At 78, Ed Reed is soaring in a new career as singer.
Thursday, October 11, 2007
“This is a dream come true,” said Ed Reed from the stage at Yoshi’s, looking out at the adoring standing-room-only audience gathered to witness his debut at the club last August.
For decades, Reed endured a self-imposed nightmare of substance abuse and prison, and now he’s making the most out of his late emergence as one of the most emotionally insightful vocalists in jazz. At 78, Reed is fulfilling a life-long ambition that almost slipped through his grasp.
He makes his debut at the Jazz & Blues Company on Saturday backed by pianist Larry Dunlap (an ace accompanist who’s worked widely with jazz vocalists including Dame Cleo Laine, Joe Williams and Mark Murphy), bassist John Wiitala and powerhouse drummer Akira Tana replacing an ailing Bud Spangler, who produced Reed’s gorgeous album . A few weeks after his Carmel gig, Reed makes his New York City debut at the Jazz Standard, another amazing milestone for an artist defying all the odds.
A jazz singer in the truest sense, Reed absorbed the influences of Nat “King” Cole and Bill Henderson while honing an idiosyncratic style all his own. Raised amidst the jazz splendor of Los Angeles’ Central Avenue, he performed with many of the music’s greatest figures. And though he never made a career for himself, Reed gleaned jazz’s most profound lesson – that an improviser’s essential responsibility is to capture the audience’s imagination with a story.
During a recent conversation in the Richmond, Calif. home he shares with his wife Diane, Reed looked a good decade younger than his age, and remarkably untouched by years of heroin addiction. Quick to enumerate his many life detours, including four stints in prison and eight psych ward incarcerations, he seemed delighted and amazed that he had survived to croon his tales.
“I never thought I’d ever be able to have the life I’ve got,” Reed said with a beatific smile. “All that stuff didn’t touch me. I was so dumb, I just didn’t get it. I’d just go to the prison library and read books and try to find out what’s wrong with me.”
Born in Ohio and raised in a striving middle class family in Watts, Reed remembers being tutored on how to hear chord changes by a pudgy kid who grew up to be the legendary bassist Charles Mingus. Central Avenue boasted one of the nation’s most vibrant music scenes, and Reed soaked up all the sounds. Rebelling against his parents’ expectations that he pursue a professional degree, he ran away from home at 17 and joined the Army. His passion for music wasn’t enough to keep him out of trouble. He got hooked on heroin while stationed at the Oakland Army Base, ignoring his better judgment because he didn’t want to get left behind by his buddies.
“Bird was influencing everything,” Reed said, referring to bebop progenitor Charlie “Bird” Parker. “And these soldier pals were doing drugs. We were selling weeds, and a little guy, Smitty, said, ‘Let’s shoot some dope.’ I said ‘Oh, that’s crazy.’ ”
Indeed, Charlie Parker’s vast influence on the rising generation of young musicians in the 1940s and ‘50s extended beyond the expanded harmonic vocabulary and jagged rhythms of bebop. Many emulated his use of heroin, and ended up dead or doing long stretches in prison. Throughout the 1950s and ‘60s, during his stints in San Quentin and Folsom, Reed regularly performed with some of jazz’s greatest musicians, such as saxophonists Art Pepper and Frank Morgan, drummer Frank Butler, guitarist Joe Pass, and many players who never went on to make a name for themselves.
By the late 1960s, Reed was starting to pull himself out of his morass, studying at UC Irvine and Cal State Sacramento. It wasn’t until 1986, however that he got clean and sober for good. He found his calling as a substance abuse educator and has developed a lecture series based on his own experience and studies.
Living in the Bay Area since 1980, he’s performed at little joints around the region over the years, but never put together his own band or sought to build a career. At his wifes urging, he attended JazzCamp West in the summer of 2005, and he quickly stood out among the crowd of aspiring musicians. Peck Allmond in particular was struck by Reed’s haunting version of “If the Moon Turns Green.”
Allmond has performed constantly in his New York City home and recorded a series of acclaimed albums. He was impressed by Reed’s vast knowledge of tunes, and blown away by his singing. He made it a personal mission to see that Reed recorded an album reflecting his rare talent.
“His timing, phrasing, and intonation are so beautiful,” Allmond said. “He wasn’t approaching music as, ‘I’m a singer.’ He was a musician. And there’s a time capsule element, because of his incarceration. It took a long time for his music to get out to the world, and when it did, it was fully formed.”
ED REED performs on Saturday, 7:30pm at The Jazz & Blues Company, The Eastwood Building, San Carlos and Fifth Street, Carmel. $35. 624-6432, thejazzandbluescompany.com.