Cleveland-born, Bay Area-based jazz vocalist Ed Reed may not have a thousand recording credits to his name. He has, however, lived a life as long and trouble-filled as a dozen Parkers, Gordons and Coltranes combined, coming up as he did wired in Watts while hanging out with Charles Mingus, stuck like glue to serious heroin and cocaine habits, and crammed into Folsom and San Quentin prisons for four stiff stints. His partner for more than 50 years, Diane Reed, a Bronx-born women’s-rights activist, public health advocate and academic, had her own perils to dash as a codependent; she married Ed in 1969, divorced him in 1972, remarried him in 1989, and lived on the wrong end of the stick with him until he got help to kick his dependencies, forged his own path as an inspirational speaker, and finally restarted his singing career with 2006’s Love Stories on his own Blue Shorts label. (Over the last 15 years, she’s also been his manager.)
The fairytale ending from the ’90s onward—of living, loving, and working as one unit—doesn’t come easy, and Double Helix doesn’t blanch at cold hard truths: the Long Weekend-like marathon blackouts in Mendocino, the dank heroin sicks, the constant feeble infidelity (in particular, Ed writes with the full knowledge that he was a dead, worrisome weight to a vibrant woman willing to sacrifice herself for love). If you’ve been through the pains of addiction and withdrawal, either your own or a loved one’s, you’ll recognize the self-hate that courses through the memoir’s earliest, harshest chapters. The conversational back-and-forth between the two on these points is illuminative and equitable; a bit much, perhaps, but necessary to the narrative. Luckily, Double Helix never feels like a he said/she said, but rather a union of smart, funny, briskly thinking originators.
What unites the now-and-again married couple throughout their five on-and-off decades is jazz: she as a follower, he as its steady practitioner (during one incarceration Reed fronted a group with a fellow inmate, equally troubled saxophonist Art Pepper). From the book’s “Into the Unknown” chapter forward, both Reeds talk about their familial pasts with music (Ed’s Aunt Lola being a font of inspiration, her record collection filled with Ellingtonia), while Diane focuses on the excitement of starting an adventure in self-recording and self-management, describing it as being “swept into exhilaration without anchor.”
If you didn’t know Ed or Diane Reed before Double Helix, you’ll be glad you met them. And if you’re familiar with their story, read for the details, hard and happy, and find Ed’s records for the perfect sweet-and-sour background accompaniment.