We caught up with Grammy winning bassist, Christian McBride for a very enlightening discussion on success, determination & the pursuit of excellence. At 41 years old, Christian McBride has firmly established himself as one of the world’s premier Bassists easily working across genres while performing with some of the most notable names in the industry. We found him to be warm, genuine and very generous with his ideas. I hope you enjoy this interview as much as we enjoyed doing it!
For a complete list of credits for this most remarkable and prolific artist, Please visit his website at: ChristianMcBride.com
Thomas Mangano, Editor
Christian, I want to take a moment to thank you for taking some very valuable time to speak with us and share some insights about a most remarkable career. It is truly a privilege.
CM: The pleasure is mine!
LBFH: Composer, band leader, arranger, teacher, curator and the list goes on into what has to be one of the most prolific careers in music history. When does Christian get “down-time”?
CM: I’m actually getting it right now, believe it or not. I’ve been relaxing all week long and I actually plan to have some time at home in May and most of June. So I’m really, really looking forward to having some down time and reacquaint myself with my house and spend some time with my wife.
LBFH: That is something good to look forward to!
LBFH: You seem to be on the road at least 50% of the time. Do you look forward to the shows closer to home?
CM: Well no, I love playing no matter where it is. Now the travel portion, that gets old very quickly. I don’t think you need to be a grizzled veteran to be tired of the travel. Because you know, you get on airplanes and you drive for 5-6 hours to the gig. All you need is about a good year or two of that to get weary with. But, you know the payback is when you get to play music and you see how people want to be inspired, they want to be touched by the music. So, that’s what the payoff is.
LBFH: How do you think musical careers differ today from the early days ofJazz like in the 20’s and 30’s?
CM: I do think the world is a lot closer together now because of the internet. In an instant you can go online and hear what musicians all around the world are doing. You know, you can punch in, “Argentina Jazz“in the search field and hear some musicians in Argentina, in China, in Russia, wherever it is. So I do think there used to be a time when what musicians were doing all around the world was sort of a mystery. It was enigmatic because you had to wait for a particular record to come out or you had to wait for word to get back like, “hey, I heard this guy at such and such a place,” where as now the world is a lot closer together so I think that it’s much easier for musicians to correspond and network with each other. Now in terms of actual work, I don’t know if that’s changed much, at least in the Jazz world because, you know, there’s still not really a whole lot of places to play, particularly in the country. If you’re an American Jazz musician, and you kind of want to get out there and play a little bit, unless you play in somebody’s band it’s really going to be a challenge to get out there with your own group if you’re not really well known and make a career. So that part about Jazz hasn’t changed at all. It’s still more important I think to seek an apprenticeship, or find a band to play in and kind of get your foot in the door. I think that because the world has gotten a lot smaller with the internet and people are corresponding with each other and networking with each other quicker and faster we mistake that as, Oh, this is an opportunity for me to get out there quicker. That’s not necessarily the case. It’s just a way to make friends, musician friends.
LBFH: How did you know that Bass was your musical voice?
CM: I was lucky. The moment I touched it for the first time, when I was 9 years old, I knew that’s what I wanted to do. I find that in life, the people who are the happiest are the people who do what they love. You know, it’s not about money, it’s not about popularity. They just love doing what they do. So, I was fortunate in that I found what I love at such an early age. I don’t know, it’s just something about the instrument. It seemed the perfect fit.
LBFH: You’ve been a spokesperson and a leader in discussions centered on ethnicity and the arts. What was the inspiration to revisit “The Movement, Revisited”?
CM: When I first got the commission to write that piece, which was in 1998, it was originally written for quartet and Gospel choir. We performed it initially just four times. I never performed the piece again for ten years. Then, in 2005 when I was named the creative chair for the Los Angeles Philharmonics’ “Jazz Series”, we were thinking of ideas to put into one of the seasons. The program manager at that time said, “Hey, I read somewhere that you wrote a piece about the Civil Rights Movement, what is that?” Kind of knowing the sort of resources I had there, I actually lied, I said “well, this was actually a piece I wrote for Big Band and a Gospel choir and four narrators, knowing that the initial commission wouldn’t pay to have that many people, but using the Los Angeles Philharmonics’ resources, I knew I would be able to do that. So I told her it was a piece for Big Band, Gospel choir and four narrators and she said, “Oh man that sounds amazing! Yeah, let’s do it, tell me more about it” (laughs). But then of course, now that means I have to completely rewrite the piece for Big Band. I gave myself a challenge and it worked! A couple of years later, when Barack Obama was elected President, I added on a fifth movement, a final movement and I finally had a chance to record it. It’s going to be released sometime early next year.
LBFH: What was the inspiration for “Listen to the Heroes Cry”? What a beautiful piece that is.
CM: Thank you! I was watching the, it must have been the VH1 awards. It was a particular performance that I was looking at, well a couple of performances I was looking at. I thought, man if Sara Vaughn and Ella Fitzgerald could see these girls up there on stage, paying no attention to music what so ever, and just about the body parts shaking around, they probably would be really, really disappointed, you know (laughs). That’s kind of what the song title is and what I’m trying to imply.
LBFH: Sometime in the distant space age when people look back on your body of work and try to figure it all out, how would you hope they would summarize what you’ve done in music?
CM: They would look at it and go, Boy, what a jumbled mess this is! (Laughs). Musical, but a mess! I don’t know. I would hope that they would look at it and know that I was completely dedicated to playing the best music I possibly could and to inspire people. Not just younger musicians, but even the casual listener. I hope they would say that I tried as many different activities that I could on the Bass, and away from the Bass to bring more people to the music.
LBFH: Since 2000, you’ve headed up some impressive line-ups. In the role of a band leader, is there work that still needs to be done even after the set’s been broken down and the audience has left?
CM: Oh always! You know band leaders are sort of like Baseball managers. Who’s going to be pitching tomorrow, what we need to change in the line up so the game after tomorrow will be successful. There’s always work to be done. You know? Each band is different; you know each band leader has their own concept of how they like to lead their band. Yeah, I think once the show is over, you’re always thinking ahead. What could we have done tonight to make the set better? Do we need more songs, do we need less songs? There’s always something going on in your brain.
LBFH: How do you approach composition, Christian? Do you work out ideas solo or do you like to work them out in a band setting?
CM: Well unfortunately I haven’t still haven’t developed the discipline to really be the best composer and arranger that I think I can be. At this point when I compose, I write the bulk of my music on the piano. It’s sort of like fishing. I sit there and just noodle around and wait for something to bite, you know a chord progression or a melody or rhythm. Once I stumble upon that thing that catches my ear, I try to develop it. Some songs have been easier to develop than others but I always try very hard once I find that initial seed to really grow it as much as I can. With the Big Band, obviously you have to work that out. They have music software programs now where you actually put it in and hear it played back with the MIDIinstruments, the presets that are within the software program, but it’s still not the same as hearing it with the real musicians playing it back to you. I got to tell you, the first time I wrote a Big Band composition and heard real people playing it, oh man, it was just the most incredible exhilarating feeling, you know? Wow, I wrote that? Cool! (Laughs).
LBFH: Do you feel that the “business” side of being a musician cuts into the “creative” side of the musician?
CM: Well it can. Again, that all depends on the musician. I watched a lot of great musicians be very astute business men without losing any of their creative edge. I think people like Ray Brown, George Duke, and James Brown who was very much notorious for being just as sharp a businessman as an entertainer. I think it can be done, you know. It’s taken me a long time to try to make an attempt to make sure my business is in order as much as my Bass playing. Yes, it can be done and it doesn’t have to cut into the creative process. They’re two different things.
LBFH: Do you have to feel a strong emotional pull in order to want to work on a piece? How do you go about selecting music to present?
CM: Well that depends. Film composers or musical directors for shows and stage, might have to arrange songs that they don’t have a particular attachment. It’s the job. But in terms of my own groups, any song that I’ve rearranged is a song that I have a bond with. It has something in it that I’d like to explore. For example, I reconstructed Steely Dan’s, Aja for one of my CD’s.
LBFH: I listened to that on your site last night. It was outstanding!
CM: Oh thank you! You know, Aja is kind of one of those songs where you have to ask yourself the question, well it’s already so perfectly constructed, why mess with it? But that’s part of the fun of being an artist. You have creative license to see what you can do differently. That’s one example. Another example is that I will watch people like Vince Mendoza and George Duke and Patrick Williams, they would be writing orchestral arrangements for different shows or for different artists and the artist would say, “hey, this is something I like, do something with it.” They don’t really have time to think about the personal connection to the song. They just have to use their musical know-how to make something happen. And they do it, so that’s another example.
LBFH: There is such an impressive list of collaborations that can be referenced on your site ChristianMcBride.com. What are some of the most memorable people that you’ve played with?
CM: Oh, there’s so many. I would feel bad trying to name names because I would leave someone out. I would have to say that working with James Brown was my lifelong dream. Getting to know him and work with him and to be in his presence was quite thrilling. And then having the relationship I had with Ray Brown. Ray was not only one of the world’s most influential Bass players but he became a huge mentor and almost like a second father to me. I think about Ray Brown almost every day. George Duke was the same way to me after Ray Brown passed away. He didn’t play Bass, but he was a huge mentor to me.
LBFH: Yeah, much like yourself, he was able to cross over genres and he just appears in the most unlikely places.
CM: Right, Right.
LBFH: What was it about James Brown that made performing with him it a lifelong dream of yours?
CM: Well I mean, I’m sure you know what the attraction is. I mean anyone that ever saw James Brown knew what the attraction was. He was one of the greatest entertainers in the history of the world. I first saw him perform when I was eight years old. My Uncle, used to work for a very popular radio station in Philadelphia, you know. So he was always taking me to a lot of live shows from the time I was a kid and I don’t know, it was just something about James Brown’s music that hit home. I became obsessed with finding out for myself why I loved his music so much. My own obsession made me clone myself so I could study why I loved his music so much.
LBFH: I liked very much some things that I read about your approach to music and how making music more accessible and engaging for the audience has been a mission for you. I agree with this, Jazz should be as easy as breathing. How do you go about doing that?
CM: I think there’s a couple of different ways. I always thought that presentation and interacting with the audience and showmanship. There is an element of showmanship that is sorely missing in Jazz and has been missing for a very long time. This mentality of the music itself is so great that you don’t really need to have anything else, while some of that may be true, I think it’s a bit naïve to think that all of your audience will feel the same way when they’re not used to that. I think somewhere in the sixties things started to take a detour when the music became much more serious and a little more esoteric. The general audience maybe started to feel a little, well like the artist doesn’t really care about us. We loved that they loved their music, but it almost seems like they couldn’t care less whether we like it or not, which many times was the case. I think that audiences really do want to enjoy the music. They don’t come there waiting to be disappointed, they come there to be inspired. I think that no matter how abstract your music can be, or how challenging your music can be, I think you can do something and it doesn’t have to be that difficult, just something to pull the audience in and let them know what you’re doing and let them be part of this journey. They’ll go with you.
LBFH: Are there any specific people that come to mind who you believe achieved this?
CM: One of my biggest heroes with this is Cannonball Adderly. Because I would listen to these great live albums by Cannonball Adderly and the way he talks to his audience. You know he had a formula that he used. He would start them out with something easy, something that he knows that the audience would be able to get into. Then before you know it, the set would just start to get more and more abstract. But the audience is still reacting and think that’s because Cannonball was just so charming, he was such a great speaker and such a great host, if you will, that the audience trusted him. On the other side of the spectrum, you have someone likeMiles Davis, who was generally regarded as someone who didn’t really care about his audience. But when you talk to the people who played with him, particularly Chick Corea, you now, I was talking to Chick one time and he said, people have so misrepresented Miles it’s not even funny. I said, well, what do you mean? He said, well people always talk about how Miles used to turn his back to the audience. He didn’t talk much, he didn’t care what the audience thought. He said, Man, Miles Davis was the greatest dramatic actor in the history of Jazz! He said, Miles new exactly what his fans wanted and he gave it to them.
LBFH: Like the James Brown of trumpet?
CM: That’s right! He said that Miles knew that people were infatuated with the mystery, the enigma of Miles Davis. So Miles used that. He was always very much aware of what the audience was diggin’.
LBFH: There is a good example of what you are saying on the live album byJimmy Giuffre, Flight, Bremen 1961. The music by all accounts is not what you would call accessible, but he has such a great way of explaining the songs and the concepts that the audience really takes it.
CM: Yes, exactly.
LBFH: Is there anyone out of Jazz history that you have not met that you wish you could have?
CM: Oscar Peterson. Ray Brown used to call it one of the greatest mysteries in Jazz. He said, “man, I have no idea how you’ve never met Oscar Peterson” (laughs). Because when you look at his circle, the Oscar Peterson circle, you’ve got Ray Brown. You’ve got Ed Thigpen. You’ve gotClark Terry, Milt Jackson. And then later on in his career you’ve got Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen, Bobby Durham and Monty Alexander. Now, I’ve had a very close relationship with all of those people I just named. But for some strange reason, I never had a chance to meet Oscar Peterson. I was never even in the same room with him!
LBFH: We try to present our readers with inspirational examples of artists who’ve made music careers a major part their lives. Can you tell me, what was your biggest inspiration to pursue a career in music?
CM: Well, once I started taking private lessons in middle school and I knew that I really wanted to be a professional musician, I didn’t know or did I care what kind of music I was going to play, I just wanted to be out there playing with some great musicians be it in a symphony orchestra or a jazz group, R& B band or whatever it was, I just wanted to play with some great musicians. Then, that turned into, well, I am going to play with some great musicians from either one of those genre’s and then it turned into well why can’t I play with great musicians of all those genres? Why do I have to pick one or the other, why not do all of it? There were a lot of older great musicians in Philadelphia, a lot of great musicians I had a chance to play with and learn from and help me out along the way. But when I metWynton Marsalis, I was fourteen about to turn fifteen. He became like a big brother figure for me. He actually helped get me in focus a little bit. So I now had a particular goal to strive for. I was going to move to New York and play with best jazz musicians I can possibly play with. But, I’m fortunate that Ive always kept my interest in the different genres. At that tine in the 1980’s, Wynton was very specific about what he felt Jazz was, what it should be and who’s doing what the right way. He had very definitive black and white opinions of what he thought young musicians should do, how they should do it and who they should listen to.
LBFH: Yes he was a great spokesman for the genre.
CM: Yeah, but fortunately even when he shared those opinions with me, there was always something in me that thought, let me get a second opinion. While I was learning all of the Duke Ellington, Jelly Roll Morton and the Charlie Parker I still always had a third eye open on what was going on in the popular world and the classical music world and genres outside of America and that allowed me to work with a lot of different people.
LBFH: What was one of the most significant obstacles you faced?
CM: Well I don’t know if I would consider them obstacle, but it was a challenge that I was determined to conquer. I moved to New York and I’m going to Julliard. I knew in my heart that the only reason I was going to Julliard was to be in New York so I could go to jam sessions at night and go learn from these Jazz musicians. So, by the end of my first and only year at Julliard I was working enough where I thought I might be able to leave school and just play music full time, because it was starting to be a challenge trying to prepare for school and do gigs at night. I thought, I cant keep doing this for four years, something’s going to have to give. I think one of my biggest challenges was trying to decide whether to stay in school and really concentrate on that or come out on the scene full time and just be a fulltime Jazz musician and you know now I got to find a place to live, and all the gigs that I have now I’m going to have to double that so I make enough money to pay rent. You know I was only getting paid $20.00 to $30.00 a gig back then. Even in 1989, that really wasn’t a whole lot of money (laughs).
LBFH: Not in New York anyway.
CM: Not in New York, right, right! But I was determined. I hustled every little gig I could possibly get and every now and again I was working withBobby Watson whenever he needed me, Roy Hargrove was starting to come into his own with early recordings. Like I said, it was never really that much of an obstacle, rather it was a challenge. I just viewed it as, I have no choice and I just have to figure this out because I want to be out here on the scene with these guys. The clues are there to help you get through it. You just have to pay attention to it.
LBFH: What kind of career advice would you give to artists looking to make their way into this industry?
CM: It’s never easy and there are no shortcuts. I know that sounds like a copout answer but you know when you meet younger musicians they always ask the same questions: “how many hours a day did you practice? What do I need to do to get some gigs?” When I was a teenager and I was trying to put it all together, number one, I never watched the clock when I practiced. I was having too much fun practicing and trying to work out the things that were difficult for me. I just kept trying to do it until I got it. I never set the clock for five hours and then at the end of the five hours, if I hadn’t accomplished what I had set out to accomplish, I didn’t justify it by saying, well I put my five hours in. No, I just kept practicing until I got it. Now of course the problem is that my school work suffered greatly. So I would urge a lot of young musicians to not be quite as imbalanced as I was. Because I went to my High School graduation biting my finger nails (laughs) and nobody wants that feeling. Then there are other questions about how to get gigs, and my question to them is, “what kind of gigs do you want to get?” There are all kinds of gigs. You can do a gig playing in the hotel lobby, you can get a gig playing in a wedding band, you can get a gig in a Broadway pit orchestra or you can get a gig playing in Dave Holland’s band. What kind of gig do you want? I think if young musicians are that meticulously specific about those kinds of questions, they’ll have a greater chance of quote on quote, “making it”. You know.
LBFH: Christian, we can’t thank you enough for talking with us. We wish you all the best and we’ll be watching your site for updates. Your site by the way is very well organized; it has a great balance of information and media. Do you feel it’s important for musicians to have well designed websites?
CM: Well thank you. Give me another few months. It’s going to be reconstructed. I think of my website as being a little cluttered right now. I’m going to figure out how to edit it and make it more clear, but still keep the information on it.
LBFH: You know, Christian, I have a dreadful confession. I’ve only seen you play once.
CM: There’s nothing wrong with that!
LBFH: I will definitely get out to see more of your gigs in New York! Do you feel that your music carries a deeper message to the world, or do you feel that it’s primarily a craft, or to paraphrase Stravinsky – that everything past the notes is just speculation?
CM: (Laughs) that is a good quote. The fact of the matter is that some people ask the question of what do you want audiences to feel? What do you want them to take away from your music? I can’t answer that because people feel different things in different ways. As long as they feel something. There can be some adverse reactions to the happiest song and you don’t know that the audience or the person listening is going to have that reaction. They will just react the way they react so yeah, I guess it really is all speculation. Maybe there is a greater purpose for this music that we’re making, but I don’t know that we really know what that is or what it will be.
LBFH: What’s next for you?
CM: Some rest (laughs) and then at the end of the summer I’ll be touring with my trio, from the end of June through July. It’s going to be pretty much the trio. The trio is my main vehicle these days and a few Big Band shows here and there, but mostly it will be the trio. We talked about The Movement Revisited that will be my next CD release early next year. I have a duel role as a consultant and an interviewee in the new James Brown documentary coming out at the end of the summer. It’s a new bio pic coming out that stars Chadwick Boseman called “Get on up” Then there is also going to be another documentary paired with that and I’ll also be in that. I was also asked to be a consultant for that film, but I couldn’t do it with my other commitments. But it’s been quite a trip to be called for these. You know people calling me and asking me historical questions about James Brown. I think, wow, have I really earned that status, that researchers are calling me? Wow!
LBFH: Thanks again, Christian. It’s been a true pleasure!
CM: Same here, talk to you soon.
About the interviewer:
Thomas Mangano is a composer and a performer living on Long Island, NY. He is the owner of a production services company that provides music, soundscapes and effects to professionals in film and media industries. He is also the founding member of the Boutcher/Mangano Jazz Trio and currently serves as the Music Director for the Custer Observatory.
To learn more about Thomas, Please visit hi website: Thomasmangano.com