David Crosby: Crosby, Coltrane & Miles

A renowned singer-songwriter tells tales from his surprisingly deep—and still-thriving—jazz life

David Crosby recording with Snarky Puppy in New Orleans, for the band's 2016 release Family Dinner - Volume 2 (photo by Stella K)

No one would ever call David Crosby a jazz singer. Yet the singer-songwriter’s music—his guitar tunings, chording and vocal phrasing, his insatiable desire to step out of bounds—has been informed by jazz since he first appeared on the scene in the mid-’60s as an original member of the Byrds. While neither that group nor Crosby, Stills & Nash ever steered toward jazz in an overt manner, Crosby’s lifelong love for the music has, at times, poked through and made itself known. In 1970, no less than Miles Davis picked up on and covered “Guinnevere,” a ballad Crosby had written the previous year for the debut CSN album (more on that in a minute).

That song found its way into a new jazz-based arrangement in 2013, when Crosby, Stills & Nash collaborated with Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra for a pair of New York concerts. With Stephen Stills sitting it out, Crosby, playing acoustic guitar, and Nash harmonized while Marsalis blew muted trumpet.

What few CSN fans could have guessed that night was that the trio’s long run was winding down. CSN’s breakup arrived unceremoniously in 2016 amidst their latest spat—some 47 years after they formed—but by then Crosby’s head was already elsewhere. In 2014 he’d released Croz, his first solo album in 20 years—with Marsalis among the guests. The album, like many of Crosby’s extracurricular projects of the past two decades, also features multi-instrumentalist/vocalist James Raymond, the talented son Crosby didn’t know he had until Raymond had already reached his 30s.

Since then Crosby has become highly prolific. After hearing and becoming infatuated with the 21st-century-fusion band Snarky Puppy, he called upon that group’s leader and bassist, Michael League, to work together. Crosby contributed first to one of the band’s projects in 2016 and then recruited League to produce his next solo release, that year’s largely acoustic Lighthouse, which also features vocalists Becca Stevens and Michelle Willis.

Most recently, in late September, Crosby released Sky Trails (BMG), literally doubling his solo discography. This time the jazz accents—provided by Crosby and a core band of Raymond on keyboards (he also produced), saxophonist Steve Tavaglione, bassist Mai Agan and drummer Steve DiStanislao—are more pronounced. In addition to his own new material, the album includes a cover of Joni Mitchell’s “Amelia,” from Hejira, her 1976 album including the likes of Jaco Pastorius and Larry Carlton.

On the eve of the album’s release, Crosby, 76, spoke to JazzTimes about the place jazz has held in his colorful musical life.

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JAZZTIMES: WHAT WAS THE FIRST JAZZ YOU HEARD?
DAVID CROSBY: My brother Ethan was a musician—a bass player and a drummer—and he turned me on to late-’50s jazz: Dave Brubeck, Chet Baker, Gerry Mulligan, Bill Evans. All roads lead to Trane and Miles, but there was an era when jazz was pretty popular.

WERE YOU GOING TO SHOWS OR WAS THIS ALL ON RECORDS?
All records. I didn’t see anything live until Bill Evans. I saw him at the Trident, in Sausalito. It’s a restaurant and there was a jazz room upstairs.

YOU’VE TALKED BEFORE ABOUT THE IMPACT OF SEEING COLTRANE LIVE FOR THE FIRST TIME.
Huge impact! I was living in Chicago with a British guitar player named Clem Floyd. He was going with a little German hooker named the Duchess. She was about 4 feet tall and she told us that John Coltrane was playing at a place called McKie’s on the South Side, way down at 63rd and Cottage Grove. We went, which was a pretty daring thing to do because there were no white people there at all. This was when John had two bass players, Reggie Workman and Jimmy Garrison, at the same time, which was pretty amazing; I think he had heard a Fender bass and he liked that much bigger, stronger bass, a more muscular sound. This was around ’63, I think. [Ed. note: Coltrane scholars indicate he used a two-bass quintet format only in 1961.]

So, two bass players, plus McCoy Tyner and Elvin Jones. They would start out ensemble, play a tune together and one tune was pretty much a whole set. Then Trane would start soloing. This was an event for us and we were thrilled to be there, so we were as high as we could handle—maybe a little too high. Coltrane solos beautifully. Then he walks off the stage, still playing, and it’s McCoy Tyner’s turn. He had some things to say, so he spoke out for a while. Then the two bass players had a conversation, which was stellar. Then it was Elvin Jones’ turn. Now, Elvin Jones was a very intense drummer—very intense. He starts playing and he starts to blow my mind. He pushed me up from the table to the back wall of the room. I couldn’t take it and I went into the men’s room, and I’m alone in there and I’ve got my head pressed against this puke-green tile. I’m thinking, “It’s OK, you’re gonna come down. Calm down.” Then bam!, the door opens and it’s Trane. He’s been playing the whole time and he’s now at full storm. He stomps into the room, going [makes wild, squealing saxophone noises]. And my brain ran out my nose. He played in [the restroom] for a couple of minutes because the sound was good—it was echoey—and he was … as good as you think he was.

WHEN YOU STARTED OUT WITH THE BYRDS, THERE WASN’T REALLY ANY SIGN OF JAZZ INFLUENCING THE MUSIC. BUT THEN IN 1966 COMES “EIGHT MILES HIGH.” YOU’VE SAID TRANE INFLUENCED THAT TUNE.
A band is a chemistry, and everybody affects the chemistry. Roger [McGuinn, guitarist and lead vocalist] affected the chemistry of the Byrds more than the rest of us did. The Byrds went pretty much where Roger was, at first. All I contributed was some interesting harmonies; I didn’t really affect the direction of the group very much. But I did play Coltrane to Roger and the guys in the motorhome we traveled in. We had a reel-to-reel player in the back, playing through a Fender Bassman amp. I kept playing Africa/Brass. Roger is a very talented guy, and he’s very good at being affected by another kind of music and taking it into his stream. He would never have thought of the solo he played on “Eight Miles High” if he hadn’t listened to Coltrane.

DID YOUR VOCAL PHRASING COME FROM LISTENING TO JAZZ?
Yeah, I think so. I’d been listening to really good horn players and I’m sure they affected me in terms of phrasing and melody choice. How could they not?

LET’S TALK ABOUT MILES’ COVER OF “GUINNEVERE,” WHICH YOU WROTE FOR CROSBY, STILLS & NASH. YOU WERE NOT IMPRESSED.
“Guinnevere” is an unusual tune. By that time I had hit my stride. It’s in a strange tuning; it’s a strange chord structure. The time signature goes from 4/4 to 6/8 to 7/4. It’s starting to get more sophisticated. Miles knew about us. He knew that the Byrds were signed to Columbia, because when they listened to our demo, they went to Miles, who was on Columbia, and said, “Is this any good?” He said, “Sign them.” So he knew about the Byrds and he knew about me. I’m in New York and it’s winter and I’m standing in front of the Village Gate, and he walks up to me. He says, “You Crosby?” I said yes, and he said, “I’m Miles.” I said, “I know.” He said, “I cut one of your tunes,” and I said, “Gulp. Which tune?” He said, “‘Guinnevere.’ You want to hear it?” I said yeah, and he said, “Follow that car.”

There was a girl with legs up to the top of her head climbing into a Ferrari. I followed it to a brownstone in Midtown that looked like an old castle. Inside it was more like the Playboy Mansion. He sat us down and played this tune while he and the girl took off to the bedroom. I listened to it and he comes back and says, “What do you think?” I said, “It doesn’t sound like ‘Guinnevere.’ There’s no recognizable part of ‘Guinnevere’ in there at all.” I was really disappointed. I was hoping he would do something far more normal. It’s a nice piece, but I told him he should change the name and get the publishing, which pissed him off. He threw me out. It was stupid on my part; it was an honor that he did it. One of the greatest musicians of our time chose to do my song and, in hindsight, it’s one of the greatest things that ever happened to me.

ANOTHER ONE OF YOUR BEST-KNOWN SONGS, “DÉJÀ VU,” INCORPORATES SOME JAZZ-RELATED TIME SIGNATURES.
That really odd 6/8 beginning, with a kind of a 4 feel to it, that probably came directly out of jazz. The chord structures came out of the tuning, which came out of jazz. So I think it’s legit.

The influences were going in both directions back then. Miles was listening to singer-songwriter music and pulling it into the jazz idiom. You hear us listening to John Coltrane, and we pull his horn style into a rock-and-roll song. It happened a lot. That’s how new music happens. You take two extremes and you synthesize a new one out of those.

That happened repeatedly. In Indian music: Ravi Shankar working with classical musicians, like the fantastic violinist Yehudi Menuhin. One of the strongest things in music is that interplay between different things. When the jazz musician sits down and listens to a bluegrass mandolin player, something he’s never heard before, it opens a whole other place for him. The bluegrass player does the same: Tell me that Chris Thile hasn’t listened to a lot of jazz! He plays jazz, he plays Bach—he’s so multi-spectrum, he’s a perfect example. He’s obviously been influenced by everybody—classical music, jazz, folk music, rock, all of it. He’s a walking mixture and that’s why he’s so good—along with the fact that he’s a hugely talented guy. That openness to different kinds of music is one of the reasons he’s as strong as he is. I think that’s true of a lot of people.

YOU’VE MENTIONED THAT STEELY DAN IS A BAND THAT MIXES JAZZ ELEMENTS WITH ROCK VERY WELL. ARE THERE OTHERS?
Hardly any. There are individual musicians, like Bruce Hornsby, who are so skilled they can play at that level that approaches jazz. Not many though. Some of the guitar players can play at that level, but nobody did it as well as Steely Dan. Donald Fagen and Walter Becker took it further than anybody else even started to, and they did it beautifully. They were such good songwriters. The songs were so good! And the jazz flavor was very genuine, very well executed. Walter Becker, who was a very good guitar player, would hire better guitar players to be on their records.

EVEN IN THE ’60S AND ’70S, YOU WERE ALWAYS LOOKING FOR NEW AVENUES TO GO DOWN.
They kept trying to label us. When we did “Eight Miles High,” they said “jazz-rock.” If we took something from Ravi Shankar, they called it “raga-rock.” Before that it was “folk-rock.” Then it was “country-rock.” They keep trying to label it so they don’t have to think about it. They wanted to stuff us in some kind of box. Labeling is bullshit. “Now that I’ve got it labeled I don’t have to think about it.” It’s just lazy.

MIchael League (left) of Snarky Puppy with David Crosby (photo by Stella K)
MIchael League (left) of Snarky Puppy with David Crosby (photo by Stella K)

MOVING INTO THE PRESENT, HOW HAVE YOUR SON JAMES RAYMOND AND SNARKY PUPPY INFLUENCED YOUR CURRENT MUSIC?
James has been a big influence, and he’s very much a jazz guy. He has a jazz band that he plays with and is a jazz-level player. Snarky Puppy is a big jazz band with a horn section, and they are really excellent. How I got to them is there’s a bass player site on the web called No Treble. A friend of mine, who’s a bass player, heard about [Snarky Puppy] on there, so I went on YouTube and I listened to their album We Like It Here. They cut it all live, on camera, in the studio, with the audience mixed all through the band, everybody in earphones, and it’s stellar. It’s unbelievably good music. The tunes are wonderful. There’s a tune on there called “Shofukan” that’s one of my favorite jazz pieces ever.

WHO SUGGESTED WORKING TOGETHER?
I fell in love with [League’s work] and started tweeting about him, saying, “Listen to this song. Check out this solo.” They heard about it and Michael wound up messaging me and saying, “Hey, can I talk to you?” I said sure and he called me from Singapore to thank me, and he said, “I’ve got this idea…” And I said, “Yes.” He said, “Yes, what? I haven’t asked you yet.” I said, “You’re gonna ask me if I will do your next benefit record.” They do them every couple of years for music education; it’s called Family Dinner. He started laughing, and I went down to New Orleans with my wife and we had so much fun with those people, and made really good music. Then I got involved in writing with Michael. We wrote the songs on Lighthouse and we recorded that with Becca Stevens and Michelle Willis [sharing vocals], and that’s one of my two bands.

FOR THAT ALBUM, MICHAEL HAS SAID THAT HE WANTED TO GET BACK TO THE FEEL OF YOUR FIRST SOLO ALBUM, IF I COULD ONLY REMEMBER MY NAME.
When I hired Michael as producer for the record, I envisioned myself hiring a master craftsman with a gigantic toolbox—his band. I said, “That’s what I was thinking we’d do.” And he said, “Well, we could, but truthfully, I really loved your first solo record and I would like more to go toward acoustic, if that’s OK with you.” I said, “That’s right in my wheelhouse. I’d love to do that.” I think these last three albums are some of the best things I’ve done. I don’t want to say it’s just because I got out of Crosby, Stills & Nash that all of this suddenly happened, but I kind of think it was.

WHEN CSN DID THE 2013 GIGS WITH WYNTON AT JAZZ AT LINCOLN CENTER, HOW DID YOU COLLABORATE ON ARRANGEMENTS?
It was awkward. Stills is not an easy person to work with, and of course it’s not Nash’s bailiwick at all. But Wynton and those guys are fantastic musicians and they are way off the deep end in the world of jazz. It was a fascinating thing to see what they would do with our stuff. They made it their own and did a beautiful job with it. I hoped that somebody would put it out as a record, but nobody is putting out records eagerly these days.

Graham Nash, Wynton Marsalis and David Crosby perform in a benefit concert at Jazz at Lincoln Center in 2013 (photo by Julie Skarratt/Jazz at Lincoln Center)
Graham Nash, Wynton Marsalis and David Crosby perform in a benefit concert at Jazz at Lincoln Center in 2013 (photo by Julie Skarratt/Jazz at Lincoln Center)

YOU ARE!
I’m only doing it because I can’t help it, man! But nobody’s buying them. Streaming has killed it. People don’t have the money to make new records. Something’s gotta change.

YOUR NEWEST ALBUM, SKY TRAILS, HAS QUITE A FEW JAZZ TOUCHES.  IS THIS JUST SOMETHING THAT’S INGRAINED IN YOU THAT YOU ARE NOW FREER TO BRING OUT?
It’s ingrained in me and it’s ingrained in my son James. James is a jazz-level player and he is very influential in any band that I’m in with him. He has a big voice and that’s how I like it; I try to encourage it. The other people in the band all listen to jazz, and the bass player [Mai Agan] is a jazz player and she has a jazz band. She’s from Estonia but she has a band in Sweden that plays all over Scandinavia. Our drummer [Steve DiStanislao] plays in jazz bands as well as rock and is in David Gilmour’s band. Michelle Willis is more into R&B but into jazz too. [Guitarist] Jeff Pevar is fully capable of playing jazz and has a group called Jazz Is Dead that plays Grateful Dead songs in a jazz style. It’s a fascinating band that can stretch in any direction, further than I’m capable of going. They’re all better players than I am.

HOW DOES IT AFFECT YOUR WRITING WHEN YOU’RE WORKING WITH
PLAYERS OF THAT CALIBER?
It gives me an open door. It means that I can try anything. We can play anything we can think up, so it definitely encourages you to think up some more interesting shit.

WHAT KIND OF JAZZ DO YOU LIKE TO LISTEN TO FOR PLEASURE?
Snarky Puppy, and I listen to Weather Report a lot. One of my favorite tunes is Weather Report’s “A Remark You Made.” Their stuff is so melodic and beautiful. I’m trying to listen to more current-day music because of Michael. He’s always turning me on to someone who’s new and wonderful.

WHAT’S NEXT FOR YOU?
I’m an old guy now, so yes, I’m planning another record, but I don’t know if I’m gonna live long enough to get it made. I’ve asked Michael League, Becca Stevens and Michelle Willis to make another record with me, but this time have it not be a David Crosby record that they’re on but have it be a record of the four of us. It’s a stellar chemistry. They’re incredibly talented people.