Saturday, September 18, 2021

Ed Reed: From San Quentin to Jazz at Lincoln Center By Steve Siegel

 © Copyright ® Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

With previous features on pianist Wade Legge, the Great Day in Harlem Photograph “Mystery Man” - William J. Crump, drummer Frankie Dunlop, vocalist Jimmy Rushing, critic and author Nat Hentoff, and Jazz Party: A Great Night In Manhattan featuring the Miles Davis Sextet, the Duke Ellington Orchestra, the September 9, 1958 fest that Columbia Records put on at the Plaza Hotel for its executives and guests and trumpeter Dupree Bolton, Steve Siegel has assumed the role of “unofficial” staff writer for JazzProfiles.

His latest effort is about the obscure trumpet player Dupree Bolton [1929-1993], who appeared, seemingly from nowhere in California in 1959 and set the West Coast jazz world abuzz with his performance as a sideman. He then disappeared just as quickly and reappeared a few years later, again as a sideman, displaying mind-blowing chops. He was then gone again, never to officially record again for the remainder of his life.

© -Steve Siegel copyright protected; all rights reserved; used with the author’s permission.

Ed Reed: From San Quentin to Jazz at Lincoln Center

By Steve Siegel

“Ed Reed is the Phoenix of jazz. In his 92 years, he seems to have navigated as many rises and falls as the legendary mythological bird. He has, at various times in his life, due to almost 40 years of heroin addiction, endured as much grief and heartbreak (most of it self-directed) as any man should have to endure. He freely admits he has been the cause of a similar amount of the same within his family and the friends that have supported him through it all. 

As I was posting a link on Organissimo to my recent Jazz Profiles article on trumpeter Dupree Bolton (, I noticed a posting about a new book entitled Double Helix – A Memoir of Addiction, Recovery, and Jazz in Two Voices, written by Ed and Diane Reed. It piqued my interest because within my Bolton article, I had used an on-line quote from Reed about his old friend, Dupree Bolton.”

I contacted the Reeds and they were very gracious to grant me an interview. What follows is a synopsis of Ed Reed's life accompanied by excerpts of the interview. The topics address the book, Reed's musical career and his relationship with his friend, the enigmatic Dupree Bolton.

“It's a summer afternoon in Los Angeles in 1950. Ed Reed, an aspiring vocalist and his close neighborhood friend and professional trumpeter, Dupree Bolton are sitting at the kitchen table of Reed's mother Ruth, as she prepares lunch for them. Reed and Bolton were both 21 years old—born one month apart in 1929. Bolton had just returned to Los Angeles after serving a 4-year incarceration for marijuana possession at the United States Narcotics Farm in Lexington, Kentucky. Reed had recently been discharged from the army where he had acquired his own heroin addiction.

Ruth was well aware that her son and his friend had fallen under the spell of jazz. But what she didn't know was that jazz was only the second most important thing in both of their lives … the first, as she was about to learn, was heroin.

As she was making lunch, Ruth asked Bolton why he always seemed hungry. He casually replied that he never had enough money, after buying heroin, to waste on food. 

By 1951, the heroin habit of the two young men would land both of them in San Quentin, the first of many periods of incarcerations in various California prisons that they both would endure over the next few decades.

In addition to his incarcerations, Reed would also spend the next 40 years as an addict. Sadly, Bolton would spend the rest of his life as a heroin addict – a total of 50 years. The time off the scene for drugs and prison was responsible for Bolton appearing on only two major albums – a meager output for such a spectacularly talented musician – before passing away as a homeless street musician in 1993.

Reed’s future appeared to be headed in a similar direction as Bolton's but without even the meager musical output that Bolton had managed. A quick tally of Reed's missteps:

  • 40 years of shooting heroin, resulting in numerous overdoses as well as multiple convictions for drug possession and forgery and theft in order to acquire the drugs, resulting in…

  • The better part of 16 years incarcerated in San Quentin and Folsom Prisons.

  • Enrollment in 25 drug treatment programs.

  • Betrayal of many of those who stood by him and tried to help him.

  • When homeless, a steady stream of fleabag hotels.

  • Occasional suicidal thoughts.

During much of the time when he wasn't incarcerated but still a practicing drug addict, he managed to find work in both private and public drug treatment programs writing, consulting and advocating for drug treatment programs in California. In most cases, he managed to hide his addiction from his employers. 

One constant: Through all of these hard times he continued to sing. He sang for his own pleasure, he sang to whoever would listen to him, he sang at open mike sessions and at jam sessions with backing musicians and occasionally for money.

Flash forward from 1950 to 2014…

Downbeat Magazine’s annual Critics’ Jazz Poll for 2014 had just been released. A very curious name emerges in the Rising Star/Male Vocalist category – Ed Reed. Perhaps even more amazing is that within the next two years this Ed Reed would appear at Dizzy's Club at Lincoln Center, performing before a full-house that included Aretha Franklin and Bette Midler, who rushed over to see him upon the conclusion of their own performances in Lincoln Center.  

Could this Ed Reed be the same Ed Reed who, 64 years earlier, was sitting at his mother's kitchen table with Dupree Bolton? Maybe this was the son of Ed Reed or more likely even his grandson. After all, if it was THAT Ed Reed, he would have to be 85 years old!

Downbeat’s “Rising Stars” nominees are usually rather young and very talented. But for this year's vocalist category winner, only the term “very talented” applies – the very talented 85-year-old vocalist, Ed Reed.

To put this achievement in perspective I opened the August 2,1962 issue of Downbeat which contained the critics' poll and discovered that all the male vocalists who were listed under what was then known as the “New Star" category are now deceased – some for decades. Ed Reed was then 33 years-old.

So, where had Reed been since 1950 and how did he get from San Quentin in 1951 to having 94 jazz critics casting votes for him in the 2014 Downbeat poll?  

This was by no means a rediscovery of a well known jazz figure from the past such as the rediscovery of Jimmy Scott or Andy Bey. Ed Reed was a guy who had never even been discovered once! For more than half of those 64 years Reed was more well known to his parole officers and drug connections than to any fan of jazz.

Any reasonable person looking at Reed's rap sheet for the period 1946-1986, could conclude with a degree of reasonable certainty, that if the past is prologue for the future, then Reed would continue with his pattern of personal turmoil and continue to cause heartache for the few loyal friends and family members who supported him through all the bad times during his four decades of addiction. 

But during 1986, an amazing metamorphosis occurred in how Reed viewed himself and his relationship to others and allowed him to finally find the strength to permanently emerge from drug addiction. This resultant new-found inner peace also freed him to pursue his musical dreams.

The usual path for musicians who are fortunate enough to reach the exalted pinnacle of an appearance at Jazz at Lincoln Center is to successfully accomplish many small musical steps on the way there - perhaps play a jazz festival in Sheboygan, followed by a club date in Pittsburgh, maybe a hotel lounge appearance in Philadelphia and, finally, make some waves on the club circuit in New York City. These steps, if negotiated successfully, might get you a shot at the big time – playing a week at the Village Vanguard or an exclusive deal with Blue Note Records. Or perhaps a night at Dizzy's Club.

Unfortunately for Ed Reed, his “missteps” during the dark period of his life usually brought him farther away from any semblance of a normal life, much less the musical success that he had hoped for. 

Among the few successful musical steps that Reed took during these difficult years, ironically occurred during his final period of incarceration at San Quentin from 1964 to 1966.

In jazz lore, it is claimed that what was known as the Warden's Band in the early to mid 1960s - a band made up of a revolving door of great jazz musicians/inmates, most of whom were swept up in the “war on drugs” and deposited at San Quentin - was the greatest jazz big band of its time. No doubt a bit of hyperbole, but not that far from the truth.  At various times musicians such as Dexter Gordon, Art Pepper, Frank Morgan, Dupree Bolton and Frank Butler held down chairs in the band.

In late 1964 Reed was asked to become one of three singers in that 17-member aggregation. He and alto saxophonist Art Pepper hit it off musically and after two years of playing with and receiving encouragement from Pepper, Reed finally gained the self-confidence to consider himself a jazz singer.

Unfortunately, though Reed never returned to prison after his final release in 1966, it was to be another 20 years until he kicked his heroin habit and, subsequent to finally getting clean, another 20 years until his musical discovery, at the age of 77, at a jazz camp in 2006.

During the years 2006-2016, Reed would record 4 well received CDs, travel the world as a performer and appear at Dizzy's Club at Jazz at Lincoln Center. He also became an inspiration for others not just because he kicked a long-term drug habit and found success doing what he had wanted to do all his life, but also because of his hands-on skill in helping others out of the drug wilderness through his continued work in drug counseling.

The interview with Ed and Diane Reed -

About the Book: 

Steve Siegel: I'm reading your book and I'm well through it and I'm still reading about what appears to be a hopeless drug addict doing harm to himself and others; a pattern that had existed for the previous 40 years.

Then you write about the day that you are walking through a drug treatment center, hear someone playing a guitar and you have a chance encounter with drug counselor and guitarist Alex Markels. You start singing with him. Twenty pages later you're singing in public. Another ten pages and you're making your first CD. Flip forward ten more pages and there you and your band are, singing on a European tour. Finally, another twenty-five pages and you're performing at Dizzy's Club at Jazz at Lincoln Center with Aretha Franklin and Bette Midler in the audience.

Ed, are you sure that you didn't just dream all this?

Ed: It wasn't a dream; it was reality and I was blown away by it.

SS: What motivated you and Diane to write the book?

Ed: I wanted to own it all (his mistakes in life) I wanted to let go of it. I had been through a lot of shame, a lot of fear, a lot of anger and I just wanted to let go of it. And I didn’t care who saw it and wasn’t going to sit here and be ashamed. I just needed to tell the story.

Diane: When Ed started singing, journalists who interviewed him encouraged us to write a book; that it would be a great story. Actually, it was not a bad idea. We had a story to tell that might help other people who had suffered like we had suffered and give them hope and strength in the process that they were going through.   

SS: Did rehashing all of these things take you back to a time that perhaps you didn't wish to visit? Was writing the book cathartic?

Diane: Of course. At some point Ed said to me “are you going to write about this or are you going to write about that?'' My response was “oh no never.”  Ed said to me that we're both writing this and you really have to address those unpleasant things. But I soon realized that given the way we're writing this book, I had to get serious about my side of the story, even though I was not sure of where my story would take me. Eventually, I realized that taking a deep dive into the past is a very precarious thing to do. We would get lost in the past and actually have a hard time coming back to the present. You eventually feel that all you want to do is curl up in a fetal position.

It is very raw and there are things in it that we would have never dreamed of sharing with anyone. It is a very honest book and, in addition, a very healing one that allowed us to just leave things behind us. Writing the book was a huge benefit to both of us in dealing with the past.

The Music:

SS: So, it's the late 1950s and you, Dupree Bolton and pianist George Lewis are in a Hollywood jazz club named the “Trophy Dash '' at an open mic session being run by pianist Hampton Hawes. You mention that in addition to Hawes, Ornette Coleman, Dexter Gordon, Harold Land, Teddy Edwards and other great musicians were present. You got up on the stage and started to sing with Hawes accompanying you. You were a bit high from smoking some marijuana and were off-key. Hawes stopped playing and interrupted you. Addressing the audience, he remarked: “Are there any singers in the house?”

No doubt a humiliating experience for you, yet despite this humiliation, you never gave up pursuing your dream. Why? 

Ed: Dupree and George simply would not allow me to stop trying to make it as a singer. They always said to me to get back up on that stage man, you're a good singer. I had to keep going because I had been singing all my life. My mother was a great singer and I wanted to be just like my mother.

Also, hanging out with Dupree and George, who was a great pianist, I wanted to be cool. By cool I mean fitting in with them. Being only able to sing and not play an instrument, I had to continue singing and then I felt that I would fit in with them.

SS: It's often been said of jazz instrumentalists that the hardest thing to play is a slow ballad. You tend to favor ballads. Can the tempo of a ballad be challenging to a singer?

Ed: It doesn't matter to me. If I love the song, I'm putting something in it that I never put in before, ever. I’m always trying to figure out how it would be the best way to do the song. Regardless of tempo, I make it really fit in the way that people want to hear it.

SS: Do you sometimes make those decisions in the middle of the song and hope that your band is good enough to follow you?

Ed: (laughing) Yes! If I'm really fortunate and I've got a good band and it's my own band then oh boy, magic! It could be a real miracle.

SS: Staying on the topic of music, let's discuss a little bit about your four recordings. How did you put them together as far as song selection? They cover an interesting mix of standards as well as rather obscure songs from the Great American Songbook. How did you go about choosing? 

 Diane:  The songs selected for the first three albums were a joint effort. For the first one, “Love Stories,” it was producer, Bud Spangler, band leader Peck Allmond and Ed. For the second, “The Song is You,” it was Peck and Ed. For the third one, “Born to Be Blue,” it was mostly Ed, with input from Bud who also produced that CD. For the fourth album, “I’m a Shy Guy,” it was Ed after listening to around 300 tunes recorded by the King Cole Trio and then picking his favorites; many of which are wonderfully obscure.  

Diane: Because Ed had been listening to Nat King Cole since he was a teenager, when we did that recording session everything went so smoothly. It came out effortlessly with mostly first takes and very little fixing necessary at the end.

SS:  Is there any vocal jazz album or artist whose records you wear out from playing them so often?

Ed: If I had to have one album to listen to all the time, it would be a Bud Powell album.  I actually didn't listen to singers very much. Those that I did listen to I would pick up a little piece here and a little piece there. There were very few singers that I really focused on. All those great singers that I heard growing up, they influence me, but I didn't want to simply imitate them.

Diane: I remember you listening to Shirley Horn, Nat Cole, Billy Eckstine, Sarah Vaughan, Carmen McCrea, Abbey Lincoln and Bill Henderson.  

Ed: We definitely did a lot of songs that were connected to Bill Henderson!

SS: If you could pick an All-Star trio with a guitarist to sing with, who would be in it?

Ed: George Cables – piano, Ron Carter – bass, Akira Tana –drums and Ralph Bravo – guitar.

Note: Ralph Bravo was a guitarist who Ed met in San Quentin whose style of playing Ed loved, Ralph encouraged Ed to sing in the prison band.  After Bravo's release from San Quentin, he apparently disappeared. Neither Ed nor Bravo’s family ever discovered his whereabouts.  

Ed Reed on Dupree Bolton:

SS:  I think that it's quite possible that you are the only person still on this Earth who knew Bolton as a friend, a fellow addict and as a musician. Tell us a little about Dupree and your relationship with him. 

Ed: I first met Dupree after he came home from the drug hospital in Kentucky (1950). His parents lived around the corner from my parents. I met him on the sidewalk and the next thing I know he’s in my parents' house. Dupree endeared himself to my mother who really took a liking to him and the stories he would tell. He and I started hanging together daily and shooting dope and hanging out at George Lewis' house where he had his piano and we played music. The two of them made me sing and oh man it was crazy but a really special time.

Dupree always did me a big favor. He would continually point out to me what I could have done differently musically. Remembering that piece of advice led me to other places that I could explore.

SS: Why was Dupree using drugs?

Ed: It took you out of misery; it took you out of the moment. Heroin would take all the pain away, the pain of the culture that existed at that time of being black and living in Watts. Watts was insane at that time with so many people just lying, cheating, stealing and doing all kinds of things just to get by.

Despite Dupree's drug habit my mother loved him. Every time he came by, she would give him a plate of food and then ask him what he was doing and he would tell her about his music.

Dupree was a loving and caring human being. He was about the music and having a good time. 

As I was writing my previous article on Dupree Bolton, I kept coming back to the question of why might someone choose a life of 50 years of heroin over a potentially great career in jazz. Then I read something Ed wrote in the book which perhaps might help to explain it… 

I welcomed the numbness that heroin brought and the illusion that everything would be all right. The need to escape what was chasing me, all the wreckage, shame, guilt, and fear I had accumulated was so powerful that even a couple of years in prison without heroin, the first thing I would do when I got out was cop some dope and shoot it.

I took this to mean that there is a cycle of drug use followed by more shame, guilt and the only way to escape this accumulation is to use more heroin and the cycle repeats itself until one is so buried in negative emotions that being sober and having to face them all at once was terrifying to the addict.

In Ed's own words, this statement is a rather cogent explanation for the depth as well as the length of Ed Reed's addiction and might well apply to Bolton's unsuccessful battle that ultimately cost him his career and caused the demeanor of sadness that those who encountered him on the streets towards the end of his life described.”

The Reeds' book can be purchased through the following links:

On Amazon:

On Bookbaby:

1 comment:

  1. It is a pleasure to hear News about and from Mr Reed as i enjoy his recordings a lot. Are there plans to enter a Studio soon again and publish CD number four? Regards, a Fan from abroad


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