I’m Just Playin’ in the
Band: Stoicism, Taoism,
Do not seek to have events happen as you want them to hap-
pen, but instead want them to happen as they do happen,
and your life will go well.
—Epictetus, Encheiridion 8
One of the features that makes the Grateful Dead truly outstanding is their ability to improvise. Indeed, their improvisations run deep—they don’t just take turns playing solos—the songs are a flexible and amorphous set of guidelines that are themselves altered and shaped in different ways at different times. This is true for different songs on different nights, and it is especially true when we look at how the songs themselves evolved over the years. Although many songs capture the Dead’s approach well, I’m going to talk about “Playin’ in the Band.”
Typically, the song begins with the verses and the chorus, but then extends into a long, improvised jam. The point where they turn into the jam is incredible: they gently gear down with the short melody before hitting the point where the jam begins, and then all of a sudden, it’s as if the music lets go. Where before the band was holding tightly to the pattern prescribed by the song, they now allow themselves to drift.
But they don’t drift aimlessly—they follow the logic of the jam, each listening to the other, allowing the jam to develop where it will before bringing it slowly back into the melody that