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Cellist Tomeka Reid Plays Sounds from the Soul

The cello, a jazz instrument? In the hands of this talented musician, absolutely.

Photo: Jeff Sciortino

Tomeka Reid slides into a shadowy wood-paneled booth at Rodan. It’s clear that the Wicker Park gastropub isn’t how she remembers it. The stick-thin Woodlawn resident plunks down her cello, frowns at the Asian fusion menu, and gives the stink eye to a DJ booth that sits where Tortoise guitarist Jeff Parker once led a rotating jazz trio every Tuesday. “Man, it used to be funky over here,” says Reid. “Now it’s like Wrigleyville.”

At 37, Reid has spent the bulk of her adult life avoiding the hollow glitz of places like the redone Rodan, preferring bohemian watering holes such as Constellation in Roscoe Village and the Arts Incubator in Hyde Park, where she regularly flexes her avant-garde-jazz muscles digging into textured melodies that evoke equal parts intellect and elegance.

In a genre littered with drummers and horn players, a cellist is a rarity. Reid, who, like her playing, is whip smart, has spent the last 15 years performing with such stalwarts as drummer Mike Reed and singer Dee Alexander, helping lead the jazz string trio Hear in Now, and dabbling in hip-hop, appearing on Late Night with Conan O’Brien with the rapper Common in 2006.

This month, Reid takes center stage in the role of bandleader with the release of Tomeka Reid Quartet, her first album of original compositions. As if that weren’t enough, in September she’ll defend her dissertation on jazz articulation in cello at the University of Illinois at Urbana–‌Champaign and embark on a tour with her quartet across the country. “It’s a tornado right now, and it doesn’t slow down until December,” she says. “I feel bad—I’m not gonna see my boyfriend for two months.”

Reid is no stranger to the itinerant life. Raised by her single mother, a visual artist, mostly in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., Reid learned to weather constant change. (“We moved a lot.”) The experience left her massively shy, an anomaly given her career choice: “I still think it’s funny that I play improvised music, where people watch you think.” Growing up, she says, “I had the worst stage fright imaginable.”

One constant, though, was the cello. Reid latched onto the instrument in the fourth grade and rode it all the way to a scholarship at the University of Maryland, where she earned her bachelor’s on a borrowed cello; she was the rare student who arrived with no instrument. Classically trained, she didn’t consider jazz professionally until flutist and former Chicagoan Nicole Mitchell tapped her to join her group, Black Earth Ensemble. “She could express a real level of emotion when encouraged to do free improv,” recalls Mitchell. “Some people think of it as random notes. For her, it was an outlet.”

The experience was eye opening, if slightly jarring, for Reid: “Nicole was like, ‘Just make some sounds!’ And I was like, ‘You want me to make these squeaky sounds I’ve been struggling not to make since college?’ ” Still, Reid welcomed jazz as her new musical home.

Tomeka Reid performing at the Hyde Park Jazz Festival
Reid at the Hyde Park Jazz Festival in 2013 Photo: John J. Kim/Chicago Tribune

Jazz became her cultural home, too—the kind she’d lacked as a kid. “I lived in all-white neighborhoods and went to all-white schools and was always the only black girl in every orchestra I’d been in,” says Reid. “That Nicole was a black musician was comforting to me. Growing up, I never knew other black people that played instruments.”

Within three years, Reid was gigging in multiple bands—including one that played at Rodan in 2003—and working full-time as orchestra director at the University of Chicago’s Laboratory Schools.

In 2011, Reid left the U. of C. job to pursue jazz full-time. On paper, the decision was suicide: “The way I grew up, nothing was stable, so for me to leave was crazy.” But it freed up time and energy that eventually led to Quartet, a spiraling album that doubles as a sonic diary of Reid’s recent personal life. Written over seven years, the music is a mix of chilling melodies and improvisational jaunts about such varied topics as Reid’s mother (“Etoile”), heroes (“Billy Bang’s Bounce”), and dating as a female musician (“The Lone Wait”).

When asked what’s next, Reid, unlike her playing, is concise: “Brown people of the world are under attack, and as a black female jazz cellist, it’s really important that I express my voice,” she says. “I have to do this—I have to do this now.”

GO Reid performs on August 27 at 8:30 p.m. at Constellation, 3111 N. Western Ave. $10. constellation-chicago.com


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