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August 21, 2017

A Conversation with Christian McBride, Artistic Director of Newport Jazz Festival (Part 5 of 5)


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The challenge of dwindling public funds to support the arts in school has inspired Christian McBride to join with his wife, Melissa Walker, founder of Jazz House Kids, to provide young musicians an opportunity to develop and grow as artists.

And, with public funding for the arts in jeopardy, McBride believes musicians will not be deterred.

“I think it’s times like this where the arts really break through, and really do the job that it needs to do in terms of healing, and giving people inspiration to have empathy, to have empathy and sympathy,” McBride said. “So even as we go on this uphill climb to sustain funding for the arts, the actual musicians and artists, and dancers, and poets, we’re full-steam ahead, man, because that’s what we have to do.”

Here’s the final chapter of our five part series:

Question: Christian, can you tell me a little bit about the Jazz House Kids?

McBride.: Yes, Jazz House Kids is a creation of my wife, Melissa Walker, which she started 15 years ago. She basically saw that in northern New Jersey where she has lived most of her adult life the arts funding for all of these public schools was starting to dwindle. She got called to do a couple of workshops at some schools around the Newark area, and she realized that a lot of these schools were losing their music program, so why not start a small non-profit to take a group of musicians into schools to do what that school used to do. And, it’s turned into a full-blown, a mega organization if I may say so. We see over 1,000 kids a year. We are still in schools, but we have our own facility now where kids can come after school and on the weekend to play in ensembles, and to get private lessons. I think it’s just wonderful what this organization has become.

When Melissa and I first met she had just started it, so I can say that  I’ve helped her to a small extent, helped put it together, but she really has been the brains of the outfit for, for all of these years.

Question: And still in the New Jersey area?

McBride.: Oh, yeah, Montclair, New Jersey.

Question: Let me give you my belief about the arts, and that will lead into a question. I believe that in history books we can read about a point in time, but it’s only through the arts – through music, and through dance, and through theater, the visual arts, is how we learn about the soul of a society. That’s where the emotion comes outWhat do you want people to take from the music that’s just beyond pure enjoyment, but what do you want them to take from it?

McBride.: I used to have a sort of default answer of I want people to feel the joy, and see the beauty, and the excitement that comes out of this music. But I realized I don’t want to tell anybody what they should feel from the music. I don’t even have a particular hope that I have for people to take away from this music. All I want is that people really focus and concentrate on what’s going on, on stage to try to feel some emotional bond, you know, because the thing about it is when you’re in tune fully, and you’re concentrating, and you’re really focused on what’s happening up there, the music could trigger some sort of emotion.

It could trigger happiness, it could trigger sadness, it could trigger humor, whatever it triggers as long as you’re concentrating, and focused in, and give it a chance, and really open up your heart to really feeling what the music is about. Whatever emotion you take away from it just take away the honest one that you felt when you were really tuned into the music.

If someone doesn’t like the music, like it or don’t like it because you really listened to it, and you really concentrated, and you thought, nah, this ain’t for me, you know what I mean? Don’t go in there and say, okay, yeah, I like jazz, I heard such and such record when it … No, no, no, don’t do that. Listen to it for what it is, and I realize that’s difficult for even jazz lovers to do that because they’re always subconsciously pitting what they’re listening to against what they heard that they liked. Oh, I have experience, I’ve listened to jazz for 40 or 50 years, so already the personal stage is losing because they haven’t been in that person’s wheelhouse for 40 or 50 years, so don’t do that. Just pull the shade up, and allow the emotional, it’s come through.

Question: So we’re in probably in, at least in my lifetime, one of the most chaotic times if the history of this country.

McBride.: You can say that again.

Question: Yeah. And again and again. Where do the arts fall into this? How can the arts help us maybe keep our stability?

McBride: At the moment, it feels like it’s going to be an uphill climb to sustain funding for the arts. I mean arts itself will not go anywhere, I mean, I think it’s times like this where the arts really break through, and really do the job that it needs to do in terms of healing, and giving people inspiration to have empathy, to have empathy and sympathy. So even as we go on this uphill climb to sustain funding for the arts, the actual musicians and artists, and dancers, and poets, we’re full-steam ahead, man, because that’s what we have to do.

Question:  We just had a theater close in Rhode Island because of finances over a period of time, and I can only see that getting more difficult for at least the non-profit venues. What’s the talk in the industry? Are people trying to lobby or do things to try and create change among some of the politicians who are able to make that decision down the line?

McBride:  What you have to do is put pressure on your local politicians, and then you see a rash of non-profits popping up these days because that’s what has to happen. I won’t say that’s what has to happen, but that is what’s happening. You know people are finding boards to start some sort of entity to have their own in-house organization that can be personally funded by their board? You have to go looking around for people with some dough that might be interested in the arts. And the thing is, once you find them you can rest assure that every other art’s organization within a 50 mile proximity is going to be hitting on them too. (laughs)

But in terms of the government, I think you just have to keep pressure on your local politicians, and really keep at them. Instead of complaining, I like to go right to the source. I have the phone numbers of all of our local Congressmen, and call them up, send them email. That’s what needs to be done.


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

  1. A Conversation with Christian McBride, Artistic Director of the Newport Jazz Festival (Part 1)
  2. A Conversation with Christian McBride, Artistic Director of Newport Jazz Festival (Part 2)
  3. A Conversation with Christian McBride, Artistic Director of Newport Jazz Festival (Part 3)
  4. A Conversation with Christian McBride, Artistic Director of Newport Jazz Festival (Part 4)
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