One of the many memorable quotes left to us by novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald is his observation that, “There are no second acts in American lives,” which has been widely interpreted to mean that we can never recover from early failures. This is a downer really, because it implies that to be truly successful one must live a perfect life with no missteps or pitfalls. This, of course, is disconcerting for those of us who’ve already made the initial blunder of being born human.
In 2014, Ed Reed won Downbeat magazine’s Rising Star Male Vocalist Award, a significant accomplishment in and of itself, but all the more amazing considering that Reed won the prize at the tender age of 86.
His earliest memories of music and singing in the Cleveland, Ohio apartment where his mother toiled as a laundress. Relocating to the Los Angeles community of Watts, Reed grew up in a rich musical environment of inordinately talented residents, who became famous in their own right. At one time or another, Reed had a nodding acquaintance or crossed paths with such luminaries as (reedman) Buddy Collette, (saxophonist) Big Jay McNelly, (vocalist) Bobby Nunn, and (vocalist) Little Esther Phillips.
Directly across the street from Reed’s house at 10321 Grape St. lived the sister of iconic jazz bassist Charles Mingus, who generously allowed the young Reed to visit while he babysat for his sister. Mingus also taught him to sing to chord changes.
The oppression of the outside world manifested itself early on, as Reed, an apt pupil with academic leanings, was given no encouragement to pursue his scholastic ambitions. In a scenario reminiscent of Malcolm X’s memoirs, the faculty at David Starr Jordan High School squashed his early desire to take up debating and instead steered him towards shoe making. This, coupled with inevitably abusive interactions with the police, damaged his already fragile psyche.
Discouraged from educational pursuits, Reed ran away and joined the army, where another, far more ominous threat lay before him. A duty station in the Bay Area was a double-edged sword because he was near the people who created the music that he dearly loved. Unfortunately, his contemporaries who shared this passion thought of themselves as being “cool,” and adopted the “hipster” lifestyle, which meant the consumption of heroin.
Like most novices, the idea of injecting opiates into his veins revolted him, but the specter of peer pressure won out as his peers delivered the ultimatum: “If you ain’t gonna shoot dope—split!”
All this put a damper on his own fledgling musical career and aspirations (he’d made appearances singing in talent shows around Central Avenue and elsewhere), and plunged him downwards into a vortex that dominated the next 30 years of his life; he became immersed into the criminal and drug subculture of the 1950s and ‘60s.
Looking back, he ascribes his vulnerability to the scourge of addiction as a result of his low self-esteem and fear of success. He didn’t have the fortitude to stand up to the external pressures surrounding him.
These flaws, of course, impacted his military duties, resulting in the mixed blessing of a general discharge for his inability to adjust to military life.
Narcotics addiction is a cruel mistress that demands total commitment of all the resources of those under her sway. In Reed’s words, he “…had no money to waste on food or lodging.”
Over the years, Reed made two dozen attempts to kick the habit, but it’s overriding demands won out, even if it meant his demotion into the morass of homelessness. It also aggravated his precarious relationship with law enforcement, and led to his 1951 incarceration on a drug conviction. He eventually chalked up three stints in San Quentin Prison and one in Folsom.
Prison did have its bright moments. He ran across several old cronies from his musical/narcotic wanderings, including alto saxophonists Frank Morgan (a fellow addict and crime partner in all the illicit activities used to raise their currency for heroin) and Art Pepper (another addict and acquaintance from Reed’s initial forays into the drug life).
Years before Reed went to prison, a reform-minded warden had taken stock of the considerable talent on lock down, and determined that music would have a therapeutic effect on his inmates. Soon, the San Quentin Jazz Band was formed, giving Reed the opportunity to vocalize in front of some of the most gifted musicians on the West Coast, many of them locked up as a result of the dual stigma of heroin use and punitive drug laws.
He also had the opportunity to restart his abbreviated educational pursuits by becoming an assistant in the library. This caused him to cross paths with an inmate notable for something other than musical talent: the militant prison activist George L. Jackson.
When Reed made his rounds delivering books to Jackson, a chronic resident of solitary confinement who became the best-selling author of “Soledad Brother” and “Blood in My Eye,” and a left-wing Messiah, Jackson would respond by spitting on his benefactor.
Long before he became a cause célèbre in radical circles, Jackson was notorious for his violent behavior and disciplinary issues, and complicity in every prison racket imaginable, from drug trafficking to homosexual prostitution and loan-sharking. To him, Reed was a “rat,” working for the man, but alternatively Jackson’s bad behavior became a learning aid that provided insight into Reed’s own, inner demons.
Anger is a fixture for many African Americans like Jackson, who merely took it up to a much higher level. When he finally died during a botched prison escape, he garnered no sympathy from those who’d associated with him; his file chronicled his inclination for assaulting inmates and guards indiscriminately. Many dismissed his death with the opinion that “…he had it coming.”
Eventually Reed became more philosophical about the legacy of George Jackson.
“He was doing the best he could …” with what he had, Reed believes.
His association with this legendary hell-raiser helped Reed to “…quit believing my anger was helpful.”
Extracurricular activities like music were not a “magic bullet” able to counter the inmate’s deviant behavior, and Reed continued to struggle with the “monkey on his back” for years as he traversed the revolving door of incarceration and the relative freedom of parole.
The regiment of bouncing in and out of jail found him at a religious retreat in the Tassajara Hot Springs in Big Sur in the 1980s, where he encountered a Buddhist priest. Taking note of Reed’s clearly agitated emotional state, the clergyman consoled him with the assurance that: “There’s nothing wrong with you.”
Tibetan Buddhist author and nun Pema Chödrön, influenced Reed to reverse the cycle of negative or self-destructive behavior, which is often the result of anger. Holding anger is especially applicable to Black people.
“We believe in being mad.”
Today, Reed enjoys the benefits of a recording career that started with his debut Compact Disc release when he was 78 years old. This however, is not his primary focus. He considers it the savory “dessert” for the main entrée of his true calling as a conduit to help others on their path to shed the shackles of substance abuse.
The velvety baritone that coaxes every last drop of emotion out of a lyric proves to be equally adaptable to public speaking.
Summing up the lessons of his lifetime, Reed notes the inherent patterns of human existence, positive and negative.
“What you live you learn, what you learn you practice, what you practice you become, and what you become has consequences.”
To hear the vocal stylings of Ed Reed as he practices what he’s become, go to http://www.edreedsings.com/.