Arts & Culture

Jazz composer turns Catlett sculptures into five-piece suite, coming to Hancher

Composer and bass player Rufus Reid is bringing a 22-piece all-star jazz ensemble to perform his five-suite jazz composi
Composer and bass player Rufus Reid is bringing a 22-piece all-star jazz ensemble to perform his five-suite jazz composition, “Quiet Pride: The Elizabeth Catlett Project,” at Hancher Auditorium in Iowa City on Oct. 13. The work is inspired by the life and artistry of the late Catlett, the first African-American to receive an MFA from the University of Iowa. Reid will be in Iowa City all week to speak and perform at various events, many of which are open to the public. (Jimmy Katz photo)

Rufus Reid’s five-movement jazz suite, “Quiet Pride,” not only reflects the artistry of Elizabeth Catlett, but her life, as well.

“As quiet as it’s been kept, I think she’s a national treasure,” Reid, 74, said by phone from his home in Teaneck, N.J., across the river from Manhattan. “She’s got more of a reputation now than she did when she was alive, but her works are all over the country.”

Catlett, who died in 2012 at age 96, was a civil rights activist, printmaker, sculptor and educator in the United States and Mexico, who used her art to depict the African-American experience, often focusing on women.

In 1940, she was the first African-American to earn an MFA at the University of Iowa. Her artwork is in the White House and the Museum of Modern Art collections, as well as in the private collections of Oprah Winfrey and jazz impresario George Wein. Reid said her works can fetch $250,000 at auction houses like Sotheby’s. “She’s special,” he said.

The University of Iowa’s newest residence hall bears her name, and Reid is excited to be performing original and jazz standards there with the UI’s Johnson County Landmark jazz band on Wednesday night. It’s part of his weeklong residency at the UI, which culminates Oct. 13 with an all-star performance of his Grammy-nominated work, “Quiet Pride: The Elizabeth Catlett Project,” at Hancher Auditorium.

The 75-minute work, commissioned in 2006, evokes Reid’s musical response to five Catlett sculptures: “Recognition,” “Mother & Child,” “Stargazer (Tapestry In The Sky),” “Singing Head” and “Glory.”

An internationally renowned composer, bass player and educator, Reid is proud to call the artist his friend. “She reminds me a great deal of my grandmother — very outspoken but very down to earth,” he said.


They met when Catlett, at age 92, came to one of his New York concerts, then invited Reid and his wife to visit her home in Cuernavaca, Mexico. There, the composer saw and admired the sculpture titled “Glory.” Catlett still had the form for that female bust, and offered to have it cast for the Reids at cost. But at $15,000, that was too rich for the couple’s blood.

“In retrospect, I wish we had gone into debt and borrowed some money to get it, because on the market, that piece would cost $25-, $30,000, if not more now. We have a very modest home — it would stick out like a sore thumb,” he said with a laugh. “I’m just a jazz musician that just kind of fell into this other world. The collaboration is really what I’m reaping the benefits from — of music inspired by another art and vice versa.”

So how does he create music reflecting a piece of art?

“That’s the magic question,” he said. “Initially, I start with thematic material that I feel works with the image.

“When you look at the one sculpture called ‘Mother and Child,’ which is a very abstract of a female figure holding a baby, it’s very smooth and soft-looking and very warm, so I would just want to write a beautiful melody. Something not angular — no surprises, no jagged edges, no bombastic drums going off like crazy, because it doesn’t make sense,” he said.

“Whereas the sculpture ‘Glory’ is the bust of a black woman’s head and face, and it shows angst, it shows power, it shows confidence, some people might see anger and powerful. So I try to make the music depict that. It might be angular, with some angst.

“There’s one called ‘Singing Head,’ which basically has a bust of a head with the mouth open as if she’s singing, so I try to have something that’s very lyrical in that way.

“The very first piece is called ‘Recognition,’ which is a big onyx (with) two figures embracing each other or holding arms out to each other, and the arms are all one. They’re recognizing that they have become one as a unit, so that’s what that’s about.

“And ‘Tapestry In The Sky’ — ‘Stargazer’ — is a beautiful black marble of a woman’s head looking up toward the sky. And when you look at the sky, you see stars, and you can daydream. You begin to see all kinds of things, and it changes quickly, or it just changes. In other words, you can lose yourself when we daydream.


“Those are the kinds of things that I try to make the music (reflect),” he said. “To me, that’s the only way. Somebody said, ‘Well, I can’t put the picture on my piano, waiting for the divine lightning bolt to hit me to write something.’ That really doesn’t happen.”

l Comments: (319) 368-8508;


l What: Rufus Reid in concert: “Quiet Pride: The Elizabeth Catlett Project”

l Where: Hancher Auditorium, 141 E. Park Rd., Iowa City

l When: 7:30 p.m. Oct. 13

l Tickets: $10 to $45, Hancher Box Office, (319) 335-1160, 1-(800) HANCHER or

l Artist’s website:


l Open rehearsal with Johnson County Landmark, 3 p.m. Tuesday (10/9), 2018, Voxman 2451, 93 E. Burlington St., Iowa City; free

l “Stories of Elizabeth Catlett” interview and Q&A, 6:30 p.m. Tuesday (10/9) Old Capitol Museum, 21 Old Capitol, Iowa City; free

l Stanley presentation of Catlett Holdings featuring. Rufus Reid, noon Wednesday (10/10), Richey Ballroom, Iowa Memorial Union, Third Floor, Room 376, 125 N. Madison St., Iowa City; other showings Tuesday to Friday; registration required,

l Catlett Performance with Johnson County Landmark, 7 p.m. Wednesday (10/10), Catlett Hall, 350 N. Madison St., Iowa City; free

l The Story Behind “Quiet Pride,” 7:30 p.m. Thursday (10/11), Voxman Recital Hall, 93 E. Burlington St., Iowa City; free


l Witch Note: An After-Hours Jazz Jam hosted by Damani Phillips, 11 p.m. Thursday (10/11), The Mill, 120 E. Burlington St., Iowa City; $5 or free to Witching Hour passholders and musicians with instruments in hand

l Jazz Studies Masterclass: “Who’s Minding the Store?” noon Friday (10/12), Voxman 2451, 93 E. Burlington St., Iowa City; free

l Information:

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