June 1, 2016
By Ken Waxman
Chicago drummer Mike Reed, 42, is a realist – and a visionary. More than a dozen years ago he experienced his own epiphany about the (jazz) music business and his place in it while working part time as a bartender. “I was thinking about my future and how I didn’t want to still be a bartender when I was 39 … or 49,” he recalls. Reed who at that point had been involved with different bands in Chicago’s music ferment since his mid-‘90s return to the city after completing a degree in English and Psychology at the University of Dayton Ohio, was with cornetist Josh Berman, already co-curating a series of Sunday sessions at the Hungry Brain club. Earlier, while working for a marketing agency he had helped organize city concerts encouraging people to vote in the presidential election. Promotion seemed to be the appropriate career choice and within a year, he had partnered with Pitchfork, a Chicago-based online music magazine, to create the annual summer Pitchfork Music Festival which is still going strong.
Related to his booking expertise, but more generic to the jazz community was another series of incidents that happened about five years ago. Reed, who was looking for investment property (“maybe a three-flat where I could live and rent out the other units”), found out that the owners of the Viaduct Theater in Chicago’s northwest wanted to sell. Almost simultaneously an e-mail arrived from Links Hall, the venerable (1978) arts organization that offers space to performing artists for the research, development and presentation of new works. Rising rents meant Links needed a new location and it was willing to sign a multi-year lease to obtain it. With Links as a committed tenant, Reed could afford to purchase and renovate the theater. Since the space had already been zoned to include a bar, and Links’ need was during the day, why not create a club there as well, he reasoned. Before getting fully involved he wrote three long memos listing the ideas pros and cons and showed them to friends involved in business. Most thought it a viable proposition. He received a small business grant to help with the conversion and within three years the Constellation has become one of the prime venues for progressive music in the city and pays for itself. “Business is actually organizing a system and working out logical plans and processing,” explains Reed.
Besides his Pitchfork and Constellation commitments, Reed is also part of the programming committee of Chicago’s annual jazz festival and was from 2009-2011 vice-chairperson of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (ACCM). Last year Reed and a partner bought the Hungry Brain, which has a similar booking policy as the Constellation. As for his living arrangement, Reed owns a condominium. Citing his commitment to local music, Reed was recently named one of the city’s most influential people by Chicago Magazine.
This business acumen shouldn’t detract from the fact that Reed is very much an active recording and touring musicians, part of many bands, the newest of which, Flesh & Bone, featuring long-time associates alto saxophonist Greg Ward, tenor saxophonist Tim Haldeman, bass clarinetist Jason Stein as well as new recruits cornetist Ben Lamar Gay and spoken word artists Kevin Coval and Marvin Tate, will perform at this year’s Vision Festival on June 12. Even though Reed asserts that New York shouldn’t be regarded as the paramount locus of jazz in the world, he admits “how often do you get to perform outside your city with a seven piece band?”
Reed has long been drawn to lyrics, so an association with spoken-word artists isn’t a stretch. Growing up in Evanston, a Chicago suburb, he was first interested in blues and classic soul music and later rock and rap. Although his older brother played guitar, early on he decided he wanted to be a drummer and purchased his own kit with money he received when he graduated from primary school. His first real exposure to jazz was buying a Coleman Hawkins and Ben Webster disc, racked next to the blues section of a record store, reasoning that he didn’t have any saxophone blues. “I didn’t like it at first,” he admits. “But after hearing it over and over again on my Walkman all summer I started to appreciate it.”
Admitting that his parents weren’t very supportive of having a jazz drummer in the house, playing music was more-or-less put on hold until he entered the University of Dayton. Deciding that he wanted to play again he began spending his time with friends in the school’s jazz program. At that point the department was so small, recalls Reed that he was allowed to participate as much as he wanted. At the same time on school breaks, he was able to regularly attend shows by local Chicago legends who played variety of styles ranging from swing drummer Barnett Deems to bop saxophonist Von Freeman. His desire was to be Philly Joe Jones and move to New York, he reveals, but a fellow university musician convinced him that relocating in the Windy City would be a better choice. Reed soon started playing as much as he could, attending sessions led by Freeman at the Apartment Lounge or by tenor saxophonist Fred Anderson at the Velvet Lounge. “That was a pivotal moment in Chicago,” he remembers. There was the emergence of underground groups such as Tortoise, the various configurations of Ken Vandermark and the Chicago Underground and the re-emergence of Fred Anderson. It opened the door to a completely creative scene that if you felt you had enough talent you could pull it off.”
Around the same time Reed developed as a composer. “It didn’t seem to be odd to write your own tunes,” he notes. He had began composing in university after he realized that rather than transcribing and arranging tunes he liked, he could create his own in a similar style. That skill was put to good use as he formed his own bands such as People, Places &Things and Loose Assembly, most of which feature the same musicians involved in Flesh & Blood. “Around 1999 I got involved with thinking ‘what is jazz’, began appreciating different sounds and concentrating on original music,” he says.
Similarly Reed, who had been working and recording with musicians associated with the AACM such as saxophonists Roscoe Mitchell and Ed Wilkerson cellist Tomeka Reid and flutist Nicole Mitchell, was asked to join the association in 2004. Besides putting his organizational skills to work, he explains that his musical work with all AACM members on an equal footing, with them playing his compositions as well as him playing theirs.
Reed who devoted Proliferation, a CD with People, Places & Things to Chicago hard bop classics plus CDs with Loose Assembly, The Speed of Change and Artifacts a trio with flutist Nicole Mitchell and Reid to versions of AACM classics, feels there’s a lot more jazz created and played in Chicago that can be exposed nationally and internationally. Overall, his work recording, at his clubs, at concerts and with the local jazz festival is designed to help promote the city’s creative music scene any way he can.
• Mike Reed: In The Context Of 482 Music 2006
• Mike Reed: Loose Assembly: Last Year's Ghost 482 Music 2007
• Roscoe Mitchell/Mike Reed: In Pursuit of Magic 482 Music 2014
• Nicole Mitchell/Tomeka Reid/Mike Reed Artifacts 482 Music 2015
• Mike Reed: People Places and Things: A New Kind of Dance 482 Music 2015
—For The New York City Jazz Record June 2016