Jazz Cellist and Composer Is Known for Improvisation, Unexpected Sounds
Photo courtesy of the MacArthur Foundation
Tomeka Reid ’00 started her musical career at the University of Maryland without even an instrument of her own.
But she improvised—a skill she’s become known for over the last two decades—and now, her creativity and contributions to cello and jazz have been recognized by the MacArthur Foundation, which awards fellowships, colloquially known as “genius grants,” to 25 individuals each year.
“Reid is honoring jazz's past while driving the field forward and expanding the expressive possibilities of the cello in improvised music,” the MacArthur Foundation wrote in announcing the award this month.
She will receive a no-strings-attached grant of $800,000, distributed over the next five years. For Reid, who has been on the road almost nonstop for the last decade, the funding offers her a chance to pause, then revisit a book and string collaborations that have been on the back burner, after her year-long residency at the Moers Festival in Germany wraps up at the end of 2022.
“It’s a huge honor,” said Reid. “There’s so many greats on the list: People doing amazing things in the sciences, in the arts. Just to be like, ‘Wow, people think that highly of me?’ That’s cool.”
The jazz cellist and composer is known for her unorthodox approach, incorporating musical elements from the African diaspora as well as unexpected items like pencils or clips to transform the sound of her instrument. The New York Times in 2015 described her as “a melodic improviser with a natural, flowing sense of song and an experimenter who can create heat and grit with the texture of sound.”
No two of her performances are the same—a hallmark of her style.
“I like that you have to stay present in this kind of music; you’re not just interpreting notes on a page. It’s fresh and exciting, because you’re creating something on the spot and you’re responding to others’ pitches and the audience,” Reid said.
The freedom Reid now has, both creatively and financially, would have been hard for her to imagine as a freshman at UMD. She fell in love with the cello at her elementary school music program in the Maryland suburbs, but her family could never afford the luxury of private lessons or a cello, which typically costs thousands of dollars. But luckily, her UMD instructor Evelyn Elsing found her one for free, which Reid put to good use with her “late-night crew” that practiced in Tawes Hall until security guards came to kick them out. She built a strong classical foundation, but then with the encouragement of mentor and ethnomusicologist Saïs Kamalidiin Ph.D. ’01, Reid made her first forays into jazz and non-Western music and started playing small gigs. (She returned to UMD in 2019 as part of The Clarice's Visiting Artist Series and the School of Music's Renegade Series.)
After graduating, she moved to Chicago for its unique music scene. “It was the first place I saw five Black people in an orchestra!” said Reid. She pursued master’s and doctoral degrees from DePaul University and the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign while working as a band instructor at middle and high schools, as well as at famed jazz clubs like the HotHouse. But in 2011, she left the relative security of teaching to pursue performing full time.
“I grew up in a housing- and food-unstable way, so part of me was like, ‘Why are you giving this up?’ But my heart was not where it needed to be,” she said. “I felt like a dried mushroom.”
Then in 2012, she got her first artistic residency in Santa Monica. “After three months in sunny California, taking tai chi every day and writing music and not having to worry about money for the first time, I felt like I’d been soaking in water and coming to life.”
She started getting offered more opportunities to play and collaborate, and created her own as well. In 2013, she established the Chicago Jazz String Summit to give violin, viola and cellos, usually in the background of jazz shows, the chance to headline. The festival also showcases string instruments from around the world, such as the masenqo of Ethiopia or the gayageum of Korea. Participants write and perform original music, and the weekend includes workshops and panels. The MacArthur funding will allow her to bring in more musicians and expand programming.
“Tomeka works harder than anyone I know. Her devotion and effort is just above and beyond,” said Marlysse Simmons ’97, a pianist who befriended Reid because they were both “oddballs” with interests outside of classical music. “She was a late bloomer to cello—in strings, you’re disadvantaged if you don’t have a parent making you start when you’re 6 years old—but she never let it stop her.”
Now, Reid is looking forward to releasing her next album that she just recorded—the latest in a prolific discography—and she’s working on a book, as well as new music for the Chicago and New York string ensembles that she leads.
“I feel so grateful,” she said. “I’m always trying to push myself. Now I can relax, breathe and dream up new things.”
Maryland Today is produced by the Office of Marketing and Communications for the University of Maryland community on weekdays during the academic year, except for university holidays.
Faculty, staff and students receive the daily Maryland Today e-newsletter. To be added to the subscription list, sign up here:Subscribe