Christian McBride Is Jazz's Newest Elder Statesman

GRAMMY-winning jazz bassist discusses his current projects, the positive influences of Chick Corea and George Duke, his forthcoming James Brown biography, and passing the jazz torch to the younger generation
  • Christian McBride
September 25, 2013 -- 4:16 pm PDT
By Tammy La Gorce / GRAMMY.com

At 41, Christian McBride is young to be considered a jazz dignitary. But few would deny him the title. The three-time GRAMMY-winning bassist has performed as a sideman on more than 300 recordings and his collaborators span the genre rainbow. In addition to fellow jazz greats Freddie Hubbard, Herbie Hancock, Pat Metheny, Diana Krall, Chick Corea, and Wynton Marsalis, he has played with Sting, the Roots, Carly Simon, and James Brown, among others.

McBride is also quite comfortable stepping into the spotlight himself. As the leader of the 17-piece Christian McBride Big Band, he won his most recent GRAMMY for Best Large Jazz Ensemble Album for The Good Feeling at the 54th GRAMMY Awards in 2011. Aside from his big band, McBride currently helms three other groups: the hard-driving five-piece band Inside Straight,with whom he released People Music in May; a trio with pianist Christian Sands and drummer Ulysses Owens Jr.; with whom he released Out Here in August; and a soul-leaning six-member act called A Christian McBride Situation.

When he's not touring the world with these acts or with other artists (McBride spent much of the summer playing gigs across Europe with Corea), he's often acting as a jazz ambassador: McBride is currently the artistic advisor to the annual TD James Moody Democracy of Jazz Festival in Newark, N.J., he occasionally hosts NPR's "Soundcheck" and when he's at home, in Montclair, N.J., he often helps out with Jazz House Kids, the nonprofit jazz education center his wife, vocalist Melissa Walker, founded.

In an exclusive interview with GRAMMY.com, McBride spoke about maintaining his busy project calendar, his forthcoming James Brown biography, the positive influences of Corea and George Duke, and passing the jazz torch to the younger generation.

You're heading four acts, which is a lot. How do you keep them all distinct?
Well, honestly just three out of the four bands I'm heading are actually active. I don't play with my big band that often because it's financially hard to tour with so many people. We only do a couple of shows here and there. Between Inside Straight and the trio, that's where I focus most of my road time. And with Inside Straight, we've been playing together for the last five years now. I think we've got a nice flow going with that group. It's almost like second nature. And the trio kind of has that new car smell attached to it. That makes it nice.

Why so many different bands, though?
The spirit is mostly the same with my groups — I like the feel of good finger-poppin', foot-stomping swing in jazz. And I find that the way the business of jazz is today, you almost have to create different projects to give the promoter and the presenter a variety of things to choose from, so you can see which things people are feeling. People have always liked special projects — Chick Corea is great at that. Chick has always been a great friend and mentor to me, and I've watched all these things he's put together. It keeps a lot of people working. He's done a lot of great things for the business of jazz.

Speaking of special projects, you may be releasing a biography soon.
Yeah, I've found someone who's interested in publishing it, and I'm hoping to get this thing out next year. It's called I Didn't Even Get To Say Goodbye.

And it's about James Brown. How did you come to be such a fan?
There's always been a joke in the black community — there was a certain time period where in every black household, there was a trinity up on the wall: Jesus, Martin Luther King and JFK. I think when I was coming up James Brown turned that trio into a quartet. Really, he was such an important figure to the jazz community, not just as an artist but as an advocate — he spoke out with boldness on what he thought was not cool. And when I first saw him perform live [as a 6-year-old in Philadelphia in the '70s], his energy just startled me. I almost got scared. I thought his hips were going to explode. The way he screamed, the way he was dancing — just the intensity of the whole thing. I thought, "Something's gonna happen."

Is the James Brown influence part of why you like to mix it up between genres? Or are you sticking strictly to jazz these days?
No, I'll never stay with any one thing. I might spend a particular amount of time with one thing, but I always have other things appealing to me. One thing that happened recently that was really hard for the music world was the death of George Duke. He was very much like a second father to me. He came up as a jazz musician, but he was really a funk musician at heart. And older musicians were down on that, like, "We thought you were serious." But he kept his jazz chops together, he was always playing jazz and R&B and soul, and with his death now I've got to figure out a way to keep that tradition going with my own music. For that, I've got something going called [A] Christian McBride Situation. I'm going to get that band up and running so we can get funky by 2015.

Despite your varied projects, you still make a point of being a jazz educator and a sort of spokesman for the genre. I know you're widely considered someone who is able to communicate the philosophy of jazz's elders to a new generation. Why is that important to you?
I've been very fortunate in that, from the ages of 17 to 20, I got to work with quite a number of jazz legends. I guess I was exposed to and able to experience some things at a young age that my peers didn't. So those are the torches I'm carrying, trying to pass some things on to the younger guys. And that's what happens with age — as you progress through life you wind up taking all these lessons you've learned and teaching them to someone else.  

(Tammy La Gorce is a freelance writer whose work appears regularly in The New York Times.)

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