Christian McBride: Jazz Showman

As a performer, mentor, educator, radio host and festival curator, Montclair’s Christian McBride has plenty on his plate. But that does nothing to dim his enthusiasm for a life in music.

A pensive McBride, lost in the music during a January gig at the Village Vanguard.
A pensive McBride, lost in the music during a January gig at the Village Vanguard.
Photo by Stu Rosner

When the Christian McBride Big Band starts to play on this April evening at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola in Manhattan, McBride, the bassist and leader, is nowhere to be seen.

Instead, as the band swings gently, a smallish man in a sharply creased white suit, black shirt, red tie and wrap-around shades steps in front of the bandstand to rev up the crowd. “We’ve got a group of young men here that’s gonna move and groove you,” the smallish man assures the audience. Then comes the build-up: “We’ve got another element that goes with this, a big one.” And finally, the introduction: “Without further ado, let’s give up a big round of applause for Mister Christian McBride! Yeah, there he is. Mister Christian McBride!”

McBride glides out of the wings, nods to the appreciative crowd and slips onto the stage, his bald pate gleaming under the lights. Showmanship is a big deal for McBride. That’s why Danny Ray, the smallish man in the white suit, accompanies him on his big-band dates. In a bygone day, Ray played the emcee for James Brown, the ultimate showman and McBride’s biggest inspiration. At Brown’s shows, Ray was the man who threw a cape over the legendary performer.

There’s no cape thrown over any shoulders at a Christian McBride performance, although, given his schedule, one might conclude he’s something of a jazz superhero.

The big band is just one of several ensembles the bassist leads. Three months earlier, McBride played six nights with his trio at Manhattan’s Village Vanguard. The following week, he was back at the Vanguard with his quartet, Christian McBride’s New Jawn. These shows came on the heels of a run of international dates in London, Italy and Cuba. After the Vanguard dates, he headed to Moscow and St. Petersburg for more New Jawn shows. In the ensuing months, he put together a traditional jazz lineup for a show in New Orleans and recreated the music of Weather Report with a superstar group at NJPAC. On separate evenings, he delivered duo performances with classically inclined bassist Edgar Meyer and with avant-garde composer/musician Laurie Anderson. He played still more dates with Tip City, another trio lineup.

For some artists, the pace and variety might be dizzying. For Montclair resident and five-time Grammy winner Christian McBride, it’s only the beginning.

Among McBride’s other hats: curator, mentor, educator and radio personality. He serves as artistic advisor for jazz programming at NJPAC in Newark; host and producer of National Public Radio’s “Jazz Night in America” and Sirius XM’s “The Lowdown: Conversations With Christian”; artistic chair of the Montclair-based music-education organization Jazz House Kids; and co-artistic director of the National Jazz Museum in Harlem. [Read about Jazz House’s 15th anniversary.]

“If it starts to get too overwhelming,” says McBride, “I’ll stop.”

That’s an unlikely option. Last year, McBride assumed what is perhaps his biggest challenge to date when he agreed to become artistic director of the Newport Jazz Festival, taking over the programming of the venerable festival from founder and producer George Wein.

“Ahhh, the elephant in the room,” McBride jests when asked about this enormous new role. McBride was handpicked for the job by Wein, 91, a legendary impresario who is passing the baton for the first time.

“It’s a big deal that George named him artistic director,” says John Schreiber, president and CEO of NJPAC and a veteran of the Wein organization. “Before this, it was only George. It’s a great show of respect.”

Schreiber explains McBride’s daunting schedule in five words: “He’s brilliant and he’s fearless.” But there’s more. “Christian is just so tickled by life, and by the possibilities of discovery and invention, and by what other folks have to bring to the table that he can’t wait to meet the next talented person to find out what they know and see how it might influence what he knows.”

McBride, a commanding, powerfully built figure, appears larger than his 5-foot-11 frame. Gregarious, brainy and opinionated, with a deep, honey-smooth voice, he’s a natural for his radio gigs. In performance, he chats up his audiences with engaging warmth. And then there’s his generous smile—ample evidence of a man happy in his work and in his life.

“When you’re doing what you want to do, why not smile about that?” asks McBride. “You get to gig with your instrument and play music. That’s a blessing.”

Born in 1972 in West Philadelphia to a schoolteacher mother and a musician father, McBride grew up to the sound of music—mostly R&B.

“My father has been one of the pillars of the music community in Philadelphia for quite some time,” says McBride of his dad, Lee Smith. When McBride was a boy, Smith played electric bass for such Philly-based R&B hitmakers as the Delfonics, Brenda and the Tabulations, and Billy Paul. Later, he moved into jazz and a long-standing gig with Cuban-born percussionist Mongo Santamaria.

McBride remembers accompanying his father to a particular show with Santamaria at the Atlantic City Jazz Festival. The 8-year-old McBride witnessed performances by greats like Dexter Gordon, Ella Fitzgerald, Mel Tormé and Dizzy Gillespie; he even got to meet Gillespie backstage. “For whatever reason, that concert really sparked a passion in me,” he recalls. Back in Philly, he asked his mother for an electric bass. It would become his Christmas present. “From that point on, I was all bass all the time.”

By then, his parents had split up, but McBride’s father—who now lives in the South Jersey town of Sicklerville—remained very much involved in his upbringing and his education on the bass. “He showed me how to hold my hands, which I sort of knew already just from watching him,” says McBride. “He showed me my first couple of songs.” The first tune McBride learned: The Temptations’ hit, “Papa Was a Rolling Stone.”

R&B, says McBride, “is sort of the bone marrow of my musical existence.” He rattles off the favorites of his formative years: “James Brown, Al Green, Aretha Franklin, the Motown gang, the Philadelphia International gang, the Stax gang—and whatever was current on popular radio.”

McBride’s mother Renee nurtured his interest in music by sending him to George Wharton Pepper Middle School, a Southwest Philly school known for its music program. To play in the orchestra, McBride switched to acoustic bass. He also played in the youth ensemble at Philly’s renowned Settlement Music School. At age 13, he scored his first paying gig, earning $10 to play at a private party for school donors. At 16, he was playing professionally in the most popular big band in Philadelphia.

By that time, McBride was attending Philadelphia High School for the Creative and Performing Arts. His classmates included keyboard player Joey DeFrancesco and guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel—both future jazz stars—as well as Ahmir Thompson and Tariq Trotter, who would go on to hip-hop fame as Questlove and Black Thought of the Roots, plus all four future members of Boyz II Men.

“I wish somebody would do a documentary on us, man,” says McBride. “I can’t imagine any other high school that could boast a graduating class like that.”

McBride entered the Juilliard School in Manhattan in 1989, but left after one year to begin his professional career with jazz saxophonist Bobby Watson. Soon, he was gigging with boldface jazz names like Benny Golson, Roy Hargrove, Freddie Hubbard and Joshua Redman.

“I really felt like I was living a dream,” says McBride. “In some ways, I couldn’t believe the dream was happening so fast.”

By 23, McBride had formed his first group, the Christian McBride Quartet, and released his first album as a leader, Gettin’ to It, on Verve. McBride was already in demand as a sideman; stepping out as a leader was a bold move, especially considering that bassists, like drummers, are typically cast in supporting roles. But McBride wanted a vehicle for his own music (6 of the 10 tracks on his debut set are McBride originals). He found role models in other bassists who had fronted groups, most notably Ray Brown, who recruited McBride in 1992 for SuperBass, a combo featuring three acoustic bass players.
McBride watched Brown and other veteran players closely, absorbing all he could. “Every musician I got on the bandstand with was a mentor,” says McBride. “All these great musicians were offering me something: information, wisdom.”

McBride’s own mentoring résumé starts in 1998, the year he became artistic director of the summer jazz program at the University of Richmond. Two years later, he began an 11-year run as artistic director of the Jazz Aspen-Snowmass summer program. During that period, he was also creative chair for jazz programming at the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association for five years.

Meanwhile, he continued building his reputation as a leader and sideman with great stylistic range. Over the years, he has issued 13 albums and played acoustic and electric bass on more than 300 sessions, with artists as diverse as Sonny Rollins, Joe Henderson, Chaka Khan, Sting, Don Henley and Queen Latifah.

Along the way, he had the opportunity to perform twice with his idol, James Brown. He calls it his “greatest thrill.” The first time was in 1997 at Brown’s annual birthday bash in his hometown of Augusta, Georgia. The encore came in 2006 at the Hollywood Bowl, early in McBride’s tenure with the L.A. Philharmonic. McBride was bandleader and curated the show, a rare instance when Brown performed in a jazz setting. Brown also insisted on playing his R&B classics. McBride describes the scene: “There was James Brown’s band on this side of the stage, my band on that side of the stage, a string section in the middle. James Brown just kind of went back and forth. It was a memorable evening.” (Last November, McBride produced a spectacular NJPAC tribute to Brown, who died in 2006, shortly after the Hollywood Bowl salute.)

Although McBride has made a life in jazz, Brown’s influence is profound—as evidenced by the presence of Danny Ray as emcee for McBride’s big-band dates. “Coming from R&B,” says McBride, “I wanted to have a little showmanship. I’ve always been frustrated at the pure lack of showmanship in jazz.”

McBride’s live and recorded performances reflect not just his showmanship, but a range of tastes from sweaty R&B to swanky Broadway. For one of his Village Vanguard shows in January, the trio’s repertoire included compositions by the Gershwins and Stevie Wonder, the Leslie Bricusse/Anthony Newley pop chestnut “Who Can I Turn To,” and the disco-era classic “Car Wash.”

At Dizzy’s Coca-Cola Club, McBride spiked the repertoire with fusion-jazz artist George Duke’s “The Black Messiah (Part Two),” telling the audience, “Sometimes in jazz, I miss that four-letter word”—meaning, of course, funk.

McBride’s big-band lineup also features vocalist Melissa Walker, McBride’s wife since 2005 and the founder and president of Jazz House Kids.

When the two started dating, Walker, who grew up in Alberta, Canada, lived in West Orange, and McBride lived in Manhattan. “I thought this might be a problem,” he admits. But Walker introduced McBride to the community of jazz artists who had gravitated to Essex County, including at the time Tony Reedus, Renee Rosnes and Bill Charlap in West Orange; Kenny Garrett in Glen Ridge; and Wallace Roney, Geri Allen and Oliver Lake in Montclair. “I thought, Well if all those people can live out there, it can’t be that bad.” The couple began looking at houses. “I fell in love with Montclair, like, immediately,” McBride says.

Walker and McBride share an early-20th-century craftsman colonial with their two dogs, a beagle and a bichon frise. The house has plenty of room for their collection of African art. In one corner of the living room is a grand piano; in another, a showcase for McBride’s five Grammy Awards. On the third floor, a poster of Frank Sinatra watches over McBride’s pool table. Across the hall, a handwritten sign pinned to the door indicates that John Lennon had recorded a track in a previous owner’s makeshift studio. The story behind the recording session remains vague.

By the time the two married, Walker had already started Jazz House Kids as a means of engaging underserved kids in music education (story, page 43). McBride’s role as artistic chair is to bring in artists for clinics and fundraisers. Among his recruits: keyboard player Chick Corea and trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, both major influences on McBride. Each is a remarkable catch for a small music program—unimaginable if not for McBride’s presence and his stature in the jazz world.

Both of those factors play into McBride’s role at NJPAC. Several years ago, NJPAC’s Schreiber decided the arts center should have a jazz advisor. “I wanted to establish a jazz festival,” says Schreiber, “and to really ramp up the frequency and the variety of the jazz programming we do.”

Schreiber had been following McBride’s career since he first encountered the bassist as a 15-year-old in a school band. Now McBride was the ideal candidate for NJPAC. “Christian was in the neighborhood, he was the best bass player I knew of, and he had all of the characteristics that, to me, epitomize jazz,” says Schreiber. “That is, not only great ability, but collaboration, a sense of history, a love of talent. All that.”

At NJPAC, McBride curates four shows each season, plus several as part of the TD James Moody Jazz Festival, launched in 2012 as the fulfillment of Schreiber’s jazz vision. NJPAC is also home field for McBride’s own performances, such as his duet appearance in April with fellow bassist Esperanza Spalding as part of a weekend-long tribute to saxophonist and Newark native Wayne Shorter.

August will be auspicious for McBride as he takes the artistic reins of the Newport Jazz Festival. “This is my first year,” says McBride, “so I don’t feel the need to vehemently, quote unquote, put my stamp on it.” Just the same, it’s no surprise that his old friends the Roots will be headlining the August 4–6 festival. Also on the eclectic bill are Branford Marsalis, Maceo Parker, Cyrus Chestnut, Jason Moran, Henry Threadgill, Vijay Iyer, Bela Fleck and many other artists. McBride will perform with his big band and in Philadelphia Experiment, a trio with Questlove and Uri Caine.

The following weekend, McBride will be back in Jersey for the fifth Montclair Jazz Festival, a Jazz House Kids production that McBride has peppered through the years with names like John Scofield, Kenny Barron, Joe Lovano and Pacquito D’Rivera. The bill for this year’s free August 12 festival includes Dee Dee Bridgewater and Cyrus Chestnut.

September will see the release on Mack Avenue of McBride’s second big-band album, Bringin’ It. In the fall, McBride will play a lead role in the Moody Jazz Festival, November 4–12 at NJPAC. Scheduled performers include Manhattan Transfer, Chris Botti, and Zakir Hussain and Dave Holland. McBride will appear with vocalist Dianne Reeves, and his big band will back an all-star, 100th-birthday musical salute to Ella Fitzgerald and Dizzy Gillespie.

The festival work hasn’t slowed McBride’s performance schedule. In July, with Newport looming, McBride and New Jawn were crisscrossing Europe for shows in Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands, Bulgaria, Turkey, Germany, France and England. In September, it’s back to France and Germany, plus Switzerland, Luxembourg and South Africa. October starts with a date with the celebrated operatic soprano Renee Fleming at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.

One can’t help but ask: Hey Christian, is there anyone you haven’t played with?

“Gladys Knight! Gladys Knight!” he replies without hesitation. “I’m dying to work with Gladys Knight.”

Are you listening Gladys?

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