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Jazz Philadelphia's Hometown Heroes: Spotlight on Saxophonist Sam Reed

Courtesy of the Philadelphia Jazz Project
Sam Reed

Editor's Note: Sam Reed passed away on July 7th, 2021 at age 85. Few Philadelphia musicians have had careers as rich and varied as saxophonist and bandleader Sam Reed. Born in South Carolina in 1935, Sam was six when came to live in the Point Breeze neighborhood of South Philadelphia, then home to a vibrant Black community with an active music scene.

There, Sam became fast friends and bandmates with Albert “Tootie" Heath (his lifelong best friend), Ted Curson, Bobby Timmons, Jimmy Garrison, Henry Grimes, and other future jazz greats.

Reed studied with Jimmy Heath, Tootie’s older brother, and through Heath was able to meet his jazz idols, including Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, and others.

As Sam recalls, the Heath house was a home-away-from-home for these jazz men when they were in town. “The Heath house was where all the famous people of the music world came. The first time I met Charlie Parker and his group was at the Heath’s house,” he says. “At that time, Parker’s group consisted of Miles Davis, Max Roach, Duke Jordan, and Tommy Potter. Jimmy told Charlie Parker that I wanted to play sax. He smiled and said to me,'practice all the time.' In all likelihood, these memories are probably from 1947 or 1948."

    “The Heath house was where all the famous people of the music world came. The first time I met Charlie Parker and his group was at the Heath’s house”

Reed continued, “Mrs. Heath would fix dinner for them, and they’d be at the table eating, and Tootie and I’d be sitting back, you know, just watching their mouths and everything they did. Another time J. J. Johnson and his band stopped through before a big concert at the Academy of Music. Dizzy Gillespie and some of the members of his big band also stopped through. It was an exciting time, experiencing these recording artists up close, musicians that I had only heard on records.”

Reed and his buddies formed a band in their mid-teens and began getting gigs in the neighborhood at various local African American social clubs, fraternal organizations, and community institutions. “We developed our skills in improvising by listening to records. I would use my ear to take the notes off the records and wrote them down for our band to play for house parties and dances,” Reed says.

My first gig was at the Women’s Y at 16th and Catherine streets. There was a little room on the side as you walk in the door, and they had a piano, and we would set the band up there. It was Ted Curson, Albert “Tootie” Heath, Jimmy Garrison or sometimes Henry Grimes, and Bobby Timmons or Robert Green, who also played piano.”

He then graduated to playing local venues such as Peps, the Showboat, and Spider Kelly’s, club’s in Atlantic City and Wildwood, and to leading his own band. He also played behind many jazz greats, including Billie Holiday and Sarah Vaughan, and was an in-demand '60s and '70s session player, whether it was jazz, R&B, rock ‘n roll, or soul music.

Reed’s s biggest claim-to-fame was his stint starting in 1963 as leader of the house band at North Philly’s legendary Uptown Theatre, the city’s premiere venue for Black entertainment in the '50s and '60s. He was also the first contractor for the horn players at Philadelphia International Records, playing on several hit records in the early 1970s and helping to craft the emerging “Sound of Philadelphia,” and also toured the world with Teddy Pendergrass.  

Still playing in his mid 80s, Reed is often called upon by writers and documentarians for his insights on the history of Philly’s rich music scene.

“There were a lot of great musicians that came out of Philadelphia that were good in their particular time. They were stars as far as their years, in the 1930s and '40s. What they did, they passed it on to us, to help us. And we just grabbed onto it. There were so many talented musicians here in Philly when I was growing up. Everybody just seemed to have what it takes to be a good musician. Whenever we had a chance to practice or get together, that’s what we did, so we could learn the tunes and know what we were doing with them and play them as well as we could.”