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Rufus Reid: Composer, Educator, Bassist, Gait Keeper… And Prophet

David Hadley Ray By

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Rufus Reid doesn't play standards, as much as he is the standard, a well of knowledge and wisdom that this bassist was fortunate to sit down with one afternoon.

All About Jazz: When you did the Elizabeth Catlett album/project, it seemed that the beauty of her work inspired you, but am I wrong in my observation that her work could also be considered somewhat "Afrocentric?" How much of that inspired you, The Afro-American/African culture? How much has managed to make its way into your compositions or your techniques relating to composition?

Rufus Reid: That's a very interesting question. I think it's always in all of my music, because of my upbringing, and actually being in Montgomery Alabama and listening to all of these folks. Not knowing how, because you don't know how your life is going to unfold. So, I mean, from Ike and Tina Turner to Bobby "Blue" Bland, to James Brown. I had help also, from some of the bands that I was playing with, so it's a part of me. I got the great fortune of meeting Elizabeth, and my wife and I actually spent time with her in her home in Mexico. She said "I can sculpt a lot of things but, I can only really do art about what I know, so... I know about black people. I'm not trying to do anything else, so my art has to do with black people or women."

So, she has mother and child sculptures and she was in a "catch 22" situation really. She needed to make money, and the people who were handling her art wanted to charge more for her stuff, but she said: "I don't want to make it so expensive so that people can't buy it." So she's thinking, in Mexico, the poor people can go to the museums and they don't have to pay any money but, you can't do that here and still make money.

AAJ: Right.

RR: So she was very adamant about that, how much of it actually resonated with me that came out of my music? I would be lying to you if I told you it's here or there but, she reminded me of my grandmother, so we had a connection. She even told me "I never had anybody really write any music like this, inspired by my work before. I think some people might have written a song, or written something but, nothing major like this." So, I'm happy that it's coming out that way. What I learned from writing, inspired by her art, was that I had to write the way it made me feel. Mother and Child is this beautiful mahogany [sculpture]. It's Immaculate. It's very abstract, there's no face, there are no eyes but, you KNOW it's a mother and child. It's smooth, it's flowing, it's round, it looks warm, so I was trying to make the music pretty and smooth with nothing edgy. Whereas "Glory," which was the bust of this black woman's head, has a lot of angst and a lot of power, [it's] strong. So, I'm thinking, "this thing can't have any diminished chords or anything, It's got to have some angular stuff in it," and that's how I began to treat it.

Oddly enough, that's one of the pieces that most people like that I play, and I mean really like, because I could lay it down as a small group too, but I wanted it to dance at the same time. I mean, I would be waiting for the divine lightning bolt to hit me if I put the picture on the piano and hoped something would come. It doesn't work that way, I don't think. But, I did want it to have an emotional thing. I mean, I had an emotional thing every time I looked at some of those pieces of her art, that is when I saw them "live." The first time I ever saw them was in a book. I never saw them "live." Then when I saw them "live," it was like, even heavier, because it was real. I could touch it, I could see, I could walk around it, you know? So, it was even better. So, it really helped me to find another way to make music because I didn't think about that before. You know we, as Jazz musicians, we just try to play every note we can on every chord, and hopefully, swing, and do all of that... But now, when I play, since I've been really composing, I've always loved melody. Maybe that's because of the trumpet, I don't know, I think differently now when I play. I don't think like, this is a D minor chord. I think how am I going to address the D minor chord? How am I going to dive into this note? What note am I going to play as opposed to the scale? So, I'm playing less now than used to. If you listen to some of my older records, some of the recordings, some of them I really like. Some of them I say, "I don't know why I did that?" But, I don't regret anything that I've done, but as I get older I don't play as fast. Maybe physically I can't play as fast as I used to, but I really don't hear it anymore. I'm thinking about placement.

AAJ: Saying more with less?

RR: Yeah, I mean, these are the things I want us to talk about. So, it's not why are you playing all that stuff but, if it just comes out of nowhere. It's almost like me starting to speak Japanese right now in the middle of everything for the next five minutes. It's out of context, it's like, why are you doing that? So, this Elizabeth Catlett, this whole thing really of snuck up on me. It's almost serendipity, everything that has happened. Eventually I met her, [and] eventually I met "Glory" the woman [that posed for the bust]. And we're still talking about this four years later. I'm not sure, it hasn't been confirmed yet, but, they've finally opened a building at the University of Iowa, and it's going to be a dormitory with her name, because she was the first black woman to get a Master's in Art from that school way back when. So, there's a whole thing, and now these people are calling me to come and bring a band next year and play there. So, it's still happening. So it's, (laughter) She's heavy!

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