Make people believe

Rufus ReidJazz master Rufus Reid shares wisdom with student jazz band and reflects on a life of dedication. 

By Ian Askew '19

 A few minutes into a casual dinner conversation last winter at the Office for the Arts, Rufus Reid admitted to a crowd of students that he hadn't intended to be a musician. “I was supposed to be an architect,” Reid remarked. “Then I found out you had to be really good at math.”

The now legendary bassist and composer has come a long way since that realization. Reid has multiple Grammy nominations, a renowned book and a jazz studies program at William Paterson University that bears his name, not to mention his connection to the likes of Eddie Harris and Dexter Rufus ReidGordon. In recognition of his immense contributions to jazz, Reid was named the Harvard University Jazz Master in Residence this year and will be in a Learning From Performers conversation with Harvard music professor Ingrid Monson 4 p.m. Wednesday, April 6 at Holden Chapel, and will perform at a concert in his honor 8 p.m Saturday, April 9 at Sanders Theatre.

Over the past few months, Reid has been developing a relationship with student artists and jazz professors at Harvard, all of which was kicked off with a visit to Vijay Iyer’s class and a dinner with the Harvard Monday Jazz Band and its director Yosvany Terry.

At this dinner in late February, which immediately preceded Reid’s first rehearsal with the band, the bassist and composer spoke about his journey with music and gave advice to students on how to pursue their goals while being a fair and mindful leader.

Reid credits much of his success to good fortune, noting a period of time during which his brother supported him financially as he pursued a career as a musician in Seattle. But it was his dedication to the craft that opened doors of opportunity. Reid noted to the students sitting around him, “You have to make people believe that you are serious about what it is you want to do.”

Reid’s seriousness convinced a teacher who had initially rejected him to take the then young bassist as a student. Reid developed a knowledge of classical music while taking part in the exploding world of new jazz music. In his words, he was “playing jazz by night and classical by day,” ending up with a bass in his hands nearly every hour of the day.

Reid also remarked on how he had managed to avoid drugs and other vices that had affected and sometimes ended his peers’ careers. “I’ve been blessed to be around people who were always positive and productive,” he reflected. This appreciation of positivity and productivity informed the jazz program that Reid helped create with Martin Krivin at William Paterson University. Reid expressed pride in the fact that his program does not follow the jury method of many music programs, instead opting to have teachers play with students as a way of assessing progress. Reid also stressed the importance of getting feedback from students on “what works and what doesn’t.” By seeking out feedback, teachers can improve along with their students.

When a student asked about whether Reid preferred the role of sideman or leader in ensembles, Reid turned to the very practical subject of payment. “After my 50-year career, I have two people who owe me money,” Reid declared with pride. He recalled bandleaders who had treated him well as a hired player, paying upfront when they could and always paying what was initially promised. Reid tries to do the same as a leader, which he believes brings out better performances from players. He explained, “You play better because you feel good.” Reid seems keenly aware that musicians are people before they are anything else and have to be treated as such.

In the final few minutes of the discussion, Reid digressed to encourage students to channel the kind of dedication that has driven his career. He insisted, “There’s nothing out here that you can’t have, but don’t expect to be spoon fed.”

Having spoken for a while, Reid looked around the room pausing for any more questions. Hearing none, he declared with a smile: “Let’s play!”

Learning From Performers will host a conversation with Rufus Reid moderated by Ingrid Monson, Quincy Jones Professor of African American Music, 4 p.m. April 6 at Holden Chapel. The conversation is free and open to the public. Rufus Reid will perform with Harvard Jazz Bands in The Eloquent One: Celebrating Rufus Reid 8 p.m. April 9 at Sanders Theatre. Click here for ticket information. 

This project is supported by the Richard J. Scheuer Fund.

See also: Jazz