Photo by R. Andrew Lepley
You could say about Christian McBride that the bass was in his blood – and it was.
From a father and great uncle who played bass, to Julliard in New York City to study classical bass, to the stages of the most significant jazz clubs and festivals in the world – that’s Christian McBride.
He agrees with so many that characterize jazz as America’s classical music, has a great love of the music, and enormous respect for those who make that music.
In this, part four of our five-part series, A Conversation with Christian McBride, we explore the Newport Jazz Festival’s new artistic director’s own history, his perception of the cyclical nature of the music.
Question: Let me go back in history with Christian McBride a little. What brought you to the bass?
McBride: My father. Bass is a family tradition, and my dad plays bass, my great-uncle plays bass, and I didn’t have much of a choice.
Question: Jazz I would assume?
McBride: Yep. Rhythm and blues mostly, and then jazz.
Question: When did you first start playing?
McBride: I was nine years old when I started playing the electric bass, and 11 when I started playing the double bass.
Question: You, you were born in where Philadelphia I think?
Question: And your career grew obviously, and at a time when there was a wave of tremendous young jazz performers, from Joshua Redman …
McBride: Roy Hargrove.
Question: Nicholas Payton… It just seemed to be this wave, it always seems to be a wave of very strong jazz performers that come up. Have you seen a change in the type of performer, and the type of audience in jazz?
McBride: Well things always change. I think things are cyclical, that’s what they are. Everything comes back at some point in, in some new clothing, or some new form. You know, for example, I can remember between 1995 maybe and 2005 maybe, there was a stretch where I can’t remember seeing a lot of piano players that really knocked me out. I thought it was slim pickings on the piano for a while, then all of a sudden here comes Christian Sands, here comes Gerald Clayton, here comes Sullivan Fortner, here comes Emmet Cohen. I’m like where are all these piano players coming from all of a sudden? And like they’re all killing, you know, very well trained, all very diverse. They all have great technique, so that’s, that’s one thing that’s been really great to see.
I think the same thing can be said for the trumpet, because I remember there was a while after my buddies, Roy Hargrove and Nicholas Payton, maybe Scott Wendholt and a couple other cats, I didn’t see any good trumpet players for a while. And then, all of a sudden, here comes Christian Scott, here comes Josh Evans, here comes Mike Rodriguez, who’s going to be playing the festival this year, here comes Benny Benack III. Man, all these, all these great trumpet players coming out all of a sudden, and I think that’s a wonderful thing to see. So, I’m sure the next generation there will be a whole bunch. Well there’s always good drummers. They’re like Tic Tacs.
But I’m sure there’s going to be a bunch of good tenor players coming in bulk at some point, and I think the scene is really right for just a lot of amazing, young talent.
The challenge has always been finding the audience. That’s not a new that’s been happening in jazz for at least half a century. There’s always this question of, how can we make the jazz audience larger, is jazz going to die, no, no, no, no. I can find old Downbeat magazines from the ’60’s where they ask these questions. So instead of worrying about that we should just worry about playing the best music that we know how, and just trying to find our own creative ways to reach people. And if we do that we don’t have to worry about finding an audience, they’ll find us.
Question: I’ve heard it said many times that jazz is America’s classical music. Do you ascribe to that?
McBride: Without question.
Question: Explain why you feel that.
McBride: I don’t know if I could say it any better than it’s already been said by so many people, like Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington, and then all the way to Wynton Marsalis. You think of what the beauty of this music is, you know, improvisation. There’s not any other style of music that’s come out of America where you compose on the spot, which is what improvisation is. You think of all of the elements and what needs to be done to be able to do that. It’s not something that you can just say, okay, well I can feel this, I can just jump up and do it. No, you’ve got to have a little bit of training, you’ve got to know something, you have to have some level of intellectual knowledge of the music. You also have to have some soul, you have to feel it, it can’t be all in the brain. So that’s what makes this America’s classical music.
Question: You were also trained at Juilliard, right?
McBride: Well, for classical yes, but my real training came in Philadelphia from all the great teachers and jazz musicians I heard growing up there.
Question: How did Juilliard either fine tune that or change that in any way?
McBride: My goal originally when I moved to New York was to somehow have a dual career at playing both jazz and classical. That didn’t quite happen that way, but I was only at Juilliard for a year. Other than getting to be around some incredible musicians who inspired me tremendously, I think my classical studies have always contributed to being able to hear certain things, and learning my instrument the proper way. I can say that I was probably nowhere near the upper tier of bass players at Juilliard. I can certainly say that. I enjoyed every minute I was there for the year I was there. Then I started working pretty quickly.
Question: I’ve heard it said, and I agree, that Christian McBride is probably the foremost jazz bass player on the planet. I don’t know if you agree with that, but I hope you do.
McBride: Thank you.
Question: The other thing I think I’ve seen is it seems like we have more women now who are going into instruments that have been more traditionally male. Esperanza Spalding, and others on bass, and it seems that there are no barriers now.
Question: And I don’t know if there were barriers before.
McBride: I don’t know enough about the scene to say that there were any barriers then, I mean I think of somebody like a Joanne Brackeen, I think of what I call my big sister generation with people like Geri Allen, and Terri Lyne Carrington, and Kim Clarke, and Marlene Rosenberg. I do think there’s been more of a spotlight put on these incredible ladies playing this music in this generation. You mentioned the most obvious ones, but there’s also Tia Fuller. There’s the great harpist, Brandee Younger. There’s Kim Thompson, there’s Nicole Mitchell. There’s a whole lot of ladies out there doing some great stuff on all the instruments. There’s Linda Oh who is playing with Pat Metheny right now. Yeah, it’s great to see all these amazing ladies out here doing such great stuff. There’s Tia Fuller, who is also a great educator as well as a great performer. It’s been wonderful to see this.
The other thing I think that’s wonderful is that I don’t think many of these ladies, or certainly the gentlemen, the alleged gentlemen in the jazz world, They’re ladies second. They’re incredible musicians first, because I’ve always thought that for every jazz musician the music determines what you need. I mean, if you need a trumpet player, and someone who just happens to be a lady is killing it, that’s who you hire. I think the thought of it’s a lady, that comes second. The music determines who gets the call, and I think of having people like Jamie Dauber, and Lauren Sevian who have played in my big band. They’re my friends first and then, you know, in a very innocent way I’m thinking, oh yeah, and you happen to be a lady. But you’re a great musician first and foremost, and I think that’s how they would like to be thought of.
The 2017 Newport Jazz Festival presented by Natixis Global Asset Management takes place August 4 – 6 at Fort Adams State Park and the International Tennis Hall of Fame at the Newport Casino. Artists include The Roots; Béla Fleck & The Flecktones; Snarky Puppy; Andra Day; Branford Marsalis Quartet; Trombone Shorty & Orleans Avenue; Rhiannon Giddens, Christian McBride Big Band with Special Guests; Cécile McLorin Salvant;Maria Schneider Orchestra; Hudson: Jack DeJohnette, Larry Grenadier, John Medeski & John Scofield; Maceo Parker; Vijay Iyer & Wadada Leo Smith and many more.
For more information and tickets to the Newport Jazz Festival, visit www.newportjazz.org.
More From This Interview Series
- A Conversation with Christian McBride, Artistic Director of the Newport Jazz Festival (Part 1)
- A Conversation with Christian McBride, Artistic Director of Newport Jazz Festival (Part 2)
- A Conversation with Christian McBride, Artistic Director of Newport Jazz Festival (Part 3)
- A Conversation with Christian McBride, Artistic Director of Newport Jazz Festival (Part 4)