Covering His Bases: A Residency for Christian McBride

Jeff Kaliss on September 25, 2017
Christian McBride | Credit: R. Andrew Lepley

The soul with which jazz bassist Christian McBride grew up in Philadelphia in the 1970s and ’80s is apparent in more than just his music. It’s evident also in his generous embrace of a variety of sounds, in the respect with which he addresses and remembers the musicians who preceded him, and in the determination with which he sustains and expands musical traditions in classrooms, festivals, performing arts centers, and the National Jazz Museum in Harlem, as well as on weekly radio shows. McBride has performed and recorded in a variety of ensemble configurations, several of which he’ll showcase during next month’s four-night stay at SFJAZZ, where he’s a resident artistic director and curated four concerts a year ago. He’s won four Grammys and much critical acclaim, and in a long phone chat with SFCV, en route from his home in Montclair, New Jersey to a studio in Manhattan, McBride deployed his crowd-pleasing effect as a storyteller. We offer some snippets from those stories.

I expect you’ll have much to talk about over your four varied concerts at SFJAZZ. Did your gift of gab come out of your Philadelphia raising?

I’ll tell you this: The greatest storyteller I’ve ever known in my life is my mother, Renée McBride. To hear her tell stories about things that had happened in her childhood, it was completely entertaining, because she always had the choreography to go with it. And believe it or not, a lot of comedy records also helped, because while my mother listened to a lot of rhythm-and-blues and jazz albums, there was no shortage of records by Flip Wilson, Bob Newhart, Jonathan Wilson, and Bill Cosby.

A classic period for standup comedy.

Yeah. So I learned not so much telling jokes, but how to tell a story. Though I do have to catch myself and make sure I don’t ramble too much when I’m on stage.

Christian McBride | Credit: R. Andrew Lepley
I’m assuming that what you got of the Philly sound, with the soul and R&B, was partly genetic.

Bass runs in the family. My father, Lee Smith, is still playing professionally, in the Philadelphia area. When I was a kid, he was on the road with the great R&B [rhythm-and-blues] singing group the Delfonics, and he also toured and recorded with Billy Paul, Major Harris, and Blue Magic, all those great Philly soul groups. My uncle, Tony McBride, my mother’s brother, was a promotions manager at one of two black radio stations there, so as a child, I was listening to my father play with all those R&B groups and going to live shows with my mother and my uncle. I was raised as a James Brown kid, with the Motown and Stax record labels. But it wasn’t a big deal for my mother to put on a Miles Davis record right behind a Temptations [Motown] record. So I was groomed to think of all these styles of music as part of one bigger tree.

When I couldn’t reach you earlier because you were driving through a “dead” zone, I got your outgoing message, with James Brown announcing you.

That’s from the concert we did at the Hollywood Bowl, on September the 6th, 2006.

But what is it about the so-called Philly sound? Soul and R&B, like other musics, have been sourced from all over the country, and beyond.

One thing about the Philly sound which I think is interesting is that it involves symphonic writing.

How do you mean?

All those great Philly soul albums were accompanied by [songwriter, arranger, and producer] Thom Bell’s masterful orchestrations. When you look into a record by the Delfonics, not only are you turned on by these sort of Gospel-infused vocals, but you’re listening to a small symphony accompanying them, with glockenspiel, muted brass, and violins.

Want to pick a couple of examples?

Sure. Everything Thom Bell wrote for the Stylistics, like “You’re My Everything,” or “Ready or Not, Here I Come,” by the Delfonics.

Let’s tune over to the classical music. You’re opening your SFJAZZ residency concerts with the Dvořák String Quintet and the Schubert “Trout” Quintet. And last year, you did Bartók on one of your nights. Does that music go back to Philly too?

I’ve been a huge fan of Dvořák ever since I started learning about classical music in middle school. Once I started playing double bass, I, obviously, had to play in the school orchestra, and take private lessons. I actually fell in love with jazz and classical simultaneously, because I started learning them simultaneously. And when I first heard the “New World” Symphony, I didn’t know the story about Dvořák coming to New York and really experiencing American culture and specifically African-American culture. But I did know that at the end of the final movement, there’s basically a Dixieland bass part! I would always laugh and say, “Dvořák’s got a little boogie-woogie Count Basie part in there!”

What did you think about his handling of the “Goin’ Home” spiritual in that symphony?

I think that some of the greatest musicians all over the world, I don’t think we really care so much where we get ideas or inspiration from, be it  Dvořák  going to a black church, or Wynton Marsalis listening to Mozart or Beethoven, or Miles Davis listening to Jimi Hendrix, there’s only twelve notes, and it’s what you do with those twelve notes.

Though you could slide through a few microtones.

True, but when that happens in Western culture, they’ll just say you’re out of tune. [chuckles]

Did classical playing give you something jazz didn’t, or vice versa?

Emotion is emotion. Even if it’s written down on paper, you can get just as much emotion out of playing classical music. I think that’s why I appreciated Glenn Gould so much, I know he wasn’t exactly so attached to the paper. I think of him like Thelonious Monk, an iconoclast, who, in Gould’s case, thoroughly understood the music of Bach, but decided he would put a little bit of his own spin on it. My high-school girlfriend had practically every recording Gould ever made, and beat me upside the head with it every day.

What then led you into Juilliard?

My first bass teacher, who was actually a cellist by the name of Margie Keefe, she would take me to see a lot of classical-bass recitals in Philadelphia, and I thought, “Man, I just don’t think I’m going to get like that,” I’d have to concentrate on that exclusively. I started studying with a man named Neil Courtney, who was the associate principal bass in the Philadelphia Orchestra. He thought my classical skills had gotten good enough that maybe I should try to apply to a place like Juilliard. I thought I was a much better jazz player than I was a classical player, but I thought, well, if I live my dream, I’m going to move to New York and go to the jam sessions and get a lot of informal training with all of my favorite jazz heroes. But I don’t know if I’m going to be able to get that sort of informal training in the classical world. So I decided to go to college for the classical. Much to my surprise, I was accepted to both Juilliard and the Manhattan School of Music. And within the first two weeks of school, I wound up playing with the great [jazz] saxophonist Bobby Watson, making gigs with his quartet.

Didn’t you worry about your homework?

Let’s just say, I wasn’t the best student. [chuckles] But I did a good job, and my bass teacher at Juilliard, the late, great Homer Mensch, always had a soft spot for jazz musicians. At the end of the school year, I had a talk with Mr. Mensch, and he said, in so many words, if you’re living your dream and playing with the people you want to play with, then go for it! But me and Juilliard will always be there.

And it will be here with you in the Schubert and Dvořák .

That programming was actually somewhat serendipitous, because the great Jennifer Kloetzel, the cellist, and I were classmates at Juilliard. She was also my RA [resident assistant]!

What did she have to worry about the most with you?

Because I’d started working professionally, I wasn’t in my dorm very much. But Jennifer came to all four of my concerts at SFJAZZ last year, and we connected, after 25 years.

How about your mentors off-campus? You’re doing a tribute to Ray Brown on the last of your four nights at SFJAZZ.

When I first started playing professionally around New York, one of my best friends became the great [jazz] pianist Benny Green. (We’ll be playing together on that tribute at SFJAZZ.) The way my high-school girlfriend was with Glenn Gould, Benny was that way with [jazz pianist] Oscar Peterson, and it wasn’t till I started hanging with Benny that I really started getting into Ray Brown [a frequent sideman for Peterson]. Benny and I were playing a duo gig at a place called the Knickerbocker, in Greenwich Village, and Benny’s manager was good friends with Ray Brown, so she invited Ray to come hear us play. We were scared to death, obviously, the great Ray Brown sitting out there listening to us, at two o’clock in the morning! We knew he was playing at the Blue Note, so we went there the night after, this would have been early in 1991. That was the closest I’ve had to an epiphany, seeing Ray Brown play live and hearing his bass up close. I’d never heard a bass sound so voluptuous and so thick and fat. Even though he had an amplifier, he wasn’t abusing it, so I could still hear the natural sound of the bass. And he was having so much fun, and propelling the band. I was so moved, I remember I sat frozen in my seat after the set was over. Ray and I kept in close touch thereafter, and he was such a nice man. He seemed excited that these two young musicians were interested in playing standards, and in playing in swing rhythm. So he very much became a mentor after that.

Three years later, I saw you together on stage, just the two of you, at the Monterey Jazz Festival. They billed it as “Two-Bass Hit.”

To stand next to Ray Brown, not to hear and see, but to feel the man that close, it was pretty overwhelming. But I had to suck it up and try not to get star-struck.

There was a story about how you got his bass.

When he passed [in 2002], he had three basses. John Clayton [who’d played in a bass trio with Brown and McBride] bought one, and I traded my bass in to get one of the others. The bass of Ray’s I had at first had been recently made, in the Philippines, and his widow, Cecilia, still had the bass which Ray had used for the last ten years of his career, on all the Telarc recordings, a Hungarian bass. Three years later I got a call out of the blue from Cecilia, and she said, “The Smithsonian called, and they would like to have one of Ray’s basses. I could either give them the bass that I have, or you could give them the bass you have, and I could give you this bass.” The bass I’d been using wasn’t very loud, and didn’t speak very well. So we did the switcherooney, and I’ve been using his bass for the last three years. It’s actually in the car with me right now. [chuckles]

Over the past couple of decades you’ve extended yourself into a lot of things besides just performing and recording. Is it tough multitasking?

I’m still grappling with that, to a certain extent. In 2004, which was a watershed year, I’d been asked by Dave Brubeck personally to be the first artistic director of the Brubeck Institute, in Stockton, and I was already artistic director at Jazz Aspen, where I’d met Loren Schoenberg, who wanted help with the National Jazz Museum in Harlem. At the same time, I became engaged to my wife [jazz singer Melissa Walker], and she said, “Why don’t you help me build my Jazz House Kids?” So I went to Mr. Brubeck, and he said, “You go build that museum in Harlem, and I wish you the best.”

Tell us some more about your SFJAZZ programming. What happened after you and Jennifer Kloetzel reconnected?

She was telling me about how the Cypress Quartet has broken up after all these years, and I thought, it makes perfect sense to figure out how to do something together. There really isn’t much chamber music for bass, so you can always take an educated guess as to what it’s going to be, and we went for the old chamber bass favorites. I’m always looking forward to playing as much classical music as I can, because I simply don’t get a chance to do it much these days. But I’m going to have a little surprise for the musicians involved: I’m a jazz artist, so I want to write something for them and see if we can actually play something that’s sort of somewhat in the jazz idiom. [Kloetzel and McBride will be joined by violinists Ian Swensen and Evan Price, violist Carla Maria Rodrigues, and pianist Robert Koenig.]

And on the second night, you’ll be on stage with just another bass again, this time Edgar Meyer.

As a senior in high school, I knew that my classical playing was average, and that I would never be like a Gary Karr or an Edgar Meyer. Edgar is such a brilliant musician and thinker, I think we’re able to use each of our strengths and weaknesses to greater advantage. We’ll both be sort of out of our comfort zones, which I think balances it out for some really interesting and fun music.

Which music will it be?

Some original material. And we’ll actually accompany each other for one piece — on piano. Because we both decided maybe 75-plus minutes of two basses might be a bit much, even for us.

On the third night, we’ll hear your big band, which we heard last year. It must be tough and expensive getting a group that size around.

Which is why I’m so appreciative every time we can get a gig. This year I’ll have the great José James as special guest vocalist. I like his versatility, because he’s a great jazz singer, blues singer, and R&B singer, and we can go a lot of different ways with him.

You’ve said it’s easier for you to write for big band.

The fewer musicians there are, the harder it is for me to come up with ideas that crystallize. But somehow, when I write for my big band, the ideas come hard and fast.

On your final night, after the Ray Brown tribute with Benny Green on piano and Russell Malone on guitar, you’ll be playing with another trio.

That’s my new trio, called Tip City, a phrase that meant the music was really, really swinging. I got it from working with the late Mulgrew Miller and James Williams. This trio has a brilliant young pianist named Emmet Cohen and a brilliant young guitarist named Dan Wilson.

What's the toughest part about curating a variegated run like this one?

Everything is hinged upon the availability of all the other musicians, and I’m glad I was able to get the five acts I got. For me, I think a great musician should be something like a great actor: you have to learn the discipline to play a dramatic role, and also a comedic role. And musicians must do what the music demands.