Friday, October 2, 2009

Merl Saunders Trio, Far Eastern Tour Summer 1968

Organist Merl Saunders (1934-2008) is best known as Jerry Garcia's jamming partner, initially in a San Francisco club called The Matrix, spreading outwards to the Bay Area in the early 1970s, and then touring Nationally with The Legion Of Mary in 1974-1975. Garcia and Saunders collaborations have been well documented by Grateful Dead archive recordings, and while Saunders was not in Garcia's class as a soloist, he brought a musical breadth to Garcia that the Dead lacked. Saunders had played in jazz clubs, worked Off-Broadway in New York (as musical director for an Oscar Brown show) and done sessions at Fantasy Records.

This brief listing in Russ Wilson's Jazz column in the Oakland Tribune of July 28, 1968, gives an insight into Saunders true breadth, and serves as a reminder to one of the forgotten markets of sixties music. The notice says
Organist Merl Saunders' trio is on a Far Eastern tour that has included Bangkok, Manila and Tokyo, where the group now is playing club and TV engagements.
While I would love to know more about this tour, its a reminder that up to 500,000 American soldiers were in Vietnam, which meant that at any given time a lot of soldiers were in Manila, Bangkok and Tokyo. The perennial presence of American soldiers had in turn given Asian nations a taste of American music,  too, so there were many opportunities to tour Asia. Many groups toured Vietnam, too, under some quite weird conditions (rock bands weren't allowed to play The Animals song "We've Gotta Get Out Of This Place").

Merl Saunders was interviewed many times, but of course almost all those interviews were Jerry, Jerry, Jerry, so I don't recall ever hearing about a Far Eastern tour. Whether Merl's trio played venues that attracted servicemen or locals, it had to be an odd experience to play American music in Asia at the height of the Cold War. I assume Merl's trio was a standard organ combo, with Merl on organ, a drummer and either a guitarist or sax player, but I don't even know that much. It certainly puts playing the Keystone Berkeley with a bunch of hippies in a different light.

1 comment:

  1. I have learned that Merl Saunders' trio featured guitarist Jimmy Daniels and drummer Eddie Moore. Daniels was originally from Connecticut, and Moore was from the Bay Area. Moore was also Saunders first cousin.