Christian McBride Pursues Numerous Paths, from Big Band to Avant-Garde

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Christian McBride performs with his band New Jawn at the Chicago Jazz Festival on Aug. 31.

(Photo: ©Paul Natkin/Photo Reserve, Inc.)

Christian McBride believes in “paying it forward.” The acclaimed bassist traveled to Aspen, Colorado, for a week in August, to teach big band skills to a group of students at the Jazz Aspen Snowmass Academy, an institution where he has been the lead instructor since 2000.

The perpetually busy bandleader hosts National Public Radio’s Jazz Night in America and SiriusXM’s The Lowdown: Conversations with Christian; he is the artistic director for the Newport Jazz Festival; the jazz advisor for the TD James Moody Jazz Festival at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark; and he and his wife, singer Melissa Walker, run the Jazz House Kids educational program in Montclair, New Jersey.

McBride leads a dizzying array of groups: two trios (one of which, Tip City, features this year’s JAS Academy guest artist and pianist Emmet Cohen); a quartet, New Jawn; the quintet, Inside Strait; the avant-funk sextet, The Christian McBride Situation, with Patrice Rushen; and an award-winning, namesake big band. Over breakfast at the Gant Condominium Campus, where students slept, studied, practiced, rehearsed and recorded, McBride talked about the Aspen program, jazz education, the new wave of socially conscious jazz and some surprising new developments in his career.

The following has been edited for length and clarity.

This year marked the academy’s first collaboration with the University of Miami’s Frost School of Music, which emphasizes life as a working musician, as well as an artist. How do you feel about that?

Amen! There’s very much a “worker bee” mindset that should be taken into consideration—the hustle of getting a gig, being in a wedding band. I remember talking to [drummer] Alex Acuña one time. We all celebrate him for playing with Weather Report and all these other great bands, but I remember him one time telling kids that one of his first professional gigs was playing in the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. He played with Elvis Presley. So many of these great musicians with amazing concepts, they had to hustle. They had to get some gig that wasn’t very pretty in order to do what they wanted to do, you know? McCoy Tyner drove a cab. And that was after he played with Coltrane.

An institutional infrastructure has developed in places like Aspen and for your own program, Jazz House Kids. Is this where the action is now?

Without a doubt. ... What the jazz institution has created, particularly with these summer programs, is what I would call a minor league farm system. You get to hear these incredible musicians before they reach the major leagues. You hear [guitarist] Lionel Loueke at the Monk Institute and look at him now. All of these programs try to nurture young musicians and those of us who have an opportunity to teach, we get the heads-up about who is really killing before they become stars.

Melissa created Jazz House Kids in 2002, before we met, then we kind of built it up together. We get kids as young as 4. [Tenor saxophonist] Julian Lee is out there killing it right now; Coleman Hughes, a young trombonist; [pianist] Isaiah J. Thompson; Emmet Cohen. We’re very proud of the students that have come through our organization.

Did you have any kind of educational support group when you came up that compares to the infrastructure we have today?

I was fortunate to grow up in Philly. Had I been born and raised in Lincoln, Nebraska, I probably wouldn’t have met as many great musicians passing through town. But Philly’s always been a city fiercely dedicated to music education. There were many after-school programs I was involved in, along with [organist] Joey DeFrancesco. We were all part of Settlement Music School Jazz Ensemble. Temple University and Community College both had programs. There was always something for us to do after school.

Your focus in Aspen is big band music. Why big band?

It’s important for young musicians to learn how to play together. When you sit in the section and you have to learn how to breathe together, phrase together, play the same dynamic together, at some point the bigger picture is recognized.

The big band functions as a democratic society. There is a leader, there is somebody that establishes what the tone of the band should be. You get a solo, your voice gets heard, but you have to work together as a unit. And if the saxophone section leader says, “Let’s phrase this like this,” right? Sure, there might be someone in the section that says, “Really? We have to phrase it like that?” But at some point, you’re going to have to make a decision that we’re going to have to be on the same page.

One of your other responsibilities is booking the Newport Jazz Festival. The lineup this year was quite diverse—Sheila Jordan to the Sun Ra Arkestra. Do you find it challenging to embrace such a variety of styles?

Not at all. Because I’ve always felt that just because your style of music might not be my favorite style of music doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t be working [laughs]. Everybody should be working. If you’ve got something going on and you’ve got a buzz and people are liking it, it doesn’t matter whether I like it or not, it should be presented. I like to think we’re keeping the George Wein playbook going. We had a little bit of straightahead, a little avant-garde, we have some funk, some r&b, traditional, we had a New Orleans brass band.

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