Acclaimed pianist and composer Eric Reed is known not only for his keys-acumen, his prowess as a 20+ albums bandleader, and his work with Wynton Marsalis and other jazz greats, but also for his love of good wine and good food. When we spoke recently, he gave a big shout-out to the Rose City: “Portland is out of this world. It has some of the best restaurants I’ve ever been to my entire life and I like to eat!”
What tune would you play for someone who’s not that familiar with jazz?
I don’t know if I’d play any specific song, but what I’d do is to take any song they like—say they happen to like “Happy Birthday,” I’d take that and arrange it such a way that they’d get the idea of what improvisation is and how you can have fun with music by stretching the melody and syncopating the rhythm a certain kind of way. For me, I’ve discovered that the real way to introduce someone to music is just to let people hear some.
You’re taking a walk and come upon five men talking: Art Tatum, Oscar Peterson, Thelonious Monk, Jelly Roll Morton and Red Garland. You can only talk to one—which one?
I’d talk to Thelonious. I’d want to follow him around some random day and watch his practice regimen and talk to him about what it was that made him decide to pursue such a musical path. Because being one of the early creators of such a different sound of music at the time couldn’t have been easy, especially considering what was popular and considering what was already going on, for even then musicians would write in a way to try to get their things played on radio. Everybody was trying to have a hit. Duke Ellington was trying to have a hit and Monk, with the early songs that he wrote in the early ‘40s, he was experimenting with titles and a lot of these songs had lyrics but he couldn’t get them on the radio for any number of reasons, being that the song was too complex, too deep. I would just like to check him out. I’d just like to be one-on-one with him, follow him around and just be a fly on the wall, a shadow and an innocent bystander to Monk’s life.
What musical genre do you like that might surprise people?
I love white ‘80s rock: REO Speed Wagon, Asia, Journey. It’s not like I love that music more than any other kind, but that music right there might surprise people [laughs]! And also the Doobie Brothers, Patsy Cline and Hank Williams. It will surprise people because we’re accustomed to believing and thinking this kind of person is this, and that kind of person is that. Many of us have gladly fallen into that pit, that psychology and narrow-mindedness about us. We’re not black; we’re not white. We’re not Asian; we’re not Latinos. We’re us. The sooner that people realize that we’re just who we are inside—with the same hearts, skull, blood, bone—the minute people finally wrap their skulls around that, we’ll no longer worry about genres and labels, we can just go on and be who we are.
Are you a different jazz musician today that you were when you first started out?
Absolutely. I’m a better piano player and am in touch with the piano itself. I play the instrument better than I did when I first started. Technically, there’s a difference because of progress and improvement, but essentially I’m still the same. As a 45-year-old man, the inner me, the essence of me, is still a little bit of a cocky teenager, an insecure teenager, arrogant teen, who grew up in a strict religious home that wasn’t abusive. The youngest child of four with working-class parents and, like Thelonious Monk, I stem from North Carolina and the lonely teenager not understood by his peers because the music that he liked was so different than what’s being played on the radio. The complicated, multi-layered teen who often had trouble with relationships because he didn’t understand himself, his purpose, his feelings and didn’t really know how he was going to do what he loved to do. The 45-year-old version of that is in a much better state of mind. I’m very different now from that teen 30 years ago.
You’ve alluded to how practice is a critical part of that change and who you are today.
I’ve found great solace and serious encouragement and motivation practicing. Because it makes me feel good about myself. Not practicing to be number one—it’s not a competition—practicing so I can feel better about what I played the night before, the next night or years from now. Imagine having things in your mind and not being able to express them. That’s what practicing does. You have all these ideas in your mind, but you can’t really play them, or really emit them because you’re not playing on a level well enough to allow you to articulate what you’re trying to express. I find great inspiration in practicing, and I don’t mean 8-9 hours a day. I go to the piano and I have one thing I practice every day—one series of chord changes or some idea, tempo, key signature or some odd meter, something along those lines.
Were you born with jazz in your soul or did you acquire it?
I’d say I was born with a gift to create and communicate through music. I consider myself to be a highly emotional person. I’m in touch with my emotions to such a degree that when I’m playing the piano, there’s a real connect I have to the piano. When I sit down to play it, I’m feeling everything right in the moment. I’m able to draw on any experiences that occurred at that moment or years ago. The artistry is about being able to draw on all of your experiences, past and present, and place them on some kind of canvas or somewhere out in the atmosphere, and to communicate with people that are listening to you. Even if there isn’t an audience, and I’m in a room by myself, I’m always trying to conjure up beauty. I’m always trying to create a sense of loveliness. My legacy is not going to be having spent my life waving the jazz banner and telling people to please listen to jazz, please support jazz. That’s not going to be my legacy. My legacy is going to be what I did with what God gave me. End of story.