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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!

AAJ: You have made quite a considerable mark as a bassist, an educator, and a composer of tremendous scope and depth. Do you feel that any one of those skills has exerted a more domineering influence over your other, exceedingly prodigious skills? I mean, has being a bassist, heavily influenced your writing, or is being a composer more than influencing your bass playing?

RR: As I said before, the writing is definitely influencing my bass playing. It's probably better, from a "soloing" point of view but, even as an ensemble player, playing bass lines in a supportive role, I think differently. Meaning, the shape of the line as opposed to just notes, or making the chord changes. Because I can play things that, if someone were to transcribe it, they would say, "those notes aren't in the scale that go to that chord." If you take it out of context, it's just stuff but, if you listen to the whole thing, it makes more sense. When you actually play music, chords, and scales, that's just information. It's like a dictionary, it's just got a bunch of words in it. You've got to put things in a way [so] that people can understand what you're trying to say. So, you have to learn to speak more clearly. You can yell at people, or you can whisper at people. You can be forceful and not be loud etc. All of these things can be done musically so, I'm thinking more along the lines of "How" as opposed to "Why."

AAJ: So you don't think virtuoso technique is necessary to mine the depths of emotional content?

RR: No, absolutely not. It doesn't mean it can't, but that's not the impetus to be successful at whatever it is that you're trying to do. My bass playing has gotten me into places because people like the sound that I get, or better yet, people like the consistency that I get. That's why they call again, and again, and again. Because they already assume that it's going to be as good as what they remember, and when it's better...

AAJ: Then they call you again.

RR: Then they call you again, and again. So, the bass playing, and my experiences of all of the people I've been fortunate to work with, I bring them to the gig, everywhere I go. Do I use them all? I don't know, but collectively, I just do what I do. I don't try to be better than what they remember, I just try to play the music. (sheepish grin) and I really don't care if you like it or not.

AAJ: Since you've had such a long and varied career, stretching back from the '60s, '70s, etc., Have you ever felt that issues of race or color ever influenced your career or put up/removed barriers for you, or anyone that you worked for? Incidents that you possibly witnessed firsthand and feel free to discuss? I mean, I'm aware that music transcends issues of race or color, but it would be foolish of me to not acknowledge, in my own experiences, that sometimes people aren't as "big" as the music itself, generally speaking. Is it something you feel comfortable illuminating or discussing for people such as myself?

RR: That's an interesting question, however, I would have to say no. Being raised in California... (thoughtful pause) Actually, when I went into the military, I probably experienced more segregation in the military but, that's because they yanked all of us from different parts of the country and put us together (laughs). And you had hours, if not days to figure that **** out. (laughs all around) So, I have never felt... I'm sure that I've been discriminated against, but not in a rude way. I guess I've been very fortunate there but, I've always known who I was, and what I wasn't. It's kind of funny now.

In Sacramento, I remember I was maybe 15 or 16 years old, there was a neighborhood. I used to walk to a theatre, and there was a barber shop, and I remember my mom said, "you need a haircut." So, there was a barber shop, and I walked in and he said, "we don't cut ya'lls hair." I said, "Oh, okay." I left, It was a white barber shop but, I think about that now, I mean, it can't be the first time I had a haircut?! But, I never thought about it. I mean, he wasn't rude to me. He just said, "I don't cut your hair." At least, I didn't think it was rude. I mean, I would've remembered that, I think. And we went to a high school where it was, you know, a mixed class. There were some Mexicans, Italians, you know, It was mixed in California. So I never had any issues.

And even in Japan, I saw it more vividly, but it still never affected me because... it just never did. In terms of not being able to do something because I was [An Afro American male], because when I was in the military I was playing in Montgomery Alabama, and I was the only black person in the band. And one of the saxophone players said, "Oh man, you sound good! Just play." He was at least ten years older than me and he could swing! He was kind of like a Zoot Sims or Al Cohn kind of player. You see, I could play my letters, but he liked the way it felt so, when we played, I learned a lot from him and we had fun. It wasn't about, "let's get this black kid to play with us." It was, let's get Rufus to play, because the cat that was the other bassist, the white guy, he was a tuba player, and he could care less! And he couldn't swing if you gave him a rope! So, here I am in Montgomery Alabama and I'm not feeling any issues, Phew! (sigh of relief) I had to go on the black side of town to see Ike and Tina Turner. You know, the Blacks lived over there and you had to go downtown. I was down there during the bombings in Birmingham. I was down there when Kennedy was assassinated.
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