Home Interviews In Conversation With Bassist, Composer, Author Rufus Reid

In Conversation With Bassist, Composer, Author Rufus Reid


On the release of Quiet Pride: The Elizabeth Catlett Project (Motema, 2014)

Born on February 10, 1944 in Atlanta, Georgia, Rufus Reid was raised in Sacramento, California where he played the trumpet in junior high school. After graduation, he enlisted in the U.S. Air Force. During his stint in the military he took an interest in the bass. After fulfilling his obligation, he moved to Seattle, Washington, where he studied under James Harnett of the Seattle Symphony. Reid continued his education at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, where he studied under Warren Benfiled and Joseph Guastefeste of the Chicago Symphony. He graduated in 1971 with Bachelor of Music Degree as a Performance Major on the double bass. Reid is also known as an outstanding educator. He, along with Dr. Martin Krivin, created the Jazz Studies & Performance Program at William Paterson University. Reid retired after twenty years, but he continues to teach, conducting Master Classes, workshops and residencies around the world. To date, Reid has recorded seventeen albums as a leader. He has toured and recorded with Eddie Harris, Nancy Wilson, Harold Land & Bobby Hutcherson, Lee Konitz, The Thad Jones & Mel Lewis Jazz Orchestra, Dexter Gordon, J.J. Johnson, Art Farmer, Stan Getz, Kenny Burrell, Kenny Barron and countless others. Reid continues to lead his Out Front Trio with pianist, Steve Allee and drummer Duduka Da Fonseca.  He released Out Front the trio album in 2010.  Reid recorded with this trio again, adding guests, Bobby Watson, Freddie Hendrix, JD Allen, and Toninho Horta, releasing Hues of a Different Blue in 2011.

Rufus Reid - Quiet PrideTomas Peña: Congratulations on the release of Quiet Pride: The Elizabeth Catlett Project. The project marks a new and exciting chapter in your career.

Rufus Reid: I appreciate that. Actually, it was my wife who suggested that maybe it was time for me to do some of the things that I wanted to do, so I joined the BMI Composers Workshop; that was the catalyst.

Tell me about the Workshop.

The workshop is a meeting of emerging and developing jazz composers. The focus is big band, jazz orchestra and large ensemble composition. The purpose of the workshop is to foster the growth of composers and create a body of work that helps to extend the language of composition for the jazz orchestra. It also enables composers to come together and share ideas.

What attracted you to Elizabeth Catlett’s artistry?

The BMI Composers Workshop and the Raymond and Beverly Sackler Composition Competition. Every year they give the University of Connecticut – a heavy classical school – an award of $20,000.00 per year. In 2006 I learned that they added jazz. I submitted a proposal and was accepted. Then I had to decide what I was going to write about (compose), that’s when my eyes fell on this thick, coffee table book, The Art of Elizabeth Catlett by Samelia Lewis. As I gazed at the photos I thought to myself “That’s it! I am going to propose a 4-part suite based on Catlett’s sculptures: Recognition, Mother and Child, Singing Head and Glory.” Later, I learned that the powers that be at BMI were embarrassed because the Sacklers are highly respected patrons of the sciences and the arts and they never heard of Elizabeth Catlett.

Elizabeth Catlett
Elizabeth Catlett

Perhaps this would be a good time to introduce Elizabeth Catlett to our readers. This from Francisco Mora Catlett, Elizabeth’s son: Sculptor, printmaker, painter Elizabeth Catlett was born in Washington, DC in 1915 and educated in the U.S. In 1947 she traveled to Mexico on a Fellowship from the Julius Rosenwald Fund. One year later she established herself as a permanent Mexican resident. She began her graphic work at the Taller de Gráfica Popular, where she met her second husband, printmaker, painter Francisco Mora. They had three sons – Francisco, Juan and David Mora. Their circle of friends included Mexican artists, Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo, José Clemente Orozco and David Alfaro Siqueiros. Catlett’s work with El Taller made her a target of the vicious post-war anti-Communist political environment, which led to the Cold War and McCarthyism. She became a Mexican citizen in 1962. During the Civil Rights Movement the U.S. Government denied her entry into the U.S. however a collective of Black artists helped her obtain a limited cultural Visa and she mounted an exhibition at the Studio Museum in Harlem. Her standing as an American artist increased from the 1970s through the 1990s when many mainstream institutions acquired her work. After Francisco Mora’s passing in 2002, Catlett was granted U.S. Citizenship. She died in Cuernavaca, Mexico, in 2012, at the age of 96.

Tomas interviewing Rufus
Tomas Peña with Rufus Reid

Prior to the BMI Workshop, were you acquainted with Elizabeth’s son Francisco Mora Catlett?

How I met Francisco is another story. There is a trumpet player named Eddie Allen, who gathers primarily Black players – guys like Jimmy Heath and Slide Hampton – to rehearse at the union. He invited me to come down. At the rehearsal I explained that it was new music, inspired by Elizabeth Catlett, and the trumpet player says, “I know her son, Francisco, he used to live in Detroit, now he lives in New York,” and the French Horn player said, “She’s my Godmother!”

I learned that Francisco is an accomplished drummer and composer who studied and performed with Sun Ra, Max Roach and Babatunde Olatunji. He is the leader of Afro Horn. I called Francisco and explained how I came to write music based on his mother’s art and he told me that she was coming to New York to visit, so I invited them to Sweet Basil, where I was performing with (pianist) Kenny Barron and (drummer) Victor Lewis. They showed up for the late set and Elizabeth and I kind of clicked, she reminded me of my Grandmother. Later, I invited Elizabeth and Francisco to my home. Over dinner, she invited my wife and me to visit her in Cuernavaca, Mexico. We took the invitation as a nicety, a kind gesture. A few weeks later Catlett called and said, “So, when are you coming?” My wife and I spent Thanksgiving with her in Cuernavaca, Mexico.

Tell me about your visit.

There was art everywhere, a lovely comfortable home with several rooms, one large bedroom and kitchen. In the back, was her and Francisco Mora’ studios. It was fascinating to see how she started things and how her work progressed. I have never been around anyone like her before.

Did the visit have an impact on the music?

Tapestry in the Sky - StargazerNot directly. I added a piece in 2012, when I procured the Louisiana State University concert I revisited the score and tweaked it. Also, there was an exhibit at the Bronx Museum titled, Stargazers: Elizabeth Catlett in Conversation with 21 Contemporary Artists, which highlighted Elizabeth’s role as pioneering African American female artist and her relationship to later generations of contemporary artists (2011). That was the inspiration for Tapestry in the Sky.

You performed the tunes, Glory and Mother and Child with your small group.

At the time I was looking for new material. It was different but it worked.

Elizabeth Catlett and Glory
Elizabeth Catlett with Glory Van Scott

Speaking of the tune, Glory, I was hired to do this thing with (promoter, producer, impresario) George Wein at Dizzy’s Club Coca Cola (New York). I arrived, set my bass, hung up my coat, the door opens and a woman walks in. I introduced myself and she said her name was Glory. Out of curiosity I asked, “You wouldn’t happen to be THE Glory by Elizabeth Catlett?” She looked at me and asked, “What do you know about that?” And I replied, “Well, I wrote the music.” Her full name is Glory Van Scott. She’s a noted producer, performer, author, educator and civic activist. She met Elizabeth at a gathering of 35 African Women of note. Later, I asked Elizabeth about it and she said, “I saw this woman and I liked the way her head looked. I asked her if I could sculpt her head.” So, all this and I meet THE Glory in such a serendipitous way. Which tells me that I was meant to do this project. Just me being here, talking to you and the fact that we both live in Teaneck, New Jersey, it’s completely off the charts. People are contacting me out of the blue and all I can do is sit back and roll with it, because it’s honest. I feel like I’m doing what I need to do and I am grateful that I can do it before I am not able. We are all creators, that’s why this project is about art inspiring other art. I am making an effort to force the interaction among the disciplines because I have been enriched.

I like the idea of art inspiring other art.

What goes through your mind when you look at a work of art? How do you express your vision through music?

Mother and Child is clear, clean, the lines are moving with the grain and the shapes are linear. With Glory, there’s angst, power, frowns which I equate with something really tonal, beautiful, angular, dissonant melodies, but pretty. With Tapestry in the Sky, I thought of people looking at the stars. If you stand there long enough you can get lost and see all kinds of things.

For a long time I thought, “Nobody is going to like this.” In the end I just had to put it out there and let it go. I’m grateful to the “coaches” I have had over the years, people like (American Educator, Administrator, Composer, Arranger, Clarinetist, Cellist, and Pianist) Muhal Richard Abrams. He and I were on the road with (saxophonist) Eddie Harris for three years in the 70s. Muhal was always giving me stuff to work on. He’d say things like, “Why don’t you check this out?” and “Never stop listening.” Also, (Pianist, Composer, Conductor, Educator) Tania Leon, she was my mentor at the Columbia University Workshop. She can play Ravel, morph into Cecil Taylor, add some clave and montuno, morph back into Ravel and make it look effortless.

Quiet Pride

Looking back on the experience in its entirety and the finished product. Does it meet your expectations?

I can listen to it, and I like it. During the recording process we listened to it ad nausea. The project was recorded section by section and the editing was fairly simple. We made an effort to capture all of the nuances. The only thing I insisted on was, no overdubs.

The enhanced CD includes a film that gives the viewer an inside look at the making of Quiet Pride. The film captures an emotional moment where you compliment the players and say, “I wrote this, but I have never heard it performed on such a high level.”

The musicians are my friends, people I have played with at one time or another. I know their capabilities, particularly in this genre. You can hire musicians who play well, but if they have never played in a big band and they don’t have an understanding of blending and phrasing, it can have a negative impact on the outcome. Everyone has immense experience and they are individually creative, but to watch it happen was kind of neat, because this is the first commercial venture that showcases my compositions on a global scale and everyone brought their “A” game.

(The Ensemble: Rufus Reid (bass), Steve Allen (piano), Herlin Riley (drums), Vic Juris (guitar), Dennis Mackrel (conductor), Trumpets: Tany Darby, Tim Hagans, Ingrid Jensen, Freddie Hendrix. Trombones: Micheal Dease, Jason Jackson, Ryan Keberle, and Dave Taylor. Reeds: Steve Wilson, Erica Von Kleist, Scott Robinson, Tom Christensen, and Carl Maraghi. Voice: Charlene Wade. Recording Engineer: James Farber).

What kind of reception has Quiet Pride received, thus far?

Elizabeth Catlett with Rufus Reid

Trombonist Slide Hampton, Saxophonist, Composer, Arranger Jimmy Heath and saxophonist, composer Benny Golson heard it and they said, “Yeah, I really enjoyed it.” I didn’t want them to go into a whole recitation, coming from them, that’s enough. Francisco Mora Catlett wrote, “Quiet Pride is such an inspirational work; the compositions are fabulous, the arrangements are rich, lavish orchestrations with surprising vocal melody effects, and a great choice of master musicians that delivers beauty in these renditions; it is an epic marvelous work inspired by great American Art. Thank you Rufus, I know my mother loves the work.”

The other reaction I get is, “Why are you doing this?” People are puzzled by the fact that I would participate in a workshop and take music lessons at the age of 70.

You authored the book, The Evolving Bassist, which has been described as the “definitive” book on the bass method.

Yes, it was published in 1974. When I was with Eddie Harris I was conducting clinics and he said, “You’re intelligent, you’re a college graduate, you’re recording with me, why don’t you write a book! If you decide to write a book, I want you to promise me two things, that you’ll finish it and own it.” Back then I didn’t know how profound that statement was. Eddie was one of the few guys who understood what it meant to be a professional musician. He saw and understood the big picture. He also used to say, “If it collects dust, it’s your dust!” I am still receiving royalties from some of the tunes we created together. I took his advice and finished the book. Moreover, I published it and I own it. Today, I tell young people, “If you think you have something that no one else has, go ahead and do it, but don’t give it away.”

I am curious to know if Elizabeth ever got a chance to hear the suite.

Not in its entirety. She heard part of it and she approved.

Why do I feel like she’s listening? I wish you much success with Quiet Pride. Ignore the naysayers and keep reaching!

Rufus Reid Conducting
Rufus Reid Conducting








ELIZABETH CATLETT: AN AMERICAN ARTIST IN MEXICO by Melanie Anne Herzog (University of Washington Press, 2000)





A graduate of Empire State College with a dual major in journalism and Latin American studies, Tomas Peña has spent years applying his knowledge and writing skills to the promotion of great musicians. A specialist in the crossroads between jazz and Latin music, Peña has written extensively on the subject.


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