Jeff Chimenti was not born into a musical family - he had to wait until he was four, when he began imitating the church organist, to begin his musical career. But he's been making up for lost time ever since.
By the age of seven he began taking formal lessons from Angela Biggio, a student of both Rudolph Serkin and Leonard Bernstein who also worked with the Merola Program at the S.F. Opera, and continued with her for a decade.
Upon entering high school, the sounds of pop and jazz widened his musical world, and he joined the South San Francisco H.S. jazz band. He was so immediately good that by the age of 13 his teacher was taking him out to play casual gigs - parties, weddings, dances. By the 10th grade, he was playing with the very distinguished College of San Mateo (C.S.M.) jazz band (the Grateful Dead's Phil Lesh was an alumnus) and the Skyline College Big Band, as well as with community symphonic orchestras.
After graduating high school in 1986, he attended C.S.M. for a year and began hanging out on the San Francisco jazz scene, jamming at the Jazz Workshop with legendary figures like Pony Poindexter. An opportunity to play in Amsterdam ended his formal schooling, and by the early '90s he was a working musician, playing pop or jazz as required. He was part of En Vogue's first tour (backing M.C. Hammer), and then returned to the jazz clubs, playing with figures legendary and soon-to-be-famous; John Handy, Denise Perrier, Madeline Eastman, Kurt Elling, Charnett Moffett, Richie Cole, Ernie Watts, James Moody, Art Farmer and more. As he later put it, he was an "on call guy" for a while, and then a "first call guy" for when out-of-towners needed first-rate keyboardists.
He played at the Monterey Jazz Festival for seven years, both with his own trio and in various other groups. He recorded with Steve Smith and Larry Coryell, then with Pete Escovedo, and with Les Claypool's Flying Frog Brigade.
Although he had never listened to Grateful Dead music, his relationship with saxophonist Dave Ellis introduced him to Bob Weir, and in 1997 he replaced the legendary Johnnie Johnson (of Chuck Berry fame) in Bob's band "RatDog." He later was the keyboard player for the Dead's re-constituted band "The Other Ones."
In that role, he has become the unquestioned dean of jam band pianists, a gifted player whose reputation is on a steady ascent.
Jeff Chimenti photo by Susana Millman