In December 2021, WUOT—the National Public Radio station licensed to the University of Tennessee, Knoxville—named Artist in Residence and Lecturer in Jazz Piano Eric Reed the Monday host of its Improvisations jazz series.
“Our regular Improvisations listeners will already be familiar with him, as his albums have been in heavy rotation on WUOT for many years,” said WUOT Music Director Todd Steed in his announcement. “If you love his music, you will love his playlist!”</p>
In his 33-year career as a pianist, Reed, 51, has recorded some 30 albums and played with jazz greats like Freddie Hubbard, Joe Henderson, and Benny Carter.
“When you think of hard-driving swing, daring expression, sophistication and elegance in artistry, formidable technique and a thunderous sound,” says the All About Jazz website, “there are only a very small handful of contemporary pianists you think of, and one of them is most assuredly Eric Reed. But don’t think of him as a just a pianist; Eric is one of his generation’s most advanced thinkers in music.”
Born in Philadelphia in 1970, Reed started playing piano at age two. At five he was playing in the storefront Baptist church where his father, Dave, preached and sang. When Reed was 11, his dad got a job with Northrop Grumman in Los Angeles, where Reed got his formal piano training at the R. D. Colburn School of Arts. At his neighborhood library, he listened to jazz albums by Ahmad Jamal, Erroll Garner, Oscar Peterson, and McCoy Tyner. “By the time I was 13,” he says. “I had digested all the standard jazz recordings that working musicians were expected to know.”
When Reed was almost 16, Wynton Marsalis came to Colburn to teach a master class.
“He had a bunch of us playing,” says Reed. “A couple of years later he reached back out.”Starting at 18, Reed played with Marsalis’s septet on and off for five years. He also played with Ray Brown, John Clayton, Patti LaBelle, and other top musicians. He went out on his own permanently in 1999.
After a performance by Reed’s quartet in 2007, Ben Ratliff wrote in the New York Times,
“Mr. Reed is an intensely upbeat presence. Where most jazz pianists after McCoy Tyner and Herbie Hancock grew introspective, he has gone the other way, toward harder work with the right hand and bright harmonies.”
In 2019 Reed was playing with the Knoxville Jazz Orchestra when Vance Thompson, trumpeter and lecturer in studio music and jazz in UT’s School of Music, asked him,
“Have you ever thought about teaching?” Reed thought about it and replied, “It would have to be the right situation.”As it happened, Professor of Jazz Piano Donald Brown was getting ready to retire.
“I was set up,” says Reed with a smile. “Vance was just putting some feelers out. But I was hired a year later. It couldn’t have worked out more smoothly if I had planned it myself. When he was offered the job at UT, Reed was working on the movie Babylon, with Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie, and Olivia Wilde, which is scheduled to come out in December. “It’s a period piece, about the 1930s,” says Reed, who played on the score and in onscreen shots at a Hollywood pool party and in a ballroom.
Amid the pandemic, Reed and his brother, sister, and niece drove from LA to Knoxville. He took up his duties with the students with the limitations of the day.
“We taught online,” he recalls. “No one could go to the recitals. They could rehearse online for only 30 minutes. But these students, they powered through. They didn’t make excuses; they stepped up to bat and really knocked it out of the park.”
“I didn’t know that I would fall in love with teaching. It’s the daily interactions with the students. They’re so hungry, so eager, so respectful, so appreciative. My students give me daily and weekly challenges to do more research on my own as they explore pieces more familiar to them that are closer to their generation.”
In late 2021, Reed was chatting with Steed and said,
“I would like to do a special show.” Steed asked, “Is this a one-time thing or ongoing?” Reed asked, “Is ongoing an option?” Steed said it most certainly was. “The rest is history,” says Reed, now the Monday host of Improvisations.
“I like to share music from different artists and the unlikeliest of jazz musicians in unlikely contexts. I love music that can cross-pollinate.” One show featured songs with titles containing American slang. Two examples were Ray Charles’s “Hit the Road, Jack” and Dolly Parton’s “I Get a Kick Out of You.” “One voicemail came through after the Dolly Parton song from a young lady saying how much she was enjoying the show. I’m not sure these same listeners would have felt obliged to call later into the show when I played Miles Davis’s ‘Hand Jive.’”
Hosting Improvisations presents challenges of its own: After his first show, Reed got a call from his 85-year-old mother, Jacquie, in Southern California.
“She listens to the show, every one,” says Reed. “After the first show she calls me and she has a legal pad of notes, and I have to sit there and hear it. I say, ‘I’m not 10 years old anymore.’ She says, ‘I know, but you’re still my son.’” One of her comments was that Reed sounded stiff reading notes he’d typed to introduce the pieces. “I said, ‘OK, Mom, next time I’ll type just a few little things I want to mention, then I’ll do what I do, ad lib and improvise—and relax.’”
Improvisations airs weekdays on WUOT 91.9 FM from 6:30 to 8 p.m., produced and hosted by Eric Reed (Mondays), Todd Steed (Tuesdays), Paul Parris (Wednesdays), Taber Gable (Thursdays), and Chris Woodhull (Fridays).