Rufus Reid: A Chat With the Evolving Bassist

May 13, 2010

Rufus ReidRufus Reid is one of the most acclaimed figures in jazz today: As a performer, Reid has played with everyone from Dizzy Gillespie and Dexter Gordon to Michael Brecker and Lee Konitz; As a recording artist, he has over 300 album credits; As a band leader, he has cut over fifteen sets for various labels; And as a composer has won both the Guggenheim Fellowship for Creative Arts and the Charlie Parker Jazz Composition Award, amongst others. His influential book, The Evolving Bassist has been used by countless students and Reid is continuously recognized as one of the most important figures in both jazz and bass education.

Still, even with all of the awards and honors, it seems as if Rufus is less concerned with being acknowledged and much more concerned with playing and teaching. If he isn’t working, it’s not for the lack of phone calls or effort; it’s because he doesn’t want to. And, it’s a rare day that Reid doesn’t want to work. It’s what he does, and it’s what he has to do, not for fame or fortune but because it’s his calling. When we sat down with Rufus to talk shop, he was getting ready to go on a 12-day tour that included clinics, performances, and workshops without a single day scheduled for travel or rest.

JAZZed: Between teaching, playing and recording, you keep pretty busy. Do you still enjoy having such a packed schedule?

Rufus Reid: Yes, very much so. This is what I’ve done my entire life. Obviously, I started out playing and then moved on to teaching in the mid #149;70s, but I’ve been able to keep a professional performance schedule while still being involved with education. So yes, I enjoy it; this is what I do. What I do best is play my bass, but it’s parallel now; I enjoy the academic aspect of teaching what I do and it’s been really good.

JAZZed: You started your musical career playing trumpet…

RR: I did.

JAZZed: What prompted you to switch to the bass?

RR: I can only say that I was just infatuated with the bass even when I was playing trumpet in high school. I was in the Air Force band as a trumpet player and we had a lot of time on our hands. So I began to take some of that time and teach myself how to play the bass. Five years later when I got out of the military I sold my trumpet and bought my bass the same week!

JAZZed: Did you have any teachers who influenced the way you play?

RR: Sure, as a young bassist my first real teacher and he was a classical teacher was James Harnnet, who was the principal bassist of the Seattle Washington Symphony. He whipped me into shape so that I could audition to music schools and get accepted. He was the first one that really took all these loose ends and focused them a little bit and it really prepared me. I got accepted to UCLA, Oberlin, Indiana University, and Northwestern, where I ended up going because it was in the Chicago area and Chicago was the mecca of a lot of music. So James Harnnet was really great.

While I was in Chicago, the two gentlemen who where fantastic bassists and teachers were Warren Benfield, who was with the Chicago Symphony and was on the bass faculty at Northwestern, and then Joseph Guastafeste, who is principal bassist of the Chicago Symphony even to this day. I think he’s retiring pretty soon, which is amazing, but those two guys were very influential and as I began to play the bass a little bit better they helped me fine tune my playing. Not teaching me how to play jazz really, but just how to play the instrument better.

JAZZed: It sounds like most of your experience as a student was in the classical world. What prompted you to play jazz?

RR: Listening to the music when I was in grade school and high school particularly in high school. My band director in high school just died maybe about three or four years ago. I’d kept in contact with him throughout my career and I realized, because you never know this when you’re in school, how much of an effect he had had on me and my development. I realized in retrospect that both the band director and orchestral directors that I had really taught us a lot of music. We listened to a lot of jazz; we listened to a lot of different things. I remember in high school we actually looked at and played the original manuscript for Count Basie’s “Lil Darlin’.” I vividly remember reading that. So in retrospect, I realized that this band director really was kind of hip, and he was hippin’ us to the real deal and that was great. That’s why I really encourage the students to listen to the band directors and we encourage the band directors to teach things that are valuable. These people are real advisors and have real important information not just data, but stuff that’s documented, that’s not just book learning.

Rufus ReidJAZZed: Did your teachers affect the way you teach today?

RR: I’m sure I acquired some of their basic techniques although I can’t really pinpoint any for you exactly. I’m sure I did learn from them the things that actually seem to click with me and to this day they do help me when I’m working with jazz students, who are having difficulty manipulating the instrument itself. I try to address some of those issues, so that the students’ creativity and their jazz concepts are able to surface.

I think the most effective teachers are those who deal with what they have. I mean, there are a lot of things I could talk about and not have the student interact [with me] at all, but that’s not really effective because you really need to have the ability to see what the student really can do and cannot do. Then you go from there, so I think it’s a lot more effective if you can personalize the lesson to the needs of the student. I don’t have an absolute routine that I use. It’s much more challenging for me to get them to tell me what it is they want to learn. That way, they can actually see themselves getting and understanding the concepts that I’m trying to get across to them.

JAZZed: Your known as “the evolving bassist.” How do you personally tackle new musical concepts?

RR: Thats a good question. Sometimes teachers themselves don’t do what they suggest the students do and I find myself having to keep telling myself, you know? If I’m working on something that needs to be addressed rather quickly or how there are ways to get right to the core of things and work it out which needs time and a particular focus and so occasionally, I have to tell myself: “Do what you would tell someone else to do.” And that’s great, because a really good teacher is helps the students learn how to teach themselves to solve a problem if they have one.

JAZZed: What’s the hardest thing about teaching jazz?

RR: A lot of the students, once they learn certain things, they leave it right there instead of taking it and moving forward. It’s much more of a challenge, and nobody really wants to make mistakes. Unfortunately, all the stuff everybody learns today, if they play it incorrectly they say, “Oh, man I just made a mistake. I’m really sorry.” In the classical world, you’re not allowed and you never really have been allowed to change anything. Once you do that, you really have gone into the dead zone. In the jazz world, some of these kids are approaching it in a classical way and leaving the material where it is, as they learned it.

You know, I keep saying if you listen to a Horace Silver record or an Art Blakey record and you say, “Man, it’s fantastic.” Well I can guarantee if they recorded it the next night and played the same tunes everything would be different again. Of course we take this little picture and then live with that picture as if that’s it, and that’s just absurd!

JAZZed: How do you maintain the balance of being a solid player while still taking risks?

RR: You can’t really take risks on something that you don’t know really well. If you want to enhance or to be able to manipulate things within the structure and still not lose the essence of whatever that composition is, the only really successful way to do that is to really understand that composition really, really well. How is it structured? What makes the structure the structure? What makes the sound the sound? You might have thirty-two measures, but only one sound. This sound doesn’t sound like “Green Dolphin Street,” it doesn’t sound like “Freedom Jazz Dance,” and it doesn’t sound like “My Funny Valentine.” It has its own sound. It may have a bunch of chords in it and everything else, but until you can hear that as an entity, you can’t really manipulate it with any kind of competence. To experiment or to take those chances, man… People only take chances when they’re really calculated they’re calculated risks not just blind moves. So, until you’re really confident that you can do it without reading the music, once you can actually hear the sound, then you can manipulate and you can begin to create other things and still be successful. I always tell my bass players that we have the unique ability to completely sabotage every band we play in when we lose track of our job. Because we’re dealing with the rhythm and the harmony and if either one of those kind of slips, we can take the whole band down the toilet!

JAZZed: So the bass player is like the glue that holds the band together?

RR: The bass player’s role is to create the stability of the group and it’s the bass players responsibility to make that ensemble sound better than it would without them. The bass player is responsible for connecting with the drummer and when they become one, then they can connect with the pianist or guitarist, and that becomes the rhythm section. The bass player is really the catalyst of the success of the ensemble, incredibly so. In the jazz straight ahead kind of concept, you know we only play quarter notes… It’s simple, but its not that simple. When you look at it, it is simple but it isn’t really that simple to caress the sound and make the bass lines functional and creative at the same time.

JAZZed: Do you believe that the ability to make bass lines functional and creative can be taught or is it intuitive?

RR: That there are those who instinctively or intuitively understand what needs to be done. That being said, although I really feel that I have a kind of a natural instinct of what should be done, that doesn’t mean that it can’t be made better by that much more of a thought process to assure that I have a higher percentage of success. It can be taught to those whose natural intuitive stuff is not maybe as high as one might want. I do feel I have an approach to help instill a higher percentage of these concepts. Listening to other bass players is great, and a lot of credence is put on the transcriptions, which I agree with. But, ultimately, the player has to come up with his or her own lines and they have to be satisfying and they still have to be functional and at the same time be melodic, so there is a lot of thought that has to go into the success of that.

First, you have to understand the components. Basically, there’s a harmonic melody and then a melodic melody. So there are two things to deal with and, as far as I’m concerned, you need to understand both because one can’t function without the other. It’s not to say that the bass player has to be able to play the melody that the horns play all the time, but they should know how that melody sounds because it has a direct relationship to the bass function. In really solid compositions, the harmony is pretty much there already, so if the bass player can hear the melody he or she should be able to hear an appropriate bass line that will compliment the harmony. They can’t be inseparable so the player really has to understand why these things work and why you can’t do this at this point in time or why that doesn’t really enhance the music.

JAZZed: How do you work on developing your own sound?

RR: That’s the challenge for us all. Everybody wants to be individual, but I never thought about being an individual there was just something in me. I wanted to try to play like Ray Brown, I wanted to try play like Eddie Gomez, and I could play like either one of them. Then when it really boiled down to it, I began to understand that there where some other things that I won’t say worked better, but it was something that I thought was good, too.

One of the difficulties that we have now, because we have people studying in a controlled academic setting, is we tend to perpetuate a cookie cutter concept of this music. But, I would still say that the players still have to and they want to be individuals. It’s hard, though, because you take that information and you have to force them: “Don’t play what you just learned, do it another way, don’t do what you’ve been working on.” You know? It’s just like vocabulary. People can learn the vocabulary, but they still have to learn how to speak and then construct their own sentences and develop things without plagiarizing.

Ray Brown, Paul Chambers, Oscar Pettiford, Bill Henton they’re with me. I keep them with me all the time. When you hear me play, you’re hearing a little bit of all of them and I think that if people began to incorporate that approach into their whole being, it can’t be denied. People want to know that bass players have studied or at least know who Ray Brown is or Paul Chambers or John Coltrane or Stan Getz or Joe Henderson. They have to know these people because that’s the core, that’s their substance of where they’re coming from. But, they have to deliver it in a different way, and that requires a lot of attention.

Rufus ReidJAZZed: What advice do you have for young musicians?

RR: If they really want to play this music that we call jazz and become creative, if they really want to contribute, and be considered part of the lineage of the music, they have to be serious. They have to have the passion you have to have passion to do anything successful whether it be music or anything else, for that matter and you have to do it without worrying about people telling you that don’t make a lot of money if you do this. If someone has to be controlling you to practice, so that you’ll become a better player, then that’s not good enough. You do things because you just have to and if you really want to be serious about this music and really contribute to the lineage, check the history. All these people they were driven, they had to do this. I have to do what I’m doing.

Those who play this music are intelligent people. They have to be in order to really get into it, because it’s a music that’s food for your brain. It inspires a lot of things and most of the people who are really incredibly creative, they love literature, they love art, they are inquisitive about other things not just in one area. They still may only have one forte, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t have other interests. For most people, the response to maybe becoming a professional musician is, “Give me a break! Don’t you want to make some money? Don’t you want to do this first? Don’t you want to be famous?” That thought never enters into the minds of the jazz musicians I know who move people. I have more passion now than I did when I was younger because I’m able to think and do more things than I ever have before. So, my advice is really just to be serious and be honest with yourself, and if you don’t really want to work, go stand in line at the post office or something like that.

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