Drummer/percussionist Steve Reid has been journeying through the inner and outer reaches of the rhythmic universe for an unbelievable five decades.

He has held down Motown backbeats for Martha & The Vandellas and Marvin Gaye, dropped sessions for James Brown, Jimi Hendrix and Miles Davis, delved into his roots alongside Fela Kuti, Guy Warren and the Sierra Leone All-Stars, and roamed the peripheries of the avant-garde with Sun Ra, Charlie Tyler and Albert Ayler. In short, there’s not much he hasn’t done.

Born and raised in NYC (the Bronx, then Queens) Reid got his first break at seventeen when he began working with Martha & The Vandellas, first on tour, then in the studio on hits like ‘Heatwave’ and ‘Dancing In The Street’.

His unique style – left-handed and leftfield – earned him a rep in a city that attracted hordes of drummers but spawned very few, and Reid picked up prestigious gigs such as working with the Apollo Theatre house band, under the direction of Quincy Jones. 

Responding to the spirit of black activism running through America at that time, Reid left New York and took on a spiritual pilgrimage through Africa. For three years he journeyed through Ghana, Nigeria, Liberia, Sierra Leone and Senegal, meeting and playing with people along the way, including Fela Kuti, Guy Warren and Randy Weston.

On his return to New York Reid began doing session work, passing through the most famous studios of the day - James Brown, Freddie Hubbard, Jackie McLean, Miles Davis and Jimi Hendrix. But Africa had given him a passion for spirituality and he became increasingly attracted to the freeform creativity of the avant-garde scene, recording and playing with Sun Ra, Charles Tyler, Ornette Coleman and Arthur Blythe.

When Uncle Sam came looking for troops in Vietnam, Reid refused to fight on principle and was sentenced to four years in prison, where he taught Black history and music courses to his fellow inmates. Upon release he resumed his explorations of free jazz as vigorously as ever, this time on a more independent level.

Teaming up with an old school friend, Joe Rigby, he founded the Legendary Master Brotherhood and formed his own record company, Mustevic Sound, which released seminal albums such as Nova, Rhythmatism and Raw.

Throughout the 80s and 90s, Reid served as Co-director of Musicians of Brooklyn Initiative (MOBI) and as musical director for the dance troupe Sounds in Motion, before moving to Europe and forming various ensembles of his own.

In 2003, the cyclic rhythm that plays to human tastes and fashions came around full circle as UK label Soul Jazz tracked Reid down to re-issue his Rhythmatism album, creating in the process a brand new audience for his work. The label also released, Spirit Walk, a new album recorded by Reid’s current group, which featured a host of new musicians, some of them electronic.

 This project sparked an alliance between the ever-questing Reid and laptop luminary Keiran Hebden (Four Tet), a pairing which has so far resulted in two albums of improvised percussion and electronic sounds (The Exchange Sessions 1 & 2, Domino).

Five decades on, Reid continues to reach for that higher ground…

You grew up in the Bronx in the 60s – I hear you were surrounded by jazz royalty there.

Yeah, I grew up in Lyman Place in the south east Bronx. On the street above me was Elmo Hope, the piano player, and right across the street lived Thelonious Monk, whose wife used to babysit myself and Thelonious’s daughter, Ruby, who was the inspiration for his tune ‘Ruby My Dear’. On Sunday’s Monk would go direct the traffic down the street. I remember him being a very mellow and gentle guy. Also in the same neighbourhood were Billy Cobham and Lenny White.

What were the main musical inspirations for you as a young man? Were any of your family into music?

I was inspired by two key people. Papa Joe Jones was one, and Philly Joe Jones was the other, one of the greatest drummers of all times, the real Godfather of the blues. My father was a piano player and an organ player, but he stopped playing when he got married. He played with Chick Webb, they all went to school together in Baltimore. He wasn’t that much of an inspiration though, not in that sense.

Then who was the first drummer to really inspire you? 

Art Blakey. I saw him in ‘59 at the Audubon Ballroom, the place where Malcolm X was shot. He was playing with the Jazz Messengers and a Calypso orchestra with steel drums and everything. I got there early as I was escorting my girlfriend’s sister. Blakey drank half a bottle of Canadian rum and then played his ass off [laughs]. He gave everything 200%, and that’s how I like to play. You never know when it’s your last gig so it’s better to not go out bullshittin’ [laughs]

Were drums your first instrument?

No, I started on guitar, then tuba, then drums. Actually I got a college scholarship to play basketball. But I started messing around with the drums and had a little trio that used to play a bar out in Nassau County every week. I became a kind of local hero. There weren’t many drummers that actually come from New York. They all wind up there but they’re not from there. I started out playing the dances, the bar mitzvahs.

And you got your big break with Motown’s Martha and the Vandellas – not bad for a seventeen-year old high school student. How did that come about?

I got the gig when they came to play at my school and their drummer didn’t show up. I wasn’t studying music, but I had been playing at dances a little, and someone asked if I would play for them. She must have liked me because she kept me on for tours and a few recordings.

Did you do much work with other Motown artists?

I did some stuff for other acts like The Temptations and Marvin Gaye, but it was mainly Martha I worked for. I did a lot of shows for her and the band when they had a Motown Revue thing going on. She was one of the only artists on the label that had an independent thing going with [Berry] Gordy. Gordy owned all the big names, like the Four Tops etc. but not Martha. I learned a lot about the record business during that time. I was with her for maybe a year, off and on.

So you weren’t really a jazz player first of all…

Well actually the Motown bands preferred jazz players to blues players. But I wasn’t a jazz purist at first anyway. It attracted me quite soon as it was the highest level of musicianship and I knew I wouldn’t want to play for too long if I couldn’t be the best at it. But my style was always open to change and I could do always things a little bit different to the others, which is how come I got known. I was always good at improvising rhythms as opposed to just being a timekeeper.

NYC was a crucial place for black music back then…

Yeah, and then my family moved from Bronx to Queens, a couple of blocks away from John Coltrane. He was at 116/60 Mexico Street, in a place called Jamaica, a little area now called St Albans. At the time Roy Haynes was with him and a couple of other musicians. They had these little houses you could play in. Back then you could just call people up and they would come round and play. Nowadays people say they have to clean their rooms first! [laughs]. We were in middle of a black renaissance when I started out to, so I could go out and mix everything up, James Brown, ‘Trane, Hendrix… mine was the last generation to experience all that personally, to see those guys live and be able to talk with them.

You played at Trane’s house in the early days?

At one point I was at his house every day. A friend of mine was doing some work for him, booking gigs or something and at that time a lot of people were hanging there. Every Saturday he had a bunch of drummers come through, it would be just us and him. Back in those days he was married to his first wife. He wasn’t all messed up at that time like people say he was at that time, man, he was just following the music all the way. He was a shy guy. What you saw was what you got. I learned from him not from things he said but from the way he did thing; he would always investigate, he always liked to study, whether it was Indian music with Ravi Shankar, or African music. He was supposed to go to Africa too, but he died.

These were militant times too. You embraced a lot of those ideas and philosophies, right?

I was into the Black Panthers and all that stuff, sure. I grew up in the South Bronx and there were some heavy gangs out there. That’s where the Panthers started out. They did a lot of good out there too. They helped elementary schools and that kind of thing. I was young and crazy in those days. Young, dumb and full of come as they say [laughs]. I remember it was all very extreme in those days. There were musical extremes, political extremes, far right and far left…now it isn’t like that

In the early days you didn’t get paid very much for your shows, or even the recordings you appeared on, so what kept you doing it?

Seeing black people lining up around the corner to come and dance. It was always black people at the dances before those days, but these queues were around the block. It was madness…

You broke off your New York career to travel to Africa…

Yeah, after graduating out of college, I decided to take a trip. I had a big Afro and I wanted to reverse the whole slave experience, you know? I knew Art [Blakey] and Randy [Weston] had done it, so it felt like a tradition. I went over on a freighter that carried diesel locomotives. It was only $200 but it took 17 days to get there [laughs]. There was only room for twelve passengers. When I got off the boat the first time, my drums fell in the water and I thought ‘wow man, this is like a baptism’. Someone said to me ‘You’re a drummer from America? I’ll take you to this place’ and he took me to meet Guy Warren, whom I stayed with for a while.

Did you know any African musicians before you went?

I hadn’t heard of many of them, apart from Guy. I went out in blind faith, it felt really like an adventure. I didn’t cut any records with the people I met, we just played. I was into my jazz thing by then and people like Guy was able to pick up things from me and I could pick up from him.

What else did Africa show you?

I saw a lot of shit. It was a heavy, heavy spiritual experience. I was inclined towards spirituality before I went but that trip really put me in the love direction. It was a time of great Black pride, worldbeat was coming in, which became afrobeat, and everyone was picking up on people like Cannonball Adderley. Ali was fighting in Africa at the time too. It was just a great period. There weren’t many Americans going through Africa in those days so when I showed up they welcomed me in. One of the high points of the whole trip was the First Festival of Negro Art where I saw Elvin Jones play with Duke Ellington’s band. It was in this dusty old soccer stadium in Dakar with concrete seats. They still do that festival each year.

What was the highlight, musically?

The highlight was working with the Sierra Leone All Stars. They were quite a violent band because it was made up of opposing tribes, so there were fights every night. But it was a great nine-piece and we played together a lot, mainly at professional celebrations and things.

So the highlight wasn’t working with Fela Kuti?

I played with Fela before he had any of his main bands. I forget even what the band was called. He was coming behind James Brown and it was before he grew into his own particular thing. He was like a king though, even then. He ran a big crew and he accepted responsibility. He was a preacher too. I played with him for 7-8 months, mostly around Nigeria, and we made some recordings for Decca but I have no idea what happened to them.

You worked with James Brown for a while when you came back. What was he like to work with back then, at the height of his fame?

We didn’t do a lot of takes generally with James, we had it all set out before. All the stuff he used to record was played and rehearsed on the road so by the time we got into the studio it was just a case of hitting the record button. I was still young at the time, but I remember he ran the band tight. He was like a general, like you have to be when you have a big band like that. I got fired in the end because I was late twice for rehearsals. If you were late once you got fined; twice and you got fired.

You also worked with Hendrix…

Yeah, I did some tapes with him and people like Tony Williams, Elvin Jones, Jack de Johnette. No one knows what happened to those tapes. The sessions we did were bizarreman, real heavy. We did them in his Electric Ladyland studio, and just about everyone came through. It all got too much for him. The industry killed him in the end, making him play fifty nights in a row. Those sessions weren’t my particular bag of music, but we jammed together and all the drummers came through at some point. It was typical Hendrix rock, the Ladyland era stuff, so we’d be jamming on blues, experimenting a little bit, kind of what ‘Trane used to do at his house….

Where did you start to jam with the free jazz guys?

We had weekly sessions at my mother’s house during the 70s. Arthur Blythe and others would come to my mother’s basement. We bought a piano and put it in there, then Les Walker took it apart, and then we put it back together, then we took it apart again [laughs. That was lost jazz, a real open environment. We also used a loft on 23rd and Lexington. Meryl Streep’s brother Harry was a choreographer and had a space we could use. {The Arthur Blythe albums] The Grip and Metamorphosis were recorded there.

You weren’t back for long before you got thrown into jail for refusing to fight in Vietnam. How was the prison experience?

I was in Louisburg Federal Penitentiary, in Pennsylvania, alongside Jimmy Hoffa. He disappeared and I’m still here [laughs]. He offered me a job in fact but I said no, I’m OK. It was a good experience, a great discipline. There were over 40,000 of us in there. It was like we broke into prison [laughs]. The drafts ceased after that so it shows something can work. Because of that time being the way it was we had all the right literature and the right musicians, we had Coltrane and Hendrix…you know I think black people have been blessed with holding down the music of the planet, to keep people happy and keep en element of spirituality. I think we have done a good job as people with that. That’s what life is, making positives out of negatives.

So you considered yourself a spiritual musician back then?

I have always approached music spiritually. As a drummer you must. The original priests of the planet were drummers. You couldn’t be a priest without being a drummer back then [laughs]. That’s when we were kings of course, and things changed up somewhat with the slave experience, and drums being outlawed. But yes, I’m still a spiritual person and that comes out in my music.

You played with Sun Ra for a long time…

Off and on I worked with Sunny for fifteen years. I left for seven or eight years and then went back in 1982. I did maybe a hundred shows. Sunny was very influential for me in the way that I was able to get some real big band experience. I got a chance there to play with different types of players. There was never a dull moment, that’s all I’ll say about that [laughs]. We never got into any personal friendship but I have always been loyal in this business. If I was with someone I felt was progressing I would stay. Someone has to help and give them a chance. He knew how to pick players and to let them play and create a situation but without controlling it. Some people wanted that responsibility. Not many can stand the creative pressure every night.

What got you into the free stuff?

People like Charles Tyler, Lester Bowie, Arthur Blythe. They were playing avant-garde without the overtones. Theirs was the heavy shit, not just squealing and squeaking. They say the avant-garde is made from that stuff but there are different ways of handling it and at its best it was a reinvention of jazz. After be-bop came the modal stuff, and some jazz players needed to get out of the jazz category, climb out of the box, not get into it. I was one of few guys playing a backbeat in the middle of this avant-garde shit and I made it appeal to the people. They liked the ‘out’ top and the ‘in’ bottom. To me there should always be funk or an African groove or something that people can grab onto, something they can follow. That real cerebral stuff narrows it down too much, there are all the little avant-garde labels that you never see in the stores. I’d rather stay out of it. Arthur Blythe came from blues, so we had a natural swing to us - it was avant-garde but it was swinging, like Ornette Coleman. We played places in New York and colleges, At that time be-bop had died. It was our thing or fusion by then and I didn’t fancy fusion as you had to keep the same beat.

You were heavily involved with Charles Tyler too

We did something like thirteen or fourteen albums. That was some heavy music. We recorded on a lot of different labels. He was from Albert Ayler’s band and the tradition kept on coming through him. I worked on his first four albums, but a lot of those recordings are largely obscure now and hard to find, but in a way that’s good.

Eventually you set up your own ensemble with Les Walker and Joe Rigby, the Legendary Master Brotherhood. What made you do that?

Les Walker was in the same year as me at University, and Joe Rigby I had known for years. We did shows with Alice Coltrane, Archie Shepp, Pharoah Saunders. I formed the band with Joe in 75/76 just because we had some ideas and wanted to do some gigs. There was club in Brooklyn at that time that was influential called The East. The [Chicago] Art Ensemble, Gary Bartz, Pharoah…there was a real movement, a different direction, and there was room for everybody. Alice tried to get us signed to Impulse but they wanted to sign us for free. With the Brotherhood things were more open than with Charles. I would always be playing his music and I wanted to play mine. Leader is a role I don’t enjoy much, but it had to be done for me to move on.

You kept working in Europe, but it must have been hard for you as the audience for that kind of music declined everywhere through the end of the 70s…

Yeah, man. Nowadays twenty year olds are freaking if they don’t get a record contract {laughs}. The business has been good to me though. I know a lot of good people, I built my little reputation, underground though it may be, its very solid. The people on the street love me and I love them. The music these days has started to come back to the people, and that’s where it belongs, as that’s where the creativity comes from. The 80s was a rough period, no doubt, records were being made but they didn’t come out. I did a couple in Sweden, five or six with Charles, but none of the things we did ever got pushed by the labels. We never had the internet then, so we had to lug our LPs and hold on to what we had like little weeds. It was a strange time. When I was coming up you didn’t need a resume, it was all word of mouth, no biographies and photos on a CD. Nowadays people go to jazz jams and sit there and analyze the music, but not dancing to it, and I want to try and bring the other situation back round again.

How did Soul Jazz find you?

Through my son, who is also a musician. I don’t trust labels usually, they’re all full of shit, but finally I did respond. Stuart came to New York and I saw his eyeballs. They say behind every eyeball there’s a thief (laughs). But he was persistent about it and I felt like I should let him re-release my stuff.

And you also released music from your own ensemble, which features some electronic players as well as acoustic musicians, for example Keiran Hebden, whom you’re now working with a lot…

I have always been interested in new frontiers and I got interested in electronics a while ago. Electronics to me had always meant a loss of speed, but Keiran could do it in real time, like just free programming so I could immediately see how we could have a gig where all our stuff is improvised, 100%. One good thing about jazz is that it dies every so often, which is where I can come in and try and be present at the rebirth, try to resuscitate it. Like Parker and Coltrane, they had to resuscitate it with a new views too, that’s how it moves forward. That’s what we’re trying to do with our collaborations, move this stuff forward, keep it out of the museums, and me too!

 Is it a good time again for drummers like yourself?

It’s been all melody and harmony for a while but now the rhythm has been able to move into the foreground, it speaks its own independent voice. It can speak to the street and the people again, so that’s a good thing. People used to dance to jazz but then that aspect disappeared, then it was later commercalised, but that doesn’t mean you can’t dance to it any more if it’s played right. I’m back full circle from when I started. Music is being identified again as for the people. It got too cerebral for a second, too extreme, beyond the reach of people, even the masters, Coltrane sold a million copies of A Love Supreme you know - those guys could do what they wanted.

You’ve always been beneath the radar so to speak, is that a personal choice?

I prefer to be behind the scenes. Sometimes there’s just too much bullshit and politics around at the front. I let my music speak for me, and that’s enough. There’s a lot of actors around, so I’ll leave the acting to them. People expect you to operate all the time but the creative process is not like that, it can go too far, too high up and too far down afterwards, it’s like life.

And you have a trip planned to go back to Africa?

Yeah, I want to go to Dakar and hook up with some of the younger as well as some of the older guys and Soul Jazz want to come and record the results. Guy’s Warren’s son is playing these days, so I have been trying to reach out to him. I’m not planning much though, I’m going out in blind faith like last time and see what happens. I can’t go wrong that way. Keiran is coming with me, so we will be causing some total confusion over there (laughs).


Text courtesy of Wax Poetics and Paul Sullivan.