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Jazz icon Christian McBride reflects on several key points in his life…and career

Christian McBride is a name serious jazz fans — and KGOU listeners — should recognize. The noted bassist, composer and arranger, also serves as host of NPR’s Jazz Night In America, which has been a part of our program lineup since its initial broadcast back in 2014.

This Saturday, McBride and his quartet New Jawn are to headline the Jazz In June festival taking place in Norman's Andrews Park.

KGOU caught up with the Philadelphia native for this audio narrative wherein McBride reflects on key points in his life and career.

Growing up in ‘Philly’

Philadelphia was a great city to grow up in, especially during the time I grew up in Philadelphia. The Gamble and Huff sound, the “Philly” sound of Teddy Pendergrass, the O'Jays and Billy Paul. That was the hottest sound in America at that time, and it came straight from Philadelphia.

I have a whole family in music, and my father spent most of my early years on the road with a lot of those “Philly” soul groups like Blue Magic, The Delfonics, Major Harris, and the aforementioned Billy Paul. But by the time I got old enough to really appreciate what he was doing… By that time, he'd started working with Mongo Santamaria. So, my ears were opening up to this Afro-Cuban music and I was getting hit with music all over the place… and it was beautiful.

Taking a bite out of the ‘Big Apple’

At some point during my high school years, I fell madly in love with jazz and quickly discovered that all of these great jazz legends who I admired so much lived in New York. So, I just put one and one together and figured, “Well, I guess I should move to New York, if I want to be a part of the jazz scene.”

I decided to move to New York… Well, I went to Juilliard to study classical bass, because I was also playing and enjoying classical music at that time.

So, I go to Juilliard and one of those great jazz legends who I’d met while I was still in high school was the alto saxophonist Bobby Watson. And Bobby got word that I was going to Juilliard. He came and found me at school and asked me if I wanted to play a gig with him the following weekend. And that's pretty much how my journey got started in New York.

I was very, very fortunate that my first gig in New York was with a heavyweight like Bobby Watson. And the whole night I was just on stage like, ”Man, I was just listening to these guys on my records like three days ago!” So, it was a very, very exciting time.

Coming of age… and gaining perspective

You know, I was 17 when I moved to New York and started going to Juilliard and playing with Bobby. You paint your own picture of what these musicians are like as people. This person would probably be like this. This person will probably be like that. And the older you get, you realize that life is hardly black and white, but very gray.

You know, from the age of 17 to 25, when I was actually getting to know these musicians, sometimes I was incredibly joyous. But there were times where I was deeply disappointed. A lot of people that I was around had addictions. They had certain personality traits that were harmful. But the older I got, it became less shocking and understandable because, again, I just realized that life is not black and white and that people deal with things in different ways.

So, I'm much more lenient and flexible with people's personalities these days. And if they turn out to be someone that I can't jive with, I just won't be around them. But fortunately, I have not had to really worry about that.

Jazz Night In America

For 21 years, I believe it was 21 or 22 years. The flagship NPR jazz show was called Jazz Set, which was hosted by Teddy Bridgewater. And that show was made and produced out of WBGO in Newark, New Jersey, which is my home radio station. And so that show, I believe, sun set in 2013. And Josh Jackson, who at the time was one of the major on-air personalities. He called me up and he said, “We're planning a new show that we're going to produce here at WBGO. And, you know, we plan on this being the new flagship jazz program, like Jazz at Lincoln Center times ten.”

They told me that it was going to be a three-way partnership with Jazz at Lincoln Center, WBGO and NPR and he would like me to be the host. And that's basically how it started. We started the show in 2014, and it's just been such a thrill to be able to work in radio. I was already doing radio a little bit on Sirius XM Real Jazz, but the NPR/WBGO/Jazz at Lincoln Center partnership has been so satisfying and eye opening and I get to learn as much as anybody else interviewing some people… And it's just been a thrill to be able to host the show for the last eight plus years!

Christian McBride’s New Jawn

The members of ‘New Jawn’ are Josh Evans on trumpet, Marcus Strickland on tenor saxophone/bass clarinet, and the great Nasheet Waits on drums. We've been working together as a unit now since December of 2015, and we have two albums out, the most recent one being Prime, which came out in February of this year. We've been on the road quite a bit.

But the band that I had previous to this was my trio with Christian Sands on piano and Ulysses Owens, Jr. on drums. We played together for… I believe it was six years? I can't remember exactly how long, but during this time frame I started doing an annual residency at the Village Vanguard, the legendary Village Vanguard in New York City. And my residency went from one week to two weeks, and so that second week would give me an opportunity to work with one of my other bands, or to put together some musicians who I was excited or curious about working with.

So, in 2015, I decided that I wanted to have a group that was about as different a musical personality as I could think of, you know, like a 180-degree turn from a trio. I decided, “Let's try a band with no chords” -meaning no guitar, or no piano. That's certainly not that progressive of an idea, but I think what people expect from me… they certainly would be surprised.

So, Marcus Strickland was an easy call. He's someone I had worked with many times in the past.

I talked to a bunch of musicians who I really trusted and respected, you know, and they said that for what you're describing, you might want to check out Josh Evans. Josh Evans is pretty incredible! So, I asked Josh.

(Now) For me, the most important person in any band is the drummer… next to the bass player. (laughs) But I started wondering like, “Who would I call to play the drums?” And creatively speaking, Nasheet was somebody who I just couldn't wait to play with. I’ve known him for years, but we only played together once in over 20 years. So, I called Nasheet and fortunately he was interested and available… and we've been a unit ever since.

In terms of the name of the band, instead of saying, “Hey, have you heard Christian McBride's new quartet?” In Philadelphia, they would say, “Have you heard Christian McBride's new jawn?” Because that's a word that describes everything. In New York it would be ‘joint’. Every region has its own word for it, like a person place or thing.

O-K-L-A-H-O-M-A

I don't get to Oklahoma very often, you know. I actually played in Tahlequah 20 plus years ago. And I made one other gig, I believe, at Oklahoma State. That's it! In 30 plus years, this will only be my third trip to Oklahoma. So, I'm really excited that we actually get to make a little run… playing in Norman and in Tulsa. So, let's do this. Oklahoma!

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Jim is a journalism/mass communications graduate from the University of Oklahoma who has been a life-long radio listener and enthusiast.
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