Stanley Mouse’s beautiful logo design for the Rex Foundation,
which takes its name from late Grateful Dead road crew chief Rex Jackson.
By Blair Jackson
When Jerry Garcia died in 1995, many in the Grateful Dead community wondered if the Rex Foundation — the band and “family’s” primary philanthropic outlet since 1984—could survive. After all, specially designated Rex fundraising concerts by the Dead provided the funds for Rex’s grants for over a decade, and with that source gone, the revenue stream was gone—at least temporarily.
There were a few uncertain and somewhat fallow years, but then, early in the 2000s, Rex regrouped and recommitted to its mission of providing grants to worthy nonprofit groups. With Bob Weir and Mickey Hart still active on the Rex board of directors—along with an ever-changing coterie of dedicated GD family and friends—Rex essentially started anew. With Executive Director Sandy Sohcot at the helm, new strategies were developed to reconnect with the community, as well as to raise funds for Rex, involving everything from online donations to club and concert appearances by bands aware of Rex’s legacy and sympathetic to their goals.
There are still high-profile fundraisers each year, such as the upcoming Dec. 1 reception and concert at the Fillmore in San Francisco dubbed “A Buck Dancer’s Choice: A Benefit for the Rex Foundation in Honor of Jon McIntire” [the late GD manager], featuring Bob Weir, the Mickey Hart Band and unnamed “special guests.” These annual early December Rex shows have become a great excuse for the far-flung Rex board members and GD family to get together and party, while enjoying what is always a special and unpredictable evening of music. This year is certain to be no exception.
But the increasingly diverse ways of raising funds for Rex now also include a slew of other smaller but no less cool Rex Musical Caravan events, such as the Nov. 25 “Cubensis and Rex Karaoke” post-Thanksgiving celebration at The Mint in L.A. on November 25, at which folks who donate to Rex will be able to sing a Dead song of their choosing with the beloved L.A. GD tribute band. While some of us are at the Fillmore Dec. 1, others on the East Coast might be attending what is now a virtual fundraiser at Hot Tuna’s show at the Beacon Theater in NYC that night to support various local programs, including those helping in the recovery from the recent Superstorm. Also coming up: Another Rex Musical Caravan event featuring the New Riders of the Purple Sage at their New Year’s Eve show in Kempton, PA. David Nelson is a longtime Rex supporter.
Throughout the year now, all over the country, musicians have been helping out Rex in large and small ways. And it’s not just musicians, either. The San Francisco Giants’ now-annual “Jerry Garcia Day” has provided funds to Rex, and even the Sacramento Kings NBA basketball team hosted a rowdy Grateful Dead section at a home game last spring, with proceeds from the special tickets going to Rex. Since Rex started 28 years ago, the foundation has given out a whopping $8.7 million in grants spread to more than a thousand nonprofits. Impressive!
Recently, I chatted with Sandy Sohcot about Rex’s evolution in the post-Garcia world. I’ve known Sandy since the late ’70s, when her late first husband, Art Sohcot, was the very hip lawyer for BAM magazine, where I worked. Though we were out of touch for many years, we reconnected when she hopped on the Rex train in 2001. You would be hard-pressed to find a kinder, smarter and more selflessly dedicated advocate for Rex.
How was it that you first became involved with the Rex Foundation, and what were your goals?
When I first started, which was 2001, what I was charged with—because Mickey and Bob were on the board and wanted to see Rex continue—was to try to figure out a way that Rex could have a life of its own that included everyone from the Grateful Dead community, as well as extend beyond to connect with the expanding and changing music community.
After Jerry died, the band stopped touring. [Former GD manager] Danny Rifkin ran [Rex]. It was being run out of the Grateful Dead office and it was primarily supported by Grateful Dead Rex benefit concerts. When I started, there was no database of anybody, because everything happened through what the Grateful Dead were doing when they had a Rex benefit concert. The money came in and then it almost immediately went out as grants. Once the concert touring stopped—Danny tried to do a couple of events, I gather, but they didn’t really take hold for some reason. They started the Jerry Garcia Award and they gave out those and a few other grants each of those successive years until 2001. And it was in the early part of 2001 that the board members decided to look seriously into what Rex could do next. Meanwhile, Danny had started Project Avary [an organization devoted to aiding children with incarcerated parents]. That’s when I got a call. They wanted to have an executive director and Danny was already on his way with Project Avary and didn’t want to take on Rex, too.
What had you been doing right before that?
I’d been doing business management consulting and doing quite a bit of strategic planning work with nonprofits, so I had been in that world. Plus, I was active in the small business community. I was president of the Small Business Network in San Francisco. I’d been very active in a women’s group with Patti Chang—the Women’s Leadership Alliance. So, along with my long-standing affection for the music, getting involved with Rex seemed right
We had a planning meeting in April of 2001 that I facilitated—I was not on board yet, but was being considered. Jon [McIntire] was there and was helping develop our first plan on how to proceed, with the idea of having benefits as our key fundraisers.
My goal has been to do things where we could be connecting with people, both in terms of people from the Grateful Dead world, and also trying to raise awareness and get people interested in the issues related to the grants we make. That’s when I started doing newsletters and reaching out to other musicians who might want to participate. There were a lot of musicians—Dark Star Orchestra, David Nelson, all these others—that feel connected and were related to what the Grateful Dead did, who said, “We want to help Rex.” And that’s what started happening.
We have a culture that does not really like to ask for money. But one of my board members said, “I don’t like asking for money, but I don’t mind asking for five bucks.” So that’s when we started the Rex Community Caravan, which was meant to be our virtual community, and people started sending in donations of $5 and more. Then, as musicians wanted to do things, we formalized their efforts it into what has become the Rex Musical Caravan, where bands can put on an event and have a certain amount per ticket, or some fundraising aspect we all agree to, to help Rex. Then we publicize what’s going on and they get some extra visibility and we get a little money. It creates a special, positive community connection. These bands that really care about doing something for the community get a chance to show what they’re doing in different parts of the country. It’s been great to have the Caravan gain increasing momentum.
We can put out an email that says, “We’ve got this event with Bob Weir and Mickey Hart coming” and “We also have this band Dogpatch Junction at the Connecticut Yankee [club in SF]. They’re both great events and show a real generosity of spirit.
How do you determine which of those smaller shows might be successful and worth your efforts putting them on?
We don’t put the Caravan events on. What we’re providing is some visibility and acknowledgement for a band wanting to do something to support the community. The bands and clubs are putting on the events. We receive the proceeds designated by the band, which can range from under $100 to a lot more. Every one of these events are wonderful!
There are 23 members on the Rex Board of Directors currently, and more on the Advisory Board. Has the makeup of that group changed geographically as you’ve expanded Rex’s reach, and how does it change? Is there a fixed-length term that is served?
There’s a term, sort of, but we don’t have term limits. The idea is that every year a third of the board would rotate, so we would have room to bring on new people. But if people are really active and want to stay on, we’re happy to have them. [Laughs] And we have made an attempt to reach out to people in other parts of the country that provide different perspectives, perhaps different strengths in running organizations, or who might have new thoughts in how to bring Rex forward. I think the common dominator is that everybody loves the music and everyone is passionate about wanting to see Rex thrive.
Sandy Sohcot and Mickey Hart accept
a check for Rex from the SF Giants
at Jerry Garcia Day in 2010.
Photo: Carolyn Garcia
These end-of -year concerts in San Francisco have been so great…
That’s what we’ve hoped. Putting on events is an increasingly challenging thing to do, in terms of it being a major source of fundraising. For Rex, like any non-profit, it has been important to have other fundraising initiatives. However, these events are important as positive ways bring people together and to offer unique musical experiences. You can really feel the spirit in the room at those shows. We all need something to feel positive about, and to see that we can all take part in helping do something that benefits the greater community.
It’s nice that you’ve attached Jon McIntire’s name to the December 1 event. He was such a wonderful guy and so into what Rex is all about.
That’s right. When Jon was living in New York, he was part of my host committee when we did an event with Dark Star Orchestra at the Nokia and it was so much fun. We did a walk-though of the theater together…
He was always so enthusiastic…
Yes, and also so precise. [Laughs] “You really need to think about this,” and he’d be absolutely right!
When you mentioned “other initiatives,” what do you mean? Corporate donations?
Among other things, yes. In terms of fundraising, it certainly involves thinking about how to consider perhaps approaching what some organizations think of as major donors. This is something we’re still striving for. More grassroots and more major donors.
One thing we did start that has been a major initiative is The World As It Could Be, which is a human rights education project. It actually started from a 2006 newsletter I did called Perspectives on Being Human, about what is meant by the Human Rights Framework—and then wanting to bring the concept to life more dramatically. Alan Trist [administrator of the Dead’s Ice Nine publishing company] who’s been the editor on all of our newsletters, had put the Universal Declaration of Human Rights [UDHR] into the newsletter. So I went to the folks at the SF Mime Troupe’s Youth Theater Project—I thought maybe youth could do something around the UDHR, and that we could put on a creative presentation at the Golden Gate Club in the Presidio [in SF], showcase the great work of our grantees, and also give youth the opportunity to be the teachers. What wound up happening is I raised my first funds to commission an original production that was collaboratively put on by the Destiny Art Center [of Oakland] youth performance troupe, the Youth Speaks poets and the Mime Troupe Youth Theater Project. Then, with Creative Director Ellen Sebastian Chang, we created the original production: The World As It Could Be: A Declaration of Human Rights. The production was presented on Dec. 7, 2006 at the Golden Gate Club, and on Dec. 8th at a full school assembly at Balboa High School [in SF; Jerry went there for a couple of years in the late ’50s], where the 1,200 kids were totally engrossed.
We learned that very few people in the U.S. knew about [the UDHR] and that youth, when they found out about it, got really excited to have something like this to engage around. The key ingredient was using the creative arts as the vehicle. The Universal Declaration is a wonderful document, kids really get engaged around it, and it’s supposed to be taught.
Because support for the arts is dwindling in the public schools, and feeling it’s important for organizations like ours to get involved if we can, we engaged in developing a pilot curriculum at Balboa and then at another Bay Area school, to use the creative arts to teach the Universal Declaration, and then have a culminating presentation. Balboa has now put on three of its culminating presentations on the UDHR to full-school assemblies, as have other participating schools.
We published our curriculum in 2010, and we’re collaborating the USF School of Education, among others, to provide teacher training. The kids and adults really seem to love being involved, and many positive impacts have resulted. I never really expected to have so much result from that first production, yet feel honored to continue building on our successes.
How does The World As It Could Be connect with everything else going on at Rex?
All of our events and fundraising initiatives happening since we began our renewal in 2001 have made it possible for Rex to continue making grants to grassroots programs doing essential work across many areas of need, including supporting a healthy environment, promoting individuality in the arts, providing needed social services and fostering education and strong communities. With The World As It Could Be program, which gets funding from individual contributions, companies and foundations, we are also supporting the arts, education and strong communities, while also contributing an educational tool that demonstrates the importance of the arts as a vehicle for transformational learning, and raises awareness about furthering human rights for all people.
I think using the arts as a way to engage kids around learning, especially about the importance of human rights for all people, has got some of that Jerry Garcia spirit in it.
Jerry would approve.
I think he would!