Bassist Rufus Reid looked bemused when he took the stage in a cavernous conference room at the lavish headquarters of the MSU Federal Credit Union Monday night.
“I’ve never played in one of these establishments before,” he deadpanned.
More than 300 people jammed the room to hear Reid, one of jazz’s living legends and pioneering educators, stroll and swing with the MSU Professors of Jazz. The concert kicked off a week of lessons and teaching tours of Michigan schools with Reid and MSU jazz studies students. The bassist will join MSU’s jazz orchestras and professors Friday night to cap off the week with a concert at Fairchild Theatre.
Blue Mondays at the credit union are a casual affair, with plenty of grazing and the ever-present danger of tripping over a wine glass in the aisles, but Reid held the room rapt. He stepped into a solo ballad, taking his time, building from the low register to fine peaks of emotion, a master orator speaking in strings. Mouths gaped and plates of food were left untouched on laps.
“It looks like we have a lot of jazz lovers here,” Reid said when he was finished. “Can anyone tell me the name of the tune?”
“That was unbelievable!” a man cried out.
“That’s not the name of it,” Reid said. (It was Tadd Dameron’s oft-quoted “If You Could See Me Now.”)
In the back of the room, bassist David Rosin, an East Lansing music teacher and graduate of MSU’s jazz program, leaned forward in awe. Three tunes into the set, Rosin still hadn’t touched his cookie.
When Reid took a commanding solo on “Oleo,” stretching the notes like Hercules bending steel ingots, Rosin couldn’t hold in his enthusiasm.
“That’s what Rufus does,” Rosin said. “He’s like the master walking bass guy.”
At a 1995 bass competition, Rosin got an impromptu lesson from Reid.
“He pulled me aside and told me what I needed to work on,” he said. “He’s such a good teacher, and he’s played with so many masters.”
In his formative years, Rosin played along with many of Reid’s records, where the bassist backed up icons likes trombonist J.J. Johnson, saxophonists Stan Getz, Dexter Gordon and Lee Konitz and pianist Andrew Hill.
“I was playing with Rufus in high school and I didn’t even know it,” Rosin said.
A cult favorite solo track by Reid, “Tricotism,” is an obsession with most bass players, Rosin included.
Nearby, another bass player stopped munching on veggies and applied his spine to the back wall, the better to listen. Rodney Whitaker, MSU’s Jazz Studies director and resident bassist, doesn’t usually get to leave the stage on Blue Mondays — but he didn’t wander far.
“As a young African-American male, I had three guys I really looked up to — the bassist Richard Davis, the bassist Ron Carter, and Rufus Reid,” Whitaker said.
“All three had a classical background, they played with the greats and all three were college professors.”
Reid has taught jazz since the early 1970s and directed the jazz program at William Paterson University in New Jersey, inspiring Whitaker, Rosin and many other jazz musicians.
“Seeing them do it, and the balance they achieved, was something I wanted to have for myself,” Whitaker said.
Before long, Reid’s aura pulled Whitaker back on stage for a pulsating, intricate two-bass promenade through Duke Ellington’s “Just Squeeze Me.”
As Reid and Whitaker held their summit, saxophonist Diego Rivera took a break and wandered to the back of the room, but then drifted back to the doorway, drawn by the artistry within. An enthusiastic listener with his neck stretching about a foot to hear every note turned to Rivera.
“It’s not every day you hear two of the world’s greatest bass players do a duet,” he said, not realizing he was talking to one of the musicians.
“No, it’s not,” Rivera replied.
With MSU Jazz Orchestras I, II and III
8 p.m. Friday, Dec. 9
$15/$12 seniors/$5 students and children
542 Auditorium Road, East Lansing
(517) 353-5340, music.msu.edu