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Musician Alto Reed

Native Detroiter and legendary saxophonist Alto Reed, joined Bob Seger and The Silver Bullet Band in 1972 as a founding member.  During the late '90s, he started a solo career to complement his work with the band, electing to explore contemporary crossover jazz. Reed's solo debut, Cool Breeze, was released in 1997, adding touches of pop, rock, and R&B to melodic jazz. By 2001, his career had taken another unique musical turn with the opportunity to score the film version of Jeff Daniels' Escanaba in Da Moonlight followed by 2002’s Super Sucker.

Throughout his illustrious career he has performed with a wide variety of artists including, Foghat, Grand Funk, Otis Rush, Jamie Oldaker, George Terry, Spencer Davis, Tico Torres, The Blues Brothers, George Thorogood, and Holograf. In 2009, Reed teamed up with songwriting partner Steve Dickinson to form the Reed & Dickinson Band to promote Michigan-based product, The TaleGator, and The Ford Collection. They put on a series of performances in the classic Detroit rock 'n' roll style. Joined by other notable artists, they released an album entitled Tonight We Ride.  In addition to his many other ventures, Reed remains a vital member of the Silver Bullet Band, that kicked off their national tour with Seger in March 2011.
BMN: How old were you when you knew you wanted to play music and how did you learn to do it?
ALTO: It was just a process of starting off with a music aptitude test in the 3rd grade and I scored ya know at the top of the whole thing.  It started with the song flute. It was easy for me to understand how to pick up and play melody. Then they had a night when you went to pick out instruments so you could join the elementary band, which was kind of an all-county band with lots of kids in it.  I started on trumpet actually, but in 5th grade I got braces and it made it really painful to play trumpet, even though I was a really good player. Everything came natural to me in music…I got better and better at it. It was a long process, of private lessons, playing in the marching band, playing in the concert band, getting invited to play in my first rock band when I was in the 11th grade. It just seemed like ya know one thing lead to another and eventually through different channels I joined Bob Seger and that’s been my reality my whole adult life with Bob, and how much better does it get than that? He’s a great songwriter and I get to just play what I want to play and it’s about creating hooks like Turn the Page.
BMN: That hook is often referred to as one of the greatest sax solos of all time. What was the inspiration?
ALTO: We were in Leon Russell’s private studio. Leon Russell was legendary back then, and still is. He’s amazing. We were in his studio on a break and Bob found a track that he thought could use some saxophone and I said, “Yeah, man I can definitely hear some sax,” and I asked him what he had in mind. And our assistant tour manager said, “Alto, picture that it’s late at night, and you’re in a black and white movie. There’s some rain on the street and in the alley and you’re standing in the street under the lamp and off in the distance you hear this wailing. What does that sound like?”  I picked up my sax and out of nowhere came (hums the open to Turn the Page). Bob looks over and says, “Tell him another story.” I refer to the opening notes of Turn the Page as my gift from the cosmos. Everybody has them, you just have to be open to them…You don’t know where it’s gonna come, when it’s gonna come, ya just have to be open to it, and it is there. You have to tell the universe what you’re looking for and the universe says, “Ok, how about this?” (hums the hook again). A lot of my solos happen the same way, I just, I just feel it. It’s almost like somebody’s singing to me in my head already.
BMN: Obviously Bob Seger has had a huge impact, but what other Michigan artists have had the biggest influence on your music?
ALTO: You know early on a band called The Sunliners. I wasn’t old enough to even go into the club at that time, but I heard about this band called The Sunliners. They used to play at Coral Gables. I got some fake ID, and I went in, not to drink, but just to hear this band. They were unbelievable. That band went on to become Rare Earth. They were probably the best band I’d ever heard, certainly at that time, and their style of music, with a sax player--not every band had a sax player.  That really was a huge early influence in the era of the Brits and the English guitar bands that there was a guy that played sax, and played it like the leads. I didn’t want to be in a horn section. I didn’t really want to be jazz. I wanted to be Pete Townsend, George Harrison or Clapton, somebody who understood melody and knew how to play it. Sunliners/Rare Earth were a very early experience for me.
BMN: How would you describe the music scene in Michigan today?
ALTO: I think it’s really good. TGIF Entertainment Group is bringing a lot of the artists together under their umbrella.   There are a lot of bands to choose from. You know I did my AllStar Thanksgiving celebration and I probably had 30 musicians all told throughout the night. Mitch Ryder, Jeff Daniels, Martha Reeves, my daughter, Victoria, who is phenomenal, my AllStar band, Jimmy Bones, Groove Council, Jill Jack…so many names. It’s Michigan!  You know, almost everybody in our band, the Seger band, is from Michigan…Michigan has always been a hotbed of talent in rock ‘n’ roll. It’s one of the few states like that with Lansing, Ann Arbor, Detroit. The music influence that has always been a part of Detroit is still there…How many people have come out of Michigan? Ted Nugent, a good friend of mine.  Alice Cooper.  And a lot of the early British bands they all had in their minds that they had to play Detroit. And the only way they were going to make it big was to make it in Detroit. That was the ultimate test. All the big bands and all the big names, Detroit was the primary focus to play. From The Grande Ballroom to Cobo Hall--that was where the biggest bands worldwide came to play, Detroit Michigan, and they still do. 
BMN: Who are some of your favorite up and coming young artists?
ALTO: Well you know up and coming doesn’t always necessarily just mean young, but people who have been working at it for a while.  We have some great talent like the Howling Diablos. They are fantastic.  Groups like Julianne and the Rogues, Jill Jack, Grooce Council.  Fantastic! Great, great musicians and singers. They’re really top of my list. They have all the makings.
BMN: How do you think being a Michigan guy influenced the person you have become?
ALTO: Well Michigan’s pretty amazing. There’s a work ethic in Michigan…I always approached it, that if I was a busboy, and I was, at Cobo Hall, (and one of the reasons I was, was because I could get in free to all the concerts), I’m going to work my way up. Eventually I’m going to be at the top and I worked my way up to concessions. I was grateful to have a job, grateful for the opportunity. Every now and then I could sneak out for a few minutes and look up on the stage and I recognized something. That’s where I belonged. That’s where I wanted to be, up on that stage. It was a short time later that with Bob we had 2 sold out nights at Cobo Hall and I can remember I was standing up on stage and looking out at the vendors selling Coke and popcorn. I didn’t look down on them, I was just ecstatic that I was there. When I was in the vendor’s commissary just as a young guy I made the best delicious popcorn, I tweaked the coke we served from the fountain so that it was sweeter and stronger and it made people want to buy more. I took a pride in whatever it was that I was doing and tried to be the best at it. If I could share a message to young people, or even middle aged people, or old people, because it’s never too late to figure it out--whatever you’re doing be the best. Then your energy is just going to draw opportunities to you. Never look down on a job or position. Let that motivate you to the next level, but be grateful for where you are…that’s the key, the right attitude and the Michigan work ethic will take you to the top, absolutely take you to the top.
BMN: You have certainly traveled the world, what are some of the things that you think make Michigan, as a state, special?
ALTO: All the water; the lakes; freshwater. It’s a beautiful state. There are so many great places, with our lakes and topography, up in Alpena, Charlevoix, and the Upper Peninsula, it’s all very special…It’s like a country, when you go to Europe, you have all these different countries touching each other, different cultures, different people, and Michigan is like that. It’s hard to find so many different elements touching each other. Michigan offers a lot of diverse realities. People. Places. Things.  Businesses. Recreation. It’s an incredible state for recreation and the arts, like Interlochen. 
BMN: The fact that Michigan has all these amazing elements is one of the reasons it’s so attractive to filmmakers. Our state can look like almost anywhere. As a member of the entertainment industry, what are your thoughts on Michigan’s film tax incentives?
ALTO: I’d like to take this moment to encourage the governor to keep the film industry tax credits in there because what you have to look at, especially in small communities, is what that does for the overall state. There is a huge reality that maybe at first is not so obvious, and what I mean by that is there are little towns that have no industry and yet they survive and everybody does fairly well as long as they circulate the currency. You have to have some money come in from somewhere.  So then you go to the beauty salon and you give them some money. They then take that money and they spend it at the car dealer. The car dealer then buys something else. A lot of the money I think if you could follow it in the smaller towns like Michigan has, that money circulates. It’s almost the same money that just keeps being passed around. It’s like a life force, it’s like blood, ya know, in your body. You need to have that circulation of currency and the movie industry does that on a local level.  In turn that provides a tax base and people can afford homes and to hire more people. It builds, so I really want to encourage the state of Michigan and our governor to keep this movie industry tax a reality because it’s done so much for all the that people I know. It’s a great opportunity. It’s a window to the world and to people who don’t know anything about us. I think the longer it’s here, the greater the opportunity it brings for businesses and other people. There are buildings that have been abandoned for years that are becoming sound stages. Wow, man, don’t lose that. It’s a very special reality that Michigan has for creating revenue, healthy communities, and that circulation of currency. It’s a great feeling that you’re involved in something productive at a time when Michigan’s morale is down…I came back from the west coast and people really are looking to Michigan to bring more productions and in the long run it will create jobs, revenue, and raise the morale of the people. I think it’s win win win win. If the state’s going to invest in anything that turns around and delivers the goods, it’s the movie industry. Please, please, don’t lose it.
BMN: What advice do you have for Michigan kids who are dreaming of a musical career?
ALTO: I think first you have to have a passion, and for young kids it’s about following your passion and applying yourself to it, and keeping yourself open to the possibilities and opportunities. I went after Bob for three months to get an audition…There is no automatic path. If you’re just hoping that something will just come and find you, it could happen, but it’s about being aware of what you’re looking for and delivering and applying yourself.   You can do anything and everything that you want to do right here in Michigan.  It all starts here. I know so many people that are hugely successful and they’re Michigan people. Just because you’ve been beaten up by the press and the economics of it right now, that affects everyone. It’s across the country. It’s around the world. That’s the wrong focus. The focus is what do you want to do?...You can’t let anybody step on your dreams, but you also can’t sit back in your easy chair and watch tv and expect them to come to your door with Publisher’s Clearinghouse. Get up and ask for the path you want to be on. 
BMN: What are your thoughts on Buy Michigan Now and the idea of supporting local businesses?
ALTO: It’s a well-known reality that if you hoard the money and don’t circulate it the community dries up. It’s unhealthy. What you have to do with different opportunities is to circulate your energy, your ideas, your money that you make. The more that you do; the healthier the system is, however small it is. Be a part of it and support Michigan…The Ford Motor Company is one of the few companies that didn’t go to the government for assistance to survive this and they’re back on top big time. The other car companies are following suit, following their example. They lead the way by making good product. There’s a pride in Michigan product and Ford has come back to the top of the whole thing by making world class product that people want to buy. You can’t just say it’s made in Michigan so buy it. If you’re going to make it in Michigan, and if you’re going to promote it as such--make it good, make it special. The people that I know that are doing it are doing a great job with Michigan product that’s world class. I believe in it strongly. It’s a big community, Michigan. The more you buy Michigan the more people get back to work…we’re on our way back, no doubt.
BMN: What Shout Out do you have for your fans in Michigan?
ALTO: BEE-lieve. Believe, dream, do, go, seek it, search it. It works every time ultimately. Be patient and stay at it. In Michigan that’s part of the work ethic, you’ve already got a head start on everybody else in the country. Go out and do it. It’s all possible.
Editor's Note: The Summer of 2011 will see Alto Reed’s AllStar Show hit the road again playing at summer festivals and performing arts centers throughout the Mid-West and Canada. Following the success of last year’s November concert, the 2nd Annual Alto Reed Thanksgiving Celebration is planned for November 2011.