Neo-Nazi Scare Becomes Inspiration for Jazz Drummer Mike Reed

Categories: Chicago Magazine

Reed’s stunning new album, Flesh and Bone, reflects the experience of everyday prejudice.


If the best jazz is born of trauma, Mike Reed’s Flesh and Bone is an extreme example. The 42-minute album (out August 25) was inspired by a violent run-in the drummer had with neo-Nazis in 2009.

While on tour in Europe, Reed, who is black, and the rest of his quartet, one of whom is also black, were told by a train conductor to make a connection in Prerov, Czech Republic. There they found themselves trapped between riot police and hundreds of skinheads pouring into town for a rally. The band hid out in a secluded part of the station for more than four hours before escaping, with the aid of police, on a train to Warsaw.

The terror wasn’t over: Skinheads on board chased them through the cars. Train employees and a small SWAT team eventually came to the rescue, but the harrowing experience still haunts Reed. The Near West Side resident, age 43, discusses using that incident as inspiration for the new piece, which he will perform at his Lake View club Constellation on July 28.

The episode sounds terrifying, but you believe you were set up, which is even scarier.

Right. That’s what my money’s on. We found out after the fact that the rally had been well publicized. The town was shut down for it. And we also found out that there was never any connection to Kraków in Prerov. Transferring in Prerov would be like transferring in downtown Wilmette, except without a big city like Chicago near it. So why did the conductor tell us to get off there?

Was there any recourse or investigation?

No, the police were just trying to get us out of there. I did want to thank the officer who helped us, but all I had were some records and a photography book about Chicago jazz, so I gave him those. Three weeks later, the guy sends a message to our record label’s Myspace page, saying, “Dear friends, we’re sorry for such a bad day in the Czech Republic. Thank you for your music,” with a picture of him holding the book.

When did you know you wanted to turn the experience into music?

It took about a year, and it was difficult. I didn’t want to exploit the experience for the sake of making a record, and I didn’t want to make my “black record.” It took a while to figure out a way of doing it that I felt spiritually OK about.

And what was that way?

Mainly, I wanted to use the experience to reflect on everyday prejudice—to distill it down to something mundane and simple. If I were to make a piece of music that just reflected the rally in Prerov—like, “Look at me and my grand experience”—that would separate me from everybody else. Parables, myths, origin stories—they’re big things we use to talk about the everyday world. Most of the time, we don’t live in those grand spaces.

How did the songs come together?

We recorded that 2009 tour, so I started by going back and listening to those tracks. I’d pick an improvised nugget and use that to get started. A lot of times, I’d write out a phrase on paper, then have my bandmate Greg Ward play it on alto sax so I could hear it. The band on Flesh and Bone is my quartet from that tour, plus a few more people.

So you wrote the piece with your band in mind?

I don’t think there’s a reason to make music without thinking of who’s going to play it. That’s why Duke Ellington had a band on the road with him at all times. He needed to hear the music as he wrote it, with each person playing their specific part.

You tapped the poet Marvin Tate to do spoken word on a few songs. Why?

I wanted to lean on other art forms. Words balance people’s expectations of a piece. When they hear words, all of a sudden they’re not just listening to a jazz concert. It’s almost like putting makeup on the album. Marvin also has the voice of this band, in the same way Amiri Baraka is the voice of the New York Art Quartet. Sometimes I couldn’t even understand what Marvin was saying, so I cut up the poems and rearranged them to create the meaning I wanted.

Hate groups in the United States were mobilized during the last election. Did that add new meaning to the music?

Unfortunately. My experience was the first glimpse of it. In Europe, those sentiments have been evolving for some time because of the refugee crisis. But in the U.S., race is quite literally what the country was built on. It’s a defining piece of American history. Racism has never gone away, there are just more eyes on it now. In America, there’s this thought that because we had a civil rights movement, things are done. But that’s just a pin on the timeline.

How did this experience affect you outside of music?

I’m definitely more cautious in Europe—even Western Europe. And as a listener, I’ve been more cognizant of finding music that is truthful. In jazz, there’s a lot of mythmaking that happens—really intense jazz players with all this crazy philosophical BS behind their music. I really don’t believe that stuff. I’m much more interested in finding honesty in music.

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