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February 14, 2014IM -
Growing up in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Christian McBride couldn’t wait to get to New York City and play with all the big name jazz players. As a teenager, he even made a list of all the people he’d one day play with. Topping that list was Art Blakey.
“I never asked myself if I thought it was going to happen,” says McBride. “I was going to make it happen.”
McBride’s love for jazz began at age 11, when he first took up the acoustic bass. The son and nephew of bassists, he already played electric. “That’s when my great uncle got involved. He’s the big jazz historian and lover of jazz in the family,” says McBride. “He got so excited about me taking bass lessons that he gave me an eight-hour crash course in the history of jazz. It was so entertaining and fun that I instantly fell in love with jazz, solely because of my Uncle Howard.”
The Local 802 (New York City) member arrived in the Big Apple in 1989, and began attending The Juilliard School of Music. Soon he had a chance to play with Bobby Watson (scratch one off the list), and then after 12 months, he left school to tour with Roy Hargrove and Freddie Hubbard (number two on the list).
It may seem miraculous that McBride was so quickly accepted into those circles, but he had prepared for it long before arriving. “I had such a deep respect for this music and the artists,” he explains. “I figured the greatest tribute I could give them was to learn their music, and if they ever called me for a gig, I would be ready to give them the respect.’”
“I think our generation focused less on our own music. We thought, ‘One day I might get a gig in Roy Haynes’ band or Freddie Hubbard’s, so I’d better learn their music,’” he says. “When they played in New York, we would go to the gig and let them know how badly we wanted to play with them. There was an honor in getting to play with the older cats, you know?”
McBride advises young jazz musicians to follow that route in the beginning; to focus less on developing their own music and sound, and more on learning from yesterday’s masters.
“Sometimes I hear people say, ‘Oh, it’s not the same; the great legends aren’t around like they were when you guys were young,” he adds. “I look around and say, ‘Hey, last time I checked Sonny Rollins, Roy Haynes, McCoy Tyner, Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter, Jack DeJohnette [of Local 802] are still here, and the list goes on and on.”
McBride, now 40, says that, in his early years, the city was full of mentors. “There were the big titans who you wouldn’t see often, but they would always give you a lot of inspiration—people like Freddie Hubbard, Betty Carter, and Benny Golson [of Local 47 (Los Angeles, CA)],” he says. “Then there were people like James Williams who I got to see on a regular basis.”
For McBride, it was all about seeking playing and learning opportunities. “One of my main running buddies was Roy Hargrove [of Local 802],” recalls McBride. “We pretty much hit New York around the same time. We used to hang out at the same clubs, go to jam sessions together, and get our butts kicked together!”
“We would go to Bradley’s all the time, which was the greatest school ever,” says McBride, recalling the famous Greenwich Village jazz club that closed in 1996. “You learned more at Bradley’s as a jazz musician than you could in any college.” He recalls how Local 802 member George Coleman would often show up at 3:00 a.m. and call some obscure song in an obscure key, then chastise the young musicians who couldn’t follow along.
So, at first, McBride was mainly a sideman. He’s recorded about 150 albums and performed with people like Joe Henderson; Betty Carter; Local 802 members Diana Krall, Joe Lovano, and Dave Brubeck; Jimmy Smith; Local 6 (San Francisco, CA) member George Duke; Local 34-627 (Kansas City, MO) member Pat Metheny; and even Sting. He earned a Best Jazz Instrumental Album Grammy in 2004 for work on McCoy Tyner’s Illuminations, and a second in 2010 with Local 802 members Chick Corea, John McLaughlin, and Kenny Garrett, and Local 47 (Los Angeles, CA) member Vinnie Colaiuta for Five Peace Band Live.
McBride founded and led a number of diverse groups over the past dozen years, beginning with the Christian McBride Band in 2000. “We did straight-ahead jazz, fusion, funk, avant-garde—I thought we did a little bit of everything,” explains McBride, calling it a hybrid group. “But because of all the electronic instruments we got defaulted as a fusion group.” The group released two CDs—Vertical Vision and Live at Tonic.
In 2008, McBride returned to a more traditional jazz sound. “All of a sudden I felt this urge to get back to some bare bones, straight-ahead acoustic jazz, thus Inside Straight was born,” he says. The following year the quintet released the album Christian McBride & Inside Straight.
McBride put together yet another group in 2011; this time it was a big band. “Since the mid-’90s, I’ve been working on my big band arranging and writing,” he says, explaining that it all began with a commission from Jazz at Lincoln Center, thanks to Wynton Marsalis of Local 802. “He knew how much I loved big band and how much I wanted to eventually write for big band. So when he gave me that commission, it forced me to get down and dirty, and learn how to write for big bands.”
In 1998, McBride composed The Movement, Revisited, a four-movement suite dedicated to Rosa Parks, Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali, and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. “I received a partial grant from the NEA and the Portland Arts Society in Portland, Maine, to write a piece for Black History Month,” he says. “I thought this was an opportunity to do something on a grander scale dealing with black history.”
“Ever since then, I kept working on new charts and slowly building repertoire,” he says. After 15 years, he had enough material for a big band recording and put together the Christian McBride Big Band to do the job. The result was The Good Feeling and a Grammy win in the Best Large Jazz Ensemble Album category—McBride’s first Grammy as a bandleader.
Putting together a fresh wish list of collaborators, McBride also released an album of duets, Conversations with Christian, in 2011. “I kind of put together a wish list of people I wanted to record with; the biggest issue was availability,” he says. “Conversations was done over a span of two years because it was so difficult to get everybody in the same city, at the same time. Most of the people on that list I didn’t get to record, but I’m hoping to do part two.”
“These days my bands pretty much revolve around Inside Straight, my trio, my big band, and to a lesser extent, a group called A Christian McBride Situation,” says McBride.
A Christian McBride Situation, a band founded “accidently” at the Monterey Jazz Festival, feeds McBride’s experimental side. The Christian McBride Band was supposed to play the festival, but when two of the members couldn’t make it, McBride’s tour manager remarked, “Uh-oh, looks like we have a Christian McBride situation.”
“We looked around and saw who was going to be at the festival and might be available for a 7:00 p.m. gig,” says McBride. The group consists of DJ Logic and DJ Jahi Sundance spinning turntables, Patrice Rushen of Local 47 on keys, Ron Blake of Local 802 on saxophone, and Alyson Williams as vocalist. The group has done about 15 gigs over the past four years or so. “When we play together it’s so exciting and daring,” he says, adding that he hopes to record them in the next year or so.
McBride says that, when he joined the union at 18, he followed a family tradition. “My grandfather wasn’t a musician, but a letter carrier for 40 years. I heard him say all the time, ‘I wish I could go out with you tonight, but I got a union meeting,’” recalls McBride. “He was always talking about pension and benefits.”
“When I got to New York and started meeting people like [Local 802 musicians] Ron Carter, Grady Tate, and Rodney Jones, and a lot of great studio and Broadway musicians, they said, ‘Christian, you’ve got to join the union,’” he says. “Ever since I learned what it meant to musicians, I’ve been a proud card carrying member. I’ve got the team behind me. I’ve always tried to convince as many musicians as I can to join the union.”
For the first part of 2013, McBride is occupied playing 45 dates across the US and Canada with the Monterey Jazz Festival on Tour 55th Anniversary Celebration. Yet, he still finds time to compose, work with his various ensembles, and be involved with a number of nonprofit organizations.
McBride is artistic advisor for the National Jazz Museum in Harlem and the James Moody Democracy Jazz Festival, artistic director of the Jazz Aspen Snowmass summer program, artist-in-residence at Juilliard Jazz, creative director of Jazz House Kids, and involved with the Thelonious Monk Institute’s Peer-to-Peer Jazz Education Program. “In this day and age culture is being shunned, underappreciated, and underfunded, and frankly I think musicians have to get involved,” he says. “We have to help re-educate people to appreciate great art.”
Back to McBride’s original wish list. He’s managed to play with every name on the list, except for the first one. Unfortunately, Blakey took ill about the same time McBride arrived in New York. “It didn’t work out the way I had hoped, but I’m not complaining; as it turns out, I feel like I’ve played with Art Blakey through osmosis. During my first 10 years in New York, every bandleader I worked with had played with him,” McBride explains.