Culture
9:00 am
Mon May 19, 2014

How Do You Wring Sound From Sculpture? It Takes A 'Quiet Pride'

Originally published on Sun May 18, 2014 10:24 am

Bassist and composer Rufus Reid has been playing jazz for half a century. He's worked with just about everyone, from saxophonists Dexter Gordon and Stan Getz to singer Nancy Wilson and trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie. He's written a book on bass method and a three-movement work for symphony orchestra.

His latest project takes him in yet another direction. It's called Quiet Pride, and in it, Reid tries to convey in sound the sculptures of the late African-American artist and civil rights activist Elizabeth Catlett.

Reid says he chose five of Catlett's sculptures from a book of her work because they jumped out at him. Though he did not keep pictures of them on the piano for inspiration while he was composing, he remembers each one vividly. Take Catlett's 1981 work "Glory," a bronze bust of a woman's head, for example.

"There's angst in the face, there's power in the face, there's maybe some anger in the face — and yet composure in the face," Reid says.

So: How do you capture that in music?

"You would take maybe something that was fast, something that was angular harmonically, skips in intervals that make you feel uneasy hearing them," he says. "It's not tangible, but I think there's a feeling."

To get his vision across, Reid showed his musicians pictures of Catlett's work. Tanya Darby plays lead trumpet in the ensemble; she says that as a black woman, it was important to be involved in a project honoring another woman of color, whose work radiates passion.

"It was special to me," Darby says, "because, seeing the artwork, you can kind of follow the lineage of African-American history."

Darby says the musicians played differently after they saw Catlett's work.

"All the black-and-white notes that you see on the page, all of a sudden that starts to turn into a lyric, as opposed to just playing notes," she says. "It turns into wanting to tell a story with what's on the page."

Percussionist Francisco Mora Catlett is one of the sculptor's three sons; he says his mother's work speaks to him.

"The expression of her work, especially women, is the beauty of black women — not the stereotype beauty of black women from the cover of a magazine or something like that, but the inherent beauty and the strength and the power of black women," he says. "That's what she found, also, in the Mexican woman — and on a broader scale, the universal aspect, the power of ordinary people."

Elizabeth Catlett spent most of her adult life in Mexico after moving there in 1946 for a fellowship. The US government denied her a travel visa for nine years, declaring her an undesirable alien because she was a suspected communist. Though her work was shown in exhibitions around the world, it was another story in the country of her birth: "I, as an artist, a black woman artist, have been invisible in the art world for years," she told NPR in 2003.

Rufus Reid intends to change that: He has organized several programs at universities, including Louisiana State, that blend his music with her sculpture.

"We had two days of performance with the LSU Jazz Ensemble in the four- or five-hundred-seat hall, and upstairs on the fifth floor they had 17 pieces of Catlett's art on exhibit. It was incredible," he says.

Elizabeth Catlett had a chance to hear an early version of Reid's musical tribute before her death in 2012.

"What I was concerned about was just to get this music up to the level where I where I put her art," Reid says. With Quiet Pride: The Elizabeth Catlett Project, he thinks he's come close.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

LYNN NEARY, HOST:

The sculptures of the late African-American artist and civil rights activist Elizabeth Catlett are the inspiration for a new jazz composition. Rufus Reid, a bass musician who's been playing jazz for half a century, uses Catlett's artwork to explore the intersection between music and the visual arts. In his new project, called "Quiet Pride," Reid tries to convey Catlett's sculptures in sound. NPR's Allison Keyes has more.

ALLISON KEYES, BYLINE: Rufus Reid says he chose five Elizabeth Catlett sculptures from a book of her work because they jumped out of him. Though he did not keep pictures of them on the piano for inspiration while he was composing, Reid remembers each vividly.

(SOUNDBITE OF COMPOSITION, "QUIET PRIDE: THE ELIZABETH CATLETT PROJECT")

KEYES: Take Catlett's 1981 bronze, "Glory." It's the bust of a woman's head.

(SOUNDBITE OF COMPOSITION, "QUIET PRIDE: THE ELIZABETH CATLETT PROJECT")

RUFUS REID: There's angst in the face. There's power in the face. There's maybe some anger in the face and yet composure in the face.

KEYES: So how do you capture that in music?

REID: You would take, maybe, something that was fast, something that was angular and harmonically skips in intervals that kind of make you a little uneasy hearing them, etc. I don't know. These are the kinds of things because it's not tangible. But I think there's a feeling.

(SOUNDBITE OF COMPOSITION, "QUIET PRIDE: THE ELIZABETH CATLETT PROJECT")

KEYES: To get his vision across, he showed the musicians pictures of Catlett's work. Tanya Darby plays lead trumpet in the ensemble. She and Reid picked apart a section of "Glory" in our studio.

(SOUNDBITE OF COMPOSITION, "QUIET PRIDE: THE ELIZABETH CATLETT PROJECT")

KEYES: Darby says as a black woman, it was important to be involved in a project honoring another woman of color whose work radiates passion.

TANYA DARBY: It was special for me because just seeing that artwork, you can kind of follow the lineage, you know, of African-American history.

KEYES: Darby says the musicians played differently after they saw Catlett's work.

DARBY: It makes all of those notes that you see on a page, all the black and white notes that you see on the page, all of a sudden, like, that starts to turn into a lyric. As opposed to just playing notes, like, it turns into wanting to tell a story with what's on the page.

(SOUNDBITE OF COMPOSITION, "QUIET PRIDE: THE ELIZABETH CATLETT PROJECT")

MORA CATLETT: I was very pleased with the work. It's emotional like my mother was emotional.

KEYES: Percussionist Francisco Mora Catlett is one of the sculptor's three sons. He loves the five pieces Reid chose to focus on, including the 1997 black marble Stargazer. It's a female figure reclining, face turned upward. Mora Catlett says his mother's work speaks to him.

MORA CATLETT: I can't stand my mother's work. It's too powerful. It moves me so much, especially her woodwork. Her woodwork is alive, and it shakes me.

KEYES: He's the son of Elizabeth Catlett and the Mexican artist Francisco Mora. She spent most of her adult life in Mexico after moving there in 1946 for a fellowship and eventually became a citizen there. Catlett once said she learned to use her art for the service of people.

MORA CATLETT: The expression of her work, especially women, is the beauty of black woman - but not the stereotype-covered front magazine, you know, something like that - but the inherent beauty and the strength and the power of black woman. That's what she found also in the Mexican movement. In a broader scale, the universal aspect of the power, you know what I'm saying, of just regular, ordinary people.

KEYES: The U.S. government denied her a travel visa for nine years, declaring her an undesirable alien because she was a suspected communist. Yet her work was shown in exhibitions around the world. But in the country of her birth, it was a different story. Elizabeth Catlett told NPR in 2003...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ELIZABETH CATLETT: I, as an artist, a black woman artist, have been invisible in the art world for years.

(SOUNDBITE OF COMPOSITION, "QUIET PRIDE: THE ELIZABETH CATLETT PROJECT")

KEYES: But Rufus Reid intends to change that. He has organized several programs at universities, including Louisiana State, that blend his music and her sculpture.

(SOUNDBITE OF COMPOSITION, "QUIET PRIDE: THE ELIZABETH CATLETT PROJECT")

REID: We had two days of performance with the LSU jazz ensemble in the 400-, 500-seat hall. And upstairs, on the fifth floor, they had 17 pieces of Elizabeth's art on exhibit. And it was incredible.

(SOUNDBITE OF COMPOSITION, "QUIET PRIDE: THE ELIZABETH CATLETT PROJECT")

KEYES: Elizabeth Catlett had a chance to hear an early version of this work before her death in 2012. But Rufus Reid wishes she could hear it now.

REID: What I was concerned about was just to get this music up to the level where I put her art.

KEYES: Reid says he thinks "Quiet Pride: The Elizabeth Catlett Project" got close. Allison Keyes. NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.