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The Man Who Makes It Happen

Mike Reed's best known as the guy who assembles indie rock's favorite festival, but in his spare time he performs miracles for the local jazz scene.

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Seven years ago, drummer Mike Reed and cornetist Josh Berman launched a weekly jazz series at the Hungry Brain, a cozy little bar on Belmont Avenue. That was nothing new—since the mid-90s members of the local jazz community had been setting up weekly gigs at all kinds of places that weren't jazz clubs per se. But Reed was thinking bigger. Not only did he register the duo as a not-for-profit, Emerging Improvisers, with the idea of securing grants down the road, he began investing his own money into the series.

Without telling anyone—not even Berman—Reed primed the pump with cash he'd saved over several years of bartending at Bucktown's Charleston. "Right off the bat I would give Dan the bartender 50 bucks to make sure that the musicians drank for free," he says. He'd also toss about $40 into the hat, or rather the wicker bike basket, that made the rounds during performances, to encourage audience members to chip in.

These days the Sunday-night Transmission series at the Brain draws a young, steady, and attentive crowd, and almost nobody hesitates to throw a little cash into the basket. At the beginning, Reed says, they might get $60 or $75, including his own contribution, but nowadays it isn't unusual for the musicians to divvy up a couple hundred bucks at the end of the night—not bad for a show with no cover. Janice White, one of the Brain's owners, says she's thrilled with the attention the series has brought the bar, whose back wall is now plastered with gig posters and press clippings. "They can do it forever," she says. "No one talks about us ever unless it's in reference to the jazz night." Plus, the Sunday-night bar ring has quintupled since the series started.

These days Reed, 34, is best known for putting on much bigger shows—he's the instigator and organizer of the indie-rock mecca known as Pitchfork Music Festival, whose fourth iteration takes place this weekend in Union Park. But he also leads two bands of his own, Loose Assembly and Mike Reed's People, Places, and Things, and in addition to the Hungry Brain series he programs jazz, blues, and Latin music for the Park District, cocurates the Umbrella Music Festival, and, as of this year, sits on the programming committee for the Chicago Jazz Festival. He works on Pitchfork, which he calls his day job, about 11 months a year—the rest of these projects are essentially labors of love.

Reed says lots of people are surprised that some avant jazzbo is driving the country's premiere indie-rock festival, but he's says he's used to being the guy who likes what he's not supposed to. "I got into hip-hop in high school," he says, "but I might've been walking in the mall wearing a Led Zeppelin T-shirt."

What all his endeavors have in common is that they make Chicago a better place to be a musician. "I referred to him once as a quarterback because he has a great vision of the whole field," says Mike Orlove, programmer at the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs, who's collaborated with him on several projects and shepherded him onto the Jazz Fest committee. "I think a lot of people in his position would be more narrow visioned."

Reed was born in Bielfeldt, Germany, where his dad, a Louisiana native who'd served in the U.S. army there, met his mom, an Indonesian woman whose father was stationed there in the Dutch air force. In 1979 the family moved to Evanston, where his father worked for the park district.

"He told me a story about seeing the Impressions in the rural part of Louisiana he's from when he was in high school," says Reed. "He went to see them at a baseball diamond and a white limousine pulled up and these three black guys in these really sharp suits got out, and he thought Chicago must be the place to be."

The following year, when Reed was five, John Lennon was murdered. As their mother explained to Reed and his older brother, Donnell, who Lennon had been, she played them her Beatles records. Before long the brothers wanted to make music of their own. After seeing Buddy Rich perform on The Muppet Show, Reed had his heart set on the drums, but his parents preferred that both boys take up the guitar. Reed obliged, but when he offered up the money he'd received from relatives for his eighth grade graduation, his parents relented, chipping in the balance toward a kit.

He took some lessons and learned some rudiments, but in high school his enthusiasm waxed and waned. He'd venture into the city to see live jazz with his brother, but he wasn't practicing much. "When you're a teenager, your interests shift—drums one week, football the next week," he says. When he headed off to college, he left his drums behind.

But it was at the University of Dayton, where Reed studied English and psychology, that his desire to play was rekindled. He'd check out local concerts with his dormmates and soon gravitated toward friends who were music majors. After a break his freshman year he lugged his kit to Ohio. The next year he took private lessons from some of the school's instructors, and by his junior year he was supplementing his core curriculum with music classes. Encouraged by one of his professors, bassist Bob Bowen, he began playing jazz and funk, usually with fellow students and sometimes faculty members. After he graduated, in 1996, he moved back to Chicago and immediately began hustling for opportunities to play.

"I had this mentality instilled in me that I needed to play as many gigs as possible, to be out there on the scene," he says. Hedging his bets, he also enrolled at DePaul to get his master's in education but quit after a semester to focus on playing.

After a year jobbing on local jazz cruises and in lounges like the Back Room, as well as backing a weekly vocal jam at the Bop Shop, he realized he wasn't enjoying himself. "I also realized that I sucked," he says. "I was terrible. I just felt really inadequate. I could get through the gigs, sometimes well, sometimes not so well, and I didn't like it." He pulled back and tried to be more selective about the gigs he took. He credits jam sessions led by Von Freeman at the Note in Wicker Park with helping him become a better musician; he also took private lessons with Freeman's drummer, Mike Raynor, who helped him sort out some technical shortcomings—he says now that he had a tendency to focus on fancy accents and displacements before getting a firm handle on the music's fundamental pulse.

Reed's taste ran to music that was more mainstream and composition-oriented than the work produced by the cluster of musicians around Ken Vandermark. His way into the adventurous north-side scene was through younger musicians he'd met during his short stint at DePaul—folks like Jason Adasiewicz and Dave McDonnell, who introduced him to folks like Berman, Dave Rempis, and Aram Shelton. He soon formed the Treehouse Collective, a small group that tried to cram a world of ideas into a single project, but he also worked with the local alt-country band Moonshine Willy and the Ann Arbor roots singer Jim Roll.

By 2001 Reed was familiar with most expressions of the local improvised music scene, which was still centered on the the Wednesday-night series programmed by Vandermark and John Corbett at the Empty Bottle. But like many younger musicians on the scene then, he had trouble landing a show there.

"I liked what was going on at the Bottle, but I thought it conveyed a narrow viewpoint," he says. He thought the old Knitting Factory in New York, in the late 80s and early 90s a haven for eclectic jazz and experimental music programming, was more like it, and that's what he had in mind when he convinced Janice White to let him try booking jazz at the Brain. He invited Berman, who'd become a close friend, to join him in the venture.

Although Reed would occasionally book the Treehouse Project at the Brain, Berman says he was much more concerned about creating a place for the other young musicians in town who couldn't crack the Bottle. Other colleagues say it's like him not to use his promoter connections to put his own music out there. He's never played at Pitchfork, for instance. "It wasn't until a couple of years in the process of knowing each other and going to meetings together that Mike even introduced his own projects to me," says Mike Orlove.

By the time the Hungry Brain presented its first festival, in the fall of 2001, scene veterans like Vandermark and trombonist Jeb Bishop had been welcomed into the fold too. And by late 2005, when the Bottle's jazz bookings had slowed to a trickle of shows, the Humboldt Park space 3030 had closed, and the future of Fred Anderson's venerable Velvet Lounge seemed uncertain, it looked like it might soon be the only venue in town reliably presenting cutting-edge jazz.

Reed wasn't happy to lose the competition. "I thought it was terrible," he says. "I needed other places to play, not to mention that the lack of outlets would make people leave the scene, so it was in our best interest to help the other presenters."

Reed and Berman joined forces with Vandermark, jazz fan-turned-booker Mitch Cocanig, and saxophonist Dave Rempis, who had booked a jazz series at 3030, to form Umbrella Music, securing one night a week at the Hideout, which hadn't previously hosted much jazz, and another at Elastic, which the 3030 folks had opened in the space above Friendship Chinese restaurant in Logan Square. That fall they presented the first Umbrella Music festival, using all three venues as well as the Velvet Lounge and the Chicago Cultural Center to stage a showcase for the reinvigorated improvised music community. "The scene is very clearly better," says Rempis. "Attendance improved, but the biggest thing was seeing the cross-fertilization, having people who might've only gone to one venue learn about the others and start checking those out too."

In 2004, concerned about the upcoming presidential election, Reed was trying to think of a way to get his fellow musicians involved. "I had been thinking about doing something from the jazz and improvised side—what if we have 24 hours of improvised music as a way of getting people to get motivated for the election?" he says. "I didn't know much about politics, but I knew Anders Lindall and he did, so I called him." Lindall, a freelance music writer who'd just started working in PR for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (he now does PR for the Pitchfork fest on the side), and his wife, Julie Sampson, then a lobbyist for Citizen Action, were already thinking about doing something similar with rock bands. "So we joined efforts and made this tight little unit of people," says Reed.

The result was the Interchange Festival, an ambitious fund-raiser and voter-registration campaign that presented a wide variety of music at several venues. Tortoise, Sage Francis, Charles Bissell of the Wrens, Diverse, Sam Prekop, Vandermark, Town and Country, the M's, and Bobby Conn were among the artists who played the three-day event.

The experience persuaded Reed that he could organize a good single-site music festival—maybe like a street fair, he thought, but one built around a community instead of just a neighborhood. "I saw the real energy in that," he says, "and I was getting really sick of bartending."

Reed says he began looking for partners to help put something like that together. He'd become friendly with Mike Simons and Jon Singer, who ran a travel and events-promotion company called Skyline Chicago. Reed briefly played drums in Singer's rock band The City Will Save Us, and Simons played bass in the band led by Singer's brother David, which performed at the Interchange festival. He says the pair had expressed interest in working with him if he ever chose to put together another event like Interchange. Mike Simons remembers it differently: he says the idea was something the three of them came up with together.

Taking a cue from England's All Tomorrow's Parties festivals, "curated" each year by a different well-known band, they sought another partner to lend the fest some instant credibility. "I knew about Pitchfork—although I didn't realize how popular it was—and they seemed like an obvious choice," Reed says. So in late 2004 they e-mailed the site's brass with a proposal.

"We had talked about [doing a festival] in the office, but without any real plan or ideas of how to execute it," says Chris Kaskie, one of Pitchfork's earliest employees and now its publisher. They agreed that Reed and his partners would shoulder the financial liability and handle the nuts and bolts of production and the Pitchfork staff would choose the talent. "At that point it was a low-risk scenario for us," says Kaskie, "but we were cautious because we need to be careful of what we do with the brand."

The next summer the partnership presented the Intonation Music Festival, which drew 15,000 people to Union Park, on the city's near west side, on each of its two days. But Reed says that within months of its completion, as planning began for the next year's event, he began to chafe at the arrangement. He won't discuss the subsequent split in detail. "I didn't enjoy being in business with two guys who didn't know the music industry and didn't have the connections," he says. "That whole year of work was based on everyone I had met in the previous 15 years, like [the publicity company] Biz 3, who had a good experience dealing with me on Interchange, so they signed on. So I left."

Simons says Reed told them he was leaving to focus on playing music, and Reed did head to Europe with Rob Mazurek's Exploding Star Orchestra. "A few weeks after that we learned from Pitchfork that they were going to do another festival, but that they were internalizing the operation, doing it all in-house," he says. "They didn't tell us, but within a few days we found out that Mike was going to be involved." He wouldn't elaborate on how he felt about that. "I think the facts speak for themselves," he says.

Simons and Singer retained the Intonation name and presented a second festival in 2006, curated by Vice Records, which failed to sell out in the same location. Last year Simons organized some concerts at the Museum of Contemporary Art for its exhibit "Sympathy for the Devil: Art and Rock and Roll Since 1967" and presented a New Year's Eve concert by Jon Brion. Intonation's only current project is the Intonation Music Workshop, an after-school and summer-camp program where at-risk kids learn instruments, form bands, and then present a concert.

Pitchfork was still interested in working with Reed, so in 2006 he formed a fifty-fifty partnership with Schreiber in what's now called the Pitchfork Music Festival. The 2006 fest was slated just a month after Intonation, at the same site, and fared better, completely selling out. It's remained a collaborative effort: Reed discusses most aspects of the event, from sponsorship to scheduling to mapping the site, with Kaskie and others. The Web site's staff continues to select most of the acts on the bill, but Reed, under the auspices of his production company At Pluto, books them. He also makes some choices of his own, the ones that expand the festival's stylistic range. Last year his picks included jazz groups led by Vandermark and bassist William Parker. "I focus on things that [Pitchfork] doesn't even realize about themselves," Reed says. "They do review jazz records even if it's not a major part of what they do, so why not bring that aspect into it?" One of his contributions to this year's lineup is the great Serbian brass band led by Boban Markovic.

Despite its success—although Reed declined to give financial stats, last year's edition sold out too, drawing 13,000 on Friday and 17,000 on both Saturday and Sunday—the festival has maintained a relaxed feel, not to mention an affordable ticket price. While there are sponsors (the Reader being one), Pitchfork feels downright anticapitalist next to something like the much bigger, glitzier, and far pricier Lollapalooza.

Since Intonation, Reed has turned down offers to create festivals as far away as San Francisco and the Netherlands. But he has expanded Pitchfork's reach locally, with satellite events presented in conjunction with the Department of Cultural Affairs. In addition to a preview concert with four of the festival's artists in Millennium Park on Thursday night, Reed also programmed a summerlong series called Audible Architecture, involving local clubs in the presentation of free lunchtime concerts in Millennium Park. Among the upcoming highlights are shows by Bill Callahan, July 28, and legendary Ethiopian saxophonist Getatchew Mekuria with the Dutch postpunk band the Ex, August 18.

In addition to all this, somehow Reed manages to lead not one but two bands of his own in ambitious and interesting projects.

In 2001 he began a six-year association with reedist David Boykin, playing in his group the Expanse as well as in a totally improvised trio. He credits working under Boykin with sharpening his skills as a bandleader. "All of the people in the Expanse," which also included bassist Josh Abrams, pianist Jim Baker, and flutist Nicole Mitchell, "played at a very high level. I was influenced by his habit of writing music for improvised situations. I think he's one of the best composers that I've ever met, and he wanted to give the impression that it was completely free even when it was carefully written."

That inspired Reed to form Loose Assembly, a quintet with Abrams, cellist Tomeka Reid, reedist Greg Ward, and vibist Adasiewicz, which will release its second record, The Speed of Change (482 Music), on September 9. The group has found a nexus between composition and improvisation that draws heavily on the early music of the AACM (Art Ensemble of Chicago, Muhal Richard Abrams, Air), of which Reed is now a member.

His other band, People, Places and Things, is more concerned with the sort of postbop that first attracted him to jazz. The quartet—bassist Jason Roebke and reedists Ward and Tim Haldeman—has made a mission of unearthing and (sometimes radically) revamping underappreciated tunes written in Chicago between 1956 and 1960. Both in concert and on the band's excellent debut, Proliferation—also out September 9 on 482 Music—a handful of Reed originals connect rambunctious yet disciplined versions of tunes associated with people like Wilbur Campbell, Sun Ra, and John Jenkins. "We tried to reinvent the music we were covering," Reed explains in the press materials. "In order for it to be as current as it was back then, we had to find ways to incorporate styles and influences of improvising that pertain to us."

He's also assembled an expanded version of the quartet featuring Ira Sullivan, Julian Priester, and Art Hoyle—musicians active during the time period the group exploring—to play in Millennium Park on August 25. And he's set up a recording session with those players that he hopes will expand into something of a history lesson—a DVD, perhaps, with interviews in which the guests describe the era in their own words. It should be interesting to see what the veterans will do in a more modernistic setting. "I want to put these guys in a new context," Reed says, "to show that they're still viable, exciting players trying to do new things."

Though he's a fine drummer, this may be Reed's most valuable talent: connecting people and finding the best ways to use their talents. "I like playing drums, but I don't like playing too many solos," he says. "I like being part of the thing instead of being on top of the thing. I like being valued and I don't need anything more out of it than just to do it."

But that's not to say his motives are purely altruistic. "It's integral to the survival of my own playing," he says. "It's in my interest to keep it going, and with all of these guys around me. I need them to be playing too."v

Care to comment? Find this story at chicagoreader.com. For more on Pitchfork, see our pullout guide in the center of this paper. And for more by Peter Margasak see his blog Post No Bills.

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