PC: I know you were born in Philadelphia: what was ‘Philly’ like at that time, not in terms of music, but in terms of what was happening on the street, as a child growing up there?
CM: I grew up in West Philadelphia, which is primarily an African American section of the town. There were a lot of row homes so a lot of families were right next door to each other. There are like 14 pretty small houses right next to each other; in a two block radius there are probably 80 houses. It was a really, really close community, mostly because it had to be because it was so close together. There really wasn’t a lot of privacy but it was okay because the neighbours looked out for one another. Back in those days if somebody’s mother or somebody’s parents weren’t at home, then the neighbours had permission to look after that particular child and they would discipline them as if they were their own child, until their parents got home.
PC: Would you have family members living in those row houses nearby?
CM: In our neighbourhood not a lot of us had dads, a few of us did but a lot of us were either being raised by our mother or our grandmothers both, like me. I grew up in a house with just my mother and her mother, that was pretty much the case for many (not all) of the other kids in our neighbourhood as well but we all had strong mothers. Many of us had a good team around us: a lot of playing in the street, a lot of fun and games as all kids do, a lot of basketball, a lot of street football, a lot of stickball and neighbours’ windows getting broken.
PC: A typical childhood!
CM: A typical childhood. There was so much fun, and of course we had our neighbourhood thugs and bullies, just like every neighbourhood does and I got bullied a lot because I was always nerdy – I wasn’t like the cool kid.
PC: And yet you are so cool now.
CM: (Laughs) I had my challenges as a kid but once I discovered music I had some place to retreat.
PC: I was amazed to read you were going with your uncle, as young as 4 years old, to see the likes of Gladys Knight and The Pips and bands like that.
CM: It was a wonderful… that was the best part of my childhood, going to live shows with my uncle and my mother.
PC: When you were there, would you be on your uncle’s shoulders or playing at your mother’s feet, or what?
CM: A little bit of both. My mother would put me on her shoulders. Most of the time I was really into the music, so I would be up on my feet really kind of checking it all out.
Going to sporting events with my grandfather, that was a lot of fun as well. Hanging out with my family was the best part.
PC: Were you close to your father?
CM: Oh yeah! Even though my father didn’t live with us – my parents weren’t married – I still had a good relationship with my dad and I saw him regularly and he was actually living in New York from I believe 1979 – 1983.
PC: What year were you born in?
CM: 1972. My mother and I would go visit him in New York and right as I was starting middle school he moved back to Philly permanently and I still got to see him quite often and we always had a very good relationship. I guess my family wasn’t what one would call a ‘traditional family’ but it was a wonderfully close family and everyone did what they had to do to make sure that I was okay.
PC: Do you have siblings?
CM: No, I am an only child. I will tell you I was not spoiled, my mother made me… I was spoiled in the sense that she gave me everything I needed to pursue my career in music but I still had to practise. I wasn’t allowed to go out on the street and have a lot of fun, particularly once I started getting into music. She made sure that I was active all the time.
PC: Well that didn’t do you any harm did it?
CM: That’s right!
PC: I know your father was a musician but did your mother play an instrument?
CM: She tried: she played piano for maybe a year or two and she was getting pretty good at it but then she stopped. I still tease her about that, ‘Ma, why did you stop? You were making some progress.’
PC: And she replies?
CM: You know, she just throws her hands in the air and says, ‘Oh I don’t know. I got tired of it.’
PC: You saw your father perform when you were 8 years old and something inside you clicked and you wanted to learn bass?
CM: I had seen him play quite a number of times when I was a kid but there was this particular concert – I don’t know why it was this one. It was in 1980 in Atlantic City and my dad was playing with the great Mongo Santamaria so I turned to my mother and I said, ‘Mom I want to try to play the bass,’ and without flinching she said, ‘Okay fine. We will get you a bass.’
There were never any comments like, ‘You don’t want to be a musician,’ or, ‘You want a real job.’ I know a lot of musicians go through that with their parents. Parents often think being a musician is not a ‘real job’ they say, ‘You got to be a doctor, you got to be a lawyer, do something where you get a steady pay check.’
PC: That seems to be a common thing amongst the successful actors and musicians I’ve interviewed: a lot put their success down to their mother’s unwavering support.
CM: I was always fortunate and I know, had I been playing bass for a year or two and decided I didn’t like it and wanted to do something else, she would have supported that. But the minute I touched my first electric bass, I fell in love with it and I knew that’s what I wanted to do with my life.
PC: Your uncle was a big influence too wasn’t he?
CM: Yes and he is the jazz historian of the family. Once I got to middle school and started playing the double bass he got so excited. He invited me over to his house and he played all these jazz albums for me for hours and he was explaining the music to me as we were listening. And I got so much joy out of experiencing his joy because he would listen to (well he still does this) [when] he listens to records he actually responds physically: he snaps his fingers or stomps his feet or he’s always nodding his head. There is something about the music that always makes him move. Even if it’s music that’s sort of abstract, he always finds some place in the music to escape to and I think watching my uncle listen to music made me want to play jazz.
PC: It must have been as equally exciting for him to think you were absorbing it and you were excited about the music. It would be the same for you, if you were doing that with a youngster now I suppose.
CM: After I spent that afternoon with him, I was hooked – I wanted to learn about jazz. About a week later Uncle Howard brought me a stack of albums to listen to. He said, ‘Here’s some music to get you started on your musical journey.’
PC: Whose recordings did he bring over?
CM: Oh everybody: Miles Davis, Charles Mingus. But the record that really captured my attention was the famous 1953 concert of Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Bud Powell, Charles Mingus and Max Roach – Jazz At Massey Hall that record was called. That album really sealed the deal for me. I wanted to be nothing but a jazz musician. The energy that came off of that record, the joy, the energy, the power, the fun that they were having on that record. I knew who Dizzy Gillespie was and hearing him… if you know that recording well you can hear Dizzy egging the band members on whilst they are soloing – he is shouting and laughing, I mean, he is really silly. He totally earned his nickname: he was always a bit of a comedian, you can actually hear it in this record and so this genius music being played by these five gentleman who really seem like they are having fun! I think that’s what really captured me about that album.
PC: And if you put that album on now, does it stir up those same emotions for you?
CM: Same, same emotions, that’s right.
PC: How would you define, or how would you sum up with words, what the word ‘jazz’ means to you?
CM: You know it when you feel it.
PC: Is it like how an artist paints: something that is formulated or created in your mind and then your instrument is an extension of your thoughts that you use to express yourself? Or does it work in a different way? For example: when a rapper ‘raps’ he is telling a story, is your instrument doing that?
CM: Oh very much so, very much so. I think rappers who can freestyle, they are jazz musicians at heart – they are improvising. I’ve always felt that rappers who can freestyle, that’s how you separate the men from the boys. I think really great rappers are ones who aren’t afraid to work with jazz musicians.
PC: I was surprised at the various genres of musicians you have worked with. You’re in that same position, in that you are quite happy to work with rappers, which some people might be surprised about.
CM: Yeah, I am as happy to work with them as I am a chamber orchestra.
PC: What path did you take from the point of your uncle bringing over those records, to going to Juilliard?
CM: At the same time I was learning jazz, I was learning classical music. I was playing in the school orchestra and taking private lessons for the first time and learning orchestral repertoire and I fell in love with that as well. In fact my first bass teacher, her name is Margie Keefe, she took me to my first classical concert. She took me to see Yo-Yo Ma with The Philadelphia Orchestra and this would have been late 1983 – early 1984.
PC: How old were you then?
CM: I was 11 and I’d never been to a symphony orchestra concert before, seeing the orchestra in their tuxedos… Riccardo Muti was conducting and he was a legend in Philadelphia. Yo-Yo Ma comes out and he played. One of the pieces he played that night was the Haydn Cello Concerto in D major and, just like with Dizzy Gillespie, I could see he was having so much fun: it was not work for him, you could tell that he took great joy in learning how to play this piece.
Even in middle school I saw how serious all of the classical musicians were, they treated a piece of music as if, if they didn’t learn it correctly they were going to die! I thought, ‘Man, it shouldn’t be that serious.’ You can learn everything about the nuance of music and learn how to express it to a place where you think it’s appropriate, without having it be an unpleasant experience. When I saw Yo-Yo Ma that night he sort of ruined it for me because every classical musician I ever met or saw after that, my example was Yo-Yo Ma and he was smiling and having fun – it almost looked as if he was dancing with his cello. I thought, ‘That’s a beautiful place to be, if you are playing music.’
PC: Yes and it’s the same with Louis Armstrong when he’s singing and playing, nothing beats that big broad smile, he has such joy and love for what he’s doing.
CM: That’s right!
PC: You went to Juilliard but left because you were getting paid work continually. How did your parents react to you quitting such an illustrious institution? Were they cool with that?
CM: Well it took my mother a few minutes to process when I told her that I didn’t want to go back to Juilliard for my second year. She was a little worried as I’m sure any parent would be. But after having a long heart talk conversation with her she said, ‘Well, I trust you. I think that you know what you are doing.’ That’s how it happened and at that point I was already working with Roy Hargrove, I was working with Bobby Watson and I’d started working with Freddie Hubbard.
PC: Yeah, I watched an interview where you talked about the second time you performed with Freddie. Can you retell it quickly for those who haven’t heard it?
CM: Well it was the first time that I actually subbed a gig in his quintet, in his touring band. (I had played with him once before but I didn’t think he remembered, I was part of the house band somewhere in the south). I finally got the call to play with his quintet – his actual quintet. He just didn’t acknowledge me the whole night, I was just this anonymous no-faced bass player – or so I thought – and at the end of the night he told the audience, ‘Can I have a round of applause for my new bass player.’ He actually said that over the microphone! That was just so incredible and so, for the next two-and-a-half years I had a wonderful time playing with him.
PC: Wow! What was he like as a person? A nice man? Genuine?
CM: Freddie: he was a beautiful man. He was a wonderful, spirited man. He had some demons, like I think many of his generation had, but he was a wonderful person to be around, and I learned so much from him. I think about him everyday.
PC: Who did you hook up with after you finished playing with Freddie?
CM: Freddie started having lip problems and he was having trouble playing the trumpet and it was becoming difficult for him to work, so I went on my first tour with Pat Metheny, that was in 1993. In 1993-94 that was between Pat Metheny and Joshua Redman. Joshua Redman’s band at that time was, of course, with Brad Mehldau and Brian Blade as well as myself. I enjoyed playing with Joshua, who was up and coming at that time. The irony of Joshua’s band was that, although I was the youngest in the band, I was the one who had the most experience because I had already played with Freddie and I’d been playing with Benny Green, I’d played with Bobby Watson and Roy Hargrove – so Joshua was probably the least experienced out of anyone in his own band!
PC: How did you get you get these calls? Was it literally that you were so good? I mean you have worked with everybody!
CM: The thing about jazz is word of mouth is still the most powerful way in. You are talking about getting the word out on a particular musician. Then if you go out and prove it, then word spreads even quicker.
PC: I loved your comments when you were defending Jerome Jennings – when someone called him out and said he wasn’t ready to play alongside you – and you said it was more important for someone to be feeling the music than to necessarily having had tons of experience. I thought that was a really encouraging thing to say. I like that you stood up for him.
CM: Well you know I also realised that social media is like a… it can be a toilet, you know. Often people decide to say the worst of things on social media: their anonymity gives them this false sense of toughness and they make their opinions as such where they would never say them to that person to their face.
PC: I had my first troll yesterday but I just decided to ignore them, crazy talk though.
CM: That’s the best thing, the last thing you want to do is actually engage a troll.
That piece you were referring to about Jerome – the comment that, that person left was something like: ‘Jerome didn’t know the heads, or didn’t know the arrangements’ or something like that. I replied that it was Jerome’s very first concert with me – he’d literally never played with me before that video – [there] was a lot of pressure (playing his first concert with me) and it was also going to be a television show… and then on YouTube you get some jackass coming and going, ‘Oh, he didn’t really know your music!’ Well, considering it was his very first concert, I think he did a great job!
PC: You calmed them down anyway, they came back on and apologised. Who are you checking out from the new generation of bassists, or the youngsters on the jazz scene, who are making waves?
CM: There are so many good musicians on the scene now, it’s really a challenge to keep up. Just in terms of bass players, some of my favourite younger bass players actually aren’t even that young anymore – people like Ben Williams and Joe Sanders (laughs): I love Joe, I love Matt Brewer, I love this young man named Russell Hall, I love this young lady Linda Oh (who’s been working with Pat Metheny a little bit). And a lot of none bass-playing artists, just really out there killing it, I love Josh Evans a young trumpet player who plays in my quartet.
PC: Have you heard Ibrahim Maalouf? I really like him.
CM: Oh yes, of course.
PC: And Melody Gardot, I think they recorded something together.
CM: Yes she’s my home girl: she’s from Philadelphia.
PC: Another band, who I’m sure are a U.K band, called Dinosaur I like. The female trumpet player Laura Jurd is quite amazing.
CM: I am not familiar with them, thank you for putting me onto them.
PC: There are a lot of new bands who are non-jazz that are really good, I think it’s an exciting time in music right now.
CM: Yes, I think so.
PC: I always like to talk a bit of romance in my interviews, as in: how you wooed your wonderful wife?
CM: We actually met… we met twice as I like to say. I first met Melissa in 1993, she had just moved to New York – she was living in New Jersey.
PC: Is that where she is from?
CM: No, she is from Canada. She was born and raised in Edmonton and she went to college at Brown university in Rhode Island and then she moved to Washington D.C to start her professional career, which was actually in law, and whilst she was doing that she fell in love with music.
PC: I thought you were going to say she fell in love with you…
CM: No I came way later than that.
She left Washington D.C. She moved to New Jersey and started working at Prudential – all the while she was moonlighting as a jazz singer. She came to this club where I was performing one night – and it’s funny because I was sitting at the table with the ‘Marsalis girls’, a table full of the girlfriends and wives of Branford Marsalis’s group who had come to hear me play that night so Branford’s wife was there, Kenny Kirkland’s girlfriend and Jeff ‘Tain’ Watts’s girlfriend, I was sitting at a table with them. So Melissa comes walking in and all three of those ladies looked up and said, ‘Damn! Who’s that girl? She’s gorgeous!’ Now, if three women say another woman is gorgeous, she must be gorgeous! So one of them said, ‘Oh that’s that girl Melissa Walker. She just moved here from D.C. She’s a singer.’ And even at age 21 I knew I was much too young and too stupid to ever approach her, to ask for a date or such. I just knew I wasn’t ready. She was much too beautiful!
PC: Way out of your league… (laughs)
CM: Exactly! So at some point I went over to say hello to her. I said, ‘Hi Melissa Walker. I’m Christian McBride.’ And she so casually looked up and she said, ‘I know who you are!’
PC: Ohh! You do?
CM: Yeah right! So then I would just kind of see her in jazz clubs and festivals and things like that. I’d see she would be working around town and we didn’t keep in touch – I just saw her around. So anyway fast forward 10 years…
CM: That’s how long it took, yeah. Ron Blake, who played saxophone in my quartet many, many years ago (he still plays in my big band) his wife at the time and Melissa were best friends, and so, when Ron and I started to play together, I once overheard them speaking about Melissa and they said, ‘Poor Melissa, she just seems so unhappy.’ I asked, ‘Why is she unhappy?’ She said, ‘Well, you know she is single again.’ So Ron and his wife were kind of like giving me the nudge nudge, wink wink kind of thing.
I said, ‘No! I’m a single man and I like it that way. I’m not trying to ruin my life getting married.’ All that kind of stupid stuff. I said, ‘No, no, no, I don’t want to get married! Nah, nah, nah.’
So when the war in Iraq started in 2003, there was a rally – there was a march from Times Square to Washington Square Park – and I went. So I had my picket signs, I had my buttons: I had ‘leave Afghanistan now’, ‘USA does not need to run the world’ (I still feel that way). Later that night I went to go hear Ron at a club and Melissa was there. Melissa had also been at the rally that day so we were sat there talking and she said, ‘Were you at the rally?’ I said, ‘I sure was.’ She said, ‘Oh man that’s incredible. It’s nice to know that, as busy as you are, that you found time to protest what you believe in.’ So we started talking about politics and life and music. We sat there talking for about three hours and I said, ‘You know, Melissa, in 10 years that’s the first real conversation we ever had.’ She said, ‘Yeah, isn’t that interesting.’ So I walked her to her cab and when her cab pulled away I knew that we were going to get married. That was one of the few times in my life I’ve had an epiphany. I knew she was going to be my wife just from that one conversation.
PC: Funnily enough I had a very similar scenario with my husband.
CM: Sometimes you just know. That was 15 years ago.
PC: That’s sweet I love that story. Your wife sang the vocals on your recording of Mr Bojangles?
CM: Yeah on “Upside Down” and “Mr Bojangles”.
PC: I’d like to get your wife’s take on the romance, there’s often slight differences: the guy remembers one thing and the lady another.
CM: See if our statuses collaborate.
PC: I heard in an interview that you promised yourself as a younger man, that should you ever have the opportunity to give something back you would, and you are doing that in spades with the school Jazz House Kids: is that correct?
CM: Yes Jazz House Kids. It’s in Montclair, New Jersey where Melissa and I live and that’s an organisation that actually Melissa started – literally just before we met. She had been called up to do some masterclasses for our local jazz radio station here WBGO. They had a kids’ programme back then, where they would go into different elementary schools or some sort of space in the neighbourhood and have a musician come and do a master class, and so they asked Melissa. At the time Melissa had no experience in doing that – she said she was so nervous about being in front of young kids because, you know, young kids are brutal.
PC: Yeah they can be a tough audience.
CM: Right! So she did it and she fell in love with it and she fell so much in love with it she decided she would start an organisation teaching kids through jazz: the organisation just had its 15th anniversary celebration back in October.
I’m very proud of what the school has been able to do in helping a lot of young musicians learn about this great history; they learn how to express themselves through the jazz language and they just keep themselves doing something positive.
PC: Do you do a masterclass there yourself?
CM: On occasion. I am on the road most of the time so I’m rarely around to give masterclasses there. I certainly give them all the time on the road. Even if I don’t have the chance to do masterclasses, anytime some young kids or some college students come to the show I am more than happy to spend time with them afterwards.
PC: The government the U.K has slashed funding for children learning an instrument in schools which is a shame. My own son played the trumpet throughout his last year in primary and all the way through high school and benefited greatly. It boosted his confidence, taught him discipline and respect and he had a lot of fun playing in concerts.
CM: Which is why an organisation like Jazz House Kids, or any other organisation that does work like that, is so important now because there used to be the issue of getting children interested in playing music, well now there are two problems: there are kids that we are trying to get interested in playing an instrument and if they do become interested in playing an instrument where are they going to lean how to play it? Sometimes this world we live in gets… the more we make progress, we are regressing in so many ways.
PC: Yeah absolutely and someone (I can’t remember who) was saying that nowadays kids think X-Factor or The Voice, is real music, because that’s the only picture they have – and it’s often pre-fabricated to be presented in such a way rather than real, raw music.
PC: So you have worked with so many people, do you have a personal highlight of one person you have worked with, or is that just impossible to choose?
CM: James Brown! That’s always easy, anytime you get to share the stage with your childhood hero…
PC: What was James Brown like? Did you get much of a chance to know him or not at all?
CM: Oh did I! It’s much too long of a story but you know the James Brown story has been told so often. James Brown was a number of people and they could interchange at the drop of a hat.
PC: Tell me more.
CM: The phrase ‘self-made man’ gets thrown around a little too casually sometimes – anytime you get some tough guy who doesn’t do well at taking orders they call [him] a ‘self-made man’ – but James Brown very much was that: in the sense that he grew up with no parents. I mean, obviously he had parents he had to get into this world, but he was raised by his aunt from the time he was four years old.
He grew up in a brothel with very little education. I think he dropped out of school in the 7th grade and he wound up going to jail, at age 14 – 15 (I believe it was at a juvenile prison). Growing up in the South at that time, particularly in the Deep South, one will never really know just how hard [it was for] a young kid with no parents and no education and no money could live. Going to prison in his teen years, that’s a level of strife that I don’t think most people can identify with; you read about it and we intellectualise it, but unless you have experienced it, no one really knows just how hard James Brown had it.
He decides that he loves music and then this man literally pulled himself out of his own doldrums to become this major superstar that he became and he did it from pure drive. He was not going to let his life be that way. He was going to get out of that life. He was going to teach himself about business. He was not scared to make mistakes because he understood very early in life, as much as we try to avoid mistakes, mistakes is actually how you learn.
James Brown was much more intense than the most intense army drill sergeant. Playing with James Brown was very much like being in the military: there was no such thing as being tired [that] was never an option because for him, he thought, ‘Look how hard I worked to be who I am, therefore you should have no excuse!’ James Brown thought, ‘If you had the benefit of going to school, graduating from high school, graduating from college, having both of your parents – there is absolutely no excuse for you to be doing at least as good as me!’ So he never, never understood the concept of laziness or underachieving – you know that didn’t compute with him. (Laughs heartily) ‘What do you mean you graduated from college and don’t have a job? Well, make a job!’ His thing wouldn’t be like: if you are trying really hard to find a job and you can’t find a job then create your own job.
PC: Yeah, no-nonsense, no excuses!
CM: No excuses!
PC: How did you get involved with James Brown?
CM: Well I loved him so much – I’ve actually been working on a book for the last six years now about my time spent with James Brown, just kind of tracking him down, becoming a part of his world. I know that in James Brown’s world I was very much a very tiny, minuscule part but for me, I loved his music and I was influenced by him so much, just to be able to spend the times we did, particularly in the late ‘90s and also right before he died, when we played together at The Hollywood Bowl, that meant the world to me.
PC: How did you get to connect with him for the very first time?
CM: The very first time I met him I was a kid. My Uncle Butch (my mother’s brother) he took me backstage to meet him at the Uptown Theater in North Philadelphia when I was 11 years old. I’d never been that scared and mesmerised! There’s the great James Brown standing in front of me, I don’t know what to say. But the next time I got to meet him, I met him backstage at The Apollo Theater when he was making what turned out to be Live At The Apollo volume 4 album.
The first time I met him – where we actually had a conversation, when he knew who I was – that was in the following year, the summer of 1995. We were staying in the same hotel in Vienna, Austria. By then I’d got to know a number of his band members, the security guards and my first record had just come out so a lot of people in his organisation knew who I was, so I got to meet and talk to James Brown in the lobby.
PC: What would you even say to James Brown?
CM: I had sent him a copy of my first CD which is called Gettin’ To It the actual song “Gettin’ To It” was based on a James Brown song called “Get It Together” so when I reminded Mr Brown of this, he actually knew what I was talking about. I couldn’t believe it! Which you know he obviously listened to it and that really, really just…
PC: Blew your mind!
CM: Yeah, you know and then there’s a lot more story that goes after that but that’s how it started.
PC: I was looking at your quartet, Jawn, is it pronounced? It’s a Philly word, yes?
CM: Jawn – the J is actually pronounced. It’s basically a substitute word for ‘thing’.
PC: Would you like to tell me about the other guys, for those who don’t know?
CM: Sure! I have the great Nasheet Waits on drums – Nasheet of course spent many years playing with Jason Moran’s Bandwagon and a lot of great people – Fred Hirsch, Tom Harrell and Antonio Hart.
When I first started the quartet I didn’t know how to describe the sound that I was hearing in my head but I know that, rhythmically, I wanted somebody who was very flexible, you know like elastic, but who also had a lot of fire and I couldn’t think of anyone else other than Nasheet – I just assumed that he would be too busy to join my band. We had our first gig at The Village Vanguard in December of 2015 or 2014 (I can’t remember) but Nasheet came in, he did a great job and he seemed to enjoy himself and from that point on he’s been ‘The Man’.
I love working with him and our trumpet player Josh Evans. I always love to try and stay current on who the young guys [are] out there who are really ‘chillin’ it. I’d been hearing Josh’s name around, people really seemed to like him and so I went on YouTube to do a little research. I go to YouTube and I put in Josh Evans trumpet and a lot of videos came up and I saw that he had a big band that he led at Smalls in New York. Musically we just seemed to be on the same page: liked the same people, we listened to the same records. I think we think the same in terms of… just everything music we seem to agree on – so he’s been the guy on trumpet.
Marcus Strickland: I have to go out of my way to let Marcus know that I don’t take him for granted, because he is so rock solid! Every band that he plays in he is always amazing! If you know somebody who is always going to hit a home run, someone who is always going to sound great, going to be professional, you call Marcus Strickland. He has been such a grounding force in that band: he brings a lot of stability and he just gives us a nice foundation, in both music and personality-wise. He’s just one of my favourite musicians of all time.
PC: That is quite a special line up!
CM: You haven’t heard this band yet live, have you?
PC: No I haven’t but I know you are playing The Union Chapel in London in July. I hope I shall be able to at least catch you. Are you coming with the band?
CM: I think you will like it. I hope you like it.
PC: You have a new album coming out this year?
CM: Yes, has don’t think it will be released before the summer. I think, right now, the schedule is for it to be released in August.
PC: Getting back to The Vanguard: I very much like your Live at The Village Vanguard album and especially “Fried Pies” – I love that one.
You have a two-week slot each December at the Vanguard?
PC: All of us die-hard fans of NBC’s The Blacklist know about the Vanguard because it’s mentioned by your friend Mr Spader who, as his character Red Reddington, does one of his monologues where he says, ‘I want one more night of jazz at the Vanguard,’ so it was brought to everyone’s attention.
PC: How did you hook up with James or how do you know him, I suppose?
CM: Well I only know him because he’s a regular. I guess, starting three or four years ago, he started coming to see me at least twice during both of my weeks at the Vanguard. We just got to be friends. I love the fact that he goes there all the time. He might be the biggest celebrity jazz fan that I know of.
PC: I know and he’s so open about it. There are quite a few of the fans of The Blacklist who have turned up there merely to see James Spader, but then it’s a win for you because some say, ‘Oh, and I saw Christian McBride.’
CM: I know, right! When he went on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon, later that day, I got a text message from Questlove: he said, ‘Make sure your wife tapes the show tonight. James gave you a real big shout out.’ And he wrote, ‘I mean really big!’
PC: It’s not bad having James Spader as your promo guy is it? (Both laugh).
I saw some of your photos together as well. Is it pipes you have in one of the photographs?
CM: Yes, I have been smoking a pipe for almost 10 years now.
PC: Stop being a bad influence on the man.
CM: I know!
PC: Is the Vanguard a special venue for you? How does it compare to a bigger venue?
CM: It all depends. I think that smaller venues, at least when it comes to jazz, you can feel the music better; you are literally closer to the music and the energy on stage. But I love big venues as well; you can find as much as a vibe in a larger venue as well. I’ve had some wonderful performances in larger venues.
PC: Like the Hollywood Bowl with James Brown!
CM: Yeah, that’s probably the largest venue anyone can play – I mean, unless you play a stadium. The Hollywood Bowl is 17,500 seats, so that’s a lot of people to try and touch.
PC: Does the late night jazz scene fit in with your nocturnal leanings? Are you a morning person or are you not fit to talk to until you have had some coffee? Does jazz suit you, being out at night or at a late hour?
CM: I was talking with a friend of mine yesterday (my producer at the NPR show that I host, Jazz Night In America) she was telling me that when she was in high school, her jazz band used to rehearse at 7 o’clock in the morning. We were all sitting at the table like: ‘Who plays jazz at 7 o’clock in the morning? Unless you’ve been up all night?’
CM: So no, I’m very much a night person. I’m quite nocturnal.
PC: How about your wife, is she the same or is she like ‘for goodness sake Christian, will you get out of bed!’?
CM: Not at all, we are opposites like that. It annoys her every now and then because she will go to bed at a regular hour like most people and I’m wired. I want to play or write some music and then she will wake up after like an hour or two and say, ‘It’s 1 o’clock you should come to bed,’ I’m like, ‘1 o’clock is early!’
PC: Then it gets to 8 a.m. and she’s opening the curtains, pulling the duvet back and shouting, ‘C’mon Christian! It’s late. Let’s go!’
CM: That’s right! (laughs)
PC: Who would feature in your all-star line up, alive or dead?
CM: I think that I was lucky enough to almost play in the dream band I wanted to play in.
My fantasy band that I could play in, would probably be: Freddie Hubbard on Trumpet, Wayne Shorter playing saxophone, Bobby Hutchinson on the vibes. I’m not sure who would play piano, I don’t know if it would be McCoy Tyner or Herbie Hancock (that’s a hard one). And I think Tony Williams on drums.
PC: Imagine that! Do you have a name for your most cherished instrument? Like Willie Nelson’s guitar is called ‘Trigger’?
CM: I have named all of my instruments. My two acoustic basses are called Matilda and Minnie.
PC: Names you like, or a reference to something?
CM: The bass that I’ve had the longest – it’s a German bass that was built in the early nineteen hundreds – it’s a three quarter-sized bass and the shoulders on this bass are relatively small compared to a lot of basses, it’s not a very wide bass, so that’s why I call it ‘Minnie’.
PC: Does it still sound good now?
CM: That’s been the bass that I’ve used for most records since the mid ‘90s. She still sounds absolutely awesome and Matilda is the bass that I got in Australia: that’s why she is called ‘Matilda’.
PC: Have you ever harboured any longings of wanting to be in a movie portraying a musician? You do seem very natural in front of the camera.
CM: No, never had an urge to be in front of a camera. If I were ever in front of the camera I would rather have a silly, comedic role.
PC: You have worked with a local lad from my hometown in North East England, Sting, who is a favourite of mine. How did you connect with him?
CM: I think it was through Chris Botti. I had done some work with Chris in the studio in 1999, and also in 2000 I played on two of his recordings. On both of those sessions he used musicians from Sting’s band. I guess in the spring of 2001 my manager called me and said, ‘Hey! I got some good news. Somebody from Sting’s office called and Sting wants you to play on his next album. A live album in Italy.’ I thought, ‘Wow!’ That was just… I couldn’t believe it. I couldn’t even process that. Man, I was going to play with Sting! A live album!
So I flew to Italy to rehearse with him for a few days. As you well know, the concert was scheduled for September 11th so I flew to Italy on September 1st. Since I was the new guy in the band he wanted to fly me over early, so I could rehearse with him and get to know the music a little bit before the rest of the band arrived. We had a wonderful ten days together. Then we all know what happened.
Actually the night before the concert, all of the guests showed up – we had a sort of dress rehearsal/warm up concert on the 10th. On that night Sting pulled me aside and said, ‘Hey man, I want to talk to you about some future work.’ He said, ‘I really enjoy having you in the band. I think you make a nice addition and I’d like to see if you would be interested in staying in the band.’ I went, ‘Are you kidding? Absolutely!’ So I played with him for the next year-and-a-half.
PC: You look very comfortable with him. You obviously hit it off.
CM: I love the fact that we still get to work together on occasion, 18-year relationship.
PC: I watched the video of you interviewing him and you were asking if he had seen certain people perform back in the day and he was saying, ‘No, no we couldn’t afford to do that,’ which was very much the case in Newcastle and the North East.
CM: I can’t remember if I asked him this in that interview, but one of my favourite stories he ever told me was about the first time he saw Jimi Hendrix. I can only imagine, if you see Jimi Hendrix for the first time in 1968, I’m sure your mind was blown. Sting said he was sitting there in the audience thinking, ‘What planet is this guy from?’ He’d never seen anything like that. He’d never heard anything like that. Sting said his mouth was hanging open.
PC: I bet it was! Gosh! How far do your musical tastes extend, not in playing terms but as in the Christian McBride road trip mix tape?
CM: Oh man, you are literally going to hear a little bit of everything! You are going to hear a lot of James Brown!
PC: That’s a given!
CM: At least 50% of the playlist will be James Brown, the other 50% would be a lot of jazz, a lot of classical music, you may even hear some country music. You spoke of Willie Nelson: I love Willie Nelson; I love Dolly Parton; I love Patsy Cline.
PC: Have you heard Willie Nelson’s son Lukas? I love his music.
CM: I’ve worked with Lukas. I played with him at a performance in San Francisco: Lukas was on it and Bob Weir from the Grateful Dead.
PC: No way! You are just too cool. Was that performance recorded? I’d like to see it.
CM: I don’t think so, it was for a fundraising event. It was wonderful to play with him. Yes, Lukas is really good and getting to work with his dad, of course, that was a big thrill. I played on a Willie Nelson [album] called, I think, American Classic.
PC: And now a very important question: do you dance?
CM: Yes, I have to admit, I do dance.
PC: Yes! That’s good! I like a man who dances!
CM: You know James Brown is my hero so… any kid that loves James Brown will try to dance like him.
PC: Do you succeed?
CM: Oh yeah! One day I’m sure some footage will leak out. (Laughing)
PC: Yeah I’m going to go right to Sting or James Spader now and say, ‘Oh yes Christian said it was okay to talk about that.’
PC: Do you remember what the first record you ever bought was? Or did you not buy records because you were going to see live gigs?
CM: Oh no. I remember I was in middle school – I must have been 12 years old. When I was in 7th grade, there was one time in my life I was very academically accomplished so I made it onto this list: The Presidential’s All-American Academic list, and I got into this national directory (there’s like a big book). I think it might have been 1000 students in the United States who all had 3.8 to 4.0 GPAs. I was one of those students so I got in the book and everything. I’m sure my mother still has it.
As a reward for my good grades, my mother took me to a record store and she said, ‘Pick out your own record.’ Because this was also the time when I was starting to really fall in love with jazz.
The timing was absolutely perfect because (this would have been in 1984) this was the year Blue Note Records started to reissue a lot of their classic albums from the ‘50s and early ‘60s. And so I remember, inside this record store there was a Blue Note wall, and there must have been about 12 classic Blue Note albums that had just been issued and remastered. I remember seeing Horace Silver, Jimmy Smith, Wayne Shorter, Art Blakey. I’m just staring at these albums, ‘Wow! Look at that!’ And my mother said, ‘Well go ahead and pick on, whichever one you want.’ So the first jazz album I ever picked out was Wayne Shorter’s Juju.
PC: And do you still have it?
CM: Oh absolutely!
PC: You keep on surprising me. I thought you might have said, ‘Oh no it got lost.’
CM: No, no. See, because my uncle (my mother’s brother), he worked for a radio station, to him albums were like real estate: you take care of this, don’t let it get water damage, don’t scratch it, so you know, albums were like gold in our home.
PC: Sacred! Is there a song that holds a special place on your heart or evokes a certain memory?
CM: No matter how many times I listen to it I still get teary-eyed, and that’s probably Frank Sinatra’s version of ‘”My Heart Stood Still”.
PC: Is that associated with anything or just because you love it?
CM: I just love it. You hear songs about romance, you hear the orchestra. You can tell Sinatra did not rehearse – he did not sing with rehearsed emotions. You could tell he did not have a coach that says, ‘You know, you really got to get the message across, close your eyes when you sing.’ It’s like it’s natural emotion. The story of the song has so much emotion in it already, you don’t have to close your eyes and be dramatic when you sing it – the story is dramatic enough.
PC: What is your favourite or most used word? You are allowed to swear but I’m sure you are a gentleman.
CM: Thank you. You are very kind (laughing). I almost wonder if you should ask my wife… I don’t even know if I am conscious of a word I use all the time. Oh I believe that when I’m making points – like if I’m talking to someone doing a workshop or a masterclass and I start telling stories about what happens, about my experiences on the road – I notice that I often use the phrase (it’s not a word) ‘you know, it’s funny’.
PC: How would you spend your perfect day?
CM: My perfect day is laying in bed with my iPad, watching a sporting event.
PC: And then you get up to go out for lunch… and at night to your favourite club… no?
CM: Err no. I would just stay in bed the whole day! And the evening!
PC: What could you not live without (apart from music and sport)?
CM: Comedy. I think this world has forgotten how to laugh, that really breaks my heart.
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