Kenny Reed, Rick Cobian, and myself, put on a Obama Inauguration at the One World Café when our great President won his first term in office. Kenny and I read poetry together in the basement of the Granary. There was a blank wall behind this amazing man and drummer, so we put one of my late sister’s print on it. We are beginning to fill in the empty spaces that were left behind.
Kenny Reed lived for jazz, and after his Nov. 21 death the drummer is being remembered for his impact on local musicians.
Music touched local jazz drummer Kenny Reed at an early age, and he shared its power as a performer and a teacher for the rest of his life.
Reed, 72, died Nov. 21 from kidney failure at a Eugene hospital after more than 30 years in Oregon, much of which was spent in area clubs where he defined himself as a local music icon. Though Reed was too weak to play very much over the past decade, he remained a local jazz fixture until his death.
“He lived for jazz, and to be a mentor and a teacher to others,” said Reed’s wife, Marilyn Calkins Reed.
Reed was born in St. Louis, Missouri, on Oct. 7, 1947. It was there he had his earliest musical performances singing gospel songs with his five sisters in a traveling a cappella group called The Reed Singers, Calkins Reed said.
Reed proved so dynamic and extroverted, his family believed he would be — and encouraged him to be — a preacher. But Reed found the music of John Coltrane and Miles Davis by the time he was a teenager, and his fate was set.
“He heard ‘A Love Supreme’ and it changed his mind,” Calkins Reed said.
Reed lived in New York City and Los Angeles and served in the U.S. Army as part of the 82nd Airborne Division before his car broke down one day in Junction City. That was in 1984, and Reed soon after met his first wife — by whom he had two children — before settling into a life in Oregon.
He’d been playing the drums with jazz bands across the country before that mishap landed him in Oregon, and pretty soon he was playing local gigs.
“Being Kenny, he looked for the nearest club and hopped on a bus and found The Embers,” Calkins Reed said. “That was the first place he played.”
Reed’s Eugene band was Stone Cold Jazz, but the man was known for pulling musicians on stage with them and forming new groups on the spot.
“He’s taken a lot of younger musicians under his wing and mentored them,” said Eric Richardson, president of the Eugene Springfield NAACP and a sometimes-partner in Reed’s local gigs. “He’s just known as someone who was really into sharing with younger musicians and passing that torch.”
One of his students, Alex Huber, said his education under Reed revealed to him the soul of an American art form, one born of history, cooperation and the freedom of expression.
“Kenny taught me to use the high hat as a musical instrument rather than just as a timekeeper. It was all those tasty little touches that made his drumming unique,” Huber said. “He taught me jazz form and how to solo. He always reminded me that a solo isn’t just about showing off your chops, it’s to tell a story.”
Reed represented hard bop jazz, a genre that emerged in the mid-50s by incorporating blues, gospel and other traditional sounds, according to Richardson. Reed’s gospel background and a love for drummers such as Elvin Jones, who played with Coltrane in the 1960s, defined his passion.
“His family background was being raised in the church and with gospel singing,” Richardson said. “He was rooted in the African American experience.”
Richardson said Reed’s penchant for personal style went beyond the pristine suits he famously wore.
“When he dealt with younger kids it was always about being correct, dressing nice and giving yourself some dignity,” Richardson said. “It was about giving yourself some dignity and giving the music and the agency of performing and appreciating the music dignity.”
Huber said Reed’s sense of style was about much more than looking fresh. For Reed, a snappy suit was another piece of the performance.
“Kenny dressed for the gig. He always said, ‘They see you before they hear you.’ He always looked good, but more importantly, he performed,” Huber said. “He played the song with his face, his body, his soul. I couldn’t take my eyes off him.”
The music was everything to Reed, and his wife said he wouldn’t have been so eager to marry her if it didn’t mean something to her, too.
“I drove him home one night and the tape I put in the tape deck was Miles Davis, and he said, ‘A woman after my own heart,’” Calkins Reed said. “For a person like him, where that music was his whole life, you needed to be a part of it and love it as much as he did.”
Reed was on dialysis for almost nine years, Calkins Reed said. His deteriorating health sapped the strength he needed to play shows the way he once had, but she said Reed was too stubborn to leave his music or his mentoring alone — he performed less often, but still was playing local gigs this year.
Richardson said his friend had no choice but to endure the pain and play. Over his last years, Richardson said Reed kept making comebacks.
“Kenny really struggled through it with a lot of power,” Richardson said. “In the last several years he was not the same cat who could play a four-hour set like he use to play. But through the last couple years, he had a couple students he was with and he’d go to a gig and play a couple tunes.”
Calkins Reed will host a public memorial for her late husband from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday at The Jazz Station, 124 W. Broadway. Local musicians and Reed’s longtime musical partners have been invited to jam together in his honor.
“I want him to be remembered as a great musician, a mentor and teacher,” Calkins Reed said. “That was his contribution to this town.”