Rufus Reid: Composer, Educator, Bassist, Gait Keeper… And Prophet
Updated: Jan 31, 2021
By David Hadley Ray October 12th, 2017
Rufus Reid Photo credit: Jimmy Katz
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.
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.
AAJ: Wow?! I bet a lot of people don't know that!
RR: So I've seen things. My grandmother lived in Montgomery, so my family, my mother and them, they knew Martin Luther King Senior and Junior! So, when a lot of the church people, and some of the family friends, heard that Sylvia's son was going to be in Montgomery, I kind of had a connection. Although I didn't know how fortunate I was at that time. But, as volatile as that time was, that's when I really grew up to be a man. Because I didn't know my father, and in the military, if you mess up, then you have to clean up whatever you messed up.
AAJ: So it never...
RR: It never... and, even to this day has never... I'm sure some people, at some point but, even in Chicago, I never had any problems racially.
AAJ: Thank you, sir, for that answer. Some people would have run from it, but you tackled it.
AAJ: A lot of people in the pop and rock industry are bemoaning the state of record sales, and you gave me a little hint earlier of what impact the internet has had on you. So, how have you used the internet to your advantage? Well, since you're signed to Motéma Music?
RR: Well, honestly I think the internet is the best thing that's happened to us in a long time. We, as creative musicians, It's a double-edged sword as far as I'm concerned. Like I told you how, with my book, I had to learn how to, what they used to call... (thoughtful) We had to take [all of] the pictures. We actually had it printed and then we pasted [it] page by page. We put the little numbers on the bottom. We had to do all of that, and then take a picture of the whole page, and they used to call it the "offset." So now I can do it, but this edition, I did it all by hand.
Getting to your question for example, in Downbeat, for a hundred dollars, we would buy a one-inch ad. And my house used to look like a Bekin's van lines warehouse, I mean we had boxes everywhere and books. I mean, like I said, the book was our first child. Now, we were hoping that we could reach whatever circulation that Downbeat had. I was praying, [and] then maybe we could sell something, and then at least I would make some money off of the sale of the book. Then everywhere I went with Eddie Harris eventually, I would go to the stores and ask them "would you mind? I would like you to sell my book for me at the music store." They would say "Oh, we only use jobbers. We don't buy from the people." And back then, they had books like Mel Bay and all [of] those books. So, to make a long story short, the internet has allowed us to go to other parts of the world. Just being visible, but now it has exploded to the point where people are able to take stuff. Sort of like a photographer taking a picture of you instead of asking, "can I take your picture?" They just take it and then move off. I mean, now they've put out a magazine, or book, of jazz musicians, but they haven't even paid for [the right] or asked permission but, they're making money off of them.
And if they're prominent, then they're really making good money, but they won't ask you "can I give you ten percent of, whatever," or even the courtesy of giving you some of the book. "Sir, you're in this book and I'd like to [Give you a royalty or a percentage]," that's gone. Spotify, iTunes, Sirius, Apple Music, they have destroyed [the industry], because the people now it's a generation, two or three generations now, of people who really feel they don't need to buy it. They don't need to pay for anything. They don't care what it is. So, it affects us all.
It's kind of hard to explain right now. I mean, the book has been out since 1974. So, I'm blessed that it's still on the market. Okay, people still download and all that, but the people that really want it, and those are the only ones that I want to buy it, and [hope] that they get a hard copy of it. But, in terms of reaching out to more people? The only way the internet can be more helpful is that people have to know who you are, and then you have to have a presence. It took me awhile, my son said: "Dad, you're going to have to get a website." [I said] "what are you talking about?" And then, once I get this website [he says], "Oh Dad, your website is really static, you're going to have to get it up," and then, when the iPhone and the other things came out, he says "Dad, you're going to have to revamp it again so people can look at it." I said, "Damn, I don't really..." and my wife went berserk! (laughter) [She said] "I'm not doing everything!" (even more laughter!) but, when you think about it, there's nothing else here. Now, I can put in a boost on this gig and I just pay one hundred dollars? [and instantly] I've reached over fifteen thousand people?! I say, well damn! Now, I know all fifteen thousand ain't gonna come, but just give me one percent (smiles) if I'm lucky but, it's just getting it out there, even to my friends who live in Timbuktu, or other parts of the world that say, "Oh, man, I wish I could be there."
So there's that presence. But, here again, you still have to work for it. You still have to work at it, you know? The internet has made things easier sort of but, you still gotta work. If you really want to take advantage of the good stuff that's there. So, when I began to realize how beneficial it could be, then I just go there. Yes, I can bemoan not getting paid all of the royalties I should be getting paid, blah, blah, but listen, I was doing okay, before the internet, and I'll be okay after this.
AAJ: I'm going to mention a name and I'd like for you to tell me what instantly comes to mind... with the caveat of only a few words.
RR: He makes me smile. (long pause) Wow. Incredible. James Moody was an incredible human being, and a monster musician.
RR: A huge presence of Power.
RR: Brilliant, Eddie was up on so much. We went to Bob Moog's house together (smiles). He and Bob Moog were tight, they dug each other.
Wires would be in the whole length of the room! Shoot, I used to play through a ring modulator, an echoplex, before the digital... that was the pre-digital delay stuff, you know? We used to travel with a little recorder, the echoplex. I mean, we were all plugged up in some way man! (laughs all around)
AAJ: That's funny!
AAJ: Okay, How about this person, "The Evolving Bassist?"
RR: Still evolving. I don't know.
AAJ: Is he/she a futurist? An evolutionist?
RR: Yeah, There's a natural evolution there.
AAJ: So, the "evolution" of the Evolving Bassist, (laughter) is a "natural" evolution! I like that one! So, I'll stay on that...
AAJ: So, what do you practice?
RR: I practice what I need to get done, I don't practice like I used to when we were just learning how to get it all together. It's more important for me to practice for projects. Like, I'm taking a band into Dizzy's, and it's my music. And I had to practice my music, so that I don't sound worse than the cats who are going to be playing but, I challenge myself when I write music that I have to play. And I just did a project with other bass players. It was an avant-garde thing with Mark Dresser, and we were at The Stone in New York. And there were eleven of us, and he sent six or seven pages of stuff, through-composed, playing harmonics, doing all kinds of stuff. And we all had to practice. I mean, just to get to it on our own. You see, when people send you music to practice before the rehearsal, I learned that a long time ago if anybody sends you music ahead of time, I think it'd be wise for you to look at it before you get there.
So, if you have the luxury of looking at something before you actually have to rehearse it, or play it, then you practice it, you actually dissect it. I mean for me, practicing now, I've learned how to dissect, and I can go to the source pretty quick, and literally start slow and get it up to where the time is. So, I practice things that are present that I need to look at. I would like to say I practice every day doing the maintenance, but yes and no. I have a bass in my bedroom. I don't have a cover on it, so I can actually touch it and work on some things, I can do them kind of quickly. So, there are a lot of ways to practice.
AAJ: I know that you write using the piano, which is the "Mecca," I mean, the "be-all" for composers throughout history but, do you use anything like Mac's or Finale?
RR: Yes, I use Finale, I've had Finale since 2.0, but I thought I was computer literate enough that I could compose with the computer, with the programs, and all that. And 99% of it sounded crappy, or it would crash, or something would happen.
AAJ: It got in the way of your creativity.
RR: Yes, so I said, "this is not good." And then when I got with the BMI Composer's Workshop, all the guys... all the heavy guys, Jimmy Heath, Benny Golson, Slide Hampton, Thad Jones, Muhal Richard Abrams. These are some of my heroes. They all used pencil and eraser. And my coaches, Jim McNeely... We are very close friends. He's a wonderful pianist, but this guy is a hell of a composer and my composition guru. He was the coach at BMI. Bob Brookmeyer was one of the beginner's at BMI's composer's workshop, and they'd always talk about using a pencil and eraser. They'd say, "get a big eraser." And some people write real light. I write hard so, when you erase, you can still see the imprint. But, when you delete, it's gone. I mean, yeah, you can save it or give it another name. Save it again, give it another name, but you gotta go find it, [And then] go through ten different files and still not see what you're looking for. So, I use my pencil and paper to score, and when I'm happy, then it's like data entry. Then I'll listen to it and I'll say "yeah, that'll work." When I did that more consistently, instead of trying to edit stuff and then trying to print it and put it into Finale [things were easier]. I use to have... What was the name of it? It was a sequencer... Performer!
AAJ: Oh, yeah! I remember that.
RR: Right, at that time, I mean, I used to take lessons one on one. That's when Finale, that's when they began to go through all of their changes. Because you couldn't hear what you were writing, or it sounded just god awful. But the sequencer was much more powerful because it actually was faster. You could hear it in time, and I thought you had to have both. And in fact, at one time, you did have to have both in order for it to really work. But usually, I can't-do anything without pencil and paper and then I'll just dump it into Finale. Finale's gotten better since Sibelius.
AAJ: So which do you prefer, Finale or Sibelius?
RR: Finale, mainly because that's the one I know. I think it's, in one sense, it's even a more powerful program than Sibelius.
AAJ: I'm trying to decide which one I want to make that jump to.
RR: Sibelius is much friendlier at the outset, but they've learned from all the mistakes of Finale coming up, now we have the processors because that's really where our problems were because the computers couldn't process fast enough all that information. Nowadays you can get a Steinway "D" piano. That's just a program by itself. You can dump it in and you get the sounds. I mean, the sounds are a thousand times better than they used to be and they still sound like midi, but you can make it sound pretty damn good now! They're using them in movies and stuff.
AAJ: Have you ever thought about composing anything for movies? Has anything like that come your way yet?
RR: No, unless it was a documentary, I never tried. I'm too slow. I'm not fast [at] producing, so I would be in trouble I think. I guess, In the back of my mind I'm a little intrigued, but I don't see myself there.
AAJ: But, if an offer comes up, you will consider it?
RR: It depends on when they would need it, and what it's about, and how much creativity I would be given. I have to be honest, I have thought about it at some point, but I've seen enough negative things happening to people because they weren't fast enough, and I've gotten spoiled from that first time of BMI saying "what do you want to write?" There's only one person who's asked me, that I've gotten a commission that said, "Well, you can write an arrangement for me, or you can write an original for me." So, I said, "well, if it's all the same, I'll do the original, if I can." He said "Okay, fine." But, then he said, "Well, you know, I want to feature my bassist and saxophonist, and you know, it's something like Paul Chambers and John Coltrane." So, he's already...
AAJ: Putting in limitations on what you can do.
RR: Yeah, or I have to go down that alley. Which I ended up doing because it was my original piece of music, and I still use it. But, that's the only time. And he didn't say how fast, slow, or what key, just, "think about this..." That's the only time I ever had to do that.
AAJ: I want to put something to you about J.J. Johnson. I listened to his work with Kai Winding... And I listened to the work of Dizzy with Melba Liston... I always found it interesting because of the bass clef. Did J.J. Johnson ever play anything that illuminated his approach, I mean, from the perspective that he played an instrument that operates in the bass clef. I'm sure there were many things but, did you ever hear something and say "oh, that was an interesting riff" or hear a lick or pattern that jumped out at you? A motif? Anything? I'm alluding to possibly a singular riff, or a phrase possibly?
RR: Well, yes. Can I pinpoint one of them? I don't know if I can or not, but J.J, that was the very first record that my brother gave me. My very first real jazz record called Walkin,' by Miles with J.J., Horace Silver is on it, and Percy Heath is on it, Klook... Umm, I was fifteen, but little did I know that eventually I would be playing in France with Percy Heath, and then play with J.J. over nine years. You know, being with him, there were two or three years in between, where his wife became ill and had a stroke and died. And eventually, he got married again, and then he shortened his life. But J.J. was a composer. He played like a composer, he wrote like a composer. Meaning, If you're doing something here, he's definitely doing something different [over] here. So you can see, he thought like that as he played. That's why J and K, because of the way they used the trombone, those lines would be doing all kinds of arrangements and they improvised. He was a very meticulous man. and dresser, but everything he played was very well thought out. Not to the point where he thought stuff out, but he had an immense vocabulary of just getting around the horn. He was very melody-oriented and phrase oriented. So, everybody loved him for that.
Slide Hampton, they all thought he was a genius, just because of that, but that's the way Slide played. I mean, you could take and transcribe their solos, print it, and put it up on the wall. It was that good. His solos were satisfying, all the time. So, I was going to say they were all great, but, they were all satisfying. And if you can satisfy consistently. I mean they're some people that say, that was the most incredible thing I've heard. And some that say "yeah, yeah, well, it's okay." but, when you look at the whole thing? Whew! That's what you want to be. I mean, I think anybody would love that. But, to answer your question, I probably have stolen ideas and little licks, that's what we do! I mean, then you figure out what did you steal?! I mean, you don't even know what you stole, I mean, you just like the way it sounded! Because the best transcription is when you whistle it, and then play it. The schools, the kids of today, they transcribe it, they write it. they try to scuffle to write it down as they hear it. They haven't even internalized the solo.You should be able to listen enough to it that you can whistle it, play along with it, it and sounds like stereo, because you got all the inflections, even the notes he didn't want to play, but you played them anyway... Because intellectually, you might say, "that's a funny note." I mean they talk about Miles... "That's a funny note he played," but, he made the whole thing. Well, he did it again, so I guess he meant it, but nobody really knows? But , the true transcription is to be able to sing along with it, note for note, and then the next thing is to play it. And then, when you want to archive it, then you write it down.
RR: To me, that's it in a nutshell, for all of us. I've been listening to some of the older records and I say, "Man, there's so much great music out here. It's almost like, do I have the audacity to compose new music?" You know? And yet, we need it. All of those guys that we revered, they're still out here, still composing. Still writing, because we need new music. Eddie Harris was one of those people writing all of the time. People were telling me about Dave Brubeck was encouraging to me when he listened to Quiet Pride. He told me that he felt the music was "real" American music. That truly made me feel great coming from him.
AAJ: Dave Brubeck was a master of odd meters.
RR: Yeah, that too, but he wrote all of the time. Every Christmas we'd get a Christmas card from him and his wife, and it would have a little piece of music in it. It was like a hymn, and she would write the lyrics and he would write the... You know? I mean, there are people who are just like that, and he was heavy. Benny Golson is still writing. Horace Silver wrote tons, we're talking prolifically. Wayne Shorter. There are a lot of names, not to mention Duke Ellington and Thelonious Monk! I mean, They are already over here. (meaning, in a class of their own) So, for me to even get in this realm of composition now. My music is somehow resonating.
RR: Everybody is a composer, everybody can write music, but not many people get their music played, much less read, much less recorded. So I feel very blessed to be able to witness some of these things still in their early stages. I mean, I'm still a novice as far as I'm concerned. I mean there are people who've been writing for thirty, forty, fifty years?! Jimmy Heath's been writing for at least seventy-five years! I'm approaching maybe seventeen, eighteen years of concentratedly trying to write. I love the process. That's what's killing me (smiles).
I would like to thank Mr. Reid for taking time from his composition and allowing me into his wonderful home. He has been extremely kind and courteous, far beyond the call of duty. I've had to pinch myself actually. It's amazing.. He's iconic, and he's a lovely person.