“It’s best to do something to make the world less angry.” It’s the state of mind that bassist, composer, bandleader, producer, radio personality and humanitarian Christian McBride embraces daily.
It’s not uncommon for performing artists to find time to balance their hectic schedules. McBride, on the other hand, takes pride in giving every facet of his life ample time to improve the quality of life for others. The selfless Philadelphia native can’t begin to put into words the sensation that comes over him anytime his fingers caress the strings. Up and down the neck of his axe, the five-time Grammy Award winner simultaneously marries aggressive pizzicato with impeccable vibrato.
The end result is always McBride’s effortless ability to convey sincere emotion through his performances. “It’s something you know once you feel it,” the modest musician synonymous for wearing black eyeglasses explains. “Categories distract from what the real meaning of music is. No matter what the style is, I hope people can tune into the emotion of it. It’s a superpower that goes through me.”
It’s that same feeling an eager McBride felt as an impressionable eight-year-old anytime his dad, a bassist, would teach him chords. The bass virtuoso further acknowledges having great teachers and mentors to continually fuel his passion for playing music. “They paved the way for us to spread our wings and hone our skills and talent,” McBride says.
Growing up in the City of Brotherly Love afforded McBride various opportunities to perfect his craft. The product of an after-school program at the legendary Settlement Music School, the leader of the outfits Christian McBride Band, Christian McBride Trio, Inside Straight and New Jawn developed a close kinship with instrumentalist Joey Desfrancesco.
Desfrancesco shared his vast knowledge of tunes and chord changes with McBride. McBride introduced Desfrancesco to funk and soul music. “We became thick as thieves throughout middle school and high school,” McBride remembers.
McBride also frequented the halls of the Philadelphia High School for the Creative and Performing Arts: running into Questlove, Amel Larrieux, Kurt Rosenwinkel and Boyz II Men on a regular basis. That infectious synergy encouraged the easygoing musician to take his craft seriously.
“You had no choice but to be inspired to practice every single day,” McBride recalls. “You were always around somebody great at something. You knew they were gonna be a star. It was a great atmosphere to be around. It naturally makes you wanna do better.”
Eventually enrolling into the famed Juilliard School to study classical music, McBride admits the change of scenery was scary yet exciting. It was nothing to catch jazz greats like Dr. Billy Taylor, Max Roach and Wynton Marsalis substitute teaching, hosting master classes or conducting clinics on the fly. Any other time, McBride would split time between studying under the tutelage of New York Philharmonic principal bassist Homer Mensch and playing gigs with jazz musicians like saxophonist Bobby Watson and trumpeter Freddie Hubbard.
A man about his hustle, McBride decided to leave school to pursue his passion. “It was obvious I wasn’t gonna be able to do both,” McBride says. “Jumping back and forth, I couldn’t get any sleep, and my schoolwork was slipping.” Reality eventually begin to set in for McBride.
He was happy working alongside jazz veterans but doesn’t mince words reliving his humble beginnings, admitting he originally decided on New York City so that he could be around his musical idols. Though he played with Hubbard, McBride says they never toured, only performing one-off gigs.
“There were many times I was late on my rent and didn’t eat well,” a transparent McBride says, naming Doritos and Pepsi as his standard dinner. “Still, I was getting my real education, my street education.”
Never one to complain or make excuses, McBride continued to embark on his journey. His exceptional dexterity and flexible musicianship landed him on-stage or in the studio alongside talents like Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock, George Duke, Betty Carter, Ray Brown, Wynton Marsalis, Roy Hargrove, Chaka Khan, Sonny Rollins, McCoy Tyner, Kathleen Battle, Miles Davis, Issac Hayes, Paul McCartney, Pat Methany, Joshua Redman, Paul Simon, Carly Simon, Sting, D’Angelo, Roy Hargrove, Diana Krall, Queen Latifah, Lalah Hathaway and James Brown.
An advocate for building organic relationships with other performers, McBride offers insight into what potentially makes great accompaniment or collaborations run smoothly. “Once you figure out what you need to do to make that music work,” McBride insists, “you’ll do it. Artistry takes care of itself. The music tells you what it needs.”
These days, McBride, the co-director of the National Jazz Museum in Harlem, New York is taking those collaborative experiences and imparting them upon the next generation of talented musicians, performers and composers. As artistic chair for Jazz House Kids, New Jersey’s only community arts organization, and jazz advisor for New Jersey Performing Arts Center, McBride’s passion to teach and guide youth is the byproduct of never forgetting his musical origins.
“Some older musicians took their time out their schedule to help me out,” McBride, declares. “They were gracious with their time, and that deeply influenced us. It’s my duty to spend as much time as I can with younger musicians and give them playing opportunities.”
McBride, still chuckling periodically, adds the key to being an effective mentor is sharing and exchanging invaluable information. “Teach young people what you think they need to be taught,” he says with assurance.
That same objective to expose audiences to new sounds and creatives set the tone for McBride’s voice on radio. His SiriusXM program, “Conversations with Christian,” features casual dialogue and performance segments with other musicians. McBride’s NPR series, “Jazz Night in America,” is where he keeps himself abreast of new material.
The NPR gig, McBride says, is where he utilizes his staff’s input on who he should be paying close attention to. “It gives me an opportunity to hear some new projects that I might not otherwise be able to get out and listen to,” the sought after entertainer says. “I stay current all the time.”
In three decades, McBride shows no signs of limiting his focus. Planting his feet in the recording studio, on various stages and in classrooms, he believes, has made him more empathetic towards people. Reiterating how much fun he has in each area, he says performing live in front of audiences is where the magic happens.
More importantly, playing in cities like Atlanta reminds McBride of how far he’s come in his career. Being able to reconnect with a host of his musical peers, family and former bandmates, McBride proclaims, is what truly inspires him to be great.
“I’m so busy juggling so many different eggs, but Atlanta is my home away from home,” McBride says.
Christian McBride’s Top Five Albums of All Time:
- Cannonball Adderley | Mercy, Mercy, Mercy! Live at ‘The Club’ (1966)
- James Brown | Love, Power, Peace: Live at the Olympia, Paris, 1971 (1992)
- Miles Davis | Live-Evil (1970)
- Quincy Jones | Walking in Space (1969)
- Weather Report | Heavy Weather (1977)
Christian McBride & Tip City play Atlanta’s Variety Playhouse this Saturday, April 29th | Tickets
SEE Christian McBride on tour | Dates