A Message In Our Music Part 2: Christian McBride

Simply put, there are bassists, and then there’s Christian McBride.

With a career as a musician, composer, arranger, and producer, which began two decades ago, McBride has since set the standard and captivated fellow musicians and audiences alike with his astounding technical superiority, his inventive, demiurgic vocabulary, and a sound which is as tremendous as the Philly native’s outgoing presence and infectious charm. McBride is the most significant bassist to come along in the last twenty years, and is unarguably one of the greatest to ever play the instrument.

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In and outside of the jazz genre, McBride has collaborated, recorded, arranged for and performed with many of the most essential artists in the business: Freddie Hubbard, Sonny Rollins, J.J. Johnson, Ray Brown, Milt Jackson, McCoy Tyner, Roy Haynes, Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock, Pat Metheny, Isaac Hayes, Chaka Khan, Natalie Cole, Lalah Hathaway, Sting, Carly Simon, Bruce Hornsby, The Roots, D’Angelo, Queen Latifah, and Kathleen Battle. You can also add the Godfather of Soul, James Brown, to this royal roll call. (McBride is a self-proclaimed James Brown connoisseur and avid footage collector. Don’t go there with the man.)

McBride has an illustrious recording career, with over ten albums as a leader, and his latest album, The Good Feeling (Mack Avenue), earned him a Grammy award this past week. His first big band recording, McBride rallied an array of dynamic musicians including Steve Wilson, Ron Blake, Nicholas Payton, and Xavier Davis.

McBride has a long history of making bold statements away from his instrument, an attribute which has resulted in the imploring of so many esteemed organizations and initiatives. He spoke on former President Bill Clinton’s town hall meeting, “Racism in the Performing Arts”. His four movement suite, ‘The Movement, Revisited’, which is dedicated to civil rights pioneers Rosa Parks, Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was commissioned by the Portland (ME) Arts Society and the National Endowment for the Arts. In 2005, he was also named co-director of the National Jazz Museum in Harlem. Reminiscent of the protagonism of James Brown, McBride has an uncanny ability to use his musical stature to foster social awareness. It was an honor to sit with him, especially for this particular occasion.

Check out our discussion about three of McBride’s most essential politically-influenced albums.

Sonny RollinsFreedom Suite

“Well you know, Sonny has been a master of his instrument and craft for so long,” says McBride. “Particularly if you listen to Sonny in the 50s. His sound, his vibe… everything about him was pure Harlem. I bought this record when I was in high school… maybe 9th or 10th grade. The reason why I love the freedom suite so much [is because]…if you ask most Black folks our age — and maybe even a generation before — what the greatest protest album, or politically aware album is, they’ll almost always say [Marvin Gaye’s] What’s Going On. And I don’t have a problem with that. We all know that it’s an absolute masterpiece…an unquestionable masterpiece. But I find that’s the only album most people know. That was 1971. Freedom Suite is 1958, and the jazz musicians have been ahead of the political/musical curve for a very, very long time. The Birmingham bus boycott was only three years old, and to my knowledge, Sonny Rollins and Max Roach were the only two musicians from that generation really overtly dealing with it. Even in Sonny’s liner notes, where he talks about the ‘American Negro’. To think that Sonny was that aware, or jazz musicians were that aware and would make a record about it in 1958…that really says a lot. And so we know that he was obviously very socially and politically aware and active but then the music, the piece itself…the Freedom Suite…man, that’s some of the greatest music ever.”

As likely with many of my readers, I have felt a sense of social and political abandonment in Black popular music and other artistic mediums, which is quite disheartening. To think that we’ve “arrived” in any way, is a sadly misguided ideology, and one I believe to be very dangerous. Struggle is not akin to weakness. In fact, it is quite the contrary. To me, struggle is action. I asked McBride about this expression in jazz and whether or not this is something that has, as in popular music, been wiped from the musical dialogue.

“I think there are a lot of cats out there who are making some very serious music that is politically and culturally aware,” says McBride. “It might not have the same impact as it might have in the 50s when it was still, relatively, an unheard of thing. But I think there are some musicians now whose creativity is fueled by what goes on in our culture and our world. People like Orrin Evans, Russell Gunn…I myself have written an opus which will hopefully be released this year on Mack Avenue. I think there are a lot of cats out there who really know what’s going on. How it would be accepted is another thing. Because I think we’ve all gotten too comfortable. And I don’t mean that in the sense that to be politically and socially aware, that necessarily means that you have to be angry, but you gotta at least speak up for what you believe needs to happen. Like Nicholas [Payton] starting people talking again about Black American Music…and I wholeheartedly agree with him 100%. Especially with the part [about the] resistance anytime Black people want to claim something. We take different approaches to how we convey the message, but the sentiment is exactly on the same page.”

Max RoachWe Insist!

I was really happy that Christian picked this album to discuss, particularly because of the presence of Abbey Lincoln. As discussed with Jason Moran in Part 1, anytime a woman’s perspective can be added to the discussion of social justice in America, it is to the benefit of everyone.

“I got to play that piece once with Branford Marsalis; it was me, Branford and Brian Blade,” McBride reminisces. “That was so much fun. But anyway, Max is on the Freedom Suite, and Sonny of course, was in Max’s group with Clifford Brown in the 50s. Once the movement really did become ‘The Movement’, Max Roach was there early. Max was very outspoken; he was very politically active in the movement before it caught fire. He and Abbey. When you hear Abbey Lincoln singing “Driver Man”…she’s another one. When it comes to the civil rights era, music and black females, sadly, I think she unfairly gets overshadowed by Nina Simone. But Abbey…you’ve got to give her her props. What she and Max did together for many, many, many years — not just on We Insist! either — was very much ahead of its time and very influential on a broad scale because we all know Max was tight with Harry Belafonte and Sidney Poitier, and Dr. King, and the Black Panthers later on. Max Roach was actually part of J.Edgar Hoover’s file cabinet; somebody did a story about that a few years ago. He was being followed by the FBI. Max was deep, deep in it. So an album like We Insist! really puts it in perspective.”

Duke EllingtonBlack, Brown and Beige

Since Black folks came to this country, I suppose the issue of approach to our freedom has been a debated one. During the civil rights era, the level of militancy necessary was a constant debate, and what is deemed “militant” was another. Even in music, this has been and still is, a point of contention. Here, McBride illustrates how.

“There was an interview that Duke did for a black newspaper in the late 60s, and the writer asked Duke, ‘Well how come you don’t write music for the people?’ The arrogance of youth, [laughs]! And Duke, in his usual, classy, elegant and sophisticated style says, ‘Well I think I address those issues with Black, Brown and Beige, and the guy says, ‘Well, what is that?!’

I have a hard time believing anything considered modern or…when you look at how we’ve evolved allegedly as a people, it’s hard to think that we made strides that Duke Ellington hadn’t already made long before anybody was even thinking about stuff like that. You look at Duke Ellington’s music from the 20s, through the 30s, through the 40s…Duke was always addressing the beauties, the victories and the pains of black folk. Always been there, always. So Duke was very much a role model and an example of someone who understood that he had a greater responsibility than to just write good music for his band. He was always about the cry of his people.

Duke was always somehow able to express and convey the feelings of black folk without being angry. You could feel the sadness, pain, angst, but it was always done through this filter, this lens of triumph in the end… or hope. I think that’s what separated Duke from the rest of the pack.

Now, speaking of this album specifically, you’ve got Mahalia Jackson. These are two titans arguably at the peak of their powers collaborating together. When you talk about fusion, to my knowledge, I can think of no greater example of one of the earliest collaborations of jazz and gospel. I know Milt Jackson and Ray Brown did it with Marion Anderson in the 60s, but Duke and Mahalia…it gets no better than that.”

Listen to Dee Dee Bridgewater, Cassandra Wilson, and Dianne Reeves sing “Freedom Day” in honor of Abbey Lincoln on JazzSet live at The Kennedy Center.

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