Christian McBride: I've always felt that as a musician you learn how to play your instrument the best you possibly can. Once you do that genre isn't a factor. I've always enjoyed music. Melody is melody no matter where it's played, in a symphony orchestra, in a jazz ensemble, in a pop group, or whatever style of music may be, a melody is a melody. A rhythm is a rhythm. Harmony is harmony. It makes no difference what the other elements are. These are the three main things that touch our hearts as listeners.
Jo Reed: That was bassist and the new voice of the NEA’s Jazz Moments, Christian McBride. Welcome to Art Works, the program that goes behind the scenes with some of the nation's great artists to explore how art works. I'm your host, Josephine Reed.
For a 38-year-old Christian McBride has packed a lot into his career: He’s an acclaimed acoustic bass player who’s performed with most of the jazz greats including Sonny Rollins, Freddie Hubbard, and Herbie Hanncock as wellas regularly with Chick Corea. McBride refuses to bound by genre… he has performed with many different artists like Sting, Kathleen Battle, and James Brown in a variety of styles: Rhythm and Blues, classical, soul, hip hop, pop and funk. He’s fronted The Christian McBride Band: his own jazz, fusion, and funk ensemble. And he now leads the jazz quintet, Inside Straight. Aside from his extraordinary talent as a bassist, McBride is also a composer, arranger, educator, and curator. He served as the Creative Chair of Jazz for the Los Angeles Philharmonic, he’s been the Artistic Director of the Jazz Aspen Snowmass Summer Sessions for over a decade. And In 2005, he was named the co-director of the National Jazz Museum in Harlem. Born and bred in Philadelphia, McBride credits that city for his musical roots.
Christian McBride: It's really great being from Philadelphia because as you said it's not just jazz, it's not just bass players. You have a little bit of everything that has made a mark on the world scene with the jazz, with the rhythm and blues, with doo-wop. One of the best orchestras of all time is there. It's just really a hot bed of artistic greatness, but the irony in all of that is a lot of artists who realize that they want to take their craft to a broader stage they almost always have to leave Philly. I think that might just be the way of the world, though because, I mean, New York City is like the main artery to the world. It feels like that everyone at some point has to make the migration to New York to be able to let the world share that artistic greatness. So I joined those ranks and moved to New York City immediately after high school graduation.
Jo Reed: You started playing pretty young.
Christian McBride: Yeah. Yes, I was nine, and once my mother saw that I was really becoming serious about it, and having this dedication to wanting to better myself she enrolled me into a middle school that had a great music program, and that's when I was, actually I was forced to play the acoustic bass. I didn't want to play the acoustic bass. My first instrument of choice was the trombone.
Jo Reed: Why the trombone?
Christian McBride: Because even by the age of 11 I had become a huge James Brown fan, and some of my favorite moments on James Brown recordings were the trombone solos of Fred Wesley, so I wanted to learn how to play trombone like Fred Wesley. And the first day of orchestra rehearsal I got a trombone, and they broke us all up in sectionals so that all the trombone players went in one room, trumpet players in this room, woodwinds in this room. So the brass instructor comes in and there were about five of us in there with a trombone, and he just goes down the line. He says, "Okay, I want to hear each of you just make a sound." I couldn't even do that. I couldn't even make a sound. I'm blowing and just raw air is just coming out of the horn. My face is turning blue, and I'm trying with all my might to get some sound out of the horn. The brass instructor, bless his heart, he looks at me and says, "Yeah listen, Christian, there's a rumor that you play the electric bass." I said, "Yeah." He said, "I think you should go into the bass room. I don't think trombone is going to work out for you." And so I went, "But I don't want to play the acoustic bass." He said, "Yeah, but we could really use one in the orchestra. The rest is history, as they say.
Jo Reed: Your father plays the bass, correct?
Christian McBride: Yes.
Jo Reed: And your great uncle…
Christian McBride my father, he, at that time when I was in high school he didn't even play the acoustic bass. He was starting to get his feet wet with the acoustic bass a little bit, but my great uncle was the one, who I would go over to his house and watch him practice, and he always had this real big thick warm honey tone on his bass. And it was great for me to get to hear him play unamplified because then I knew what the bass was supposed to sound like. I would hear these great recordings of Ray Brown with the Oscar Peterson Trio, or Paul Chambers with Miles Davis, but hearing it on a record and then hearing it in front of you was like night and day.
Jo Reed: What drew you to jazz, Christian?
Christian McBride: Once again, I have to acknowledge my great uncle because growing up in Philadelphia, as I said before, there was so much great everything in the city. Jazz wasn't exactly foreign to me even when I was a kid. I grew up in a primarily an R&B household. It was mostly Motown, Isaac Hayes, Al Green, James Brown, the O'Jays. Every once in a while a Ramsey Lewis recording would play, or a Miles Davis recording would play, or a George Benson record would play, something that would allude to this sound known as jazz. So and then I would go over my grandfather's house and it was always this mixture of music going on in my childhood. But when I started playing the acoustic bass in middle school, when my great uncle found out he was so excited. He says, "Now that you're playing the acoustic bass I've got some things I want to lay on you." So I went over to his house, and he had a big stack of albums that he had already had planned for me to listen to. All day long he just played Mingus, Ray Brown, Paul Chambers, Ron Carter, Sam Jones, every great legendary jazz bass player he just-- it was a one day crash course. Because of his demeanor and because of his personality it was fun. My great uncle always made jazz fun for me. And my great uncle is the classic caricature of what a jazz musician was at one point. He always wore like a tam, wire rim glasses, goatee, smoked Pal Malls, always carried a leather shoulder bag, walked with a very hip stroll.
Joe Reed: Did he have a beard?
Christian McBride: Oh, absolutely. Everybody was cat and baby, hip, And when he would listen to his recordings he would sit in his chair and he would sit way, way, way down in the chair with his back almost on the seat. And just watching him listen to music was so much fun. I thought, "Well, if jazz can make him that cool then maybe it'll make me that cool as well."
Jo Reed: Well, okay. You go to Juilliard and you're there, and you're getting all these gigs. You hardly unpacked your clothes in New York and you're getting calls from people. How did that come to be? How did that work out?
Christian McBride: Oh, goodness. When I was 14, or 15, somewhere between 14 and 15 a few things happened that kind of lit the fire a little bit for me by the time I moved to New York. Once again, being in Philly it's so close to New York every musician who would play up and down the East Coast, they would always come through Philly, so I had a chance to meet people like Max Roach, Dr. Billy Taylor, rest his soul, Red Rodney, Jimmy Heath and then people already in Philly like Trudy Pitts, and Sid Simmons, and saxophonist Tony Williams and Bootsie Barnes, and all these wonderful local musicians. I got a chance to start playing around with them sneaking in the jam sessions, being under age going in the bars. It was great because a lot of the older musicians who knew I wasn't supposed to be in there they would say, "Okay, look. Come on up and play. We'll let you play one song and then get out of here."
Jo Reed: Wynton Marsalis was also pretty important to you at that point.
Christian McBride: When I met Wynton Marsalis he came to Philadelphia to give a workshop. I must have been 14, 14 or 15, and I had all of his albums up to that point, and I learned as much music off of those albums as I could because I wanted to be prepared. I had been-- I had fallen so deeply in love with jazz I was just soaking up as much music as I could every second of the day. I had a very strong repertoire for a 15-year-old, I think, because I was really spending all of my time just studying music, transcribing solos, learning tunes. So if one day Wynton Marsalis would ask me to sit in with him I'd be prepared. And that's exactly what happened. Wynton came to do this workshop. I met him, we played together, he seem to like what he heard, and a few weeks later he was doing a performance at The Academy of Music in Philly and he asked to come sit in. We didn't talk about it. I had no idea he was going to do that. He gets on the microphone and he says, "Ladies and gentleman, a few days ago I met this young kid. He's a good bass player, and I think you're going to be hearing a lot about him," and I'm backstage like, "Oh my god. What's he going to do?" And he calls me out to play. And from that moment on word started to spread around, "There's this kid in Philly. He might be able to do something, you know." So I got to New York going to Juilliard and Bobby Watson came to track me down, and Bobby Watson gave me my first gig ever in New York, September of 1989. James Williams was playing piano, and Victor Lewis was playing drums. And that was like being called from AA straight to the majors. I was thrown into the fire immediately, and it wasn't an easy gig. For whatever songs I learned in high school Bobby called every song that I didn't know. It should have been a traumatic experience, but I was so determined, I was so hungry I knew that if Bobby ever called me again I'd do a better job the second go around. So instead of getting down and depressed I got more driven and inspired to do a better job the next time he called me. And then once Bobby called me for that second gig, actually after the first gig things just kind of snowballed.
Jo Reed: And you started playing with Freddie Hubbard.
Christian McBride: Yes. That was the cherry on top. One of the musicians I had met in high school was the great drummer, Carl Allen. Carl was playing both with Freddie Hubbard, and everybody knew that if you wanted to play with Freddie, Carl Allen was the man to talk to because not only was he Freddie's drummer, but he was also Freddie's road manager. Freddie's pianist at that time was Benny Green who had become probably my closest and dearest friend upon my arrival in New York. He was playing some of those early gigs with Bobby Watson as well. So Benny and I got to be really great friends. I would nudge Carl in the side and say, "Hey, man." Freddie's bass player at that time was a gentleman by the name of Jeff Chambers. I said, "So, Carl, when Jeff can't make it who does Freddie use?" "Oh well, whoever is available." I said, "Well, if it's not too much to ask throw my name in the hat." Carl said, "I got it. Don't worry. Don't worry. I'll put in the good word for you," and as fate would have it a show came up, Jeff couldn't do it and Carl called me up. He said, "All right, here's your chance. You ready?" And I flew to Chicago and played the South Shore Jazz Festival, and I stayed in Freddie's band for two and a half years. And it was just the most amazing experience getting to hang with him, getting to listen to someone with that level of mastery up close. I'd seen Freddie play live when I was in high school, and the energy was the same as a rock and roll or an R&B show. It was so much fire, so much energy. Hearing him play, just people in the audience were like shouting. It was incredible. Jazz is supposed to be mature.
Jo Reed: Not the way he played.
Christian McBride: Oh man, these people were going nuts.
Jo Reed: It's kind of like Chuck Brown.
Christian McBride: Hah! That's right, D.C. girl.
Jo Reed: Yeah.
Christian McBride: Oh yeah, that is the man, Bustin' Loose. "Bustin' Loose" that was one of my anthems when I was in elementary school. "Give me the bridge ya'll. Give me the bridge ya'll." It went uh-uh, never mind.
Jo Reed: You play with such a wide range of musicians. How did that evolve?
Christian McBride: I've always looked forward to collaborating with musicians who I respect. My first gig of note outside of the jazz world was with Bruce Hornsby, and I played with Bruce…this was in 1994 and we did a couple of shows opening for Bonnie Raitt. Once that happened I think things started to brew outside of the jazz world. I started to be able to do recordings with a lot of people, Kenny Rankin, Paul Simon, Carly Simon, Natalie Cole, and I always had my love for R&B and soul music. And then I got to meet and know James Brown. Now I had this whole other world going on outside of the jazz world, and it's been so much fun.
Jo Reed: Playing with Chick Corea, which you have done often, tell me about that. What's that like?
Christian McBride: I love Chick Corea so much. It's very hard for me to realize. It's unbelievable that I've had such a wonderful musical relationship and friendship with this icon for the last, I don't know, 15, 16 years. One would assume that when you're at legend status like Chick there is sort of a wall, Chick is probably the most accessible, most friendly, most giving musician I've ever met. When I first met Chick, which was in 1992 I was at the old Mt. Fuji Jazz Festival in Japan. I remember walking up to him and, you know, "Mr. Corea, my name is Christian McBride. I'm one of your biggest fans." My plan was to say that and leave him alone because people gravitate toward him all the time. Somebody's always asking him something. So I just wanted to say hello and get out of there. He continues on. "Who are you playing with?" I said, "I'm paying with Benny Green." "Oh, great, what time do you guys go on?" I said, "We go on at four o'clock." "What songs are you guys playing?" All of a sudden he's like interested in what I'm doing. I'm going, "Why is he asking me all of this stuff? I know he's not coming. He's going to be too busy to come and watch us." Not only did he come and watch us, but for the next two or three years anytime I was in Los Angeles with Benny Green, Chick would always come. He's always been a very active supporter of musicians, and I admire that so much about him. He has a restless creative mind. He's always composing. He's always making something happen. And sometimes I look at him and I go, you know, makes me feel bad because I look at him and I think, "I'm not sure if I want to be that busy when I'm in my late sixties. But Chick is always going. I don't know how he does it. He's always creating new bands so he can play with new musicians, and that's what it's all about. He spreads the love.
Jo Reed: Well, you kind of do too. You decided that you wanted to create bands and lead your own. What generated that decision?
Christian McBride: I don't know. I think that I've realized that I've been fortunate to have so many great musicians and so many great people support me when I was a younger musician in my teens and in my early twenties. I always decided that if I were ever in that same position it'd be a no brainer. I would have to do the same thing. It's a cycle because nobody does it alone. We all need help from somebody. I think for a long time I had these dreams. I think all of us have these dreams of we want to create the next great Miles Davis Quintet. We want to have guys who rewrite the books on what music can be. We want to have the next Rolling Stones, the group, the band, a group of musicians that are your guys no matter what. Come hell or high water these are your cats. I'm now starting to realize that you can still have that and still collaborate with a whole lot of other musicians.
Jo Reed: Well, you're doing a pretty good job with Inside Straight.
Christian McBride: Thank you.
Jo Reed: First, where did the name come from?
Christian McBride: The name Inside Straight was chosen by a couple from California, Deborah and Doug Moody. We had a name the band contest at the Monterey Jazz Festival in 2008. I was the Artist-in-Residence that year and the group, we had done a few a gigs, and I thought the name Christian McBride Quintet was so lame. So instead of us doing it I thought it would be fun for the audience to name the group. So we had all these submissions from fans out in California and we loved Inside Straight. Philosophically that's where the band was, and it also was the name of a recording of one of my biggest heroes, Cannonball Adderley. So it just seemed like everything worked with the phrase Inside Straight.
Jo Reed: Everything all came together.
Christian McBride: It call came together.
Jo Reed: Now, Inside Straight it is such a collaboration of voices, and seeing you in performance with the players is wonderful for exactly that reason. That stage is really shared by everybody.
Christian McBride: Thank you. Once again, the best music is made when there's no ego involved. One could argue that because there are a lot of great musicians who have had tremendous egos and have become legends, but I don't think it was because of their egos because they were great at what they did. But my favorite music has always been when the artists have equal say in what's happening. That's why I believe Miles Davis was probably the greatest bandleader ever, particularly in terms of the last half century because Miles never needed to be the main voice. Miles understood that if I have a John Coltrane, what good is it to hold them back and not let them shine. That just makes the music better if I let them display all of their colors.
Jo Reed: You have a CD with Inside Straight called Kind of Brown. And if you don’t mind I’d like to here a cut from it.
Christian McBride: Would I mind? I demand you place something from it.
Jo Reed: I was gonna go for Brother Mister, what do you think?
Christian McBride: That’s good for me.
Jo Reed: Now, the number we heard, Brother Mister, that's your composition.
Christian McBride: Yes.
Jo Reed: Can you just talk a little bit about what you wanted to do with that song, with that tune?
Christian McBride: I purposely wrote that song as an opener. When I was writing the music for this project, which was like two or three days leading up to the recording, I systematically knew what I wanted to do, how I wanted the album to flow. And I've always found that the first song of most recordings that I enjoy they're ear catchers, they're toe tappers, what better way than to do it with a blues. It's a blues with a little bit of different thing on it. It's not like your everyday 12-bar blues, but I knew it was something that might make people pat their feet, something that the musicians would be able to sink their teeth into, and then as the album would progress get into some different territory, but I knew I wanted that first song to be something that would grab the attention of the listener right away.
Jo Reed: You are committed to exposing young people to jazz, and to making jazz part of their life. I know that's very, very important to you. It's part of your life's work.
Christian McBride: Yeah.
Jo Reed: And you are involved in so many different projects. But I’d like to talk about The Jazz Museum of Harlem where you’re the co-director. And one of your projects at the Museum is Harlem Speaks. Tell me about that.
Christian McBride: Well, my work with the National Jazz Museum in Harlem came about through working with Loren Schoenberg who's a-- I'm sure you know him. He's a very well respected musician, and historian, and educator. Been around the scene for a very long time. He became the Executive Director of the National Jazz Museum in Harlem, and he asked me not too long after that, he says, "I think you might be the person that the museum would need to help get it to that next level." And because Loren and I already had a nice rhythm working together in Aspen we just brought that same rhythm, that same flow to The National Jazz Museum. Harlem Speaks was one of our-- I would say that's our flagship series. That was the first series that we started that really caught a good head of steam around New York City. We have now I believe it's 12 programs we have running all over New York City now. But the Harlem Speaks Program is basically our version of Inside the Actor's Studio. It started out with legendary Harlem musicians, musicians who really for some strange reason below 110th Street aren't as well known as they are above 110th Street. People like Bill Saxton, Seleno Clarke, and we would interview them for Harlem Speaks. And then that started to blossom out. We interviewed Clark Terry and Hank Jones, so many of these great musicians we were honored to have as part of our series. And people could come up and hear it for free. Where else could you hear Hank Jones tell his life's story for free in an intimate room?
Jo Reed: Now who haven’t you recorded with that you want to.
hristian McBride: Oh man, a whole lot of people. As far as jazz is concerned, the jazz community, I feel real lucky that I've had a chance to perform and play with almost every last person I've ever dreamt of playing with. I was very disappointed that I never got to play with Oscar Peterson. I'll have to just eat that one, but I have had a chance to play with Sonny Rollins, and just some months ago when he had his 80th birthday concert at the Beacon Theater, Ornette Coleman came and sat in with us. So I would have said ten years ago had you asked me this question I would have said Sonny Rollins and Ornette Coleman, but now not only have I had the chance to play with the both of them, but I had a chance to play with the both of them together. And I feel lucky seeing Ornette and Sonny Rollins on the same stage just going back and forth. I'm still not quite sure what happened.
Jo Reed: Thank you so much.
Christian McBride: The pleasure was mine.
Jo Reed: That was jazz bassist Christian McBride. You've been listening to Art Works, produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. Adam Kampe is the musical supervisor.
Excerpts of "Brother Mister" from the cd Kind of Brown, composed by Christian McBride and performed by Christian McBride and Inside Straight, used courtesy of Mack Avenue Records.
The Art Works podcast is posted every Thursday at www.arts.gov. And now you subscribe to Art Works at iTunes U. Just click on the iTunes link on our podcast page. Next week, Poet Kevin Young.
To find out how art works in communities across the country, keep checking the Art Works blog, or follow us @NEAARTS on Twitter. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.