Chicago’s Mike Reed Gets a Second City

Kevin Whitehead

By Kevin Whitehead

on 02.06.14 in Interviews

The drum set is a collection of instruments, assembled to let one percussionist do the work of several. In that way, every drummer is a multitasker. Though he may have bloomed late as a drummer, multitasking isn’t much of a problem for Chicago’s Mike Reed. He’s co-organizer of Chicago’s autumn Umbrella Festival (where local improvisers meet European peers), runs logistics for the summer’s Pitchfork Music Festival, and helps program the Labor Day weekend Chicago Jazz Festival. And he now has his own northwest-side venue, Constellation. He even finds time to play the drums, with a broad Midwestern beat and low-to-the-ground sound, using any part of the kit (deep toms included) to throw off accents.

So which is the real Reed: jazz musician or industry power man? A clue to the answer came at the fall 2012 Dutch Jazz Meeting, a biennial showcase that focuses mainly on international presenters. Some impresarios use the opportunity to create a grand impression, sweeping into the Bimhuis bar between sets. But Reed would be huddled in a corner like a musician: talking to someone he’d played with on a previous trip, who’d introduce him to an up-and-coming player, who’d tell Mike about a gig he’d be playing later on that Reed would probably go to. He has that kind of curiosity.

Later this year he’ll release a duo album with Chicago elder/saxist Roscoe Mitchell called In Pursuit of Magic, recorded at Constellation. They started playing together a few years ago when Reed was an officer of the Chicago musicians’ co-op that Mitchell helped found in the ’60s, the AACM — a group comprised of similar self-starters. “Mike is a drummer, composer, organizer and person of the highest caliber,” Mitchell said in an email. “There is always magic in the air when we are together. I am looking forward to playing with him again.”

Mike Reed’s Dutch contacts go all the way back, to when his Indonesian mother’s family immigrated to the southern Netherlands after World War II. She met Reed’s American dad when he served with her father at a German NATO base. Reed was born in Bielefeld, Germany, in 1974, and spent time as a toddler in Holland, but from age five was raised in Evanston, north of Chicago.

“I’d wanted to play drums from when I was tiny, and bought my first set using eighth-grade graduation money, but didn’t start playing seriously till college in Dayton,” Reed says. “I had listened to some jazz records, and wanted to be Philly Joe Jones. I wasn’t a jazz major but hung out with the jazz department people. When it was time to get out I told bassist Bob Bowen, ‘Maybe I should move to New York.’ He said, ‘I dunno — maybe it’d be better if you moved back to Chicago.’”

Bowen tried to get him interested in the AACM avant-garde, but it was too way out for Reed at the time. His education was just beginning. “I started going to Von Freeman’s Sunday jam session at The Note in Wicker Park,” he says. “I wasn’t very good, and only beginning to realize how not good I was. I was floundering; the guys I’d met who were interesting and weird wanted to make, like, free Beefheart music. Or they were jazz nazis. Or prodigies like trumpeter Amir ElSaffar, playing his ass at 19. I was already 23! I felt really far behind.”

Reed started studying with saxophonist Freeman’s crisp drummer Michael Raynor. “When I’d go to sessions he played, Mike would put me in the first round of sitters-in, so I could get my ass kicked, and he could critique my playing at our next lesson,” Reed says. “That quickly changed things. I stopped trying to pursue straight-ahead jazz gigs. All these people around my age were coming to town. They weren’t as self-conscious as I was. Suddenly, I’m trying to listen to everything.”

That still-tight group of post-Ken Vandermark Chicago improvisers includes vibraphonist Jason Adasiewicz and bassists Joshua Abrams (who now play in Reed’s chamber-jazzy quintet Loose Assembly), cornetist Josh Berman, saxophonist Dave Rempis, and future People, Places & Things bassist Jason Roebke. They built up their stamina playing with each other and older players.

“I started playing with saxophonist David Boykin two or three times a week for five and a half years, three sets a night playing two songs a set, Coltrane-style,” says Reed. “A mind-blower! Compositionally, his tunes would seem weird to me, till I got the sense of them. I identified with his personal way of writing for the band and getting it to do certain things.”

By the early ’00s Reed had already begun organizing stuff on the side; he and Berman ran an improvisers’ Sunday series at the Chicago bar Hungry Brain, and that led a few years later to their helping organize the Umbrella consortium of small venues that hosted improvised music, which led to the annual Umbrella Festival, launched with support from the city and several European consulates. After all that it made sense that Reed would wind up on the Chicago Jazz Festival programming committee; that fest had its own history of staging meetings between Europeans and homegrown players.

But for Reed, it wasn’t all jazz, all the time. He says, “The condensed version of how the Pitchfork festival got started: I had worked in events planning for a marketing company, doing street festivals with music, and I thought, ‘What if there was a cool street festival with music I actually liked?’ I teamed up with a couple of travel-agent guys who were looking to do something new. We needed a sponsor, so we contacted the Pitchfork people — like, three guys in a basement running a website. When we announced the lineup, the response was crazy. ‘We’re going to need a park.’ Preparation was a big whirlwind: All the things that could have gone wrong didn’t. I never played the festival, but I did get Craig Taborn, 8 Bold Souls and William Parker on, when I was involved with the booking. But I have other outlets for that now.”

When that first fest was over (it wasn’t even called Pitchfork yet, but Intonation) he went to Holland to chill out and reconnect with family. An artist rep he knew booked him a few gigs with Dutch players who liked what they heard. “Then all of a sudden I’m going there to play, and to the Dutch Jazz Meetings, and I’ve kept on going,” he says. “And then when the Dutch guys came through Chicago on tour and they had an extra day, we’d do something together, and they’d bring their tunes.”

That activity led to People, Places & Things’ new Second Cities, Vol. 1, recorded in Amsterdam in November 2012. The two-reeds, two-rhythm PP&T (with Greg Ward and Tim Haldeman on saxes) started out reviving neglected Chicago hardbop of the ’50s before morphing into a looser repertory project. Second Cities skims great tunes from a close-knit bunch of mid-career Amsterdam luminaries — brassmen Eric Boeren and Joost Buis, pianist Guus Janssen, reedists Michael Moore, Ab Baars and Sean Bergin; all but the late Bergin drop in to play Reed’s arrangements of their own compositions. Reed had the scores already, from playing with the composers in Chicago. He had been going through old sheet music, cleaning house, and thought, it’d be nice to play some of these again.

(The name Second Cities comes from some Lester Bowie/AACM wisdom someone once laid on Reed: when you’ve become established in one city, start building relationships in another. Then you’ve got two places you can always play. Then get a third and fourth.)

Cornetist Eric Boeren, whose own quartet features the ridiculously hard-swinging Euro drum hero Han Bennink, first played with Reed in Chicago in 2006, on one of those Sundays at the Hungry Brain. Says Boeren: “It was a mixed Chicago-Dutch quartet. We started out trying to find each other, but when we found the momentum, there was this push from the back. ‘Ah, this is what it’s like to play with an American drummer.’ It was different from any experience I had before.” They have played together many times since. “One night at Amsterdam’s Zaal 100, Mike made all the musicians sweat to keep up with his threatening, exciting, directing, inescapable drive, that’s held numerous bands together in the moments that count,” Boeren says. “Mike can sniff out those moments like no one else.”

Still, Boeren says the two cities’ players have different working methods. The Amsterdammers like to invent a tune’s arrangement even as they’re playing it; the Chicagoans like to have a roadmap, even if they don’t stick to it.

Mike Reed concurs: “The Dutch are used to building something. We’re more used to deconstructing — ‘Let’s learn it so we can tear it apart!’”