Jazz Cellist Tomeka Reid on Developing Her Own Language of Improvisation

Forging a unique jazz sound that draws from a range of musical traditions, Tomeka Reid is a jazz cellist, composer, and improviser who was awarded one of 25 MacArthur Fellowships for 2022.

By Laurence Vittes | From the January-February 2023 issue of Strings magazine

Forging a unique jazz sound that draws from a range of musical traditions—including modes rooted in the African diaspora and avant-garde minimalism—and expanding the expressive possibilities of the cello in improvised music, Tomeka Reid is a jazz cellist, composer, and improviser who was awarded one of 25 MacArthur Fellowships for 2022. Given to individuals who show “exceptional creativity in their work and the prospect for still more in the future,” these five-year, $800,000 grants are paid out in equal quarterly installments with no strings attached.

In 2013, Reid founded the Chicago Jazz String Summit, an annual three-day event of workshops, master classes, and performances that celebrates stringed instruments’ unique contributions to the improvisational jazz sphere. The Tomeka Reid Quartet’s second album, Old New, released in 2019, includes a mix of original compositions and standards filtered through what’s been called a “post-bop, free jazz, minimalist lens.” During her composition process for the commissioned piece Tokens, she interviewed residents of a neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago. Her Prospective Dwellers for string quartet explores the residents’ concerns that encroaching gentrification could dilute the neighborhood’s historical identity.

When Reid, currently improviser in residence at the Moers Festival in northwest Germany, Zoomed with me from Berlin, her eyes seemed to be sparkling with new opportunity.

Spektral Quartet performs Tomeika Reed’s “Prospective Dwellers”

Most new Fellows learn of their award by phone. Where were you when you received your call? 

I was in Chicago tending to business for my grandmother. I had had a long day dealing with some of her affairs, and I was exhausted and getting these weird phone calls. And then I saw this email and it was like, “Oh, I better call this person back. It seems important.”

What plans do you have for the grant?


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I’ve been wanting to record a larger string group combining my Chicago and New York ensembles, and now it will be more “affordable” to do. I’m also going to take a little bit of time off. I have been really busy with teaching and playing and traveling and organizing, so it will be nice to have some breathing room to think about what’s next. I also have a book that I’m trying to work on that I thought I would have more time to work on in Moers, but I’ve been busy curating a lot of performances and things for the city. Just having some time to work on future projects—just time really.

A lot of what you’re about is defining what music means to you…

I started the cello when I was younger, but I didn’t really take lessons until later in high school. I used to really feel bad about that, but at the same time it made me work hard and practice a lot. I listened to different kinds of music too. As far as the jazz part, I didn’t grow up in the church, and then I didn’t grow up listening to classical music. I listened to punk rock and just felt kind of out of place. What’s been really awesome is that I don’t feel bad about that anymore. I can bring all of my experience and what I’ve learned to my playing. I don’t have to compartmentalize. I can bring all of the different kinds of music I’ve been exposed to and enjoy into my playing. I feel really blessed to be in situations where that’s OK. 

You must love improvising on the cello… 

I do. It’s fun. It’s like having a conversation, and depending on who you’re playing with or the instruments you’re playing with or the space you’re in, it might make you respond differently on your instrument. I find that discovery really interesting, and that’s actually how you develop your own language as you realize, “Oh, this sound works with that,” and you kind of log that into your mind, and then it becomes a part of your improvisational language.


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The MacArthur Foundation describes its Fellows, in part, as “archivists reminding us of what should survive.”

I think it relates to what I’m doing, because I’m championing the use of the cello in improvised music settings of all kinds. It’s not that I’m the first one to do this. Think of bass players like Sam Jones or Oscar Pettiford or Doug Watkins who played cello and jazz. Think of cellists like Calo Scott or Fred Katz, or Abdul Wadud, Diedre Murray. There are other cellists that have done this, too, and I feel like I’m just a part of that lineage of keeping the cello voice heard in jazz and improvised, or creative, music settings. 

You’ve written that, “What’s awesome as a cellist is that we can create a sound for ourselves.” How do bands use that sound?

My joke is, I think every band needs a cello. It’s got a special sound, and it’s very versatile. It can be the bass player, it can comp, it can function like a horn player or be soloistic. It can have all these different roles. But people don’t think about using the instrument. Still in their minds, a jazz band has drums, guitar, saxophone, maybe trombone, trumpet. They’re not thinking necessarily about the cello or even the violin all that often, even though the violin has had more of a prominent role in jazz and improvised settings. I’m just doing the work that has been done before me in carrying it forward and trying to encourage other people to see that it’s possible compositionally and as a performer.


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Please tell me more about your book. 

It’s about the women of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians that was started in 1965 in Chicago. I feel that a part of my work—besides championing improvisation and string music for particularly violin, viola, and cello—is celebrating my history and the legacies that I have been lucky to be a part of. So I’ve been a member of the AACM for over a decade now, and it’s a way for me to give back to this organization that has helped me so greatly in my career.

Who were your cello heroes growing up?

One of my big cello heroes was Abdul Wadud—he was very impactful. He just passed in August. We became good friends and that was cool. Before I got into jazz, Rostropovich was definitely my favorite. And Maurice Gendron. And everyone loves Jacqueline du Pré. But Rostropovich was really my guy. Moving into more improvised music, there are great, amazing cellists like Diedre Murray, Hank Roberts, Okkyung Lee, Akua Dixon, Fred Lonberg-Holm… there’s a ton.