Jazz cellist Tomeka Reid has a soft-spoken way about her. Despite the major press and attention that’s lately been coming her way, Reid is slightly reluctant to talk about herself. Yet she is a formidable musician and improviser, currently juggling an album release, a doctoral thesis at DePaul, and an impressive international lineup of teaching and performing gigs. Combining her classical upbringing with her affinity for abstract and experimental string improvisation, Reid has recently finished a yearlong artist residency at the Washington Park Arts Incubator. Reid took a moment to talk with the Weekly about her work at the Incubator, her upcoming projects, and her own style of jazz improv and composition. 

How long have you lived in Chicago?

Since 2000, so almost fourteen years. Actually, it’s crazy. I remember my mom was actually going to go to art school in Texas and we took the train all the way from Maryland to Texas and we had a layover in Chicago. And I remember thinking, “Oh my gosh, this place is amazing!” I wanted to come back here. I visited a friend at Northwestern my Freshman year of college, and I was like, “As soon as I graduate I’m moving here.”

Can you tell me a bit about your background?

I grew up in the D.C. metro area, so I started taking lessons in public schools. I’m grateful to public schools for having music programs. And then I went on and took some private lessons and then I went on to the University of Maryland for my undergrad. I moved to Chicago and got my master’s at DePaul in music as well.

Then I started teaching at the Lab School, actually, for about seven years. Towards the end of my work there I started a doctorate in music, in Jazz Studies. Both of my degrees are in classical. I was like, you know, I’m doing a lot of jazz and creative music. I felt like I should know more about this world, because I had studied so much classical music. So that’s why I went back and got that degree. And that’s actually what I’m trying to finish this semester.

So you have a classical training, but now you’ve moved into more jazz. Did you always know you wanted to go into that?

I think I’ve always known I wanted to do something besides classical. It wasn’t so much that I initially wanted to do classical, per se. But it’s like you play cello so you get pushed in that direction, because that’s the repertoire for that instrument. But I had a mentor in my last year of undergrad and he was like, “You should try improvising. There’s a rock band audition, you should try that.” I was like, “I need to learn my concertos! I need to learn these sonatas!”

I felt like it would take away, but when I moved to Chicago I got pushed into the jazz thing by a good friend of mine, a flute player, Nicole Mitchell. She was like, “Come on! Try improvising.” I remember she wanted me to do all these crazy sounds. And I’m like, “What? I just spent how many years of my life trying to not make those sounds, and now you want me to do that in public?” So that was hard. And I was always actually really shy. So I think it’s funny that I ended up doing jazz. Because, you know, the whole process of you creating on the spot.

It’s more personality-driven. 

Yeah. Since I was always kind of shy I felt like, “Why am I doing this?” But I liked it. So I just kept doing it.

What do you see as the bridge between the classical training that people who are really serious about music have to go through, and the jazz world? Do you think there’s a crossover? 

I think classical players should get exposed to more improvising, I’ll say that. Because it was a part of our tradition in the Baroque time. I think in the Classical era even, people were writing their own cadenzas, so that was still kind of improvising. But I feel like by the Romantic era the composer, what they wrote, was gospel.

So I kind of wish that string programs at the secondary or at the university level encouraged their players to improvise more. Not everybody is going to be a classical player and there are other ways that you can still enjoy playing. And maybe people would play more if they felt like they could express themselves in other ways, besides just this select repertoire.

It seems as though the Incubator has a kind of place-based mentality. The things that they do there and what Theaster Gates talks a lot about is this idea of creating a hub in a specific place in Chicago. In Washington Park. Is that something that drew you in?

I guess I felt drawn to the residency because I live practically down the street. And I’m really involved in my community, in Bronzeville. I go to meetings and I’m concerned about what happens in the neighborhood and stuff like that. The Incubator is in the 3rd Ward, which is my ward. So I saw this as an opportunity to use my practice to do something in my community besides just going to meetings and sometimes feeling powerless against the political engine here.

Is that what ended up happening?

I think so. I ended up putting on some events there, like the First Mondays Jazz Series that’s ongoing. It was only supposed to be for four months, but it’s been going almost a year now. And a lot of people in the community come and I think people appreciate it. So that’s really cool.

What was the most surprising thing about working at the Incubator or the Logan Center? Did anything happen that you didn’t expect?

Um, not really. I feel like they were really supportive of my work. It was nice to say, “Oh, I want to put on a festival,” and they just responded, “Okay, this is going to be a lot of work.” But they supported it, so that was cool. And I like that they kind of gave us free rein to do what we wanted to do.

Are you working on more composing now?

Yeah, well, I’m trying to finish up this paper. But I just recorded my first record as a leader. So I need to go through that and put that out. I’m in Italy for the month of March. And then in April I’m really excited about this Anthony Braxton project I’m going to be participating in, recording one of his new operas. But what’s cool about it is that he incorporates new music and improv. It’s fun, it keeps you on your toes. He’s a composer, he’s a reedist. He’s from Chicago! He’s part of Access Contemporary Music. In June I’m going to Vancouver to teach in the Vancouver Jazz Festival. And then July it’s kind of chill, which I’m happy about.

I’m just planning for what’s next, I want to apply for more residencies so I can do more. I mean I can do work here and it’s nice to be home. But it’s also nice to get away so you have more of a focus. Composing is on the top of my list for this year, though. I need to write more in general.

What’s your record that you’ve just finished?

It’s a quartet record. Cello, bass, guitar, drums. It’s myself and Jason Roebke, a really great jazz bass player in Chicago. Mary Halvorson is on guitar and Tomas Fujiwara on drums. It’s mostly my compositions, so I’m really excited about it.

These pieces on the record, some of them I’ve had for years. Though some of them I wrote between the two residencies I just did the past year and a half.

What is your composition process like?

Usually I use GarageBand and I sing one of the parts. Either the melody or the bass line will come to me. Because I’m just not quick enough to sing it and write it and not lose the pitches. And then I’ll build from there.

Do you think there’s much of a relationship between being an improviser and being a composer?

[Long pause] I guess it’s hard, because when you’re improvising you are composing but you’re not able to edit in the same way. Because once it’s out there, it’s just kind of out there. I guess you do have different mindsets. You have to have patience in both, but somehow you have to not beat yourself up when you’re improvising, if you didn’t like what you just did. You have to be more gentle with yourself, I guess.

Improvising I think can fuel composition. When you’re improvising and you’re not editing yourself you can come up with little ideas when you listen back.

Does your composing have any sort of narrative component?

I feel like when I write separate pieces I always have someone in mind. Or something in mind. Like I have a song I wrote for my mom. Or I think about a space or a place. It’s a tribute to someone or someplace.

Can you describe an example of that?

Well, I mean there’s a handful of us improvising string players. But a lot of my heroes, I guess, are not among the living. So, for example, I always wished I could have played with Billy Bang. So when I learned that he passed I knew that I wanted to write something kind of in tribute to him, called “Billy Bang’s Bounce.” Whenever I would listen to his music it would have kind of a sad character, but it was also kind of bouncy. It was kind of a reminder to myself: if you want to play with your heroes, contact them!

Any other projects on the back burner? Any dream projects? 

I guess just writing more. Right now I feel really swamped with school. I think it would be cool though to have an improvising orchestra. Some sort of string ensemble. And then I think it would be cool to team up with someone to do something like Curtis Mayfield recordings, because that sound is what really made me want to play strings. That type of sound, just a band with strings behind it. I love that sound. I often wish I was born in that time period and could have played on some of those sessions.