Photo courtesy of Chicago Tribune
As saxophonist Ari Brown’s quintet struck its first note, Howard Reich listened. His foot began to tap. His knee bounced. His fingers kept the meter. His arms moved with the melody.
Reich feels the music, but not just emotionally.
“If I’m moved, I feel it physically. And then what I’m really trying to do is interpret why do I feel this way?” Reich said.
Brown’s Oct. 24th performance at Chicago’s Jazz Showcase, what Reich called the “temple of bebop,” made an impression on Howard Reich, 30-year Chicago Tribune jazz critic.
“Every great jazz city has a roster of leonine players who don’t necessarily pursue international careers but would be eminently worthy of the attention,” Reich wrote in his review. “…But hearing him [Brown] leading a quintet in a room where listeners pay keen attention reaffirmed the stature of his art and cast a bright light on its appeal.”
Reich answered his calling from jazz, and from writing, decades ago. He acted on his passion and ambition, but took a few years trying to figure out how to piece his interests together.
Reich started writing at a young age. But when he was 16, he turned on a classic film full of Gershwin tunes and Gene Kelly’s choreography, An American in Paris.
“After that, that was it. I was going to be a pianist,” Reich said.
He had never taken a piano lesson, but from that point forward, he practiced to the point that he neglected his high school classes.
When college application time rolled around, Reich decided he wanted to study journalism at Northwestern University. But as each day passed, he became more interested in pursuing music.
Without telling his parents and just a couple months before school started, he auditioned for Northwestern’s music program. He was accepted. Reich became a piano major.
But Reich was torn. When he played in the practice rooms, he felt like he was missing out on what was happening in the world outside. But on days he didn’t practice, he felt guilty for neglecting his piano studies.
Reich had a realization the summer between his junior and senior year.
“I should write about music,” Reich said. “I had always been a writer, and I learned all about this music.”
Then the pieces really started to fall into place. Chicago Tribune’s music critic, Thomas Willis, happened to be on the Northwestern University music staff, and Reich asked to do an independent study with him. He reviewed a show for Willis every week.
At the end of Reich’s study with Willis, he asked if he could really do it.
“I don’t encourage many people, but I encourage you,” Willis told him.
That positive energy pushed Reich forward. He free-lanced for the Tribune and other publications before he was hired by the Tribune, where he has been for 30 years.
“Every bizarre choice I made along the way was right for me- even though my whole family told me it was wrong, wrong, wrong and that I was going to be a bum,” Reich said.
Now he’s reviewed countless performances and met his musical heroes, like Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Tony Bennett, Herbie Hancock and his An American in Paris favorite- Gene Kelly.
Reich said he sees the world through his ears, and that’s what led him to his career.
“Listening to music, to me, is a very intense emotional experience … I want to be on the edge of my seat,” Reich said. “I’m bursting with things to say, and I write them down. So that’s what I do, and I’ve been doing all these decades.”