By A.D. Amorosi | Photo by Frank Schindelbeck
Reggie Workman is a busy man, just as busy now at age 82 as he was when he was 22 playing on records by Donald Byrd, Eric Dolphy, or his fellow Philadelphian, John Coltrane. Or 42, when he began leading his own group, the Reggie Workman Ensemble—the tip of the iceberg when it came to free solo and band leader projects. Or 62, around the same time when the bassist, composer, and educator was gifted with the title “Living Legend,” by the African-American Historical and Cultural Museum in his hometown.
Even during the pandemic, he holds court online with his New School College of Performing Arts (COPA) students (with guests such as Amina Claudia Myers and Sonny Rollins). Workman is a page-turning textbook in history that never ceases to be fresh, whether it is his newly composed music, made with a Guggenheim grant, or his continued goals in higher education. “I wake up with them, go to sleep with them,” said Workman of his endless stream of ideas. “They’re always there and take a considerable amount of concentration.” So concentrate he must.
While documentaries and books of his life are soon to come, and with a children’s book and compositions for his Montclair Academy of Dance and Laboratory of Music to follow, Workman considers his work, from past to the future—from Coltrane and Art Blakey to recent creative music collaborators Geri Allen, Jason Moran and Vijay Iyer—as a rich, free continuum, all of which commenced in Philly.
Coltrane, Archie Shepp, Sonny Fortune—all were Philly saxophonists, all were Workman collaborators. “They were part of a community. That’s important,” said Workman. “Philadelphia was a big city with small pockets—you had a pocket in West Philadelphia. You had a pocket in North Philadelphia. South Philly. Germantown, Nicetown, Tioga. Each one of those pockets yielded their own types of music and experiences, all highly individual, developed, and personal. Philly isn’t the only city that had this, but it is unique. Plus, it was just miles away from New York. That was important coming up.”
“I didn’t come to or connect myself to free music. I am it. I grew to that space. I grew with that language and it grew with me. It’s not even free. It’s not before its time as in ‘avant-garde’. It is of its time.”
Talking about the migration of African-American people and music from the South through Philadelphia and to New York City, Workman knows how their histories intertwine and in his teaching, he explores the intersection of art, life, freedom, and spirituality that spring from those roots. Within that confine, finding one’s own sound in the role of bassist, one integral to the responsibility of harmony and rhythm (“that’s crucial as part of my evolution as a bassist up to the present”), is as important as finding one’s own self. “You have to have your hands on the reins,” Workman says.
Ask him about his choices and instinct when it came to free music or free jazz, whether it is his own compositions or his work with fellow masters of the creative field music, such as Dolphy and Shepp, and Workman is both sly and sharp. “I didn’t come to or connect myself to free music. I am it. I grew to that space. I grew with that language and it grew with me. It’s not even free. It’s not before its time as in ‘avant-garde’. It is of its time.”