have to join in…and then the focus would shift to the next person in line” (PBS News Hour). This discipline and mastery of their craft allows them freedom in their live performances similar to the freedom granted to the musicians at Minton’s where they could focus on just jamming. It is these live performances that most people are referring to when they discuss Jam Bands like Phish. These live performances run so smoothly, according to Trey because the band members realize “you don’t want to listen to yourself; it’s important to hear what someone else is playing” because  “the theory is if you just listen you’ll never run out of ideas” (Phish). Page McDonald, the keyboardist, gives another way the dialog extends into these live performances, as the members of the band “can play off the energy of the crowd” as well as each other (David Bryne). This point brings up the notion of dialoging with the crowd and the community as well as the band members, and it is with respect to this that Jam Bands go even farther than typical Jazz bands.
            Rather than being associated with a specific location, Phish and Jam bands of its caliber, build a community that devotedly follows them around from location to location. This inherently changing community ties perfectly into the Jazz conception of entropy. Trey claimed that Phish’s “idea was then that that message [of communication] would spread out,” and because “it has, the Phish scene is [now] a community, and we’re a community with” them (PBS News Hour). This community is not just a passive participant in enjoying the music of Phish, but rather plays an active role in the ever-changing dialogue that takes place between audience and band. 

            This audience engagement ranges from the subtle nuances, to playing a direct role in how the band sounds and what they decide to play. A couple of subtle examples spring from the audience’s spontaneous responses to certain songs Phish plays. For example, Trey tells Guitar Magazine how "there's a song we did last night, Stash, where the audience does this clapping thing. They just started doing it one night and it worked its way into the song. The audience wrote it. No matter where we go, our audience knows to do that" (Guitar Player magazine (vol 28 no 9)). Stash is one of the most composed songs in Phish’s repertoire, so it is telling that this is a song the audience chose to improvise over.  This happens in another song called Wilson, where “Trey/Mike play a pair of two-beats -- duh-dun duh-dun -- and the audience responds with "Wiiiiil-son", drawing the first syllable out” as explained in the Phish fan website, ( The members of Phish allow and encourage a more direct influence in their sound from the audience as well. For example, Trey gave an interview to the official Phish YouTube channel where he explained that his “compressor went away for a while, but when Phish came back, some people got together and purchased a new one and sent it to me” and he has used it ever since (Phish). Another example involves a tradition Phish does on Halloween. One year they spontaneously decided to cover another band’s entire album for a set, and it quickly became a tradition that the audience got a say in. The band would “put out the word that we wanted fans to vote on what album we would cover for the first two years” and would play the album that received the most votes (David Bryne). None of this truly captures the intensity and sense of belonging one feels when attending a Phish concert however, and it is this immense sense of indescribable contentment that personifies the notions of community that the Jazz context strives to achieve, and which Phish has accomplished.
            A problem with trying to make art forms into a rigorous set notation like Group Theory is that art is an intrinsically human endeavor, with its participants under no obligations to follow the rules supposedly defined for them. Using the assumptions that the recipe for a Jazz band is improvisation, dialog, a sense of community and vital aliveness, one can’t argue against the inclusion of Phish. Jazz has typically been used as a dialog for critiquing a social context, and so one might try to argue that even though Phish’s music is dialogic it isn’t used in the same context as Jazz bands; a la “Phish knows all the right notes, but they don’t know what they mean” (Esquire). However, I would argue that, even though the members of the band are white men playing to a mostly white audience, and as such are not forced to view Jazz as a desperate form of claiming a cultural agency, they still use their music to express a unique philosophic and existential view of the world. Since Jazz is more of a style and not an epistemology like the Blues is, there is more leeway as to what the dialog can be about and still be described as Jazz. As such, I see no reason for scholars to not consider Jam bands like Phish and the Grateful Dead a new branch of Jazz, as opposed to an entirely different form of music.

Works Cited
Anastastio, Trey. Interview by Jeffrey Brown. "Phish Front Man Casts Wide Musical Net." PBS News Hour. PBS. 2 July 2013. Web. 13 Mar. 2016.
Anastasio, Trey. Interview. "Trey Anastasio's Guitar Rig." 15 July 2013. Web. 13 Mar. 2016. <>.
Ellison, Ralph. The Golden Age, Time Past. N.p.: n.p., n.d. 449-56. PrintGioia, Ted. The History of Jazz. 2ndnd ed. New York: Oxford Press, 2011. 1-200. Print
Evans, Bill. Improvisation in Jazz: Kind of Blue. New York: Columbia, 1959. Print
Phish. Interview by David Bryne. "Phish Interview with David Bryne." Sessions at West 54th. PBS. 20 Oct. 1998. Web. 13 Mar. 2016. <>.
Phish. Audience. Phish, n.d. Web. 13 Mar. 2016. <>.
Raymer, Miles. No, It Really is Them: Why It's Okay to Hate Phish. Esquire, 25 July 2013. Web. 13 Mar. 2016. <>
Shapiro, Benjamin. Phish Have Been a Band for Thirty Years Now and they Have Sucked the Whole TIme. Vice, 2013. Web. 13 Mar. 2016. <>.
Westhoff, Ben. Can an Intelligent Person like Phish. LA Weekly , 2 Feb. 2012. Web. 13 Mar. 2016. <>.

Words: David Rubinstein
Photos: Mike Geller

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