THE PLACE OF THE BASS: RUFUS REID
Jazz critics love to call this or that bassist, "the anchor of the band." It's one of their most worn out, and least accurate, clichés. A far more fitting metaphor - still in a nautical vein - would be that the bassist is the rudder of the band. Harmonically, bassists have to navigate through often dense and deep chord changes, finding the notes that give each chord its character and stringing them together smoothly. Rhythmically, bassists must steer a steady course amidst the unruly eddies and currents of jazz polyrhythms.
So, in brief, the bass player's job is really very simple: just play the right notes in all the right places. (See? Simple.) Then, after all the other players have had their say, the bassist finally gets to solo. And nobody does all of these things better than Rufus Reid.
Did you begin on the smaller string instruments, like violin or cello, as many bassists have?
No, I was a trumpet player. I was a brass player, actually, from junior high school - mellophone, euphonium - but only by default, because they ran out of trumpets. But I eventually got the trumpet in high school. And then I was in the Air Force Band as a trumpet player. So on one level I guess you could say I was a "professional" trumpet player, but that's really a misnomer.
I think I always had an affection for the bass, but I didn't really get into it until I got into the military and I had a lot of time to practice and I ended up teaching myself.
So you found your true instrument relatively late.
Yeah, I was between eighteen and nineteen. When I was in a band in high school, whenever we took a break I always went over to the bass player and kind of fooled with the bass a little bit. But I never really thought of it as something I would do, until I was in the military and had a lot of time and there was a bass standing in the corner. That's where I started.
So I had an affinity for the bass. I was much more comfortable with it. It's funny, I knew less, but I actually could do more on the bass. So it was much more satisfying.
When I quit the trumpet I was actually playing better than I ever did play. I was never a lead player, but I was a good ensemble player. But in retrospect, I wasn't a very good trumpet player at all. Jazz-wise, I was trying to sound like Miles or trying to do some things Louis Armstrong would do, but only because I had a good ear. I had no idea what they were doing until I really began to work with the bass. Then I began to get into chords and understand that stuff.
Did you get to study bass formally in the Air Force?
I was basically working on my own. There were some guys in the military that actually helped me. Even though I was a young player they liked my time-feeling better than the bass player who had the job. 'Course he didn't really care about it anyway. And then I did some studying with a retired Japanese bass player from the Tokyo Symphony when I was in Japan.
But I didn't really study the bass until a couple years after getting into the instrument - I mean seriously. I had gotten hooked, so to speak, and so I said, "Maybe I better get serious, get me a real teacher and buckle down." I lived in Seattle for about three years after I got out of the service because my brother lived there. And so I studied with James Harnett, who was the principle bassist at the Seattle Symphony at the time. So that was really my first real formal study, although it wasn't jazz. It was just learning the instrument and playing orchestral stuff.
So the military was a really wonderful thing for me, whereas it's not a real fond. memorable event in a lot of people's minds. It really helped change my whole life. I met some wonderful people and I had some great experiences.
You began your real professional career in Chicago.
Right. I finally went back to college when I was up in Seattle. I went to Olympic College, which was a two-year community college, and then I moved to Chicago in 1969 and I finished up at Northwestern, which was great because it was a heavy-duty music school. So I really had to bear down. And then in Chicago, I became kind of the house bass player for the Jazz Showcase. I was there about seven and a half years, and five of those years were pretty intense.
Who were some of the people you played with there?
Well, every week there was somebody - Sonny Stitt, Gene Ammons, Kenny Dorham, Booker Ervin, Curtis Fuller. That's where I met Kenny Burrell. That's the first time I got to play with Dexter. Illinois Jacquet, James Moody. Moody and Gene Ammons used to do a lot of sparring together, so did Sonny Stitt and Gene Ammons. And of course, Harold Land and Bobby Hutcherson. Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis, I used to play with him a lot. Zoot Sims, Al Cohn. You know, anybody who came through town. So there was always something for me to get involved with.
And most of the people didn't have a book. They came in and called tunes. Chicago was a "tune town," and if you worked, you had to know a lot of tunes. I wouldn't say that everyone who came in didn't want to rehearse. Harold Land and Bobby Hutcherson came into town demanding a rehearsal and were very particular about what they wanted to hear, and that was really very intriguing to me. And consequently those were the two people that took me to Europe for the first time. The Showcase, that was an education in itself, every week.
I would get records if I didn't really know the person's music, the way that they played, 'cause I would assume if they made this record, this was the way that they played on a gig, which was not necessarily the case. But at least it was a start. And so, in a way I was beginning to get a reputation on people's lips. Chicago was a very, very strategic period for me.
What were some of the skills that you needed to develop in order to cope with that sort of situation?
Well, as a rhythm section player I think part of the job description is really being pliable, being flexible enough to find that sweet spot in a person's rhythm, where they place the beat. And as a bass player it was a challenge. I never really thought about it so much, I just did it because I had to. It was something that made sense to me. I tried to connect with all the people I played with. But it was a real challenge to try to play with everybody.
Were there any particular musicians with whom you worked who were especially challenging?
Well, Harold Land and Bobby Hutcherson really did it harmonically, and they were a lot more modern, let's say, more modal, in what they were doing, especially during that period, although they had this incredible bebop core. But Bobby Hutcherson was doing all these things with Andrew Hill and stuff earlier which harmonically were really open. That was probably the most demanding thing.
I did play with Joe Henderson a little bit at that time, and his music was harder. I mean, it swung and everything, but harmonically it did other things. It was harder. You know, playing the blues with Gene Ammons, I mean, it had a big, fat groove and that was really the most important thing. On Joe's stuff, that was important, too, but harmonically you had to be more on it. So that was challenging for me.
So it seems like versatility is the most important quality for any bassist who wants to work a lot.
I think so. And being able to hear, because a lot of times I came up playing and there were no books, there was no music. And a lot of times I couldn't see the keyboard. They'd ask me if I know the song. I'd say, "No." So they would just start the tune. "Well, I'll play a chorus and you just come in." I had to figure out what key it was in, whether it had a bridge or not, and fumble my way the best way I could. In a way, the first couple choruses might have been pretty chaotic, but at the same time I learned how to really hear changes, and then remember sequences as they go by.
So retaining events that were happening was important for me. And I think most people liked me because I caught on real fast. This musical savvy is unwritten, but it's there, and a lot of young students today really don't understand that. You don't have time to analyze anything, you've just got to go with the flow, 'cause you gotta play! So to me, that has been my survival kit.
My tentacles were always out. Always. I think that a lot people, that they get complacent and they get comfortable and their tentacles kind of recede and sometimes they forget how to get out. And then all of a sudden these people don't have their senses anymore of how to survive. They can't think fast enough. But as bass players we have to think fast, because we have that ability to completely sabotage the band immediately, harmonically, rhythmically, or both.
And It's the bass line, or the attitude of the bass line, I guess, is really what makes a tune work. I think, maybe, a lot of bass players don't give enough consideration to the clarity of their bass lines.
What gives a bass line clarity?
Well, the first thing I tell students is they should always play as if there is no one else in the rhythm section. Assume that there is nobody else to clarify the tune harmonically, meaning a pianist or a guitarist or whatever. They also should assume that there is no drummer, that their time is good enough. So without playing chords, we are able to make the listener hear something that's not completely all there. Just to say, "Well, I just want to walk a bass line," that's a cavalier way to think about it.
One thing about the players who are successful, you know, Ron Carter, Buster Williams, Eddie Gomez, Dave Holland, is the clarity of their playing, and I think my career has been able to benefit from that. I feel I could play it as if no one else was around and someone could transcribe my bass line and say, "This must be this chord." If you can get that clear, then you have arrived, so to speak, at understanding the sounds.
I spend a lot of time talking about making a bass line satisfy me. It can satisfy me academically, it can be "correct," but when I play something and I flinch, that means I didn't like it or I wish I hadn't played it or whatever. There's no "perfect line," right? But it has to be satisfying. So I actually may go from one bar to the next and say, "Well, there's something about that I don't like," even though I know it's correct. It's not wrong. But then I just maybe flip an octave or change a note, and then I say, "Yeah, I'm satisfied there."
As a player, when you begin to improvise you don't have time to analyze stuff. So I advocate that a person really should sit down and write out a lot of lines. Not necessarily transcribing, say, one of Ron Carter's lines, because he did those. Transcribe your own lines and then say, "Why did I do that? I don't like that." Well, why didn't you like it? "I don't really know why. I just didn't like it." So you change it. And if you really are meticulous enough it should take you about a half hour to write out just one chorus, quarter notes, that would be totally satisfying.
I think bass players end up having to be magicians, you know, illusionists, because they end up making people believe they're hearing more than they're hearing, hearing more harmony, hearing implied harmony that isn't really there. And that adds a lot of color.
But that's because, I think, some of the greatest bass players that I've studied, like Ray Brown, he's a good pianist. Red Mitchell was a wonderful pianist. Ray Drummond is a wonderful pianist. People don't hear him play, but he's kind of a frustrated pianist. But that's why when he solos, he comes up with these other notes. And the more I became friendlier with the piano and began to understand the way harmony moves, then my lines were better. My implications were better, more clear. And my soloing was better.
One of the problems we have as bass players is that we're supporting everybody with this bass line, but when it comes to our solo, there's no bass line. So consequently we end up feeling that we have to play a solo which is really more of a glorified bass line. And it ends up not really being as melodic as one might like it to be. Now I'm not saying that I want that support from the pianist, because I don't really want a piano player to walk a bass line while I'm playing, although sometimes, depending on who it is and how well they are able to do it, it may be very nice.
I guess this is why most bass players tend to play in the upper register, because it gets them in the realm of where they feel people will believe that they're soloing, as opposed to being a "bass player." But I tend to still play in the lower registers, even though I could play in the upper register, like an Eddie Gomez or a Niels-Henning Ørsted-Pedersen or like John Patitucci, now, in particular, or like Michael Moore, who play a great deal in the upper registers of the instrument predominantly. I'm more down in the gut part of the bass.
I suppose your big breakthrough came in 1977 when you joined Dexter Gordon's quartet.
It was an incredible period for me. It's been over fifteen years now since I left his group, for sure, and I'm still reaping the benefits of having played with him. As loose as he was, he was still clear when he played. He wasn't, as you know, a real technical, dazzling kind of a player, but he had an incredible sound and he was demanding enough when he played. He had this huge, robust sound and Eddie Gladden had this huge, robust sound on the drums, and George Cables had this huge palette at the keyboard, so I didn't have a choice. And we began to really work very well together. I really felt I was an integral part of that band.
Dexter was great. We got along fine. It was easy to travel with him. He was so laid back all the time but we never missed any airplanes, I don't know why. And he was not a malicious kind of guy. I was always paid, well and on time. And when he played, he played. Forever.
He was an extremely intelligent man. He came from a well-bred family, his father was a doctor. He would read the newspaper every day and he was always on top of current affairs. He had a lot of thoughts about a lot of things. So it was really nice to be around somebody like that.
And it was a strategic time for him, too, kind of a second chance, in a sense, coming back to this country and actually reaping some of the things that he should have had a long time ago. So I had four years of really a great time. We were busy, we were playing a lot and traveling a great deal, and it still has really fond memories.
I eventually left the band because as we became busier, it was more difficult for him to really take care of business sometimes, because of his physical condition. He was still drinking too much and still dealing with some of the drugs, and it just got to be a hassle. I was actually having difficulty dealing with that, so eventually I left before it really got funky, because I loved him so much and I wanted to leave all the good stuff in place.
That was around the time you joined the faculty at William Paterson College. What is your role there?
I am the director of the Jazz Studies and Performance Program at William Paterson. This is my eighteenth year, which is hard to believe. As director of the program I replaced Thad Jones, who was artist-in-residence, when he decided to move to Europe. He was a full-time person, but at that time there was no degree program. So the idea was to create a program that was different from any other program, if that were possible, and have a real connection to the marketplace, because of our logistic set-up to New York, and then set up a curriculum that I felt that was more realistic to the bandstand.
Realistic in what way?
In that, you're not just studying the music, but preparing to be able to hang on the bandstand. In other words, we're really developing the students' ears, instead of giving them a test and then grading them on the test and saying, "OK, you're a good player." We wanted to create an atmosphere so that once they got to the bandstand it wasn't a culture shock. And I felt that from my experience, good, bad, and indifferent, we would be able to show the students what works and what doesn't work.
I learned on the bandstand and you don't have time to analyze, you have to deal. But as students, we feel that we can stop and we can analyze stuff, we can rationalize, or whatever, and that doesn't work in the real world. You don't get a second chance, sometimes, if you can't prove that you actually have some savvy. And so, we have created the environment where the students perform in a couple different groups learning a lot of repertoire, a minimum of twenty-five tunes for each group with no duplications. So that's fifty tunes, plus their private lessons.
In a nutshell, I helped develop the curriculum that worked - and some of the stuff that didn't work, we tried it again. And yet, what I do best is play. Even with the educational thing, what I do best is to play. So when I teach, I play and I talk about what I'm doing. This is basically why I was hired, because I was able to communicate, and I enjoy that. It has been a challenge, but I get a chance to work with a lot of young players and see them develop. And it's made me into a stronger player.
When students come into the program, what do they need to learn most of all?
Most of them, they want it now, without working for it. A lot of the young students, their priorities are in the wrong places, in my mind. Not everyone, obviously, but there are a lot of students who really want to become famous before they actually know how to play their instruments. This is one thing that Wynton Marsalis has made very evident, being more knowledgeable about a lot of things. On one hand, it's been great. On the other hand, it's made some students put their priorities in a different place because they want a manager and they want a record contract, but they don't have anything to manage yet nor do they have the experience.
In May 1992 you premiered a remarkable piece at William Paterson, a three-movement bass concerto by Benny Golson, Two Faces. Would you like to talk a bit about that?
I hadn't really worked that hard since I left school. It was fantastic for me, first of all, that Benny Golson, of all people, would write something for me. He was asked to do it through the auspices of the school. I had worked with him with the Jazztet and with his quartet and different things, so he said, "Yeah, that sounds great," and we went to work. It was over 700 measures, you know? And it was fantastic. It actually was the greatest thing for me because it made me utilize all the things that I had studied in school, in the orchestral fashion, and yet it also utilized all the things that I do as a jazz player.
When I began to really "go underground," so to speak, working on the concerto, it felt so good. My hands felt good. I wish I could have played it a couple more nights back to back. I really feel that I could play Benny's piece better now, although I still need to go back in the woodshed with it, but it made me realize how much music I didn't know, and how much I wasn't connected with my instrument. I'm constantly thinking about it, 'cause I would like to record that piece. But that was a highlight of my career, to have that, basically, dropped in my lap.
In the last few years you had been working with J.J. Johnson. Has he really retired?
He's serious. Our last concert was at William Paterson, November 10 . He hates to travel, always has, with a passion. And he feels that he doesn't want to come out and play less than he would like you to hear him. He's been very adamant about that, extremely concerned about not being up. And of course when you hear him, you say, "What are you talking about?"
Well, he's gone out on top, which is rare.
That's what he wants. He said, "There are a lot of my colleagues that ended up not playing as well," I mean really bad, and he says, "I don't want to do that." And he's made enough money, I guess, that he doesn't really have to. I won't say that he won't ever play out again, but he's not going to travel with the band anymore.
What impressed you most about working with J.J.?
Just his focus. And when I worked with J.J., when I worked with Benny Golson, these were incredible gentlemen. Kenny Burrell. They are elder statesmen.
And Art Farmer?
Yes, absolutely. I mean, these are absolute gentlemen, and I think a lot of the young players don't see enough of that kind of person, not only as heavy-duty players, but as people.
One of the first records my brother gave me was Walkin' with Miles and J.J., and I could sing his solos. I was sixteen. Now, for me to play with him was really fantastic. So I had this vision when I went to the first rehearsal. I had all these expectations and it was even more. It was unbelievable. He was very meticulous. After the rehearsal, I didn't even have to do the gig. The rehearsal was so satisfying and so wonderful.
When we played together that first night people thought we had been together for a long time, because J.J. is so very meticulous. He's a ponderer. He really ponders about how the whole picture looks, not only his part, which he's extremely concerned about, but how it all works. That's why he hates jam sessions. He hates the unknown.
We were on the road, and there was one very good concert, one of the real exceptional ones that I remember, and they were all pretty good. This was outside of Amsterdam and the place was packed and it just went nuts. The next morning, I woke up and there was a note under my door. It was a handwritten note from J.J. saying, "Thank you for last night. You played your butt off." And that really messed me up.
So I had some really wonderful people to learn from in my career. Eddie Harris was my first boss. Everything he said, he did. All he wanted you to do was to be on time and play good. You always got paid on time. So he spoiled me. Nancy Wilson spoiled me. I never had any problems with Dexter. I never had any problems with J.J. They set a precedent for me.
So this is also something that we talk about at the school with the kids. I say, "You don't have to be abused by a lot of people just because you're a musician." I guess it's easier said than done, but I say, "Many of the problems that we as musicians have, we've allowed them to happen." If you look good and you come in on time, you don't have to allow a lot of the crap that we end up having to take, out-of-tune pianos and all that. You have to learn to speak up, but then you also have to back it up. The bottom line is, you have to be able to play, all the time.
* * *
In 1999, after twenty years at the head of William Paterson's Jazz Studies and Performance Program, Reid retired in order to devote more time to performing and touring. He continues to seek opportunities to present Benny Golson's concerto, Two Faces, and in 2008 he was awarded with a prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship.
© Bob Bernotas, 1997; revised 2009. All rights reserved. This article may not be reprinted without the author's permission.
Photo: Carol Steuer