Sunday, January 4, 2009
Oh Happy Day!
Jazz on the Sacred Side swung in the New Year today in the most joyful and meaningful way...Mr. Eric Reed took us to school and took us to our feet...it's really something when the tech guys hours after the lights have come up are still humming "Oh Happy Day!" I watched Eric living the ministry he's so clear he's here to offer. I felt so much joy too, feeling so connected to my "assignment" to walk and claim and celebrate the gathering force and grace of this music...this music that pours so much love in my heart ...I'm sticking with it as MLK would say..."I have decided to stick to love...and I'm gonna talk about it everywhere I go." Thank you Eric. Thank you to everyone who grooved and clapped and shouted and stood up to sing "Oh Happy Day" with Eric's guest and friend Rev. Calvin Bernard Rhone...I know I'm still singing and smiling...
Here are the program notes...
Eric Reed walks and talks, lives, breathes and most importantly swings sacred jazz. Now at first he takes me to task on what he calls the nondescript nature of both words...I can take it, I’m ready to grapple. But by the end of our conversation the afternoon of New Year’s eve at my favorite neighborhood joint “Simply Wholesome,” Eric is practically claiming poster child status for sacred jazz, “when I was 5 years old I didn’t realize that all my life I’d be combining the two the whole way through.” Thank God there were no formal anti-miscegenation laws forbidding the marriage of gospel music and jazz, otherwise my bi-musical brother might not have been born nor nurtured so thoroughly from both worlds...and from that possess the ability to so sweetly bless us this afternoon, bless audiences world wide with his particular take on sacred jazz. Almost as soon as he learned to play the piano, he was accompanying his baptist minister/Bay State Gospel Singing father in church. Not long after that, his school teacher aunt and uncle on his mother’s side where hipping him to jazz, taking him to flea market’s in Philadelphia where you could buy an inch high stack of LP’s for 25 cents. He remembers a first stack that included Dave Brubeck’s “Time Further Out,” Ramsey Lewis’ “The Sounds of Christmas,” and Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers “Live at the Cafe Bohemia,” at that time featuring Horace Silver on piano... “from the first time I heard Horace Silver, I knew that’s what I wanted to do.”
His family moved from Philadelphia to the Huntington Park neighborhood of Los Angeles when he was 11...this move broadened both his musical and spiritual horizons. On one hand he and his family were moving from small storefront Baptist churches to larger non-denominational churches now called the Word of Faith movement where Eric wound up heavily involved in music ministries here. He would also receive tremendous instruction and encouragement from the faculty of the Colburn school (at that time called the Community School of Performing Arts) as well as the music educators at Westchester High School. At the time Eric was “in it” and didn’t have a sense about the overwhelming response to his extraordinary talent, “I just knew I was able to get out of class a lot...that was great!” But he was taken out of class to do things like teach...at the age of 13 he was giving performance lectures for the Board of Education. And my goodness can Eric teach! He gives me the lightning speed history of gospel music from “Amazing Grace” (hymn) to “Precious Lord, Take my Hand” (gospel blues) to “Oh Happy Day” (the beginning of contemporary pop gospel), including a most thorough biographical sketch of Thomas Dorsey, before I can finish half a jerk chicken patty.
“Am I going too fast? I have a tendency to rush.” I catch my breath, point to the tape recorder, say “we’re good” and we’re right back in. He tells me around the time of the Board of Education lecture, Eric met the late great radio host Chuck Niles, who as you can imagine, put the word out wide “on this kid!” Next thing he knew, Eric was performing with Teddy Edwards and Ray Brown, swinging in jam sessions at the Musician’s Union, and eventually landing a gig as the pianist for the Clayton Hamilton Jazz Orchestra. “The Claytons and Jeff Hamilton, they were so tolerant and patient with me because I wanted to play all the time, but in a big band there’s not really a whole lot of room for piano, it’s all about the horns.”
Eric was eager to get to New York City, he always saw himself there and hoped to land a piano chair with either Art Blakey or Betty Carter, but instead he was invited to join Wynton Marsalis’ Septet and begin his long relationship with Jazz at Lincoln Center. Once again Eric struggled with finding enough room with 7 guys to open up/stretch out musically like he wanted to in Wynton’s band. There were several firings and re-hirings with Wynton, never “acrimonious” (okay I don’t tell him to his face, but Eric sends me to the dictionary several times during my transcription process...teach!) and throughout, Eric learned so much from Wynton’s tremendous discipline. He unabashedly praises Wynton for his persistency and consistency, “he always produced on a high level and always held us to the highest standard.” And when Marsalis decided to venture into his own sacred jazz writing, he called once again upon Eric to teach him more about the various sounds of church music, how for example to apply the sound of a gospel choir to his horn section. The resulting “In this House, On this Morning” is for me one of the most tremendous achievements in Mr. Marsalis’s recording history...not to mention one of the most haunting recordings of Eric’s playing out there. Though Eric went on to launch a dynamic performance and recording career as a leader of his own trio, he would return to Jazz at Lincoln Center often for such significant collaborations including a 1999 performance of the music of Duke Ellington’s Sacred Concerts with none other than gospel music legend Shirley Caesar. And most recently, just a few weeks ago, he conducted Jazz at Lincoln center live with the Alvin American Dance Theater for their 50 year anniversary, where once again he learned valuable leadership lessons from Wynton that empowered him to navigate the at times treacherous landscape of conducting live music for dancers used to performing to recorded music.
While the lessons from Wynton have been significant in Eric’s career, he touchingly gives highest props to his father, “My father was definitely my greatest teacher all around, spiritually, mentally, musically.” He poignantly mentions how much he’s missed the opportunity the past 6 years since his death to talk through his many musical and personal achievements...and failures. Eric says, “You learn nothing from success...it feels good, but...you learn everything from failure, if you’re smart and you’re being honest. I learn from it...otherwise I don’t grow.” He’s excited about the future, the unknown, “I’m motivated by whatever it is God has in store for me, however it comes.” We’re talking so deep it takes a moment to realize the tables have been stacked and house music turned off inside of Simply Wholesome. It’s suddenly quiet as Eric closes out talking about how we never fully know what seeds are being planted. The owners of the restaurant offer us champagne, it is New Year’s eve afterall, a time for celebration, a time to joyfully prepare for new things. We pass on the bubbly but Eric still warmly toasts the beginning of this Jazz on the Sacred Side series, claiming “This is the beginning...of an oak tree.” Then he says again how thankful he is for the awesome way that God has moved through his life, and tells me about the other morning when he woke up to write a new song and all he could say was “Thank you, thank you Lord....I’m just a vessel...However it is I’m supposed to be used, I’m going to embrace that...as honest and forthright as I can, without being abrasive... it’s always got to be about love.”
For more on Mr. Reed please visit www.MySpace.com/EricReedJazz