As news spread of the passing of Sam Reed on July 7, 2021, at age 85, the Philadelphia music community immediately mourned the life of the legendary saxophonist and bandleader.
Sam Reed, the bandleader at the Uptown Theater in North Philadelphia from the late 1950s through the 1960s, was heralded as one of the most talented musicians in the entertainment industry. He’s credited for adding jazz shows to what was at the time an R&B, blues, and rock and roll venue. Still playing in his mid-80s, Reed led his eponymous quartet and was frequently sought out by musicians for his insights and skills.
“No doubt about Sam. You could not pay for that wisdom for just the way that he moved with such grace and such humility,” noted vocalist Denise King. She, like many other area-based musicians, credits Reed for fostering her career.
“He played with Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughn, Dizzy Gillespie, John Coltrane, Ted Curson, The Heath Brothers, you name it. Sam’s name was mentioned in those circles and in that echelon. He was a part of Philadelphia jazz royalty, but humbly so to the point that somehow he kind of became unsung. He didn’t get the rah rah and the accolades that he probably should have gotten or could have gotten if he had left Philadelphia. But he was content to be here and pass his wisdom and his knowledge on to younger generations of musicians and singers.”
Reed’s career and life was detailed in the late entertainment reporter Kimberly C. Robert’s book, “Joy Ride! The Stars and Stories of Philly’s Famous Uptown Theater.”
“During its glory days, one of the things that distinguished the Uptown from other theaters on the chitlin’ circuit was its stellar house band, the Sam Reed Orchestra. Aside from Georgie Woods, saxophonist Sam Reed, who served as the bandleader from 1963 to 1971, and observed the inner workings of the theater almost daily, was perhaps the ultimate Uptown’ insider,'” she wrote.
When Reed was six, his family relocated from South Carolina to the Point Breeze area of South Philly, where a spirited Black neighborhood already boasted an electrifying music community. His friends were future jazz greats, such as Ted Curson, Bobby Timmons, Jimmy Garrison, Henry Grimes, and best pal and bandmate, Albert “Tootie” Heath, the youngest of the Heath Brothers. Inspired by his musical peers, Reed convinced his father to buy him a saxophone.
“The Heath house was where all the famous people of the music world came. The first time I met Charlie Parker and his group was at the Heath’s house. At that time, Parker’s group consisted of Miles Davis, Max Roach, Duke Jordan, and Tommy Potter. Jimmy told Charlie Parker that I wanted to play sax. He smiled and said to me,’ practice all the time.’ In all likelihood, these memories are probably from 1947 or 1948,” Reed recalled in “Joy Ride.”
As an in-demand sessions player, he performed with countless jazz, R&B, rock ‘n roll, or soul music legends. In the early 1970s, he became the first “horn contractor” for Gamble and Huff’s Philadelphia International Record, helping to craft the emerging “Sound of Philadelphia.” Reed toured the world as the musical director for Teddy Pendergrass. In 2012, he received the Jazz Journalists Association’s annual Jazz Heroes Award
As a teen player just starting out, saxophonist Foster Child recalled his initial encounter with the fellow horn man.
“I met Sam Reed around 1969 at the Uptown Theater. I was in a group called the Emanons, – No Name spelled backward – and we had a record called, ‘One Heart.’ [After a performance], I was invited to come and play in the Uptown Orchestra for five days and that’s when I met Sam Reed. Okay. And, you could immediately see there was a special aura around him. He was very laid back, very quiet, but you can see he was a leader. He led very quietly: what he did was he cast the right players and pretty much got out of the way and let things take their own shape and form in terms of the music.”
The Jam For Sam II Fundraiser and Jam Session occurs on Monday, July 19, 2021, from 5 – 8 p.m. in the outdoor venue of the Community Education Center (CEC), 3500 Lancaster Avenue, Philadelphia, PA 19104, hosted by Leo Gadson, Steve Braylock, Lovett Hines, Webb Thomas and Denise King.