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With his new album, Eric Reed celebrates the black and brown hues of American music

Eric Reed
Keith Wilson
Eric Reed

Eric Reed and I connected in 1996 or 1997 after he taped my then TV show “The Art of Jazz.” With delight I have watched him grow musically and personally. Recently, we had a great conversation about his new CD Black Brown and Blue on Smoke Sessions, his current state of mind, and the joy he feels being his “authentic” self. In the vain of Art Blakey, Eric continues to identify and work with the up and coming generations. To that end Black, Brown and Blue features his collaborators Reggie Quinerly on drums and Luca Alemanno on bass. Reed will be performing at Smoke in NYC Mar. 9-12.

Watch our conversation here:

Interview transcript:

Sheila:  I always say you have been on the heels of Art Blakey, as far as being someone bringing up younger generations who have become what you are—a master.  How are you?

Eric Reed: Sheila, if I was any better, I'd be white. [laughs] Let’s start this off with a bang. Thank you for that wonderful introduction. You know how much I love Art Blakey. These young musicians just keep the ball rolling. You know, if you don't invest in young people, you don't have anything built. You have no foundation.

When we met, you were in your twenties and you had been recording with your peers such as Gregory Hutchinson and others, but I remember you also started to reach down to the younger people. And you were young yourself.  Musicians such as Ulysses Owens, Dezron Douglas, Wayne Escoffery and the Strickland twins.  Although they were a lot younger, you were young as well.  I know you do love to teach and you’ve always been into mentorship, but what was it about mentoring those young people who are now big deals now?

For my peers and I, we worked together a lot and we had tremendous experiences. But we also endured a great deal of abuse and trauma from some of the members of the previous generations. We figured, “Okay, we can mentor using that same intensity, but hopefully without the abuse.”

After a while, Gregory Hutchinson, Dwayne Burno, Nicholas Payton, Christian McBride, Marc Cary, Stephen Scott—this whole generation of us that had come up under the Betty Carters and the Art Blakeys and the Clark Terrys and the Sarah Vaughans and the Carmen McRaes—we started, as in any relationship, to evolve in different ways. Each of us had our own things that we wanted to do, separate from the things that we had come up in. In a very unofficial, unplanned and organic way, we said, “Okay, well, Hutch, I've loved playing with you for all these years,” but then Hutch started working more as a leader. Then I started working more as a leader. It was a necessity to reach out to the younger generations because number one, we needed musicians to play with. Number two, we were all becoming too expensive to hire each other. And number three, how are these young musicians supposed to get experience if they're not getting hired by people who have gigs? Nowadays, most of these young musicians are getting gigs right out of high school, right out of college or whatever. It's a different scenario nowadays, but back then there was very much a cutting your teeth type of vibe that you had to kind of work your way up through the scene. That served us very well, I think.

Well, here we are today. Right on the heels of your latest release, Black, Brown, and Blue on the Smoke Sessions label. You have Reggie Quinerly on drums and Luca Alemanno and several of their pieces are on the record as well as two vocalists from the gospel world [Calvin B. Rhone and David Daughtry].  I was so moved listening to the CD, but not in a melancholy way.  Some of your past recordings have been a little bit melancholy in my opinion.  But this blues is more uplifting. Talk about how the recording reflects where you are in your life and also why you chose the tunes and the masters that you chose to record.

I’m at a place in my life where I finally feel like myself. I'm allowing myself to exist. I'm allowing myself to be, without looking for external validation from anyone. Not from the masters, not from my peers, not from the current young generation, not from the critics, not from the record label. I'm just being my whole 100% raw, authentic self. This is the person that I love. The person that made these other records, I didn't really know who that was, to be perfectly honest. What little I did know, I didn't like. The compositions that I chose—songs like “Peace,” “Search for Peace,” “Lean on Me,” and “Pastime Paradise”—all reflect exactly who I am right at that moment when I recorded it in June, but also still today. Those composers—Benny Golson, Wayne Shorter, Billy Strayhorn, Duke Ellington, Bill Withers, Stevie Wonder—you don't have American music without Black and brown people, period. End of story.

I know that Stephen Foster is considered to be the father of American music. The problem is that so much of his music is racially problematic. But the other problem is that's the truth of America. America was built on racism. Even the oldest of popular folk songs are going to have racist content. The classic books that we read, they're going have racist content. The entertainment, the cartoons, the TV shows, the commercials—you go back and look at some of these things and they have not aged well at all.

You're absolutely right, but with all of the conversations and the banning books, before you know it, music's going to be close behind with the banning and burning.  Well, that's another topic for another day. I can't believe since I read 1984 in high school and Brave New World and all these things, and I'm like…. I want to talk about the liner notes about Black music. You say, “We never name our music.  We just expressed it. Blues was a name that was attributed to a sound and it stuck. Then when we sprinkle the blues onto the gray cares of the world, life seems to feel a little less ponderous.  That’s the feeling that I get when I interpret ‘Ugly Beauty’ or any Monk song.” You do have “Ugly Beauty” on your release.  Can you expand a little more about the blues which is vast or even includes the Gnawa people and attributing blues colors to people and moods?  Can you talk more about that and why you chose to title this release Black, Brown, and Blue?

I could have just as easily used “Ugly Beauty” as the title because isn't that what life is? The juxtaposition, the coexistence of the ugly and the beautiful. You can't have one without the other. They define each other. When you say, “That's ugly.” Well, that's because you thought something else was beautiful. In cultural terms, we constantly fight in America having to be defined or codified by Eurocentric standards of what's beautiful—whether it's human beings or art, music, literature—it's what the white man says, “Well, this is acceptable. These are the standards.” In the meantime, you have all of these other existences of people, these whole other demographics of people that exist and you're telling us we all have to fit into this. With ugly beauty, which again could be interchangeable with Black, brown, and blue. Black, brown and blue represents not just Black and brown people, but blue is my favorite color. Blue can also be a mood, a feeling of sadness and expression of emotion.

But also, when you think about what Black and brown people have endured and experienced here in America since we were brought here or since we existed here, the bruises are blue. Right? It's not just Black, brown and blue and a celebration of Black and brown people and the blues, but it's also an acknowledgement whether it is to be an American if you're Black or brown. Or if you're a woman, or if you're gay, or if you're trans. The idea of Black and brown can tend to be kind of all consuming. I don't like the term BIPOC because it's just simply too generic and it basically just means not white.

Why aren’t we defining things by finding out what are our issues? While we do have many common denominators, our issues are not exactly the same. Latino people or Latinx and Black people and Asians in this country don't have the same issues in our communities. We don't have the same issues culturally in this country. We have very, very different issues. Trans people have very different issues. They're very specific and they're indigenous. The native indigenous people, their issues are not all the same, so these issues can't be approached or solved with the same methods. And then you have white people saying, “Well, what can we do?”

We didn't create the problem. Do your homework. I'm not going to do your homework for you. Google's free. It can be a little petty, but that's really the truth. Just recently with the Dilbert creator, Scott Adams, all that bullshit he said, talking about how he's basically stepping away from helping Black people. What made you think that what you were doing was helping Black people? White liberals are really problematic because they always think that they're helping Black people by coming into our communities and taking over. Instead, step back. Step back and observe. If you want to help and educate, you can do that. We have our own leaders. We have our own communities and yes, we are struggling, but not because we're not trying, it's because there are forces working against us.

Eric Reed "Black, Brown, and Blue" video

I hear you. I want you to talk about how you’re going to be at Smoke and I want to know who's going to be taking the blues cruise with you? 

Our buddy Dezron Douglas is going to be on board. Laying it down. Laying down the big hammer as he always does. If I thought this way, like how we used to think back in the ‘90s, about what they call sidemen working with leaders. I call them collaborators because they're not on the side, they're contributing, they're collaborators.

But if I was thinking the way I thought 30 years ago, I would call Dezron one of my prize mentees or one of my prize pupils, but of course that's very patriarchal. He doesn't belong to me. I can definitely say meeting Dezron and working with him, that's been one of my prouder moments. With a lot of the wonderful young musicians that I've worked with, such as Rodney Green, Wayne Escoffery, Mike Rodriguez, Barak Mori, McClenty Hunter, Ulysses Owens, just on and on. I know I'm leaving some names out, I apologize. Chris Lewis is playing tenor saxophone with us. He's a recent jewel in the crown, if you will, but he's making his own way very quickly. And Kendrick Scott will be on drums.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

In 1995 Sheila E. Anderson joined the staff of WBGO in Newark, New Jersey where she hosts Weekend Jazz Overnight and Salon Sessions. She has authored four books: The Quotable Musician: From Bach to Tupac (2003), How to Grow as A Musician: What All Musicians Must Know to Succeed (2005) (both published by Allworth Press), The Little Red Book of Musicians Wisdom (Skyhorse Press, 2012) and the 2nd edition of How to Grow as A Musician was published in 2019,

In addition to curating jazz at the Newark Museum of Art, Ms. Anderson is a 2017 Columbia University Community Scholar, an inaugural Dan
Morgenstern Fellow by the Institute of Jazz Studies at Rutgers-Newark
(2020), is a graduate of Baruch College and resides in Harlem, NYC.