Friday, March 5, 2010

Christian McBride: Pushing Himself & Inspiring Others

Christian McBride is only thirty-seven, but he's already made a remarkable impact on the jazz community. He's been a high profile musician for nearly twenty years, and at this point, he could do just about whatever he wants. He came into the interview looking savvy, dressed in a dark suit and twirling a cigar as he nonchalantly answered questions about his illustrious career, but he'd rather not sit back and rest on his laurels. He continues to push himself and those around him in a range of styles and roles, as performer, teacher, creative chair for jazz with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and co-director of the National Jazz Museum in Harlem.

McBride, who grew up in Philadelphia, has always had music in his blood. His father and great uncle were both professional musicians. "My dad, up until the time I was six or seven years old, was primarily an electric bass player playing in a lot of the great legendary Philly soul groups like Blue Magic, and The Delfonics, Billy Paul, Major Harris--and by the time I got old enough to really appreciate what he was doing. He started working with Mongo Santamaria, so he kind of left the R&B world and started getting into the jazz scene."

His great uncle was playing in a very different setting with avant-garde jazz musicians such as Khan Jamal, Sunny Murray, and Byron Lancaster. On his mother's side, he had another uncle who worked for one of the city's popular African-American radio stations: WHAT. "Between seeing my father play with Mongo, hearing my great uncle playing with the guys from Sun Ra’s band, and then going to an R&B show, I was just surrounded by music every minute of the day.

When he was nine, McBride's mother bought him an electric bass. "I knew the minute I touched it, that’s what I was going to do for the rest of my life." His father, who was often on the road, came by to give him his first lesson, showing him how to play 'Papa Was A Rolling Stone.' "I remember thinking, 'wow, this isn’t too difficult. Show me something else.' He showed me a few more songs, and I think I had that electric bass on my body for the next three days straight."

For the next two years or so, McBride’s approach to learning was mostly picking up bass lines he could hear on the radio. When his mother saw that he'd become passionate about that instrument she made a point of sending him to Pepper Middle School, which had one of the better music programs in the city.

When it came to picking an instrument to play in the school orchestra, McBride applied the logic of an eleven-year-old, and decided it would be dumb to take up the acoustic bass. "Why would I want to play two basses, I already play the electric bass." Instead, he tried the trombone, but when he couldn't produce a single sound from the instrument, the teachers suggest he give the acoustic bass a try. After scoping out the instrument, he realized it was just the same as an electric bass, only twice as big and turned on its side, so he started playing the bass line to “Beat It,” and all the teachers looked around and said, “He can play that!" to which Christian quipped, “It’s just a big electric bass, it’s nothing.”

Shortly thereafter, McBride began his formal training on the instrument. His first teacher, Margie Keefe, was actually a cellist, but she introduced him to the beginner books like the Simandl Method and he started learning to read music and the rudiments of music theory. "Slowly but surely I fell madly in love with the acoustic bass, and I'm forever grateful that [my teacher] took that trombone out of my hands."

It was in middle school that McBride also first got into jazz. All his teachers were "professional musicians, and they would bring their Real Books to school. One of the teachers, Mark Johnson, showed me how to read a chord sheet. He brought in Satin Doll, Misty: easy songs like that, which I could pick up quickly."

Once it became apparent that McBride had taken a real interest, his great uncle called and said, “get over here right now. I’ve got something for you.” As McBride recounted, "I went over to his house, and, I’m not exaggerating, his record collection was about as big as this store. He had every record known to man, so he said, 'you know who Paul Chambers is?' 'No.' 'Well I’m going to show you right now.'”

It was 1983, and like every other eleven-year-old, McBride was listening to Michael Jackson, Prince, Cindy Lauper, and everything that was hot at the time. Unlike many jazz aficionados, who can be "dogmatic about what the music is and what other musics aren’t," McBride's great uncle was encouraging of him enjoying all different kinds of music. He remembers being told, “I know you love Michael Jackson, I know you love James Brown, Prince. They’re ‘bad’ too, but just add this on so you can see where it all comes from.” It was this strong influence that led McBride to embrace all different styles of music.

The following year, Ms. Keefe had him audition for the all-city and Settlement Music School jazz bands, which were usually reserved only for senior high school students. McBride showed an exceptional ability on the instrument though, and he made it into both.

It was in the Settlement group that he first met Joey DeFrancesco. McBride remembers, "he was a year older than me, and for the next year, we became inseparable. He was about my earliest musical compadre. We played together every day, and the way he plays now, he played like that back then."

Once they reached high school, attending Philadelphia's High School for Creative and Performing Arts, the two still felt like outsiders, listening to jazz, and constantly conversing about "the Basie band, or Lester Young, or Sarah Vaughan, or Miles, or in Joey’s case a lot of Jimmy Smith, Jack McDuff, and Charles Earland. I probably know about more organ players than I do bass players hanging out with Joey."

Soon McBride also became friends with Ahmir Thompson [commonly known as ?love, drummer of the popular hip-hop group The Roots], but the three fledgling musicians never hung as a trio. "It would have made sense that we do that, but Joey was a hard-core jazz-head, Quest, was a hardcore funk-head, and I was always caught in the middle philosophically anyway. So, I would hang and play standards with Joey, and then I’d hang with Ahmir, and we’d talk about James Brown all night long."

Around that time, McBride also began playing regular gigs with an old Philadelphia stalwart:, Joe Sudler. Sudler had actually replaced Harry Carney in the Ellington band after Carney passed away and then went on to lead a local big band in Philly, "which was like a rite of passage for all the young cats growing up in Philly. The band was mostly made up of the members of the MFSB band: guys like Zach Zachary...Uri Caine…John Swanna, Bob Howe. All of these local Philly legends were in that band, so Joe started using me just after my fourteenth birthday. It was great because it was real life. I really had to learn how to be a professional quickly. We played a lot of parties, weddings, bar mitzvahs. The experience of that band was unprecedented."

As McBride began to find success as a young musician, he had a team of mentors and teachers who helped him achieve. Among them were such respected Philadelphia educators as Lovett Hines, who drove him to and from all of the gigs with Joe Sudler's band, and Dr. George Allen, the musical director at Overbrook High School, who first introduced him to Wynton Marsalis. Then there was Robert Lamdon, the current baritone player in the Ellington band, who became McBride's "number one mentor." Lamdon turned him onto more modern jazz like Woody Shaw, Wayne Shorter, and McCoy Tyner, and helped him to remember harmonic progressions without a Real Book.

By the time McBride was graduating from high school, he found Philadelphia stultifying. "I've always said this with great trepidation, but it bothered me a lot--it still bothers me to a certain extent--that a town like Philadelphia, which has such a strong and great legacy of jazz, [was full of musicians that] to me, didn't think big. They were satisfied playing the same songs on gigs. It felt like nobody was really thinking about showing how great they really were. So, I was in Philly just biting my fingernails off just thinking, 'I can't wait to go to New York because I want to see just how good I can really be. I want to see the baddest cats who can challenge me, and make me feel bad, so I can work harder and get better.'"

In 1989, McBride moved to New York and began studying bass at Julliard with the legendary instructor Homer Mensch, but his studies were soon pushed to the backburner, as he was offered a position in Bobby Watson's band. He had been in New York for all of two weeks, "and Bobby came and literally pulled me out of school one day and said, you're working at Birdland this weekend with James Williams and Victor Lewis. I thought, 'oh man, no warm up gig, no minor league game. I got called right to the bigs.' I started working around town a lot, and needless to say, my schoolwork suffered because I'd be playing at the Village Gate, or Bradley's, or the Angry Squire till three, four o'clock in the morning, and I had to be at orchestra rehearsal at eight. It was very tough."

McBride continued to attend classes, but by the end of his freshman year, he dropped out to begin a career, working with Freddie Hubbard, Sting, Joe Henderson, Herbie Hancock, Carly Simon, James Brown, Chick Corea, and countless other luminaries.

Ray Brown was a particularly big influence. "The first time I went to see Ray Brown play live I was with Benny Green, and we went to the Blue Note. He was so nonchalant, dancing with the bass, looking around, giving verbal instructions, and he got this big fat woody sound from the instrument, which was coming mostly from the instrument, not the amplifier. He didn't seem to be straining himself, yet he was still putting a nice muscle into the instrument. That floored me. When he said he was going to put together a band specifically for myself and John Clayton called SuperBass, that was the ultimate honor. "

He is quick to point out that not all his great memories were with legends over sixty-five. "Some of my greatest moments as a musician have come with my peers. For many years, the Christian McBride Band, with Ron Blake on saxophones, Geoff Keezer on keyboards, and Terreon Gully on drums, we felt like superheroes every time we went on stage because we could morph into straight ahead guys or into grunge-rock guys in the same tune. We would all look at each other and give our Green Lantern ring flash."

Playing in Freddie Hubbard's band was a particular thrill; or, putting it in terms any ‘video gamer’ would understand, like "playing Madden for the first time on the ‘All-Madden’ level. It's like everything's moving fast, more interceptions, you can't bust those eight, nine-yard runs. You're getting stuffed at the line of scrimmage. That's what it was like playing with Freddie Hubbard. To hear somebody play a trumpet like that was just mind-boggling. You listen to him and you go, 'well, are we supposed to match that? Are we supposed to play like he plays? That's not going to happen.'"

McBride did love the challenge though. "I enjoy music that makes me sweat a little bit. I've seen a lot of musicians do this once they get to a certain place in their careers. They'll try to manage the music to make it so they don't have to work so hard. I plan on never doing that."

While he continues to challenge himself, McBride always wants to give back to others. "I always made a very conscious decision that if I was ever in a position where I could help to inspire some young teenager like all those guys did for me: that's a no brainer for me. I can't tell you how important it was when all those great Philly musicians took the time to hire me at fourteen and fifteen and let me come out there and make mistakes, and stumble, and learn, and give me another shot two, three, four, or five, or six times over. I keep them in my heart every single day, so I'm more than happy to pass that on to some up and coming cats."

Christian McBride has already established a legacy to be proud of and a lasting impression on both jazz and the larger musical world, but as he continues to challenge himself, those of us lucky enough to encounter his playing and vivacious personality should look forward to plenty more exciting projects over the years to come.

Here are some extra anecdotes from the interview, with McBride discussing moving to New York, his process for composing, and working with such jazz icons as Ron Carter, Hank Jones, Joe Henderson, and Illinois Jacquet:

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