Authentically, Intentionally, Energy-Cognizant, and No Bullshit: Eric Reed Plays the Song of Himself

Photo: Keith Wilson. Used by permission.

Pianist Eric Reed grew up a preacher’s kid, set the piano afire from a very early age, chose jazz for a path, blazed that path…and came to feel, after a time, that he had more than music to get off his chest. Details below. His new album Black, Brown, and Blue features bassist Luca Alemanno and drummer Reggie Quinerly. He was kind enough to take some questions over email.

Seattle Star: What are your earliest memories of music around you — at home, at church, on the street, etc.?

Eric Reed: My next-door neighbors, the Hills, often babysat me while my parents were at work. They had a small spinet in their front parlor, where I spent most of the time in diapers and socks. Next to the piano was a stereo console with a radio; whatever was playing on the radio, I would plunk out what I could catch. My father sang with a Gospel quartet known as The Baystate Singers, and my older brother played guitar. He and his friends would rehearse in their basements. My father sang in church, and I would play for church services. It was just like Martha & The Vandellas sang: “There’ll be music everywhere. There’ll be swinging and swaying and records playing.” It was a sweet existence.

Seattle Star: How did growing up the son of a Baptist minister influence your musical direction, and your spiritual direction?

Eric Reed: Being a PK came with all the usual accoutrements: Privilege and pressure. I had to present a cut above and was expected to be ready to serve at any moment in a church service anywhere we went. The best musical training a young musician could ever receive happened in the Black communities’ churches. This is still true today: you’re learning in context, in real time. There is no curriculum, only presentation; you learn “by rote”.

This worked out well for me in all performance situations, especially when it came time to have to perform spontaneously. I’ve always relied heavily on my ability to be able to hear what’s happening; this instinct has never failed me, even if the sheet music indicated something else was supposed to be happening. I wasn’t as successful in transferring this behavior to my personal life, because it was more about surviving in a culture and times that didn’t align with who I was personally and spiritually. Since religions are manmade, early indoctrination (by design) prohibited my ability to be able to think critically. I was in a dark place for most of my life because I had no identity outside of being the piano-playing son of a preacher man, who also wanted to be a “Jazz cat”.

Seattle Star: You began playing piano at age two. What are your earliest memories of playing? What were your senses of what you could do, couldn’t do, and wanted to do?

Eric Reed: My earliest memories include learning how to play Bill Withers’ “Lean on Me” from listening to it on the radio, being shown where middle “C” was (can’t remember who showed me), and Danny Hall, a co-worker of my mom’s showing me how to play “Linus and Lucy.” No one told me what I could or couldn’t do, so I did whatever I wanted to do.

Seattle Star: When did you first realize that you were a prodigy, and far ahead of most other learners? When did your family begin to realize it?

Eric Reed: At age 5, I became cognizant of the energy coming from adults when discussing my talent; rarely was the discussion about me personally, but “Could he play for…?”, almost as if I was a talent that just happened to be a little human being.

Another thing I noticed early was during performances, I was the only one not reading music when playing. There were also circumstances where there were spontaneous musical incidents when accompaniment was needed, and people knew to look in my direction and motion me to go to the piano to play for “Sister Floppy Bottom” or “Rev. Eatmore”.

Seattle Star: You grew up on Art Blakey, Ramsey Lewis and Dave Brubeck. What about those players, bands, and albums influenced you the most, and why?

Eric Reed: There was always a strong presence of the blues, intense grooves, and percussive syncopation in their music.

Seattle Star: Who have your most important teachers been, and what lessons did they impart?

Eric Reed: The universe has been my most important teacher. I’ve learned more from time and circumstances than I ever could have from any person. The most important lessons learned were:

  1. Not to absorb negative energy, lest I project it onto others.
  2. Living authentically and intentionally is better than enduring all the bullshit you choose to allow pretending to be something/someone else.

Seattle Star: What were your most important lessons learned so far as melody, harmony, and rhythm? How have you continued embellishing those lessons?

Eric Reed: When it comes to musical expression, melody, rhythm, and harmony are to be utilized in the way that allows you to be the most creative and true version of your artistic self. Genres are irrelevant and merely manifestations of whatever you’re feeling at that moment.

Photo: Keith Wilson. Used by permission.

Seattle Star: When and how did you decide on jazz piano as a career?

Eric Reed: I’m not quite sure when, but I can tell you, it was a misguided decision. Instead of jumping nose first into the shallow end, I should’ve jumped feet first into the deep end; I should’ve been expanding instead of constricting.

Seattle Star: Where and when did you start playing professionally, and who played with you?

Eric Reed: Apparently, the second I received financial compensation in exchange for goods and services, so age 11? It was some church event — and here’s the deep part: I was discouraged from accepting money because “Since the Lord gave you that gift, you are to use it for Him, not for financial gain.” That was one of first times I can remember feeling real disgust for adults, not unlike Holden Caulfield.

Seattle Star: You were lucky enough to be pegged as a “Young Lion,” but came to struggle with that label.

Eric Reed: Luck had nothing to do with it — I earned that scar because I’m a bad motherfucker. Period. Right places, right times? No doubt. Labels are double-edged swords. At the end of the day, the truest artist is the one who creates using a vast musical palette, ignoring convention, industry, and pop culture.

Seattle Star: What are your best, worst, and oddest stories, of playing all over the world?

Eric Reed: Best story: Playing duo with Wayne Shorter. I was numb and nervous the entire time, but his energy – without uttering a word – created a peacefulness inside of me that allowed me to totally smash the performance.

Worst story: Playing a gig with the leader hazing me in my ear, saying negative, abusive things.

Oddest story: I was playing with a saxophone player who was leading the band, which also included a bassist and drummer. No matter what we did in the rhythm section, the saxophonist wasn’t responding to us musically, so, by the 3rd night (of 6), we just started running all over top of the cat. It was if there were two different performances occurring.

Seattle Star: Whom do you hold sacred as the greatest jazz pianists, and why?

Eric Reed: “Sacred” isn’t a word I would use; however, I consider Sonny Clark to be the fulcrum of Jazz piano.

Seattle Star: When did you first become aware of your sexuality?

Eric Reed: I’ve been aware of my sexual fluidity since I was 5.

Seattle Star: What messages about being “not-straight” did you pick up from childhood and adolescence? How did you react to them inwardly and outwardly?

Eric Reed: “Not-straight” is an incorrect term in that it pegs me as “other” or “abnormal”. I define myself by what I am, not by what I’m not.

The most stark message that was conveyed to me was that God hated me, and therefore it was okay for Christians to hate me. My reaction was to attempt to hide at the piano, and hope that no one noticed that a person was sitting there playing. Away from the piano, it was always, “Watch how you move your hands, or “Put some bass in your voice.” It was so fucking exhausting; I internalized homophobia, and projected that energy onto other queer people, thinking that it would shield me from scrutiny.

Seattle Star: How did being “queer” but not out play out through your music, your psychology, and your spirit?

Eric Reed: As a queer artist, my connection to expression is unconstrained and fluid. I always knew that Western culture didn’t align with my truth — and at the time, it seemed practical, wise, and safe to diminish who I was to make others feel comfortable allowing me into their circles. My spirit was constantly troubled by this decision.

Seattle Star: How did you manage relationships and intimacy during that time?

Eric Reed: Given my fluidity, I’ve always dated across the board. Dating women was ostensibly more acceptable and allowed me to avoid questions and/or confrontation. During the height of the AIDS epidemic, it seemed safer sexually and socially. For many years, any sexual activity outside of the accepted dynamic, although discreetly finessed, rarely manifested.

Photo: Keith Wilson. Used by permission.

Seattle Star: How is queerness perceived and treated in the jazz world? What changes, if any, have you noted over time?

Eric Reed: Queer people have been around since the dawn of gender and Jazz: Pianists Tony Jackson and Dick Voynow, cornetist Bix Beiderbecke, vocalists Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday… Back when I started professionally, you’d hear “faggot this” and “sissy that”; they even wrote and sang songs about it.

Seattle Star: What lead you to come out? Was there a last straw, or was this more of a continuum?

Eric Reed: I didn’t officially “come out” — I just started living and becoming more open in my discussions. Much like many Americans, 2016 was a watershed year politically and socially, when the cheese slid all the way off the cracker. It was no longer tenable for me to continue to try and protect people from my truth, and believe that I would ever be happy remaining silent about who I was.

Seattle Star: How have people treated you differently since you came out? What did you expect to change that has, and hasn’t?

Eric Reed: To my awareness, no one has treated me differently, but I also haven’t seen a whole lot of people since I’ve owned it. What I expected to change by now was more closeted Jazz artists to kick the doors open, but I remind myself of how long I stumbled around in there.

What I didn’t expect was encountering people who were emphatically surprised. But, you know what’s really twisted? Some musicians have congratulated me on being fully-authentic; some of them, who I know for a fact, called me “faggot” (and worse) behind my back. I’ve no doubt that many people are publicly shifting their previous homophobic stances because of wanting to avoid backlash amid this current climate; then again, you have some folks who are doubling down on their hatred.

Seattle Star: How has your sense of community changed, and how do you expect it to keep changing?

Eric Reed: The conversations that I have with people feel genuine and unhindered. The more of these conversations I have, the more I feel myself evolving and expanding. Every conversation I have with someone who has just become aware of my journey is an opportunity for me to introduce the truest version of myself in a way I never felt comfortable previously. While I’m not trying to jump on an activist bandwagon, I feel strongly about more queer people transitioning into a mainstream existence.

Seattle Star: Black, Brown, and Blue is your new album. What were your overall objectives, and how did you arrive at them?

Eric Reed: I wanted to release a project that reflected my energy and artistry at the moment. Most of my recordings have adhered to a heavily-arranged format, and I just wasn’t in that place at that time.

I’ve tended to walk a narrow line (at times) between wanting people to see me as a religious person and a bona fide “Jazz cat”. It was always about the ersatz perception that I wanted people to glean — which was wholly ridiculous. There was no way I could engender any manner of realism under that cloud.

Seattle Star: How did you go about picking the artists, and the selections, for the album?

Eric Reed: I’d worked with Reggie and Luca in a previous situation, and I was ensconced in having conversations with my family and friends about being queer. I randomly shared with them about what I was experiencing, and they didn’t flinch; rather, they immediately embraced and affirmed me without hesitation. It felt right musically, in part, because their humanity showed up on the bandstand.

Seattle Star: How did you go about picking your sidemen? How does each one contribute to the mix?

Eric Reed: I tend to go younger because I always like the raw energy that less-experienced players bring to the table. It’s a challenge to work through because I’ve worked with so many incredible artists who are older, and will bring what they’re always expected to bring, but younger musicians aren’t under that pressure because they haven’t fully-developed, so there’s plenty of room to transition. If I can have any positive impact on that growth, I’ll feel like I’m giving something.

Seattle Star: What were your biggest surprises, recording the album?

Eric Reed: How quickly and efficiently we got it done, and how relaxed I was.

Seattle Star: What were the most difficult aspects of laying the album down, and how did you work through them?

Eric Reed: Making sure I was always responding to the moment versus the historical background of the music.

Seattle Star: What are your plans for the future?

Eric Reed: Continuing to evolve, expand, and emote.

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