An artist who needs no introduction, Christian McBride, who is clearly en route to becoming a household name, is busy as ever. Not only is Christian a consummate musician, but he also makes the time to give back to the young musicians of the United States in the hope of affecting a positive change; to provide opportunities for young jazz musicians to build upon the tradition set forth by the forefathers of the jazz world.
Christian’s latest release entitled Live At Tonic, is nothing short of spectacular. I was able to converse with Christian regarding this new release and his various artistic endeavors despite his hectic schedule.
You began playing the electric bass at the age of nine, followed by the acoustic bass two years later. Were you ever interested in playing any other instruments or were you always naturally drawn to the bass?
Well actually, you know when I went to junior high school to study music officially, my first instrument of choice was actually the trombone. However, no one ever told me that playing a brass instrument required that you press your lips in order to produce a sound. I thought that you just blew in it like you blow up a balloon or just like, you know, you just blow. I didn’t know that there was some special type of technique. So I’m blowing my lungs out and there is nothing coming out. I remember the brass instructor saying, “Christian there is a rumor that you play the electric bass” and I said, “Yeah,” and he said, “Well, why don’t you just play the acoustic bass?” At eleven years old there is a certain kid logic that is kind of sweet to a certain extent, and I just remember thinking, “Well why would I want to play two basses if I were to play the electric bass? I don’t need to play the big bass as well.” But he coaxed me into doing it and it was the best thing anyone has ever done for me (laughs).
That is wonderful. We all thank him for that (laughs). Growing up in Philadelphia was there many opportunities for young people to get involved in the arts or was it something that was forcefully sought out?
Not really. Fortunately, there were a whole lot of programs going on in Philadelphia for young musicians. As a matter of fact, I felt like I was a part of almost all of them.
Settlement Music School had a great jazz program where I learned a whole lot, because they always used to bring in a lot of traveling international artists to come through and give clinics and workshops. It was a very worldly experience. It was something that someone at the age of twelve or thirteen could really benefit from. The Settlement music program was also a classical program.
The community college in Philadelphia had a great summer music program. Temple University had many different youth ensembles. There was the Philadelphia youth orchestra, of course. There was the All-City Jazz Band and Orchestra and concert band. There were all kinds of things going on in Philly that I took part in.
You are very fortunate because I know that it deeply saddens me to see that in today’s society, there are such limited opportunities for children and young people in general to participate in the arts programs because of all the government cut backs.
It just bothers me that somehow the funding for these programs, which, of course, mostly comes from the federal government, it has been decided that the arts are considered to be under the umbrella of hobbies, you know. It is not really something that they see is worth funding, which is very very sad.
Yes, it is sad. That really shows the condition of our present government. Unfortunately, it serves as a constant reminder for us all that America does have problems that need to be rectified.
I hope that the people who are kind of in denial will wake up and see what is really going on.
Exactly. We can hope. The fact that you came from a musical family and you had that all important support system that enabled you to stay your course without getting sidetracked along the way, was that the major contributing factor to your present day success?
Oh, very much so! I always like to put it in these terms: My father kind of set up the bowling pins and my mother knocked them down. She was the navigator of the ship. I got my initial inspiration from my dad to play the bass, but it was certainly my mother who had the follow through to make sure that I took that little spark and turned it into an inferno.
That is so important for a child because at a young age, you really do come to the point where you have to decide whether you are going to stay the course, or if your attention is focusing in on something else.
Right. Well, you know that is really more than half the battle. Once you figure out in life what your passion is, what you really love, I think you are more than halfway there to really having a successful life.
That is very true. Other than your father and uncle who were very influential figures for you as a child, who were some of the other musical influences who had the greatest impact on your then-future career?
Oh, goodness! I would have to say Wynton Marsalis. Other than a whole lot of great local musicians who influenced me greatly, Wynton was probably the first world renown person who kind of came around and, you know, took me under his wing… really just mentored me to make sure that my focus was on the instrument and on learning the tradition — really learning the basics on how to be a really good jazz musician. I owe a lot to Wynton.
He is very talented.
That is true.
Musical genius and Philadelphia are synonymous. So many talented artists have risen from Philadelphia–yourself, Jill Scott, The Roots, Patti LaBelle, The O’Jays among countless others. You must be so honored to be a part of that legacy.
I am extremely honored to be a part of that. My best friend throughout high school was Joey DeFrancesco. It’s been wonderful to see how he has become such a force and has been a force for many years on the Hammond organ.
I met Questlove from The Roots. He actually came to my high school as a junior. We only had two years together, but it was a fruitful two years. We spent a lot of time together talking about the history of funk and playing together a lot. And, of course, Boys II Men was just kind of getting off the ground, Amel Larrieux. I mean, goodness, just in my high school alone there were so many great musicians. I’m very, very honored to be a part of that.
Definitely. I am an avid fan of the neo soul movement, artists like Erykah Badu, Musiq Soulchild, Jill Scott, etc. What does “Philly Soul” signify to you?
Well, it is definitely a tradition all unto itself because there have been different stages of Philly Soul. There has been like the classic Philly Soul, which everyone kind of recognizes… you know, Teddy Pendergrass, groups like The Intruders, Billy Paul, The Delfonics. Of course, you had Philly Soul from like the '80s, which was like Pieces of a Dream, Grover Washington, who was really considered kind of a jazz musician, but his music was definitely more soulful than most.
Then you have Patti LaBelle whose solo career took off in the early '80s and, of course, in the early '90s with The Roots sort of exploding onto the scene. And through The Roots, there was Jill Scott and all these other great artists like Floetry and all of these great groups that kind of came out of The Roots vortex.
So what does Philly Soul signify to me? That is a hard question. I do know that when you hear it, you know where it comes from because it sounds unlike any other city. I don’t feel like a lot of the other major cities have really kind of had their own flare for soul. You know, like Detroit, Memphis and Chicago? I think Philly actually kept the thing going. I think a lot of the other places stopped having their own sound, but Philly is still definitely building upon their tradition.
A characteristic that I would use to describe Philly soul is that it has the ability to really speak to your soul — not only are you a musical mastermind, if you don’t mind me saying that (laughs).
You give me too much credit, my dear. (laughs)
You are also quite the philanthropist. Exposing young people to jazz is a lifelong pursuit for you as evidenced in the various positions that you occupy — for example, your appointment to the position of co-director at the Jazz Museum in Harlem. What does you job description entail?
Well, let me back up a bit. Now you are talking about philanthropy. Doesn’t that involve money? (laughs)
Not always. You do what you can. (laughs)
I hope I can get to the point in my life where I can be a Bill Cosby and just kind of dish out money to great universities and programs. However, I have been a part of many different programs as far as trying to bring younger people to the music. My position at The Jazz Museum in Harlem is still very early in the game for a jazz musician to put up a jazz museum. So we are still trying to find ways to create programs to get more people in the community interested.
We started a series called Harlem Speaks in which we invite a lot of great musicians from Harlem, as well as international musicians, to come and do an interview. It is just an interview series, kind of like the television series Inside The Actors Studio. You sit there with the artist and we let them tell their story because there are so many great musicians still in Harlem who really never play outside of Harlem too much.
You know, you have great local players like Seleno Clark and Bill Saxton who never really left Harlem and are legends in Harlem. So we let them come and speak their piece. It’s probably been the single most popular thing that we have started at the jazz museum. But, of course, there is also an education initiative that was started almost a year ago. Tia Fuller, a great young saxophonist, started conducting a youth ensemble that we started made up of kids from all over the five boroughs — Brooklyn, Staten Island, Queens, the Bronx — that has been just as successful as well.
All of the things that are happening at the museum are going to be ways to watch them build. Of course, I have been associated with the Brubeck Institute. I was their first artistic director and I have been working at Jazz Aspen for their summer program for the past seven years now. I have been intensely involved with The Henry Mancini Institute for almost seven years, as well. It has been very fulfilling to be involved with all of these programs for young musicians.
I highly commend you for your involvement in all of these programs because it is truly so important for people with the facility and influence to present opportunities to the young musicians in this country — to foster their passion for music as well as expose them to music that they may not normally be exposed to.
You also hold the position of Creative Chair for the Los Angeles Philharmonic, which allows you to exercise your influence over commercial and educational programs at the Hollywood Bowl and Disney Hall. How important is the role that these various venues play in exposing young people to enriching music – jazz, classical, etc… when considering what artists to schedule?
One of the main reasons that I have gotten involved in so many of these projects is because I remember what it was like when I was in high school. I remember when the Philadelphia Orchestra used to have open rehearsals for all of the public high school kids so that they could go and watch how the orchestra would rehearse — how they got to the point of greatness. They would have these youth ensembles for young jazz musicians where even if you didn’t make the band, you could still come and play and sit in.
You know, in retrospect I just think that it is very, very important for me to give that back in whatever capacity that it may be… be it something relatively small at the moment, at least like the jazz museum or something on a much grander scale like the Los Angeles Philharmonic. I think, particularly, that the Los Angeles Philharmonic are a well-established group and are world renown. They have the ability to almost do anything, so to speak. So I have been fortunate that they brought me into being a part of their education initiative, which once again, is just kind of getting off the ground because this is my first year as Creative Chair. I am still testing the waters and figuring out how to go about things, but I can already see that this is going to be a very fruitful relationship with them.
Yes, I believe so as well. It is so important to expose the youth and present those opportunities. The various media outlets, for example, PBS plays a large role as well in choosing their programming. They have an obligation to do so. What are your hopes for the future of jazz, especially pertaining to the youth of today? In ten years, what position would you like to see jazz in?
Actually, I’m not worried about the musicians playing and building upon the tradition. That part I’m not worried about. I am actually worried about the people behind the scenes who are responsible for getting the word out about jazz, because I have seen – not to sound like an old man; but I have seen American pop culture kind of regress, and regress, and regress in the last fifteen-to-twenty years. The criteria for being considered a serious artist has seemed to just drop. I sincerely hope that at some point, somebody or some group, or whatever it is, will put the money back into jazz like they did at one point in the '80s.
When Marsalis got hot, that is how that whole renaissance started again because Columbia Records said, “Look at all these great young jazz musicians coming out on the scene. We need to make stars out of them.” They created some hype for the jazz world again. I hope that comes around again at some point, but not with the rules that they use for pop stars — you know, glamorize them and turn them into these little MTV icons, but rather make them stars based on their musical ability.
I agree. Especially in more recent years, there seems to be a trend toward promoting the right marketable image as deemed so by the record labels over the actual talent. Not to say that these artists are not talented or take their artistic credibility away from them, but their image is in the forefront overshadowing their talent.
Yeah. And, you know, you look at American pop culture. I mean particularly in music image. [It] has always played a big part in it, but at some point, the image became greater than the sum of one’s talent. I don’t know exactly when that happened, but I really hope it changes back.
I believe that jazz is coming full circle so to speak. I believe that there is hope it is not so underground anymore as evidenced in the ever-growing mainstream acceptance and interest in jazz. That is apparent when you look at the success garnered by artists like Chris Botti, Jamie Cullum, and Herbie Hancock with his Grammy-nominated album Possibilities. I even remember seeing a Wynton Marsalis iPod commercial.
The tools are certainly there. I hope that we all collectively get together and make it happen.
Speaking of Chris Botti, what has it been like to be part of such a successful project, that being Chris’ most recent release To Love Again? You played bass on four tracks including, “What Are You Doing the Rest of Your Life?” featuring Sting. What was it like to be reunited with them both on that project?
I hate to break your heart, but actually Sting over dubbed his part so I didn’t get to see him in the studio. But sonically, it was great to be reunited with those guys again. Chris has been a buddy of mine for a very, very long time. As a matter of fact, Chris was instrumental in getting me in Sting’s band five years ago. Chris and I were label mates at Verve in the mid-'90s and I just think that he is one of the greatest guys in the whole world. We have always had a good time together, a lot of laughs. The relationship that Chris and I have kind of reminds me of what Joey DeFranceso and I were like in high school. You know, just boys being boys.
I completely agree. Chris is definitely one of the most talented musicians currently in the industry; unpretentious and a genuinely nice individual. He truly deserves all the success that he has garnered.
It has been very interesting to watch Chris become like a whipping boy for certain members of what I call the “jazz defenders.” It is almost like the second someone becomes a star. They are now a problem. I watched it also happen with Diana Krall. How many singers have we seen who accompany themselves on the piano or play in little hotel bars and lobbies, and just kind of do their gigs every now and then? A lot of people!
But Diana, of course, had someone, Tommy LiPuma, who said, “Look I really, really like this girl. I’m going to make sure that Verve understands what they have here.” Tommy went to bat for Diana and you know, she has become kind of almost a household name. Whether or not you like how she sings or like her music, why is it that all of sudden, now she becomes like this whipping girl for this mentality of well… she has blonde hair and blue eyes and so that is why she is popular. You know Diana Krall sat down and studied and learned from the greats, just as much as some of the other cats have.
Our number has not been called yet, you know. Not many people in this genre of music get the success of Diana Krall or Chris Botti, and you know. Not many people enjoy the success of Wynton Marsalis or Branford Marsalis, and it was like that for them also in the 80s. I can remember when Wynton got hot, there were a lot of people jumping up and down talking about how people were hyping this kid Wynton Marsalis. But what about Woody Shaw? What about Freddie Hubbard? It is almost like anytime a jazz musician becomes popular, it is like uh-oh, he must be doing something wrong.
Exactly. I can’t understand that mentality. It is almost as though when a jazz artist becomes truly popular and has high visibility that somehow, someone strips away their artistic credibility.
They are positive that they must be doing something wrong. When they beat them down to that point, then in the same breath they will say, “I sure wish that jazz could make some stars!” It is like, wait a minute, what are you beating them down for? They work hard. They can’t have it both ways. It is interesting to see the popularity dynamic.
Many people declare that if it is not Be-Bop or Straight-Ahead, then it is not jazz, and I disagree.
Yes, those are the defenders that I was talking about.
Are there any artists that you would like to work with, but have not yet had the chance?
Oscar Peterson. I’ve never even had the chance to meet the man. I hope that at least at some point I get to touch him.
He is truly talented!
Sonny Rollins, as well, and Oscar Peterson. Not only have I not played with them, but I have never met them. I hope that I can somehow be in touch with their greatness.
I’m sure that you will have an opportunity to do so. That brings us to your latest project – Live At Tonic. It must be liberating to have the ability to create music without limitations, to be on a record label that allows you the freedom of artistic expression. How did this live recording come to fruition, and how did you come to record on Ropeadope?
Most people who have heard my band within the last six years, the general consensus was always that we needed to record a live album. We received a lot of e-mails from fans and all the guys in the band were like, “We need to do a live album.”
The energy is pretty serious up there on stage. At the time Warner Brothers was going to record a live CD, it was going to be my second release for Warner Brothers. Of course, that never happened because Warner Brothers folded their jazz division. Almost all of the artists on the label like myself, Joshua Redman, Nicholas Payton, Brad Mehldau and Pat Metheny, we all had to scramble to make some new plans. I still wanted to do a live album, but now of course, the original plan of recording at Yoshi’s [Oakland, California] had to be put on the back burner a little bit.
I kept thinking about different record labels that were out there, which there didn’t seem to be too many that were interested in letting artists really kind of experiment and be able to create any kind of music that you want to create. Andy Hurwitz from Ropeadope and I started talking because I have had a relationship with Andy for many years because of the album that we did with Questlove; The Philadelphia Experiment. He said, “Listen, why don’t you do it for Ropeadope, and that made perfect sense. I said of course we should record this album for Ropeadope, so we set the plan in motion.
We were going to record a live CD and we were going to do it at Tonic. The original plan was that we were going to record a double CD… to have the first CD be the best performances of just the band, and then the second CD was going to be kind of like a combination of what became the second and the third CDs.
Live At Tonic, was supposed to be one CD. It was just entirely too hard to try and edit it together, so Andy said, “Well, let’s just put out three CDs.” I thought that he was a bit nuts in the beginning because I thought that three CDs were a bit much. Andy said that he believed in the concept of people getting some good music, you know, pay fifteen dollars, the price that you would pay for one CD and get three instead for the price of one.
Just on that alone, I think that people will be appreciative of that. Musically, they can feel what they want, but I don’t think that anyone will listen to these three CDs and not like it. I don’t think that is going to happen, so I told Andy, "Well, right on!” And that is what we wound up doing.
It must be rewarding to be able to record a live project like this because of the intimate venue, and also the immediate gratification of playing to a live audience and the interaction that takes place. Do you prefer to play these small venues?
That can be hit or miss depending on what kind of audience that you get. I was nervous as hell because I wasn’t used to the vibrations of the club. I didn’t know what the energy was like in the club and now, of course, we are recording a live album and I was thinking, “Wow, this can either be a wonderful victory or a terrible disaster!” Fortunately, the crowd was awesome.
Tonic’s clientele consists of a lot of college kids, people who are not necessarily jazz connoisseurs, but they really want to hear some free experimental music and they want to have a good time. As long as the music is genuine and it comes from an honest place, they will accept it. Whereas, sometimes I think in certain jazz clubs, jazz fans are very cynical. They come to the table saying, “Are you as good as Mingus? Are you as good as Ray Brown?” Whereas places like Tonic, the people don’t really care if you are as good as Mingus or as good as Ray Brown. They just want to hear what you do, so that makes for a nice atmosphere to create.
I think it is very important to have the opportunity to hear live jazz. Being from the Bay Area [San Francisco], I know that I am always the first to go to places like Yoshi’s and Jazz At Pearl’s because there is a diminutive amount of venues in which you can hear live jazz. I’m a recent college graduate and a few of my friends don’t even know who the jazz greats are, and I feel compelled to educate them. I feel obligated to do so. (laughs)
We need you out here. (laughs)
We need musicians of your caliber, as well, to help promote jazz, especially to young musicians.
This album was recorded over two nights. The second night included special guests Charlie Hunter, Jason Moran, and Jenny Schienman. You improvised every note of every song with your special guests. Do you feel that the element of anything can, and will-happen, adds to the allure of hearing live jazz?
Yes, absolutely. When you are watching a jazz musician, I believe that you are probably watching the most artistic event unfold because when you are listening to jazz, [it’s like] when you are listening to someone who has studied almost every word in the dictionary and is making up a story as you go along… much like a poet, but even with poets, a lot of times they write their poetry and then they go up and recite it. It is not too often when you find a really good poet who can go up and improvise what they do. Just because of the nature of what it is that they do, they want to kind sit down and get it together, and then go up and recite.
When you are watching a jazz artist, you are watching someone take words, phrases, colors, notes, sounds, and is going completely off-the-cuff, making educated judgments and making a story right there on the spot. Sometimes when you try to describe improvisation to someone, it is very hard to do because someone might ask, “What is improvisation?” And you say, well, you are making up a story. And then somebody will say, “Well, yeah.” I can make up a story that is easy to do and they sit there and they start to make up a story. But, it is not quite that simple.
There are certain rules that you have to know, like if you are playing this type of song, you have to think of improvisation that fits in this framework. You know it is very hard to describe. The thing about jazz is that you have to know a whole lot to be able to do that. You can’t just get up and kind of ignorantly make a story. You have to really know your instrument. You have to really know how to make music. You have to know the history; who were the great storytellers before you? You have to understand the role of your instrument, the function of your instrument. Once you know all of that,then you have still only scratched the surface of becoming a good jazz musician. There are so many things to consider. As you watch and listen to jazz live, you are experiencing the greatest artistic unfolding ever.
I would imagine that when touring extensively – in order to keep the sets fresh every time, one would rely heavily on improvisation to keep it different and interesting every night. When you edited the tapes for this recording, you decided that the mistakes should be mixed in with the marvelous. Was that done to keep in line with the fact that it was a live recording?
Yes, very much so. And of course, Andy asked me how I felt about that and so I said at that point, three CDs, I’m not going to start knit-picking. I mean it was a live CD with special guests jamming. It’s not like we really knew what we were going to play, so it is hard to edit that. After a while, we both decided not to edit it. We just said let it be live, let the people hear it as it went down. That way, they really feel that they were a part of it.
In your opinion, what distinguishes a musician from being good and being great, from achieving greatness rather than just being average?
As in any endeavor, I think that there are a lot of people who are just great thinkers, people who are able to take what the basics are and really expand that and extend that to greater horizons. In jazz, there are people like Monk, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, Wayne Shorter, John Coltrane. There have been a lot of great thinkers in jazz: Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, Pat Metheny. I think Greg Osby is a great thinker. I think Nicholas Payton is a great thinker, and Jeff Keezer is a great thinker.
A lot of musicians out there, as I said, they just take your basic rules and they twist them and they turn them, and they kind of just make their own personal thing out of it, not really worrying about what has been done before that. The reason why they don’t worry about what has been done before them is because they already know what has been done before them. They have studied the history thoroughly to know what has been done and what has not been done — and what can be tweaked and messed with so that they can make their own personal statement.
I think sometimes, as I mentioned earlier, before the jazz defenders, they kind of deter a lot of great thinking because great thinking might consist of going against the grain. When we are talking about this “Great Tradition” that we want to quote-unquote, “keep in tact,” a lot of musicians I believe subconsciously think that I better not mess with the tradition too much. But you kind of have to do that I think to really make something personal, either with the instrument or with the actual type of music that you play. Be free! Don’t even worry about what other people think.
Right, and then again it comes down to the labels themselves because I know a lot of artists talk about how they do not have the freedom to create what they want to create. They are kind of pigeon-holed into doing what the label wants to present to the public.
Fortunately and unfortunately, I think that is starting to change because there really aren’t any major labels anymore. I mean. if you think about jazz, Sony doesn’t have a jazz division anymore. Verve is certainly nothing like it was in the mid-90s. You have a label like Concord or Telarc or Maxjazz, there really aren’t too many big labels that have that machine that I spoke of earlier — the money machine to put into the artists that really want to touch jazz. So the musicians who really do want to be free and make the music that they want to make, a lot of them are starting their own labels now because we understand the music business. We don’t mind taking a few losses in order to get our message out there unadultered.
Robbie Coltrane started his own label. Dave Douglas started his own label. Dave Holland started his own label. Chick Corea started his own label. Herbie Hancock had his own label for a minute, but even his album Possibilities, he did that album on his own and then sold it to Starbucks. I’m all down for independence. Although I don’t own Ropeadope, I do feel that it is my label in the sense that I feel that I can do whatever I want. We wrote our own rules business-wise and musically, so it worked out great for everybody.
That is wonderful. I am happy to hear that. Apart from what we have already discussed are there any new projects on the horizon?
Are you ready for this?
I’m ready! (laughs)
On September 6th at the Hollywood Bowl, I will conduct a big band for the Godfather of Soul, Mr. James Brown.
Oh, wow! That is amazing!
Yes, it is. I have been waiting for this opportunity my entire life.
That must be such a validation for your career to be able to have that opportunity.
That is a personal validation because of how much I have studied and really immersed myself in James Brown’s music since I was a child. I can remember the way Questlove and I would play James Brown grooves all day long in school. And All City Jazz Band rehearsals, it would just be all about funk all day and night with he and I. I did play with James Brown, but the circumstances were such that I don’t even really count it, so I am glad that I am now getting a chance to do an official performance with him.
In closing, is there anything that you would like to say to your fans?
Thank you. That is all that I would have to say… you know, just thank you for always making me feel good. I get a lot of e-mails on my website. People are always writing in and I feel bad when I can’t get back to people right away. It is really nice to know that people are interested in knowing what you think, and some folks want to reach out and say, “What’s up?” It is very touching. The only way that I can think to repay you in an immediate sense is to play the best that I can.
For more information: ChristianMcBride.com
Originally published by: JazzReview.com