06.12.2011, Words by Ruth Saxelby

My Hero: Gilles Peterson on Steve Reid

The Radio 1 broadcaster remembers the legendary jazz drummer, recording artist and friend.

Steve Reid represents the all seeing eye; a future thinker and musical innovator whose age never affected his work.

He was discovered banging things at 16 somewhere in Queens pre ‘Bitches Brew’. He’d played drums in the local school band at 12, The Apollo in Harlem by 14 and by 16 he was in demand in the Motor City. Berry Gordy was on the case and a little more than a Greyhound return was the cost for Martha Reeves and her Dancing In The Streets.

This was rhythm and blues with a rough raw edge and Steve was the man behind a ton of 45s. Sadly he, like so many others before him, didn’t note down every session – shame for us collector nerds. Phase one ended with a four year stint in prison after conscientiously objecting to the Vietnam war. He came out a free man and into the anti jazz of Ornette Coleman, SunRa and a new movement of independence and the avant garde – “Stay in the rhythms,” he often said to me – and it was he who kept the flow for some of the most flamboyant and outward free blowers of the time.

Steve contacted me when I was on Kiss FM back in the 90s – he was living somewhere in Europe and had heard of this DJ who played modal jazz next to hip hop and stuff – he sent me all these sessions and live performances on cassette. I’d play them out; they were always firing. I started searching out his earlier solo stuff and discovered the Nova label – self financed by Steve and as independent as fuck. Forget punk, this was handmade and totally radical stuff. Lions Of Judah became my theme tune and Steve became my friend.

From sending me cassettes and old records to videos of Elvin Jones, Steve was mentor to all things left of Coltrane. Eventually we met and did radio together – a dream – stories of Fela, Don Cherry and Miles!

He always had a smile on – it got him signed, first by Soul Jazz and then by Domino – the albums were good and ahead of their time. He loved to experiment, whether it be with musicians from Senegal or the UK’s most far out, like Fourtet.

I live in a world of DJs, producers and over-hyped, over-blogged nonsense. Of course I love it but sometimes you need someone who has truly lived this music game to remind you what it’s all about.

Steve Reid was a kind, humble and very intelligent man. He was hip in the true sense. Never talked down and was always grateful for what he had. He smoked hard and worked hard. He made me realise how good I had it and how much more I could do to encourage others. He knew my strength was communication – he was hip to that – and in me he saw an unlikely fellow music missionary.

I visited him in New York during his final months. I was shocked by the lack of care he was receiving. This is a long standing problem with the US and its health care. Unless you can afford it, the treatments suck. It made me set up the Steve Reid Foundation in which, with the help of the Musicians Benevolent Fund, we can help support other musicians who find themselves in similar situations.

Steve Reid sadly died of throat cancer in New York on 13th April, 2010.

Brownswood Recordings released ‘Gilles Peterson presents Havana Cultura: The Search Continues’ on 14th November 2011. They will release Emanative & Ahmed Abdullah The Lions of Judah (a Steve Reid cover) on December 12th 2011. There’ll be a launch party and charity dinner in aid of the Steve Reid Foundation (tickets and details), also on Monday 12th December 2012

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