In April 2009, jazz drummer Mike Reed and his band, People, Places, and Things, got off a train in Prerov, Czech Republic, at the advice of their conductor, to make a connection toward a tour stop in Krakow. With some time to spare, the band headed into town for lunch, where they found lines of police in riot gear. "We thought it was some type of race," recalls Reed, "until one of these SWAT guys stops us. 'This isn't safe,' he says. 'There's a skinhead rally here today.'"
What happened next isn't easily condensed, but it's the stuff of nightmares: Thinking the rally would begin at the center of town, the racially integrated quartet returned to the train station to take cover. There, hundreds of neo-Nazi skinheads were arriving for what Reed later learned was a massive, violent protest against Prerov's Roma population. "It was complete confusion from all directions," says Reed. "Do you run at the SWAT team, who's basically firing shit at me, or do you run away, with the skinheads?"
Eventually, an officer led the band to a makeshift police compound to hide. Once the worst had passed, the band boarded their train to Poland, but a gang of straggling skinheads tailed them and hopped on too. In what could be a scene from a twisted Hitchcock film, Reed and his band found themselves dodging in and out of train cars to avoid the skinheads until two riot police stepped in. After the commotion simmered, Reed and his bandmates learned they were on a train to Warsaw, not Krakow. The connection they’d been told to make in Prerov hadn’t existed in the first place.
Reed sat on the experience for years before letting it fuel Flesh and Bone, a jazz-cum-poetry piece premiering tonight at the Art Institute. He attributes the long incubation not only to grasping a life-and-death brush with racism, but the mechanics capturing such a vast day. "If you're an artist and you can't make something out of that experience," he says, "But for a long time, I had no idea how."
The trick came in tackling a big idea rather than that single, big day in Přerov—specifically, the spectrum of humans reduced to race in both extreme circumstances and the everyday encounters ("just going to a store and having somebody ask 'Can I help you?' way too much"). It's an idea Reed will tackle with an expanded iteration of People, Places, and Things including cornet-player Ben Lamar Gay and clarinetist Jason Stein. Poet Kevin Coval and vocalist Marvin Tate will perform text peppered throughout. Reed has already uploaded primers on SoundCloud. The program is based loosely on a Catholic mass, with Coval and Tate's sections miming verse and Reed's music taking the place of prayer.
On top of turning that nightmare in Prerov into something rich, Reed says he's used Flesh and Bone to prod some of his questions about race, too: "I have a very middle-class life," says the drummer. "Experiencing this extreme version of bigotry made me [wonder whether] I could battle it on the front lines. I got thrown into this shit [in Prerov], and if I'd had a choice, I'd obviously have said no. I can't imagine the amount of courage that took here."
People, Places and Things premieres Flesh and Bone November 20 at 7. Art Institute of Chicago, 111 S. Michigan. $10–$15. artic.edu