He’s the Ish

When you ask writer Ishmael Reed, "What's new with you?," be prepared to listen for a while.

Call him Ishmael. Or Mr. Reed, if you prefer. The Emeryville resident, who has been famous since the now-legendary Black Arts Movement of the ’60s, is one of the region’s brightest literary lights. Well known as a novelist and playwright, he also is a poet and musician with a deep love for jazz and all that the art form encompasses.

He’s also something of a name-dropper. In a short phone conversation, he offhandedly mentions everyone from Taj Mahal to Cecil Taylor to Bobby Womack to David Murray to Susan Muscarella — all of whom he not only knows personally, but has worked with on various projects. Coming from anyone else, it might seem a little bit highfalutin or pretentious to constantly be mentioning such recognizable artistic figures. But for Reed, who takes collaboration to heart, that’s just how he rolls.

Reed’s accomplishments have been so numerous over the years, it’s hard to keep up with all of them. You may have heard about the new play he’ll be premiering this fall at the Black Repertory Theater, but you may not know about Conjure, a series of musical works taken from the texts of his novels and poetic verses. There have been two volumes in the series so far (which the author says are “very well known in Europe”). The first Conjure album, from 1984, features Allen Toussaint, David Murray, Lester Bowie, Olu Dara, Taj Mahal, Jamaaladeen Tacuma, Carla Bley, Kip Hanrahan, and Kenny Kirkland, along with Reed. The second, released in 1998 and subtitled Cab Calloway Stands in for the Moon, added Leo Nocentelli, Womack, Eddie Harris, Lenny Pickett, Milton Cardona, and Reed’s daughter Tennessee to the mix.

Both albums present a magical elixir of often-intoxicating jazz-poetry. “What the musicians said was, they didn’t really have to do too much, because the rhythms were always there,” Reed says of the way the albums have turned out. He isn’t bragging, mind you; he’s just being truthful.

Reed doesn’t take the power of words lightly. He notes that his poetry is “probably much more serious” than either his novels or his plays. The personal nature of the art form may have something to do with that: “I think poetry is probably more a journey into the soul than some of the other forms,” he muses.

In 2002, Reed and the Conjure Orchestra played concerts in Paris, London, and Tokyo, the recollection of which leads him to note, somewhat tangentially, that he has studied both the Yoruban and Japanese languages. The shows were preparation for the upcoming third installment in the Conjure series, on which Mahal will again be featured alongside Omar Sosa and various musicians from Africa and the Caribbean. Another warm-up session for the next album will take place Friday night at Yoshi’s, when Reed will sit in with jazz violinist Billy Bang, his longtime friend and collaborator. Reed plans to voice his poetry to Bang’s instrumentals — “I have a piece I wrote about war, one about global warming, a couple blues numbers,” he says.

Recently, Reed added the title of composer to his résumé with a jazz piece called “9/11,” which premiered in Paris. He felt the need to do this because, as he puts it, “certain things are beyond words.” He is currently studying piano with Susan Muscarella, the director of Berkeley’s Jazzschool, and also plans to collaborate with Oakland East Bay Symphony director Michael Morgan on an as-yet-untitled opera. Last but not least, he mentions that his novel on the O.J. Simpson trial and pop culture’s fascination with Celebrities Gone Bad will be published sometime in 2006. “I’m always creating new material,” he says resolutely — which seems like somewhat of an understatement.

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