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Eric Reed steps into his "whole and authentic self," in life as in music

courtesy of the artist

Eric Reed has never given the impression of holding anything back in his music. From his earliest work on record more than 30 years ago, he’s been a pianist of sanctified fire and soulful finesse, with a disposition well captured by one of his album titles: It’s All Right to Swing. Over the last decade, on a series of albums for the Smoke Sessions label, Reed’s musical output has graduated into a mature, lyrical phase, honoring the most elegant tradition of modern jazz.

With his latest, Black, Brown, and Blue, Reed begins a forthright new era as an artist and a person. The album features his trio with Luca Alemanno on bass and Reggie Quinerly on drums, and includes songs by all three musicians. But what makes it a breakthrough is Reed’s own decision to live openly as a member of the LGBTQIA community — an acknowledgment he made to his own family late last year, and publicly this spring. “Whatever it costs to live out your life authentically — pay it; it’s totally worth it,” Reed writes in the liner notes to the album, which sequences the Horace Silver ballad “Peace” beside McCoy Tyner’s “Search For Peace,” with intention.

“I have never been more at peace in any time of my life than I am right at this very moment,” he tells Greg Bryant in an unguarded interview that touches on their mutual foundation in the Black church; the repressive aspects of jazz culture in the ‘90s and beyond; the freedom in finally living fully in one’s own truth; and the hope inspired by a new generation. Here is a lightly edited transcript of the conversation, which WRTI is honored to feature as we begin Pride Month 2023.

The new record is Black, Brown, and Blue, and I want to do just a little bit of free association to get us started. You chose some great tunes that I am listening to differently after having read your liner notes. “Infant Eyes,” a favorite of mine — what does that mean to you? 

Wayne Shorter has long been a significant part of my musical growth, in terms of his playing and his compositions. I'm more heavily influenced by his compositions than by his playing, largely because he plays saxophone, and I play piano. So that combined with my experience and my work in gospel music and church; all of those things came together. I’m now at the place where it's finally lined up perfectly. Earlier on it used to be: “Well, gospel music is over here, and jazz is over here.” There were all of these boundaries, and never the twain shall meet. And I said, “Gosh, there's gotta be a different way to do this.” So doing “Infant Eyes” in the vein of a slow gospel dirge makes perfect sense, in my head. I don't know that anybody else would have heard it that way, which is fine because they're not me. I wanted to honor the composition in a way that was respectful of Wayne Shorter, so I kept the melody exact. I tried not to embellish too much. But the chord changes are all mine, and I felt that was the best way to not only honor and serve myself and serve the music, but to honor and serve Wayne Shorter.

My mind was awakened, while you were giving that response, to that gospel music tradition. I hate the term “PK,” but I am one; my father is clergy. And he also introduced me to jazz. But I think about the artistry that comes out of the Black church, and more specifically, examples like yourself, like Johnny O'Neal. like Cyrus Chestnut, who are unashamed to take that tradition and to manifest it before an audience that may or may not believe like we believe. Can you talk about the confluence of the artistry in the Black church, and having that as sacred — when maybe some of the rhetoric of the Black church can be confining, or restrictive, or maybe even…

Problematic. Let’s just jump right to it.

Yeah. Mmhmm.

Well, just to recap a little bit of history: going as far back as Fats Waller and Count Basie, all of these musicians who were very much connected with the church in these Black communities. Louis Armstrong, New Orleans. All of that is certainly blended through our cultures and through our dynamics, through our neighborhoods and the way we grew up. Up through Bobby Timmons, and Horace Silver, and Hampton Hawes, and Carl Perkins, and Sonny Clark, and Thelonious Monk. It just goes on and on, all the way up to today, to Ulysses Owens and McClenty Hunter. I'm trying to think of some of the even younger artists; I'm not really entirely hip on who's in their twenties now, I'm kind of off the scene. But that particular dynamic has not ended, with regard to the musicians who are in jazz music that have come up in the church. It’s still as prevalent as it ever was. You mentioned Cyrus Chestnut and Johnny O'Neal, musicians who didn't shy away from bringing that sound to the audience — in part because it's all we know. It would be like trying to extract a part of ourselves, and then leave it over there. We can't be real artists if we take things out. We're always digesting and bringing things in.

Mmhmm.

It goes back to a couple of different things. The narrative in the church that encourages people to come as you are, or “Come to Jesus,” or “Just as I am.” Right? But the conflict is that yes, come, but you have to change, and leave those things out there. It’s an automatic mixed signal, or mixed message. And then, when you talk about not being ashamed of presenting or offering these sounds in our music with our audiences, immediately the Scripture comes to mind: “I am not ashamed of the gospel of Jesus Christ, for it is the power of God unto salvation.” And “If anyone is ashamed of me and my message, then I will be ashamed of him.” All of these writings that create such conflict, and are so problematic in the way that they're interpreted, and in the way that they are lived out. And I'm sure if you speak with Cyrus and Johnny O'Neill and Ulysses Owens and McClenty Hunter and Willie Jones and Gerald Cannon and Dezron Douglas — most of us are preachers’ kids, or at least our fathers or our brothers sing in gospel quartets. We had some type of proximity to the church, or are into gospel music. I believe they will all share the same points of view, in terms of being so enamored with the music — not really taking in the words so much, because there was an intrinsic conflict. It was like, “Wait a minute. That didn't sound quite right.” I believe what we've managed to do is take the music, make it personal, take some of the messages, and try to process them as best we possibly can, and still keep some semblance of sanity.

It's not easy. I remember Todd Williams, a saxophone player that doesn't get talked about a whole lot, Todd played with Wynton Marsalis from 1986 or ‘87 until about 1991. He had come in and out of the Septet a couple different times, because the entire time he struggled spiritually with regard to whether or not he was supposed to be playing jazz. Because the narrative, at least when I was growing up, was: “God gave you that gift, so you're supposed to use that gift for the Lord.” But I have an opportunity to take this gift and go out and make me some money, and y'all ain't trying to pay me. So again, these conflicts. And we're seeing today, finally, the Great Divide. We're finally seeing things for what they are.

I was a teenager in the ‘90s, and at that time I resonated with the power of the swing that you guys played. And outside of a musical context, I could see that my love for athletics somehow was being satisfied by listening to this music. Not only was it competitive in a way, not only was it high-charged, but there was a machismo to it that I now wonder about. So I wanted to ask you: Do you think that certain brands of swing have been equated perhaps, with a hypermasculinity? Yes or no.

I can't do yes or no, but I can say: I don't know about machismo and the music itself, but I can speak to toxic masculinity. So even if you juxtapose the John Coltrane Quartet from the 1960s and Dave Brubeck’s Quartet from the same period. Some might view John Coltrane's quartet as the absolute, quintessential, strong, Black, African music: all of them were dark, each one of them was blacker than the other, you know. Then you look at the Dave Brubeck Quartet, which was a softer sound, they didn't play real loud, there was one Black guy in the group. I wouldn't say that Coltrane’s music itself had machismo in it, but I would definitely say that there was a prevailing imagery. You know, all these musicians who were big guys, and it was about bravura and cutting each other on the bandstand. That went all throughout all the decades of the music.

I was watching a documentary on YouTube celebrating Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue, and you hear all these guys talking about how Kind of Blue was not just this landmark record, but it was a record that was good for making love to your lady. It was always about the woman being seduced, right? So there is that kind of toxicity that you just hear from these guys of a certain age group who just talk about it cavalierly. That was the prevailing attitude and energy about how men and women interact. So it was always this heteronormative narrative, this heteronormative idea about what sex was, what sexiness was. And all the while, a lot of these guys were very fluid in their sexuality. But it wasn't the right time; it wasn't safe for them to be out. They had their communities, and they protected each other, and people didn't talk about it, and that was that. But literally, all throughout the history of this music, gays have always been there. Tony Jackson, piano player, Dick Voynow, who played with Bix Beiderbecke and the Paul Whiteman Orchestra. Bix Beiderbecke. It was a little-known secret about Billie Holiday and Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith. But again, it just wasn't the timing where it was safe. Billy Strayhorn was unusual. He managed to be protected by Duke and by the band — but also because Billy Strayhorn was not trying to be really out in front, anyway. Had he been more of a leader, it might have been problematic. Same thing with the writing team of Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart. Everybody knew Lorenz Hart was gay, so it wasn't a big deal. But again, the way they had to live their lives so quietly, so undercover, so closeted. You know, it had an impact — because both of them, Billy Strayhorn and Lorenz Hart, were alcoholics. But a lot of those guys were fluid in their sexuality. It's just safer to talk about it now.

You mentioned that safety, and I think about when I first learned in the early 2000s about musicians I respect like Fred Hersch and Gary Burton being out of the closet, and saying, ‘Hey, yes, I am a member of the LGBTQIA community.” Did you feel unsafe, Eric, in the ‘90s and early 2000s when you were first coming to public prominence? 

I wouldn't say I felt unsafe in terms of my life being in danger. But I felt unsafe in terms of my social assimilation. I didn't feel it was safe for me to be able to discuss it, or be it, or embrace it. Because nobody else in my circle was, because they all presented straight. Only to find out they all weren't, but we were all kind of dealing with the same kind of trauma. So nobody really went there. That's where the toxic masculinity really manifested, though. You've heard people talking about, you know, calling James Williams a sissy and a ****** behind his back. And so I heard that. And I I witnessed that. I learned from that. I said, “Well, no, I won't be authentic anytime soon.” Even though I knew they were doing that behind my back anyway, I certainly didn't want to have it in my face.

The jazz pianist Eric Reed and his group, with saxophonist Seamus Blake, at Dizzy's Club on June 12, 2007.
Hiroyuki Ito/Getty Images
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Hulton Archive
The jazz pianist Eric Reed and his group, with saxophonist Seamus Blake, at Dizzy's Club on June 12, 2007.

For me, at that time, it seemed more practical, it seemed safer, to live closeted. Regardless of what the perception was. As long as I didn't have to face the actual reality of it, on a day-to-day basis, I can play in the reindeer games. I could sit and talk about chasing women, and whatever else alpha males talk about. And I could feel safe in that environment at that time. Then when I was by myself, I could just go ahead and just be my general, queer, fluid self. But I had to bring my straight representative to the bandstand and on the road. Because it's a very intimate situation when you're on the road with a bunch of guys. You're on buses. Sometimes you're sharing hotel rooms. And insecure straight men need to feel as though you're not going to hit on them. Because God forbid they should then understand what it feels like when they hit on women, and their advances are rejected. But you know, these situations were kind of precarious. I had to be really deft in how I maneuvered. There were a couple of musicians that I was actually able to be honest and authentic with back in those days. And it was tough on them, because people would ask them questions about me. And as far as I can tell, they did a decent job of trying to protect — not so much my image, but protect our friendship. Because we were very, very close friends. They really wanted to respect me as a person and let me know that they were there for me, that they didn't judge me. That meant a great deal.

I think about being at The Met Opera when Terence Blanchard unveiledFire Shut Up in My Bones. And this intersection of Black culture, LGBTQIA culture, religion, artistry — it was just overwhelming. And one question I left there with was: Does repression have a musical representation? Does freedom have a musical representation? And in jazz, a music that is supposed to be the epitome of freedom, why is there all of this repression? Do you think there is hope for the jazz community?

Yes. And I'm already seeing it in young musicians like Charles Turner II. Charanee Wade. This young lady from Chicago, Alexis Lombre. There is hope largely in part because of Gen Z; they're here for it. The two Justins from Tennessee, Jones and Pearson, and they are giving the system hell. They're saying, “Come hell or high water, our voices are going to be heard. We are going to own who we are. We are going to decide who we are, not you. We are going to determine who we are and what spaces we're going to go into, not you.” And I love that.

I'll be 53 in a couple of weeks. We came up very much in a generation where you did not buck up against the authority figures, especially in the church. Oh, God, no, no, no. You didn't question that. You were very respectful to Sister so-and-so, and Elder so-and-so, and Bishop so-and-so, and the Jurisdictional Pastor so-and-so. You did not challenge what they said. What they said was law. It might not have been right, it might have been quite problematic. But you didn’t buck up against it. We grew up respectful, but we grew up oppressed and traumatized. And we recognized that when it came time to raise our children. We said, ‘’OK, we're going to do something a little bit different.” Some of our parents we've been able to have conversations with and say, “Listen, Dad, You know, a lot of that stuff just was not cool.” And the normal response was, “Well, we were just doing what we thought was right. We didn't know.” And yeah, I understand that. But here's what you have to understand. Now I now need you to take accountability for the things that I feel, the things that I don't understand, the way I've turned out. You did a great job, buuuut I'm in therapy because you wouldn't go. [Laughs]

So I love my Gen X brothers and sisters, because we stand in the gap between the Boomers and the Silent Generation, the Millennials and Gen. Z. We're catching hell on both sides because we're trying to keep them from killing each other. We're trying to be the referee, you know. But I'm here for it. Seriously, that's kind of where I feel I'm most effective — trying to not so much to bridge the gap, but just stand in the gap.

Keith Wilson

I didn't think about it like that. That's the truth. And where you are now, taking over for Professor Donald Brown at UT Knoxville… 

I've succeeded Donald Brown as piano instructor, and I also teach some ensembles and some academic courses.

Here's where I was going with that: basically moving to a red state with these blue pockets…

During the pandemic.

Exactly. It's funny, we crisscrossed. I moved to New York right before the pandemic. What have you encountered, moving and working in arts spaces in Knoxville, Tennessee, and the state in general?

Whew. Well, you know, it's West Tennessee, Middle Tennessee and East Tennessee. And I learned very quickly it was not Central Tennessee, it's Middle Tennessee. So you really have three states. East Tennessee and Knoxville in particular: lovely, quiet, safe college town. So long as you stay in Metropolitan Knoxville. You start going a little further north, it's 1825. But I stay right here in my little college-town lane.

I hear you. 

But my experience here has been tremendous, because I thought I was coming here to be a professor at a university. That's what my salary is for, that's what I get paid to do, and that's why I came here. Little did I know that this was where I was going to finally manifest as my whole and authentic self. You couldn't have paid me to believe that that would happen here. Knoxville will always hold a very special place in my journey, because of everything that happened for me here personally. When I was in L.A. in the summer of 2019, that fateful summer where I was offered the job and I had all these plans. I said, “OK, I can do this.” But 2020 was about to be the year that I was going to make more money than I had made in my entire career. I was going to be out of the country about six or seven times. There were so many things that were on the horizon that were just looking up. And I talked to a lot of musicians who said the same thing. And then the universe said, “Yeah, not so much.”

 Mmhmm.

And I was already feeling some kind of way personally, because I was just not really happy. I wasn't happy spiritually. My health was in jeopardy. I was obese. I was just not in a good place.

So I said, “OK, change the scenery, change the plans, that'll do me some good.” What I didn't know was that I would come here and realize that I could create a completely brand new Negro.

Everybody knew me in L.A. — my family, my friends, the scene. Everybody knew me in New York, so I couldn't go back there. I said, “New place, new me.” And when I came here and realized that nobody knew me, I said, “I can really just be myself.” So I began to pick a person here or there that I could trust to begin to openly discuss my sexuality. And once I tested the waters there, it just started feeling more comfortable. And every time I was able to have that conversation it felt great, being able to present the truest version of myself. This is who I am.

Yes, I'm a jazz musician. Yes, I'm Black. Yes, I'm a preacher’s kid. But this is also a part of me, a very large part of me that I for decades did not own or face fully and honestly. And now here in Knoxville, of all places, I have come into myself. That's like, “What? What?” OK. But now that I've done that, it's time to go on to the next assignment. I’m kind of a nester. We were raised this way: You go someplace, get you a good job, buy you a house, get your partner and have some kids, and that's where you stay for 30, 40 years. Because that's what our parents did.

Sure.

You know, my parents have lived in three homes, in their 50 years of marriage. Some people live and die in that same house. I know a lot of folks like that in Philly: they've lived and died in those homes. But my parents had a home in Philly for 15 years, and then in L.A. for another 15 years, and then finally retirement, a final 15 years. I figured, OK, I'm gonna have to just kind of do what my parents did. And all the while thinking, “Dude, you're not your father. You're not your mother. You don't have to do life that way.” But that's kind of what they told me, and they had no idea what to do with me as a traveling musician. They didn't know how to advise me. They just didn't know what to do. But I finally realized that, you know what? I gotta go with the wind blows. Home is where I hang my hat. I came here to Knoxville kind of defeated. I came here thinking, “Well, this is my final chapter. This is it. I'm an older cat. I'm off the scene. I'll just do this. I'll stay here ‘til retirement. Get me my pension. Retire at 70, buy a house, and then kind of just fade into academia.” I'm not putting academia down. I'm saying that's how I felt about my connection to academia. Some people love it, they absolutely love it, and it's their thing, and God bless you in your ministry. But me, I need assignments. I sometimes feel like a reporter. You know, a reporter is always looking for the next story, and as an artist I certainly don't want to disintegrate. I don't want to rot away. This last year, I started feeling a little antsy, and I recognized that feeling twice before and didn't do anything about it. Third time’s the charm. I said, “OK, I'm feeling that urge again. Time to pick up and move.” So I'm already packing boxes. I have no idea what's next, not a clue, Greg. I don't care, because either way, God's got me.

Wow. 

Wherever I land, I'm gonna be fine. It might not be the softest landing, you know, because as you get old you’ve got to bend the knees. [Laughs] I got to keep it moving.

Yessir.

So that's what Knoxville has meant to me. It's been very much a place of transition, but a place of manifestation. This is my chrysalis, you know the caterpillar and the butterfly. And artistically I've had to kind of insulate, because Knoxville is a college town. So it's football, marching band and church. That's basically what's going on, and then you can fit something else in there, fine. But for the most part, the more intense artistic engagement or activity, or is going to happen nearby, in Atlanta or Charlotte or Nashville.

Just to do a bit of a bookend, I want to ask you about two more tunes on your album: Horace Silver’s “Peace” and McCoy Tyner’s “Search for Peace.” What is Eric Reed’s vision of what those songs mean and what those melodies resonate in 2023?

I have never been more at peace in any time of my life than I am right at this very moment — and have been since December, when I finally was able to have those conversations with my family members about my sexuality. And just being more and more open about it, there's a sense of calm that comes over me when I realized that I'm at this place in my life where I'm just me. You don't have to accept it. I accept it. And for decades, I refused to accept it. I didn't know how to accept it. I couldn't accept it. I didn't want it, because of the narratives: going to hell and fire and brimstone. Once I finally came to the realization that God loves me, that He created me, and that He loves me as I am. And that He just wants me to love other people and myself, and accept his love, just accept his love, it was like this overwhelming kind of like: “Huh. I could have had this 30 years ago.” Or could I?

Mmm.

But it also aligned with going to therapy: I finally started doing that, dealing with my anxiety, labeling it, understanding it. Serotonin and all the chemicals and all that kind of stuff. And the weight loss journey. Over a year, I lost 50 pounds, and I worked hard. I felt good about myself. But then, when I finally was able to embrace all of who I was, I didn't know where I was going to find my community. There are queer people in Knoxville. but there's no queer community, because it's still the South. You know, Knoxville is by no means a liberal town. There are liberal leanings, and there are liberal smatterings, and there are people who just don't say certain things out loud because there are going to be consequences. But it's by no means a liberal town. I couldn't find my community at the school or in my neighborhood. So I I joined dating apps. And that's where I found my community. Coming out as an older man is problematic. And it's kind of something that I really want to get into hopefully via a podcast or YouTube channel, something like that. The idea of coming out later. Coming out when you're younger is its own thing. But coming out much later, that's a very unique and special demographic of men and women out there who are having trouble trying to find out where they fit in.

And you know, those two songs, “Peace” and “Search for Peace,” have always meant a great deal to me musically. I've always just loved loved loved playing those songs, especially since 2016, when peace is what we needed so much. And what we've needed is what we have needed, because it's been pretty much just turmoil. So I try to do my small part by playing those songs as much as I possibly can, and recording them. Knowing that it's cathartic for me, that I get healing by playing those songs — and hopefully somebody else can receive some healing from them as well. And those two songs have just come to mean so much more to me than jazz standards.

It's a sense of peace. And I'm on TikTok all the time, and Instagram, and I see these racists ramping up and doubling down, and I go, “That's a shame.” But then I see the 2 Justins doing their work. I see Dara Starr Tucker on TikTok. I see Donnell Wright. I see all these wonderful content creators giving me hope, and saying, “Listen, we're going to do the work. We're going to do the research. We're going to write this stuff. We're going to create the content for your consumption, for your edification. And I just get a sense of peace. I really, really do. There's a song, I forgot the composer's name, but he wrote this hymn when his wife and children perished on a ship back in the 1800s. And you know how it goes: “When peace like a river tends my way / When sorrows like sea billows roll / Whatever my lot, God has taught me to say / ‘It is well, it is well with my soul.’” This is life. This is where we are. I'm going to fight until I can't fight any more.

Mmhmm.

I also love another song: “We are soldiers in the army / We've got to fight although we have to cry / We've got to hold up the blood-stained banner / We've got to hold it up until we die.” And then the verse goes: “My mother was a soldier / She had her hand on the Gospel plow.” I love those lyrics. “But one day she got old / And couldn't fight anymore / But she said, ‘I'll stay here and fight on anyhow.’” And this is what I tell younger people. Listen, I'm not gonna be in the front lines with y'all. I can't. I'm too old for the front line. I can't be going to jail, but I will support you from behind. I'll donate money. I'll make signs. I'll bring bottles of water. I make sandwiches. The young folks are out there. They need our support, and however we can give it to them. But I'm not strong enough for the front line. I'm just not. I was when I was 25, not at 52. That's just life.

Sure.

On the front line, you need strong fighters. You need your best soldiers on the frontline. and these young people are doing. They're showing up. That's where I am, brother.

It's been a treat talking to you, Eric. Thank you for making time.

Of course. I appreciate you, man.

Greg Bryant has been a longtime curator of improvisational music as a broadcaster, writer, host and musician. As a young child, he began absorbing the artistry of Miles Davis, Les McCann, Jimmy Smith, James Brown, Ornette Coleman, Weather Report, and Jimi Hendrix via his parent's record collection. He was so moved by what he was experiencing that he took pride in relaying all of his discoveries with anyone who would listen.
Nate Chinen has been writing about music for more than 25 years. He spent a dozen of them working as a critic for The New York Times, and helmed a long-running column for JazzTimes. As Editorial Director at WRTI, he oversees a range of classical and jazz coverage, and contributes regularly to NPR.