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Former Prisoner Ed Reed Releases Debut Album

It’s amazing what staying out of prison can do for a person’s career (see Robert Downey Jr.). But after several stints in San Quentin and one in Folsom, Ed Reed, 78, isn’t reviving his jazz career-he’s beginning it. His recently released Ed Reed Sings Love Stories, out on Reed’s own Blue Shorts label, exists as the punctuation of a strange would-be career finally coming into fruition.

At age 11, Reed received his first music lessons from teenage bassist Charles Mingus, whose sister lived across the street from the Reed family in Los Angeles. “He taught me how to hear music, how to sing chord changes,” says Reed in a press statement.

Spurred by the live performances of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, Reed tried his hand singing at amateur nights at the Lincoln Theater, Club Alabam and other venues around town.

Reed joined the army at 17. While stationed at Oakland Army Base he began using heroin. Departed from the service, Reed sang in a band with his neighbor, trumpeter Dupree Bolton. Their shared drug addiction made performing difficult. “We were always squabbling over heroin,” says Reed. “None of us could keep it together.”

From 1951 to 1966, Reed spent much of his time moving in and out of prison, including three terms at San Quentin and the one at Folsom. But during his last trip to San Quentin (1964-1966), Reed got back to music. He sang vocals in the Warden’s Band, with fellow inmate Art Pepper lending his talents to the saxophone section.

“Art soloed on all the things that I sang,” Reed recalls. “We were friends.”

Though it would take him another 20 years to quit heroin after his release in 1966, Reed began singing again in the late 1980s. Bay Area gigs with guitarist Alex Markels gave way to performance classes at Berkley’s Jazzschool.

In the summer of 2005, Reed’s wife Diane prompted him to attend Jazz Camp West, where he met Peck Allmond.

“Peck told me I needed to record,” says Reed. “He brought in Bud Spangler, and together they helped Diane and me put the pieces together.” Spangler and Allmond co-produced the album, bringing in pianist Gary Fisher, bassist John Wiitala and drummer Eddie Marshall to back Reed.

The song cycle covers a lot of ground; Reed says, “they tell a great story.” Once song though, in particular, holds special significance for him. While in prison, Reed learned Harold Arlen’s “A Sleepin’ Bee” (lyrics by Truman Capote) in segments over a six-month period.

Currently, Reed works as a health educator, trainer and program planner at a major medical Bay Area HMO and other health agencies. But with the new album, he’ll take to the road as a musician, making appearances at the Sonoma Jazz Festival (May 27), Anna’s Jazz Island in Berkeley (June 16) and at a benefit for the Monterey Jazz Festival and the National Steinbeck Center (Sept. 19).

Originally Published