Meet the Music Makers: Christian McBride

UChicago Presents: Your hometown, Philadelphia, has a pretty amazing musical history. How did the music of the city shape your musical upbringing?

Christian McBride: It's hard to say how it shaped your musical upbringing when that's all you know. You’re not aware of your musical upbringing and your shape until you're somewhere else, where the shapes are a little different.

One great thing about Philadelphia is that it's always been a city that's fiercely dedicated to the arts. And it's always been one of those cities where no matter what style of music you play – be it jazz or classical or rock, whatever it is – you can find someone to teach you. There are so many great musicians in the town, you can always get some top-notch training and mentorship, be it officially – taking private lessons or going to a school, or just hanging out with some local musicians in town. The oral tradition, and the scholastic tradition – you know, like the conservatory tradition – have always been very strong in Philadelphia, so it’s a great town to be from.

UCP: You come from a musical family, too, right?

CM: I have two bass players in the family. My father and my great uncle are both bass players. My great uncle was sort of my window into jazz. He's the one that almost single-handedly converted me to become a jazz and at the age of 11 through just simply playing his records and demonstrating and, you know, he would play along with the records every now and then. But mostly he would just play records for me and explain things to me that were happening on the record. He was so entertaining when he did it, he wasn't very dogmatic, or like a stuffy teacher type. He was very much the cool, hip uncle that everybody likes to have.

My dad was the reason why I started playing the electric bass. I started playing the electric bass when I was nine, and that was because of me growing up watching my dad and eventually being inspired to want to do what he did. I'm sure it was 50/50, I did it because I love the sound of the bass but also because it was my dad. You always kind of want to do what your dad does, particularly if it’s something cool.

UCP: What was your impetus behind forming this quartet, the New Jawn?

CM: Well, I had played with my trio with Christian Sands and Jerome Jennings ¬– first, it was Ulysses Owens Jr., then it was Jerome Jennings – but I had that trio for about five years, and I feel like that trio had a very strong personality. The two recordings that we made, Out Here and Live at the Village Vanguard, I would have to say that out of at all working bands I've ever had,
that trio was probably the most requested. That trio worked a lot.

It was obvious that Christian Sands was a very special talent – not to take anything away from Ulysses and Jerome – but it was obvious that Christian’s career was going to explode. So the plan was to have him in the trio for as long as I could, and then he was probably going to sign a solo deal and start his own trio, which is exactly what happened. So instead of simply replacing him, I thought that, again, because this trio had such a strong personality, I should just start from scratch and start a new band.

I kind of like that concept anyway, because I get to play with more musicians, I get to employ more musicians, and it keeps me on my toes as a musician. I've always loved how somebody like Chick Corea or Pat Metheny, or even somebody like Sting – they change their bands often to keep it fresh, you know, to keep their keep their musical skills sharp. And so I started this quartet, the New Jawn, is stylistically about as 180-degree a turn as you can make from the trio.

UCP: The New Jawn’s two-horn, piano-less setup might be familiar from groups like Gerry Mulligan’s quartet with Chet Baker, or from records like Charles Mingus Presents Charles Mingus or Ornette Coleman’s The Shape of Jazz to Come. Did any of those groups or records play a role in how you decided on the configuration of this group?

CM: No more or no less than a Wynton Kelly Trio record or an Oscar Peterson Trio record did with my old trio. I think most musicians get to a point in their career where they're not subconsciously or subliminally trying to – you know, they’re inspired by some favorite record of theirs, and say, “oh, I gotta get that sound in my new band.” It’s not that at all. There certainly was no conscious thought of, you know, Old and New Dreams, Ornette’s quartet, or any of these piano-less quartets. It’s simply a group that had no piano, which would make me more responsible for accentuating the harmony. That's the main reason why I did it.

UCP: The New Jawn features a really stellar lineup of Josh Evans, Marcus Strickland, and Nasheet Waits, but from what I understand, you hadn’t worked with these guys on your own projects previously. What about these musicians drew you to choose them for this band?

CM: Marcus Strickland is someone who I’ve worked with  on and off over the last ten years in a number of different settings: Jeff “Tain” Watts’s group; or when I had my old quartet, the Christian McBride band, when [saxophonist] Ron Blake wouldn't be able to make certain shows, I would call in Marcus Strickland to fill in for him. Marcus has also played in my big band, on occasion. So he's somebody whose playing I know very well, and I really love the way he plays and I love who he is as a person. He’s a grounding force. So he was an easy call.

In terms of creativity, I can't think of too many drummers as creative, certainly none more creative, than Nasheet Waits. Even though we've known each other for a long time – we first met in the mid 90s, when he was on the road with Antonio Hart – we never really crossed paths, musically speaking. So we were just sort of admiring each other from afar. I had this gig at the Vanguard, and I just took a shot in the dark. I knew he was very in-demand, and extremely busy. But I said, I’m just going to take a shot in the dark, and hopefully I'll get lucky, and Nasheet was available. Much to my happiness, he's been with me ever since.

Josh Evans… it's difficult for me to find a trumpet player who – you know, to be a modern jazz musician there's always this quest to new, stay fresh. And often times, a lot of musicians make the mistake of trying to stay fresh and stay new by avoiding history. Often times, I feel that's quite a naïve notion. I can't remember which president said it, but there’s that great saying that goes “the only thing new is the history you don't know.”

I find that specifically of trumpet players, they're all kind of coming from one of two bags, and neither one of those two bags really raises my eyebrows that much. Josh Evans was one of the first trumpet players, particularly one of the first young trumpet players that I heard, who – first of all, he's a historian, and I love that about any younger musicians who spends their time listening to and studying every great musician that came before them. And I don't mean just 50, 60 years ago, I mean he's also up on what's happening now; he thoroughly understands his “big brother” generation, you know, like Roy Hargrove and Nicholas Payton, and then people like Wynton Marsalis, Terence Blanchard, Wallace Roney and going all the way back to people like Sweets Edison or Louis Armstrong – but he does not sound like any of those people. And I think that is the key to being fresh and being creative.

You know, you gather all the information you possibly can and look at it all, study it all, and then you say, Okay, well, I think I can find something in here, wherever here is. It’s that space that you consciously pick because you don't see anything else in there. I think Josh has done an amazing job of being this wonderful new voice of the trumpet. I love working with him; he’s such a dynamic musician, and I’m always cheering for him. I want him to be able to have a nice long, successful career, which I'm sure he will.

UCP: Some of my favorite anecdotes of yours that I’ve read and heard before are about meeting and playing with your heroes, like James Brown and Freddie Hubbard. Now that you’ve been around the block and are in a position to offer that same kind of mentorship to younger musicians, how do you feel stepping into that role?

CM: It's a role that I embrace. It excites me, because I now realize that at age 46, I'm way older than Bobby Watson was when he hired me at age 17. At the time, I thought of Bobby Watson as sort of – well, I don’t want to say old, but you know, I was like, “He’s in his mid 30s, man, he’s been around!” So I wonder what a 17-year-old thinks when they meet me! They’re like, “Oh man, he’s really been around!”

So yeah, I enjoy this role. I enjoy meeting younger musicians who have that fire in their eyes and a fire in their sounds, and all they want is an opportunity. Obviously, there are a lot of other amazing band leaders who are doing the same thing; so many good people out there now employing younger musicians. So it's a cycle that happens in life, I suppose, in any endeavor. I’m proud to have this position.

UCP: In between your busy schedule as a performer and educator, you also serve as the host of the radio program Jazz Night in America. How did you land that gig?

CM: Funny, that's where I am right this minute. I’m sitting in the NPR studio, I just finished taping a script. There’s a guy who used to work here at WBGO by the name of Josh Jackson. Josh Jackson was one of the most popular and most beloved DJs here in the New York area. About five years ago, he called and asked me if I would be interested in being the host of a new show that they were developing along with Jazz at Lincoln Center and NPR. And at the time, I had just signed a deal with Sirius XM for my other show, so I said, “Well, it sounds interesting, but I’m just not sure if I’ll have the time to do it.” And he said, “we’ll pay you more than Sirius XM!” Well, I don’t know if it’s about the money, man, it’s about the time, and he was really funny, he put a guilt trip on me! He was like, “Oh, oh I see. So we're not as important to Sirius XM.” I was like Come on, man, you know that’s not what I’m saying! He said, “I already know what you have to do for your Sirius XM show. You’ve got to do a heck of a lot more work for that show than you have to do this show. Do you really want to turn us down?” And I said “Ok, ok, ok, alright. Let's figure it out.” So yeah, I've been the host of Jazz Night in America for four years now.

UCP: Being a nationally syndicated radio show, Jazz Night in America has a pretty wide listenership, which gives you a pretty broad platform to talk about this music. Do you feel a sense of responsibility for setting the tone of the conversation around jazz through the show?

CM: In some ways, yes. I mean, I realize I'm one of many voices that are out there representing jazz, but I realize that as host of the nationally syndicated show, I do feel a certain sense of responsibility to put the spotlight on as many different people as possible and to make it palatable for the layperson. You know, I think all of us in the jazz world – well obviously, I want the show to be interesting for a jazz connoisseur as well, but also to make it friendly for the layperson. Because ultimately, we don't want our world to be quite so insular, you know? We want more people to enjoy this music.

UCP: Are there any recent or upcoming collaborations on your docket that you’re particularly excited about?

CM: Well, I'll have my continuing tours with the New Jawn, but I'm also going to be reuniting with Chick Corea next year in his trio with Brian Blade. I’ve also recently struck this new bond with the great Laurie Anderson. Laurie Anderson and I played together at Town Hall, just an evening of free improvisation. We did that again this year at the Newport Jazz Festival; our dear friend and great cellist by the name of Rubin Kodheli joined this us. So it’s just Laurie playing keyboards, electric violin, spoken word – you know, she's just a legendary artist with so many different layers to her expressiveness. So she's doing her thing, and Rubin plays cello, and I play, and we just open it up to all kinds of wild, crazy, fun stuff, so we're gonna be doing more together in the future. So between Chick and Laurie Anderson and the New Jawn, and I’m hopefully going to get my next electric project off the ground sometime toward the end of next year, called A Christian McBride Situation – those will be sort of the four things that I focus on.