R.I.P. Fearless, Wildly Adventurous Jazz Drummer Steve Reid


You’d be hard pressed to find a drummer who covered more stylistic ground in his career than Bronx-born drummer Steve Reid, who died in his sleep last night after a battle with cancer. He was 66.

His first recording gig came when he was 17, backing Martha and the Vandellas under the direction of Quincy Jones in the Apollo Theater house band. Then a three-year stint in Africa, playing with superstars like Guy Warren and Fela Kuti. He was hired — and fired — by James Brown. (More on that here: “‘If you were late twice you were out.’ He waits a beat. ‘That’s how I got fired.’ And again that laugh.”) After two years in jail for refusing to fight in Vietnam, he enjoyed stints with every jazz pioneer you can think of: Freddie Hubbard, Ornette Coleman, Sun Ra, Miles Davis. And later in life, he pounded out a series of adventurous, exuberant records with electronic musician Kieran Hebden, a/k/a Four Tet, whom Reid proudly described as his “musical soul mate.”

“Steve was one of my great friends and the most wonderful musician I have ever encountered,” says Hebden, in a statement passed along by PR company Motormouth Media. “The music and adventures we shared have been some of the most happy and meaningful experiences I’ve ever had. A true inspiration. He lived a great life and gave us incredible music. I’ll miss him forever.’

Age and theoretical stylistic gap aside, Reid had the same affection for Hebden. As the drummer had once explained his newfound philosophy:

“Today’s music is driven by the rhythms. That’s the key. There are going to be no more Coltranes or Hendrixes: all this shit on the top has been played already! Now it’s about mixing the whole thing up with the rhythms. It’s not an intellectual thing anymore. It’s a feeling.” Drumming is a craft that Steve feels is being neglected, “Now everything has a very clinical, digital drum sound. You don’t hear overtones or anything like that. It needs to be opened up. There’s not too many guys left: Blakey, Elvin… everybody with a raw sound has gone now.” And then, remembering himself: “Almost.”