King Reeves, Jr. 1938–2020

King Reeves and Charlie Wilson

What possessed me to visit the Greenwich Tavern to see a quintet led by vibraphonist King Reeves and pianist Charlie Wilson almost 15 years ago I can’t say. I hadn’t heard their music yet, and I didn’t know any of the band members. So why did I go?

Maybe Kenny, a bartender at the Greenwich, hipped me to the event, which would make sense, as his enthusiasm for jazz is infectious. And maybe the fact that the vibraphone had become one of my favorite instruments had an influence.

In any case I attended the concert, where a good-sized crowd was quite vocal in its support, the cries of enthusiasm punctuating the music and inspiring the band to new heights. The quintet was on fire, and the vibes-piano duets by King Reeves and Charlie Wilson so much engaged the audience that the performance became a conversation between the musicians and the crowd.

That was nice to witness, but the concert that evening was also a bit of a head scratcher. I wondered how, when every jazz club in Cincinnati had seen its share of nearly empty rooms, so many people made it out that evening. Clearly this was a well-connected group of middle-aged and older black people who knew a great jazz group when they heard one; entering that room, I felt like I was let in on a well-kept secret. At the same time I found it interesting that music that engaging could be so obscure, and even on a local level. Talking to band members after the show, I learned that King Reeves and Charlie Wilson played very few gigs but wanted more. Later, when I asked around town, few of the jazz fans I talked to had heard of these musicians, and fewer yet had seen them.

That concert launched a friendship with King Reeves and Charlie Wilson. I chatted with both of them on the phone many times, and sometimes I visited King at his stylish brick home a few blocks west of Central Parkway, where framed black-and-white photographs of musicians filled a hallway and original artwork added vibrant colors to cool green walls. Both King and Charlie were raconteurs, and they had a lot to talk about, including the jazz world of the 50s and 60s, when major jazz artists played small clubs in Cincinnati on a regular basis. When Miles Davis came to Cincinnati, he asked King drove him around and show him the sights, which is interesting because this was the city where Doc Cheadle chose to film Miles Ahead. King also talked about owning nightclubs where a young Bootsy Collins performed. One afternoon, after I interviewed King and Charlie, they performed “Blue Sapphire,” which was the name of the group that King led in the 70s and 80s. During that performance, King played a set of vibes that had been purchased from country star Conway Twitty and Charlie played piano.

After I met them, King and Charlie played the occasional gig, at venues that included the Greenwich Tavern, the Southgate House, and the Blue Wisp. Many of those concerts consisted of duets, and there was very something very special about those performances. Their sound was modern, with a set list that included compositions by Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock, but the lineage traced back farther, as when Charlie busted out some Fats Wallers licks (it turns out Charlie had seen him perform). Those performances kept you on the edge of your seat, and they proved that jazz can be playful and dramatic and intricate and sophisticated and soulful, all at the same time.

Sadly, King Reeves passed away on March 27, 2020. For those who never saw him perform live, it’s still possible to hear some of his music he recorded. His discography includes some self-released compact discs that are hard to track down, but – for starters – Superbad, a 2005 recording of duets between King and Charlie,  shows up on AllMusic .

Also, I videotaped excerpts from some of their shows on a camera whose video quality was many strata below what a cheap cell phone would have now. Still, these YouTube videos captured something that definitely deserved to be documented. The music King Reeves played reflected the man inside: warm and soulful, with plenty of good vibes. He will definitely be missed.

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