An Interview with Eric Reed
A Conversation with
by Fred Jung
If Mulgrew Miller is one of the walk-ons in jazz, Eric Reed is one of the blue chippers. But whereas Miller’s playing is legendary among his peers, Reed has had more than his share of bumps in his road of life. He spoke candidly with me about his shortcomings as a young musician, his development since then, and his outlook on his future, which seems bright indeed. It is a very telling portrait painted by the artist himself of what it takes to be a musician these days, all unedited and in his own words.
FJ: Let’s start from the beginning.
ER: I first started hearing jazz when I was about six years old. I heard three records by Horace Silver, Dave Brubeck, and Ramsey Lewis. And I was immediately bitten by the jazz bug and I knew that that’s what I wanted to play. I moved to Los Angeles from Philadelphia with my family and I gained access to more jazz recordings through a public library and I hooked up with John Clayton and Gerald Wilson, all when I was about sixteen or seventeen years old, fifteen actually, fifteen or sixteen. I had met Wynton around that time as well. So my name was getting put out there quite a bit and that was it. I was on the jazz scene officially.
FJ: At such a young age, did you feel the pressure to exceed people’s expectations?
ER: Oh, no. At that age, being as impetuous and cocky as I was, I thought that’s exactly where I should be. I figured I was ready to tackle it and if anything, I felt those people should be overwhelmed by me (laughing). Again, that’s what being that young is really about. People allow that room for that type of pretentiousness, for a while anyway and then when you hit twenty-five, it’s no longer really all that cool.
FJ: Reality bites then.
ER: Well, it’s time to really prove yourself. And then you do prove yourself and then you get to the point where you no longer have to prove yourself. It’s just a bunch of stages really.
FJ: What stage are you at now?
ER: The stage I am at right now is a very content and very comfortable stage. I’ve gotten past the point that I feel I have to prove anything. I’m very comfortable in terms of the type of environment in which I find myself playing live. I like where my musical conception is going. It’s constantly growing. It’s becoming more and more open everyday. I’m learning new things everyday. I’ve gotten a lot of young musicians around me that keep me in touch with things that are going on in their age group and in their generation, the things that they’re listening to. I’m pretty cool where I am.
FJ: I’m sure that most people have seen you on TV with Wynton, you guys are both big TV stars now, how did you come to meet Wynton and how have you seen your relationship mature over the years?
ER: I first met Wynton when I was about sixteen. I joined his group when I was nineteen. I was there for about three years. I left his group and I joined Freddie Hubbard and I played with Joe Henderson and those were all wonderful experiences for some reason or another. There was always something very, very different and very wonderful about what I was doing at the time. I was always able to find the most positive thing. From playing with Wynton, I really got a good sense of the importance of traveling frequently with a band. It’s very important. It’s very important to be on the road with musicians in order to really try to execute your musical vision. If there is no venue for which you can do this, then it just makes what you do that much harder. You can’t really do it at home in jam sessions. You have to be up there in the thick of it, traveling a lot.
FJ: Is that a necessary learning experience?
ER: Absolutely. I’ve known quite a few musicians who are traveling with bands and they’ve seen some pretty decent fortunes and have been very, very successful traveling with different bands and traveling in different situations. Most musicians that I know are working.
FJ: How long did you work with Joe?
ER: I worked with Joe for a year.
FJ: Joe is a musician who languished in relative obscurity early on in his musical career, but in his latter years he has had great commercial success.
ER: Well, it’s kind of like a bunch of different pieces in a puzzle. Joe Henderson has had the good fortune of getting older. A lot of jazz musicians have not really had that good fortune, but Joe is one of the few that has been fortunate, or is one of, actually, quite a handful of great jazz musicians who have been able to reach the age of fifty. What happens in this industry is either you are too old or you’re too young. If you get caught in that fatal middle age for about ten or fifteen years, then they don’t want to hear about you. But if you’re under 25 or if you’re over fifty, they’re ready to write about you a lot. But you get forty-five and the press doesn’t really pay a whole lot of attention to you. That’s really kind of sad for the industry because that leaves a whole middle period of musicians who have then had to fend for themselves. While all of these musical changes are taking place, they are at the center of the innovation, but again, it’s being overlooked because the press and just whatever, the powers that be or that shouldn’t be rather, are the ones that are dictating what’s going on.
FJ: And you would think that this music is above such petty forms of age discrimination.
ER: I really, honestly, do think that that’s just the way of the world. As far as the star, if the cats under twenty-five, or under thirty, or forty, or whatever, it’s like out with the old and in with the new. And then you hit fifty and the it’s like, “They maybe have twenty years left, maybe, so we better start paying attention to them before they drop dead.”
FJ: How much of an adverse effect do you think that that will have on the music?
ER: That’s always a negative thing because you cancel out a whole mid-section of the music, of the people who are responsible for making change in the music when they were twenty-five and thirty. So that’s only a negative effect. That can only be negative. That can’t be positive.
FJ: I was at the Vanguard for your performance with your large ensemble and one thing I took away from that set was how much your leadership skills have improved on the bandstand.
ER: Oh, thank you very much, Fred.
FJ: But so have your marketing skills, isn’t that essential for an artist in a commercial society to be able to market themselves effectively?
ER: Absolutely. It’s the only way that you can have a career these days. Obviously it wasn’t like that back in 1945, although, Dizzy Gillespie was certainly one of my predecessors when it comes to that whole thing about personality and being on stage and being lively and having accessibility and having appeal and all that kind of stuff. Louis Armstrong was the same way. You have to be, you’ve got to have aspects of an entertainer as well because you are asking a lot to expect people to just sit and listen to a performance for two hours like a lot of musicians have their audiences do and you don’t say anything or you just announce songs and then there’s really no life. I’m not saying that those people are bad for doing that, but all I’m saying is that it wouldn’t hurt to develop those skills as well as being able to stand up behind the trumpet or behind a saxophone and sit down at the piano and play. You look at somebody like Duke Ellington. He was just personality personified and of course I said Dizzy Gillespie and Louis Armstrong and then there was Fats Waller. It’s all about having a look and having a certain type of sophistication and being somewhat verbose on the microphone and really engaging your audience. Let them feel as though you’re glad that they’re there, which I really am. You see, Fred, the thing is, it also has to be genuine. That’s the most important thing. It has to be genuine. You can’t have people think that you are just up there trying to sell records. It has to be genuine and the thing that I can definitely say about me unabashedly is that I’m a genuine person and when I’m on stage, I’m genuinely glad to be there. I am thanking God for every second that I am on stage being able to perform music live and with such wonderful musicians that I had at the Vanguard. I mean, those guys are monsters, every last one of them. I was very fortunate and blessed to have them on the bandstand with me.
FJ: There is a unmistakable loyalty amongst former members of Wynton’s band, Marcus Printup, Wycliffe Gordon, and yourself, where does that devotion to one another stem from?
ER: That comes directly from my family structure. My family is very, very tight. I have a brother and two sisters. One of my sisters has three daughters and another one of my sisters has one daughter. My three nieces, well, two of my nieces also have children. They have their own families and husbands and everything. Every last one of us is very tight. We’re very close. We talk on the phone every other day. We write and visit each other. That’s where I come from. I know Wycliffe comes from that as well. So I think if anything, I was a stoke of luck for Wynton that he could get musicians like that in his band that were already coming from that type of loyalty, that type of code and that type of environment. That didn’t come from being in his band. Marcus Printup, most of us, Victor Goines, all of us have very, very strong ties to our family. We have a sense of loyalty all our own. To see us around town with other people, it’s never even a question of loyalty more than the musicality of each one of these musicians. That’s the most important thing. Wycliffe could be my best friend in the whole wide world but if he couldn’t play worth a damn, he wouldn’t be on my bandstand. That’s basically it. Carl Allen, Carl Allen is not out of the Wynton Marsalis group at all, but we play together a lot. He calls me for his gigs. I call him for my gigs. We’ll play together with other people. There’s quite a few musicians that I’ve gotten this camaraderie with and we’ll just, you’ll see us around town hanging out with each other. That’s just simply how I was brought up.
FJ: Let’s talk about your last two recordings, “Pure Imagination” and “Manhattan Melodies.”
ER: I’m very proud of both of those records, specifically with “Pure Imagination” because what they did was they helped to solidify my place among the piano trios. With “Pure Imagination,” I was able to gain a certain level of exposure to a wider jazz audience and a wider listening audience in general and that’s very important as you’re trying to build a career. That’s what “Pure Imagination” did and then with “Manhattan Melodies,” I think that pretty much just made it definite. It’s like, “OK, this record is letting us know exactly who Eric Reed is and who he has been, actually, all of this time. We’re just paying more attention.” With this “Manhattan Melodies,” it just gives more insight into my writing and my arranging and my playing skills. That’s really what each record is supposed to do. As far as I’m concerned, each record is supposed to document some type of progress in one’s development, if that makes sense.
FJ: And how is Eric Reed progressing so far?
ER: I think I’m progressing nicely. I think there were some moments where there were lulls and I kind of wasted some time simply for reasons of laziness or again, back to the old youthful impetuousness. The more I work with my own group, the more I will strengthen the sound of my identity.
FJ: Give a recap of your trio.
ER: Barak Mori is my bass player and my drummer is Rodney Green. I’ve worked with Rodney a year and a half and with Barak, over a year, no wait, has it been a whole year? No, it hasn’t been a whole year.
FJ: Do you feel you three are jelling together well?
ER: Oh, absolutely. The difference is they like playing with each other and I like playing with them. This is definitely the best combination that I’ve had, ever.
FJ: Are you going to record them?
ER: Absolutely, they’re going to be on the next record for sure.
FJ: You are one of the best interpreters of the music of Gershwin and Rodgers and Hammerstein, what is it about their melodies that lends itself to your playing and approach?
ER: Well, first of all, thank you for saying that, Fred. I appreciate that. That’s a real honor. I think the thing with Rodgers and Hammerstein and Gershwin and Cole Porter, they come from that whole tin-pan alley school and that style of writing, even though they were all uniquely individual, there is still a spirit of tin-pan alley. That whole style of writing is very attractive and it’s very appealing. It makes my job of arranging easier, but it also teaches me about writing in the process. When you take something like “Love for Sale” (playing the intro to “Love for Sale” on the piano), that’s just one section and that was like, just that little progression that I played by Cole Porter, that’s like, it’s just a stroke of genius. He didn’t voice those chords that way, but they leave themselves open for a great deal of interpretation. As the music progressed and time moved on, so did harmony. From them taking the basic chords of Cole Porter’s music, if you use your imagination, then anything can happen. What I can do is I can make up my own arrangement or even my own song based on a small portion of the progression that I just played. You can listen to somebody like Art Tatum and he would do something like this (playing the intro to “Love for Sale” on the piano, this time with a Tatum twist). Again, the possibilities are endless. They’re really endless. So that gives me a great deal more to go on then even some jazz compositions. Jazz compositions are self-contained. It’s already jazz to begin with, but these pop songs, they’re pop songs. And they were never meant, at least I don’t think, they were really never meant to be interpreted by jazz musicians. From what I understand, I read somewhere that Jerome Kerns hated jazz and he hated jazz interpretations of his music. I’m sure, even Ahmad Jamal told me, he said that, nowhere in the back of these composers minds was it ever possible that jazz musicians would do what they did with it. He said it really went beyond the composer’s wildest dreams.
FJ: How’s your writing chops?
ER: It’s coming along just fine. I’ve always, always worked on that. I’ve become more involved with this whole electronics things, with keyboards, and MIDI, and computers and all that kind of stuff. Now, it’s easier because I’m able to hear all of these voices without the luxury of a band, without the luxury of having horn player sitting in my living room because you don’t always have that luxury. Even being on the road, I can’t just say, “Well guys, let’s have a quick rehearsal because I want to try out some new music.” I can’t do that, but if I’ve got a keyboard or some type of thing that produces sound, some type of tone generator, then I can hear all the voices. It’s hard to play most things on the piano. It’s hard to play that stuff that you heard at the Vanguard, stuff that’s real fast, it’s impossible to play all four of those parts from the horns on the keyboard. I can get the keyboard to play it back for me at whatever tempo I choose. It’s really great. It’s really just supposed to be an assistance tool. It’s not supposed to replace actual music. That’s what I use it for anyway. It’s really just to help me out in terms of trying to hear things. I can hear things in my head, but it’s a lot easier to hear it actually being put out.
FJ: What is essential for something to be swinging?
ER: It’s got to feel good. It’s got to feel good. If your music doesn’t make people feel good, and they don’t really have that type of connection to it, you see, Fred, people have to connect to music because their only appreciation for it is something aesthetic and that’s basically the appreciation of the beauty in art. That’s where people come in, people who are not musicians I’m saying. They have to have some kind of connection that is indirectly related to their world or their environment or something that they’ve experienced. If you are playing something that’s super-cerebral or super-intellectual, then you know, how do you really expect people to enjoy it. I’m not saying that they can’t, but more often then not, they won’t. I know what works for me. There is no formula. There is no correct or incorrect answer, but when I see people clapping their hands, bobbing their heads, or patting their feet, then I know that I’m doing something right. If they are not doing that, then I’m getting a little nervous. I’m wondering if I’m playing in a cemetery or what? Am I at a funeral and nobody told me?
FJ: And the future?
ER: I’m pretty much moving beyond just trios. I’m really starting to develop my writing for more pieces.