Mike Reed will unveil 'The City Was Yellow'
by Howard Reich
Last year, the Orchestre National de Jazz in France invited drummer-impresario Mike Reed to compose a suite of pieces dedicated to Chicago, where he’s based.
But Reed — founding director of the Pitchfork Music Festival, creator of the Constellation arts center and managing partner of the Hungry Brain music venue — believed he had a better idea.
“I said, ‘That’s music that’s already been written,’” he explains.
Meaning that there’s already a vast body of repertoire written by Chicagoans for and about the city.
“I’ve been working for the last couple of years — not in deep commitment, because I’ve got a bunch of other things going on — but, essentially, I’m collecting a bunch of compositions made in Chicago from 1980 to 2010,” adds Reed.
“Essentially, I’m trying to collect a ‘Real Book’ created during that time period,” says Reed, referring to collections of standard tunes that musicians sometimes use.
“For a few reasons. One, because I’ve been in other cities, like Amsterdam, where they have a project like that, and I thought it was really cool.
“If you’re in New Orleans, there are 20 or 30 local anthems that everybody has got to know. Whether you’re a reggae band or a punk-rock band or a jazz band, you have to know those tunes. I don’t think it will ever get to that point (in Chicago). It’s a different type of culture and community.
“But what if we had these little books: Let’s play this Hal Russell piece, or this Malachi Thompson tune, or this Jeff Stitely piece. It becomes a common language, a set of tunes that we all share and know.”
Inspired by this idea, Reed created for the Orchestre National de Jazz “The City Was Yellow: The Chicago Suite,” the ensemble augmented to include Reed and Chicago colleagues.
So when Hyde Park Jazz Festival artistic and executive director Kate Dumbleton invited him to participate in this year’s event, he suggested an evolved version of “The City Was Yellow,” which he will unveil Sept. 29 in the University of Chicago’s Logan Center Performance Hall.
“I wanted to see if I could restage this in a place where the musical pieces of it hopefully will be meaningful to musicians,” says Reed.
“I’m going to change it a little from France. There are things I will tweak. I’m waiting on (former Chicagoan) Nicole Mitchell to get me something.”
Reed’s efforts to build this body of made-in-Chicago work have been underwritten, in part, by a $50,000 United States Artists Fellowship Award he received in 2016. He estimates that he’ll ultimately gather 50-75 tunes. And he believes he knows what will happen once he has done so.
“People will say: Why isn’t so-and-so in here?’” notes Reed.
“If people start saying that, then we’ve done the job. Because, yes, we should be talking about all those tunes: Go get them!
“I don’t have to be comprehensive. It’s for everybody else to dig in and investigate.”
How all of this translates into a concert performance won’t be known until Reed and friends perform at the Hyde Park Jazz Festival. But considering that he’s working with originals by guitarist Jeff Parker (a former Chicagoan), saxophonist Edward Wilkerson Jr., cornetist Rob Mazurek, reedist Geof Bradfield and himself, among others, it’s clear that “The City Was Yellow” will encompass a wide stylistic range.
“I’m trying to make a concrete set,” says Reed of the forthcoming performance. “Some of the music is different: straight-ahead stuff, experimental stuff. I’m trying to have a really nice set of music that flows together.”
As for his pivotal role as Chicago arts presenter, “When I got in the game of putting on shows, it was out of a need — we had to find a place to play, because we needed a gig, and there weren’t a lot of places.
“Fast-forward now, 20 years later, there’s a lot of stuff going on, a lot of creative music series.”
A significant measure of the credit goes to Reed.
Mike Reed and colleagues perform “The City Was Yellow: The Chicago Suite” at 7:30 p.m. Sept. 29 in the University of Chicago’s Logan Center for the Arts, 915 E. 60th St., during the Hyde Park Jazz Festival; visit www.hydeparkjazzfestival.org.