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Mike Reed, the improviser 

'You find a bunch of people who aren't really "fitting in" and they've got their own ideas'

Reed, 37, is a jazz drummer and composer who books and produces the Pitchfork Music Festival, founded the Brilliant Corners of Popular Amusements Festival, and helps program the Chicago Jazz Festival and Umbrella Music.

I grew up in Evanston. Went away to school, University of Dayton. Nice waste of time. I came back and went to DePaul for like a semester for grad school. That was just ridiculous.

So I just started trying to practice a lot. At the time I was playing quite a bit but I wasn't really that good. When you go from being in a town like Dayton, then you come here, you realize how underprepared you are.

I supported myself doing a slew of jobs. I was a part-time office manager. I used to paint houses. I used to be a janitor. I used to be a mover. I'd even babysit a little bit, which is kind of weird for a guy in his 20s. I rearranged my life to basically let me have more time to practice and learn a bunch of stuff and try things. I also started bartending.

Luckily, [I connected with] people I'd met at DePaul who were a little displaced—a bunch of them who had dropped out—and new people who were all slightly peculiar. Everyone's trying to be a jazz musician and then figures out that he can't really fit into it well enough. I think in life—well, in jazz—almost nobody can. But then you find a bunch of people who aren't really "fitting in" and they've got their own ideas.

The time, '96, '97, was a really great example of people who were out of bounds of the Chicago music scene. If you didn't have the greater sort of historical idea of Chicago, the Vandermarks and Mazureks and Hamids were doing it right in front of you.

I used to do this jam session and be in the house band at the Bop Shop. So I had gigs. I wasn't very good, but those in and of themselves are practice. At that time, there were a lot more gigs to go around, so you could get these little scraps to put your shit together. But I wasn't really hitting the level I wished to be at. What I wanted to do then and what I want to do now is pretty different. I wanted to be a really great working musician, and now I still want to do that, but I'm more interested in being personalized about what I can do—like there's nobody that can do certain things that I do. This may be too bold of a way to put it, but you're being more of an artist than a working artist. If you look at any of the old records, like any Blue Note records, these guys playing on all these records are just doing a gig. A job. "Here you go, this is what you got to do, do it." That's the mentality of being a working musician, and that's what I wanted to be. But the people that I really admire are making art.

I think it's time to launch a new project, which I'm trying to wrap my head around. The one that's coming up is working with Matt Schneider on guitar and Jeb Bishop on trombone. I'm trying to do something where there's no bass. I'm really trying to whittle down the amount of stuff we need to bring. It's really about a rhythmic flexibility. The horn players can be in front but they can also be part of the rhythm section, sort of like a brass band would, or even like a Dixieland band. That's the idea but obviously with more contemporary ideas in it as well.

Basically, I think the tag line [about Umbrella Music] is it's a collective of musicians and presenters putting on shows in various places each week. Initially the premise was, we should get together and talk about these things that we're all doing but not necessarily together. We should be interested in the livelihood of each other's series—because from a musician's standpoint, I need more than one place to play. Also, if we don't have that sort of vibrancy, we'll start to lose our people.

I'm the production partner for [the Pitchfork Music Festival]. I have my own company, At Pluto. We do contracts, solicit bands, do permits and all the stuff that you need to produce an event. That's my role. [Pitchfork has] gotten bigger in terms of its notoriety. It's not really changed that much in size. And that's kind of what we wanted. We didn't want to have a mammoth festival.

A few years ago I got asked to be on the Jazz Festival committee, with this growing idea of how to present unique experiences. There's plenty of really great promoters in town, and there's no reason for me to get really involved with that. What I'm more interested in is, I want to go to something and say, "Wow, that was really different." The ability to get exposed to something, even just for a second—that's what I'm interested in. —As told to Kevin Warwick

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