Chicago Jazz Drummer Mike Reed: “Everything Has Its Roots in Something”
Far be it from Washington City Paper to spend a whole interview talking about some other town. But drummer Mike Reed is not only a Chicago musician: He's devoted an entire band project to exploring the Windy City's jazz legacy. Specifically, Reed's People, Places and Things quintet gives a free-jazz spin to the rarely trodden ground of Chicago's scene during the hard bop era—approximately 1954-60. In advance of PP&T's performance tomorrow night at the Black Cat, Reed spoke to Arts Desk about his city's music, past and present, and how he spreads its gospel to farflung towns.
Washington City Paper: People, Places and Things was formed specifically to explore the music of Chicago in the mid-to-late '50s. What is important about that era?
MR: It’s the missing piece of the puzzle. People think about Chicago jazz in terms of the AACM and the Chicago Underground of the '90s, on the one hand, and on the other hand, the Austin High Gang, or maybe Louis Armstrong when he first came here from New Orleans. This is the link between them.
There was so much going on in Chicago at that time, from folks like Sun Ra, Frank Strozier, Booker Little, and the jam-session culture that existed there at the time. I heard a whole hourlong interview not long ago with Sonny Rollins, about when he was in Chicago and living at the Y, and one of his memories was that there were just so many more places to work, even more than in New York. And that kind of fell apart because of that myopic view that New York is the place to be, and when great Chicago musicians like Clifford Jordan and Wilbur Ware decided they had to move to New York, it killed that culture not just in Chicago but in Detroit and Philadelphia.
Chicago rebuilt its culture of jazz and improvised music in the mid-‘60s with the AACM, of course. But this music, from the hard bop era, is the precursor to that progressive nature. Roscoe Mitchell recorded an album, Old/Quartet, really early on—it was recorded in 1967, but it wasn’t released until much later—and you can really hear that he was influenced by the hard bop language of the early ‘60s. And that’s interesting to think about, because here’s this guy who’s so known for essentially modern art through music. Everything has its roots in something, and this isn’t talked about enough.
WCP: But you make it a point to filter this older material through the prism of that “progressive nature” of Chicago.
MR: Here’s the thing about it: when that music was originally made, it was fresh, it was in the moment. If you do it that way now, trying to make it sound just like it did then, it doesn’t have the same spirit and that’s obvious to everyone who’s hearing it, the musicians most of all. It has to be as fresh and in the moment as it was when it was originally made.
People, Places and Things is not meant to be a repertory band. We have to do it in a way that says “This is our tune.” It’s like wearing someone else’s suit, but letting it in or out so it fits you. And then, of course, when we do original material as well, it still sounds the same. It still sounds like us.
WCP: An interesting point, since your new album features original material written specifically for veterans of that Chicago era [trombonist Julian Priester, trumpeter Art Hoyle, tenor saxophonist Ira Sullivan]. Do you write those with an eye toward pastiche, or to best capture their sounds?
MR: Not particularly for their sound. That record, Stories and Negotiations, is a live concert and the original tunes were written with a program of live music in mind. But I was also considering variables of working with people of that era. Age, for one thing. The horns are very punishing on the mouth muscles, especially brass players like Julian and Art. You don’t want to give them big burners for their features. But also, bear in mind that those three weren’t there just for themselves, but to represent a lot of other people who’ve come and gone.
WCP: Is there a distinctive flavor to Chicago’s jazz?
MR: Well, I can’t say either way, in the overarching sense. There’s so much more jazz here than even I know. But I think that from what I’ve been able to see and hear and examine, that it’s really about doing things on your own. The one thing that everybody says when they come through is how the community makes it possible to do it yourself. There’s no industry here, no publicists, no producers, no A&R, one or two small record labels like Delmark—no machine to support you, but also none to put you in a box.
WCP: One of the city’s greats, Bunky Green, told NPR this week that Chicago has less pressure to conform. It sounds like you’re taking that one step further, and saying that it directly encourages you not to conform.
MR: Maybe. Maybe. But on the other hand, it’s kinda like walking into a place and discovering there’s a bunch of people just like you. What you have in common is that you all want to do your own thing in your own way, granted, but they’re still people just like you. So in a sense I think you are conforming.
WCP: Conforming to the non-conformists?
MR: Yeah. Exactly. But still, there’s a good ability in Chicago to grow, and a lot of it is because, as I said, there’s no industry there, and as such there’s no big gig. In New York there’s a hope, an ideal even, that one of these days you might get a call to be in Dave Douglas’s band. Or to work on a large-ensemble Cecil Taylor project. In Chicago—who’s gonna call you up? Everybody’s too busy trying to get their own gigs. So there’s not that pressure and competition.
WCP: You’re working with and talking about the history, culture, and aesthetic specific to Chicago’s jazz scene. Does that stuff lose resonance when you take it on the road, as you are now?
MR: Well, the cultural part doesn’t matter in that context. Musically—I’m definitely not one to be self-aggrandizing, but this band kicks a lot of ass. It is very good at what it does. Audiences don’t have to know anything about what the tunes are. It’s cool if people want to know more about it, and in fact I hope they do and I’m very happy when people want to know more about it, but as long as they like it that’s what matters.