Reed Expands Reach With Constellation
Drummer and tireless music programmer Mike Reed can now add “venue owner” to his extensive list of credentials.
As producer of the Pitchfork Music Festival and talent booker for Umbrella Music Festival and a number of Chicago venues, Reed’s plate is considerably full. But his new multidisciplinary space, Constellation, which hosted its first performance on April 1, is a welcome addition to Chicago’s improvised music scene.
Constellation will present a hearty program of progressive jazz and classical music in collaboration with other mediums, such as dance and film. From the look of performance calendar—Dutch jazzers the ICP Orchestra (April 6), pianist Craig Taborn (April 26) and multi-instrumentalist Roscoe Mitchell (with Reed on April 19)—the program is as impressive as it is well-crafted, but Reed said that the idea behind Constellation was more of a happy accident than a premeditated decision.
When Reed heard that the space formerly occupied by the Viaduct Theatre was on the market, he knew just the right buyer: the Links Hall dance organization, which was also looking for a new home.
“I wasn’t looking to buy a venue—what an awful idea!” Reed joked. “But I knew Links Hall had been looking for some years now, and I got to be friends with [Links Hall Director] Roell Schmidt. I basically said, ‘You guys should buy this building. It’s exactly what you’re looking for.’”
Because Links Hall was looking to lease a building for a long period of time—rather than buy—Reed took matters into his own hands.
“Since I was looking for a place for my own business, I thought maybe I should buy it and rent it to them,” he said. That property investment dovetailed into something larger and more conceptual. “What Links does definitely overlaps into my artistic world. Where else could this synergy come together?”
Constellation boasts three performance studios of varying sizes as well as a lobby that moonlights as a space for performance. Reed’s interest in dancers and improvised musicians interacting onstage stems from his experience overseas. He’s also noticed it at emerging cultural spaces in New York, such as Roulette or The Stone.
“It’s a big thing in Berlin or Amsterdam,” Reed explained. “There are some really great venues that I played at in Europe that definitely had a lot more inspiration for the collaborative aspect.”
With progressive jazz as the cornerstone of its mission and Links’ organizers commandeering the dance programming, Constellation will fill a void that’s long existed in Chicago since the closing of such venues as the Velvet Lounge and HotHouse. Reed has a steady schedule of free-jazz bookings all over town, but he believes that Constellation will serve as a weekend refuge for those in search of more experimental jazz.
“Wednesdays at the Hideout, Thursdays at Elastic and Sundays at Hungry Brain—what happens on Friday and Saturday?” Reed said. “If you’re not super straightahead, you’re not playing at the Jazz Showcase. The Green Mill is hard to get into as far as playing there, and Andy’s is a dinner club with drinks and a jazz group. You’re not going to have Ellery Eskelin at Andy’s, so what do you do on a Saturday if you want something progressive?
“Some progressive places are like lofts and apartments, but if I have someone like [trumpeter] Axel Dörner from Berlin coming through on a Friday or Saturday, at one of the biggest cities in the world, he shouldn’t be playing a loft. There should be primetime options. This is a great place to play because it has all the accouterments of a major jazz club in the States or in Europe.”
It’s hard to imagine how Reed finds the time to manage his extensive list of priorities, but he considers Constellation to be a breath of fresh air from the advanced planning and instant decision-making of events such as Pitchfork, though he embraces them both with the same enthusiasm and ambition. He’s also enlisted a roster of knowledgeable jazz aficionados to assist him in making programming decisions. (Michael Slaboch will serve as program director.)
“At Pitchfork or a special event, you have very little room for error,” Reed explained. “With [Constellation], there’s going to be a lot of fine tuning. It’s going to be kind of nice in a certain way. It’s a longer improvisation, whereas with Pitchfork it’s a lot of planning and then bam! It has to happen. Decisions are made really quickly, dealing with the elements, dealing with the crowd. This isn’t going to be easier, but it is going to be an evolution. There can be more room for discussion.”
As the realities of budgeting and cash flow set in, Reed believes it’s more important to get the venue up and running than to invest in larger expenditures. His main goal is to form communities of experimental artists and cross-pollinate Constellation’s audiences in order to pursue other avenues of programming, such as contemporary new music and experimental film.
“I know that we want a Cadillac, but maybe right now we just need a good used Toyota,” Reed said. “I am looking at the big picture, which is ‘Let’s get this thing up and moving.’ In a certain weird, constructive way, we’re taking all these little bits of fringe art. If I can collect all these things on the fringe, I’ll have as large a mass of it as I can. There’s more potential for it to be even bigger than where it is by itself.”