H. Owen Reed: A Musical Legacy

Composer, musician, faculty member, and friend of the College of Music is remembered.

To some, he is remembered as the Aaron Copland of Michigan State University. To others, the longtime professor of music theory and composition is recalled as a cherished mentor, colleague, family man, and friend. 

H. Owen Reed died Jan. 6, 2014, in Athens, Georgia. He was 103.

Reed was born in Odessa, Missouri, on June 17, 1910. He joined the MSU faculty in 1939 after working his way through school playing in jazz bands. He attended the University of Missouri, Louisiana State University, and received his Ph.D. from the Eastman School of Music. Michigan became his second home, and the MSU College of Music his beloved work place for 37 years.

"Owen was a wonderful musician and composer and teacher," says friend and former student Charles Ruggiero, MSU professor of composition and music theory. "He had a certain charm of communicating with people that was very special."

Ruggiero was a student up until Reed retired in 1976. Although Ruggerio had offers to attend other music schools, he chose MSU because of Reed.

"When I told people where I was going, they knew immediately who Owen was," says Ruggiero. "He was that well-regarded for his band compositions."

Reed was best known for "La Fiesta Mexicana"—an extended work for band that features three movements, elements of a Catholic mass, and Mexican folk music.

"He was writing during a time when there weren't a lot of pieces like that for a concert band," says Kevin Sedatole, MSU professor of music, director of bands, and chair of the conducting area. "La Fiesta established Reed immediately as an important composer."

College of Music Dean James Forger also notes Reed's tremendous influence.

"I first heard of Reed when I was a 9th grader at the National Music Camp at Interlochen," says Forger. "My first introduction to him was playing this fabulous work."

Forger met Reed in the 1980s and acknowledged his profound musical talents.

"He was both a terrific composer and a jazz musician during the days when jazz wasn't part of collegiate music studies," Forger says. "When he retired, he continued to play with an MSU faculty jazz ensemble called the Geriatric Six."

Reed was also a loyal supporter of the College of Music. His last "public appearance," Forger recalls, was a taped interview as part of a College of Music campaign video in which he advocated for a potential facility addition to the Music Building.

"He had said he was there when the building was built in 1939," Forger reports. "The video concludes with the comment from Reed 'I'm 102. Don't make me wait any longer.'"

Reed left an indelible mark on hundreds of MSU students, including contemporary composers such as David Maslanka, David Gillingham, and Jere Hutcheson, a life-long friend and 49-year veteran of the College of Music.

"Owen was so highly thought of that when MSU reached its centennial in 1955, they asked him to write the opera 'Michigan Dream,'" says Hutcheson, a professor of composition. "He was a good leader, very supportive, and had lots of friends across campus."

Mary Black-Junttonen was among them.

As the MSU music librarian, Black-Junttonen recalls how Reed's donation of his composition materials led to the establishment of a music manuscript collection at the university.

"He was extremely devoted to his students and his composition legacy," says Black-Junttonen. "He also helped us grow the collection by telling others to 'contact Mary and give her some stuff.'"

Black-Junttonen says she frequently visited Reed and listened to him play his original jazz arrangements on piano well into his 90s.

"I feel very privileged to have gotten to know him," she says. "He was always friendly and one of the warmest people I ever met."

Reed was preceded in death by his first wife Esther of 50 years, a son-in-law, and a great grandson. He is survived by his wife Mary of 31 years, two daughters, three stepchildren, 15 grandchildren, and 21 great-grandchildren.

Photo courtesy of Athens Banner-Herald.

Topics filed under:

Share this: