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Cecil McBee: Masterful, And Always Equipped

R.J. DeLuke By

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I am just beginning my career. That's the way I feel in terms of what I'm doing.
—Cecil McBee
Cecil McBee is one of the finest bass players on the scene, a status he's held among musicians for many years, even if the public is slower to pick up on the achievements of this 79-year-old musician extraordinaire.

A natural, he was quick to connect with musicians in his hometown of Tulsa, Oklahoma. But helping him along the road to becoming a top-flight musician was a series of encounters where people would come asking for him. They were people he didn't know, but who would boost him to the next step, the next chapter.

In each of these episodes, there was a degree of good fortune. But it was more than that. Each time someone came looking for the young Okie who could play the bass, McBee was equipped. He wasn't an advanced player when regional blues favorite Jimmy "Cry Cry" Hawkins came calling on the high school lad. But he was equipped enough to make the gig. He didn't have much experience when the strong tenor saxman Red Prysock asked for him. But he was equipped enough. He wasn't fully formed as a player when his high school music teacher told him, "Boy, get your ass to school," meaning off to college. But he was equipped.

The circumstances McBee encountered kept him on the road to a place not many people reach. He is a bassist of distinct flair, respected by others, and a fertile composer of jazz music with feeling and sophistication. He's played over the years with Elvin Jones, McCoy Tyner, Miles Davis, Keith Jarrett, Wayne Shorter, Charles Lloyd, Lester Bowie, Arthur Blythe, Jack DeJohnette, Joe Lovano, Ravi Coltrane and many more. These days, he is part of the superb, hard-driving septet, the Cookers, that has been making waves in the jazz world for few years now, gaining many fans along the way.

Even with all that, the good-natured and sharply perceptive McBee doesn't peer back with a retrospective view, though no one could possibly blame him if he did. Instead, McBee is alert for the next challenge. The road lies ahead. He's ready to explore more music with with the attitude of the kid in his 20s who departed for Detroit to make his bones in the jazz world, and eager to leave his mark in that world by drawing attention to his compositions and adding more to that compendium.

"It's been a great life for me," says McBee relaxing on an autumn afternoon. "Quite frankly, and I say this convincingly: I am just beginning. I am just beginning my career. That's the way I feel in terms of what I'm doing on the stage, the way I'm writing and teaching and existing in this world of music, at this level and at this point in my life. I am just beginning."

One of the things that has given McBee a jolt in recent years is the Cookers, a collection of excellent musicians, many of whom he has known and played with going back decades. It features the "younger" set of trumpeter David Weiss and saxophonist Donald Harrison, and the older veterans who have been friends, musically and otherwise, for longer: saxophonist Billy Harper, trumpeter Eddie Henderson, pianist George Cables and drummer Billy Hart. Their CD Time and Time Again (Motema Records) is one of the year's best.

"It's going great. Realistically, the popularity of the group, as I was discussing with my wife this morning at breakfast, is moving on up," he says."Wherever we are performing, people are coming out by the numbers and have proven to be very excited about what we're doing. As a person that's been around for awhile, it's truly rewarding for me to be around something like that."

The recording, "brings a lot of joy to me personally," he says, "because a lot of my music hasn't been heard over time as well as it should be." He has two compositions on the record, "Slippin' and Slidin'" and "Dance of the Invisible Nymph." McBee began writing music with frequency in the 1970s and it's something he takes pride in. "At that particular time, my music was considered a little too far out or unattainable conceptually, for what was going on at the time. That has been eventually erased and cast out. It seems that my creativity is now being heard and appreciated loud and clear."

He explains "Dance of the Invisible Nymph" is something he began working on in Germany for the Cookers. "I sat at the piano and came up with a tune with a bass line that was in 5/4. To answer that statement, the only response was a bar of 6/4. So rather than challenge the guys to play [counts aloud the two time signatures], I just put the bars together and I ended up with an 11/4 measure. I was forced to write a melody on top of that. It took me three and a half months. It turns out it really swings. To the extent it makes you want to move your body and dance a little bit, which is why I included the word 'dance.' [in the title] I thought I'd get your attention with 'of the invisible nymph.' [chuckles] But it has a nice feeling to it ... 'Slippin' and Slidin'' is a blues that's a little bit varied. Those tunes have been highly regarded, in performance. So I'm really happy about what I'm doing compositionally."

The bands soloing is always crisp and fiery, but they retain a group sound. Part of that is because they have all been around the block a few times, and have prior musical association in most cases.

"Being that we're rather mature musically, and personally, it gives us reason to accept all the varietal dimensions of the music that transpires. The variety of music that we have easily, measurably provides quality listening because of the flexibility of each individual mind toward things we feel are rather novel. So the combination of the past, the moment, and even bits of the future, are something people are picking up on and we're all excited about that."

Says drummer Hart, "We have similar experiences. Not only musical. We see the world similarly. When things are stressful, like when George Cables had to have his liver and kidney operation and we thought we were going to lose him, we would pull together. It's more of a family ... I moved to New York in 1968. How many years is that? That's when I first met George and Billy Harper. And I knew Eddie Henderson before that. Cecil McBee, I met in '64 or '65. So when it's a distressful situation, we can all share that. But most times, it's a joyful situation. It's really funny. It makes me wonder what we would have been like if we were members of a corporation." [chuckles]

McBee, always the composer, says he's working on a Cecil McBee Songbook that will include tunes he's written over the years and new ones. He'd like to see many of them recorded as well. "This was inspired by an ex-student of mine. There are 25 or 30 tunes that I've written from the 70s until now that have never been heard. I'm excited to get those compositions heard and eventually to find myself in the studio, surrounded by my music, with Cecil McBee on the bass. Hopefully, that's what's coming."

"I'm excited to immerse myself in the center of my compositions, my music, which hasn't been done in a great long time, and express myself that way. I think people will hear who I really am, which I think has gotten past the wanting years. It appears the people in position at recording companies have not realized what I can do on paper and even what I can do on the bass. Which is why I've never been able to get recording dates or many gigs to state, on stage, in the presence of audiences, that I'm a composer and bassist."

Another steady gig for McBee is being part of the Saxophone Summit group with Lovano, Coltrane and Dave Liebman. It includes Hart on drums and Phil Markowitz on piano. He also performs with pianist Yosuke Yamashita out of Tokyo. "He calls it the New York Trio. Pheeroan AkLaff [drums] and I have been traveling to Japan for 25 years, consecutively for the most part, each fall to do tours."

Strangely enough, McBee's first instrument was clarinet, which he started playing in his middle school years in Tulsa. "Almost immediately, I was selected as the best clarinetist. I placed myself in this bubble of joy, that I was so popular; I could play better than others." He was to replace a graduating senior. He had an awakening when he was asked to play a piece of classical music, but couldn't cut all the passages. "Why? Because all the time, from middle school to then, I was not reading. I was playing by ear. When the music showed up on the paper, I had to respect its worth. I couldn't play, so that very day my teacher put me into private lessons."

McBee continued to play clarinet in high school and would eventually go to college on a clarinet scholarship. But toward the end of his junior year, after band practice, he was putting his instrument away in a storage closet. As fortune would have it, there was something obstructing his way. Maybe it was patiently waiting for discovery.

"I looked down and there was a bass. An old metal bass. Dust was all over it. The first thing that hit me was I'd been reaching over that bass for almost two years, not even noticing. So I picked it up. I pulled one of the strings. And that was it. I tried to play some boogie woogie on it. Then I brought it to some of the jam sessions. The word got out after a month or so that there was a new bassist in town," he says, chuckling at he recollection. There weren't many bass players around and McBee was enjoying it, jamming around Tulsa.

One particular evening during a jam session, there was a knock at the door. The man who entered was a site to see. "He had long, shiny shoes. Big bell-type pants and a plaid coat. He had a gold tooth and his hair all slicked back. A big smile. A very dark-skinned fella. And he asked for Cecil McBee. And my buddy said, 'Wow, man. Do you know who that is? That's Jimmy 'Cry Cry' Hawkins Turns out Jimmy was a great, popular blues singer in the community. He was looking for a bassist. I ended up going with him and that was my intro into the world of music. I played the saxophone for the first couple of gigs. The third gig was at a high school for a junior-senior prom. They had a bass in the music room. I went down and got the bass and played the gig and I have not looked back. I was 17."

It was quite an experience for the young McBee. "Jimmy 'Cry Cry' was one who would eventually, when singing the blues, stand on his head and cry. He would support himself with one hand, with his feet in the air, and the microphone in his left hand, singing the blues, crying for his lady to come back. It was rather humorous, but effective for the audience."

After some time, the blues bassist was rehearsing for Hawkins' at the Flamingo Club in downtown Tulsa. Again, a figure walked in, seeking a bassist. The young bassist's friends were amazed, but McBee didn't know who it was. In strode Prysock. "He was a very famous saxophonist that had come to Tulsa to play a gig at a place called Clarence Love's Lounge, which was the jazz club there. He asked for Cecil McBee. It blew me away. I raised my hand. I had a bass there with me. He looked at me in a very curious manner with a rather disturbed face. He said, 'How long have you been playing?' I thought I'd impress him, I said 'three months.' He said, 'Can you play it?' I said, 'Yeah, I think so.' He said, 'Meet me tomorrow at Clarence Love's Lounge.' His bassist hadn't showed up from New York and he needed something. So I went over."

He spent a week with the band. "They played a lot of blues, which I had been accustomed to play with Jimmy. So I just had to fashion my notes for different purposes." After that, an all-female orchestra from Harlem led by Anna Mae Winburn, who went on to fame with her International Sweethearts of Rhythm, took McBee on a tour of Texas. He returned home to finish high school. "My senior year of high school was on-hand learning. When I got to college, I knew most of my changes and most of my tunes."

But at that point, going to college was not exactly on McBee's docket. An unexpected hero stepped up.

"I hadn't planned to go to college after playing music like that... Upon graduating from high school, I thought I would just hang and play music and explore the world. But my band director came by one evening. I'm the product of a single parent with six children. He literally, without invitation, came to my home. He told my mother he was going to send me to college. If she didn't like it, too bad. He pulled me out and said, 'Boy, get your ass in school. Take this ticket and get on the Santa Fe Railroad.' That was a Friday. I had to get on the train that Monday. This is the guy directing the band when I was making mistakes on clarinet. He told me, in a very forceful way, 'Get your ass in school. You be on the train at 9 o'clock Monday morning.' There was a train station not too far from me where you caught the Santa Fe Railroad that would take you to the world. I wrapped my bass in a cardboard box with rope. I had a bag of clothes and I went to college. I never looked back."

"Mr. Fields, the band director, put me on that train. My greatest hero. I thought he was going to punch me. [chuckles] 'Get your ass in school.' He knew I didn't have a father." McBee was off to Central State College in southwest Ohio and began to see the world outside Tulsa. And listen to the music of the world.

"When I arrived in college, it was absolutely wonderful. There were distinguished people there of thought, of learning. Something that I knew nothing about. The sun shone brightly in my life. Still today, I'm inspired." He was in college on a clarinet scholarship, but took the bass with him and played it in college.

McBee began to encounter serious jazz. In Oklahoma, it was mostly rhythm and blues, "and a few jazz things here and there of which I knew nothing about except playing by ear. When I got to college, there was Bird. There was Miles. My very first jazz experience that inspired me greatly was Chet Baker, the song "Isn't It Romantic." Chet Baker is out of Oklahoma City. Oscar Pettiford is out of Broken Arrow, Oklahoma, just south of Tulsa. I can go on and name Don Cherry, Charlie Christian, members of Count Basie's band [all from Oklahoma]. Tulsa, Oklahoma, represented at that time a central energy that provided great musicians to the world. I ended up picking up the bass in that environment. That's how I learned."

McBee was accepted by the older students. "These were the guys that turned me on to Miles and Charlie Parker and Shorty Rogers. All the great masters of the music. It was amazing. Music turned out to be natural to me. To hear music at that level and to have the opportunity to one day perform that way was just so exciting. Being in college was the best thing to happen to me. I never went back to Oklahoma. I never chose to return."

But not everything went smoothly. There was romance for the usually shy Tulsa kid and it affected his studies. He ended up losing his scholarship but, determined, continued working various jobs so he could continue his music education. The sporadic nature of work and other circumstances made it a drawn-out process. It took McBee seven years to finish his degree. At the end of his junior year, with jobs scarce, he found himself in Dayton, Ohio, about 30 minutes away from school. Without a college deferment, McBee was drafted. This proved fortuitous, however. He calls it "the best thing that could have happened to me because now I had a roof over my head, I had three meals a day and man, I could practice my bass."

McBee became part of the 158th Army Band at Fort Knox, Kentucky, playing clarinet again. There he met Gus Nemith, a bassist who had studied classical technique and played with two fingers. "He was so articulate. He impressed me with his ability to get around the bass with two fingers. At that point I had no formal study on the instrument and was playing with a single finger. He showed me how to play with two fingers, which is the technique I teach young players today. It opened the horizon to me toward the future."

McBee practiced the bass at every opportunity, six or seven hours a night sometimes, until the end of his military responsibility. "In the interim, I met Kirk Lightsey, who was a clarinetist. He was a pianist who was getting through the military by playing the clarinet. We became the closest of friends. When I finished the service, I went back to school because now I had enough money to finish college. I got a degree in music education. I looked up Kirk in Detroit."

He stayed at the Detroit home of Lightsey, an outstanding jazz pianist, being treated "like a second son" by Mrs. Lightsey until he got his own apartment. The two began playing around the city, particularly the Hobby Bar. "We had become the top group in the city that attracted music lovers all over," says McBee. "We played there a whole year. Bob Cranshaw, who was in town with Sonny Rollins, heard about us and came in. He advised me if I would ever come to New York, he'd have a place for me to stay, because he thought I should come to New York. He liked the way I played. One night Tony Williams came in. Another night Aretha Franklin came in. I ended up meeting Freddie Waits, a fantastic drummer, who would play with Kirk and I every once in a while. We played other gigs elsewhere throughout Detroit. Here were three men who were honing their wares out of the joy of finding success in expressing something and giving people enjoyment. I never thought of going to New York."

McBee was content, having gotten through the rigors of working different jobs and worrying about money, while getting his education. Now he was making good music; he was part of a strong scene. But one day, Waits came to him with the news that Paul Winter was looking for a bassist. "I didn't know who the hell Paul Winter was," recounts McBee. "I met Paul, he heard me play. After having been in Detroit for almost one year, I went on the road with Paul and moved to New York. I called Bob Cranshaw and he arranged for an apartment for me to stay. There was a loft there—that's how I moved to New York."

"It was wonderful," he says. "By contrast to Tulsa and even Detroit, it was a place where I could find the entirety of myself, so long as I chose to do that by working hard and being smart about it and respectful. I just went out and heard all the great bass players—Richard Davis was my main idol at the time—and other players. I would listen to them and go home and practice and practice."

Winter told McBee that pianist Denny Zeitlin was making a record that would include drummer Waits. It was good that he was now a fluent reader of music. "Denny Zeitlin had some very complex music. That album was called Cathexis (Columbia, 1964). It was on Columbia Records, on which John Hammond was the producer. I thought we fared rather well. I had never heard music of that conceptual level that had directly not much to do with triads and scales and things like that. The sounds were rather obscure to me, but going back to the clarinet years, I had a very good ear. I had experience with improvised music and I was able to fashion, reasonably well, tonal and chordal sounds that were required given the movement of the music."

"It came to a point where I had a solo. I don't know what the hell I played, but I found out later after that cut, John Hammond called into the studio and said, 'Cecil McBee, where did you get that technique? I love it.' So I became John Hammond's favorite bassist. Benny Goodman was his favorite clarinetist. Billie Holiday was his favorite singer... that kind of thing. John Hammond, after the session, took me over and signed me in as a member of ASCAP."

McBee was picking up other work as well. One day, he was practicing in his room in the Third Street loft. On his own, he had started moving beyond the two-finger technique he had learned. "I thought I would add another one and give myself one-third more possibilities." While working on that one day, he heard a conversation outside a room at the other end of the loft. After a while, someone knocked on his door. "There was this guy standing there with a funny hat on, a trombone in his hand. Stylish attire. His name was Grachan Moncur III. He said, 'McBee. I heard about you. I came to find out if you're available to do some things. I stood outside listening to you practice for a while and I like what you're doing.' I didn't know who he was. I said, 'Sure.' He asked me to a record. He said, 'Next Tuesday, meet me at Lynn Oliver Studio, 87th between West End Avenue and Broadway. That was the place where all Blue Note recordings would be rehearsed. I entered on time, at one o'clock, I almost hit the floor."

In the room chatting and getting set for the session were Tony Williams, Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock.

"I froze," says McBee, recalling the day with both respect and humor. "I had just finished practicing trying to measure up to these guys. What am I doing here? Tony and the guys had heard about me. They were caring and respectful. Happy to see me and hear me, which calmed me down. Come the music, which I was quite concerned about, Moncur put this music on my stand and I said, 'What do I do with it?' He said, 'Just play what I heard you practicing. Just play that.' The record was called Some Other Stuff (Blue Note, 1965). It was a third-stream type concept in the sense that you have no beat responsibility between the bar lines and you just play fluently, in terms of what you hear. He heard me playing that way when I was practicing. It turned out to be OK."

It led to a gig with Shorter at Slug's in New York City with Roy Haynes and Albert Dailey. "The place was packed the whole week. To this day, people talk about that band because it was very exciting for the audience and us. I remember that was really happening. By then, I'd gained a lot of confidence. I was just going where it took me, and playing pretty well at the time. That's how I entered the upper level of the music."

It also led to one of McBee's most cherished musical experiences. During the gig with Shorter, McBee noticed "this tall guy with bushy hair standing at the end of the bar. He was going gracefully wild over what we were doing. Noticeably." Afterward, the man introduced himself. Charles Lloyd approach. He had heard about the bassist and asked him to audition, in advance of a gig in Chicago. McBee agreed. But he flunked the audition. "To this day," he notes, "I can only get to my juices, to myself, when I'm on stage. I can't just practice and demonstrate to anybody that I can do this or that. I have to be on the stage. That's when it comes to me. Period."

But apparently unable to fill the bass chair, Lloyd eventually hired McBee for the gig, which included Jack DeJohnette on drums and Gabor Szabo on guitar. "It was a wonderful experience, especially with Jack, who I had become friends with on the lower east side. We hooked it up. Conceptually. Energy. The whole thing. We were like one person. Whatever would be possible or impossible, we went there. Charles fell in love with that and decided he would keep us together."

Szabo, however, was leaving the group. "Charles asked Jack if he knew a pianist. We were going to do a gig in Boston. He asked if he knew a pianist that might fit in with us. Jack said, 'Yeah. there's this young guy, 19 years of age, in Berklee. Nobody can get along with him, especially teachers because he knows more than them. They can't talk to him. They can't teach him anything.' Charles said, 'What's his name?' Jack said, 'Keith Jarrett.'"

McBee wasn't familiar with the pianist when the group hit at the Jazz Workshop in Boston, but, he says with glee, "Man, that's the best thing that ever happened to me. It was amazing. We did a record called Dream Weaver the following week. (Atlantic, 1966) We ended up going to Europe."

In the midst of that, McBee had an encounter with Miles Davis that he found less than fulfilling. He had decided he wanted more cutting-edge music than Miles was playing at the time, which was still standard-based and not yet into Miles' wilder experiments. Hancock summoned him to a rehearsal at the 77th Street Manhattan home of the trumpeter.

"Truthfully, I had no interest in Miles Davis at all, because of the excitement of having played with Keith and Jack and Charles. I had heard Miles Davis throughout my college years. I knew all about that. I wanted something different. I wanted to go into my area of thought. So we rehearsed all day. I read the music and played it rather well. I think I impressed everybody in the group. Miles was not there, but at the very end of the rehearsal, Wayne and Herbie were at the piano trying to decide how to voice a G7 chord, how to alter it. They couldn't decide what to do. All of a sudden, in through the door came Miles Davis. He went straight to the piano. I was standing next to the piano and Miles didn't acknowledge me at all. He went to the piano and played this chord that was just so beautiful. It called my attention to evidence that Miles is the one that taught everyone, conceptually, what to do at all of those levels that the world loved... Then he turned his back and walked out. Didn't say hello. Didn't say goodbye."

But at a gig in Buffalo days later, it didn't go as well. "We were called onto the stage, Miles being last and the people going crazy, he turned around and looked at me for the first time and said, 'Let's play "So What."' [counts off a fast tempo] Paul Chambers would play [medium tempo]. That's the tempo I'm used to. It's a tune we didn't practice at his home. I had never even played the tune, I had just heard it. [Counts off the fast tempo again]. I was trying to get the notes in the right place, then the bridge came. Just when Miles ends his solo, I miss a beat going into the next solo and Miles looked at me and walked off the stage."

While disappointing, says McBee "I didn't want to play with Miles in the first place. Hindsight told me I should have, because of the opportunity. I just didn't want to repeat what he had done, myself being a composer and an individualist on the instrument who's trying to explore double and triple fingering, which brings other concepts to my bass and writing. With all due respect to Miles Davis and his heroic, world-respected stuff, I was a young kid who wanted to do something else. Keith and Jack were comfortable to me. I was happy to get back to that. Playing with Charles Lloyd's group was well past where I thought Miles was at the time. [The Lloyd group] even discussed it, quite briefly, that we thought we were the select group that had the chance to take the music to the next spot. Keith, Jack, myself, and Charles—all composers."

"When we hit first in Europe, people followed us. We played the Antibes Festival in '66. People followed us all over Europe to hear us play again. We were like the young Beatles of jazz at the time. We were held in Stockholm an extra week because of the popularity of the music. They couldn't get enough people in there. That's what I'm talking about. We had this novel voice. You expected the unexpected. The expectation of something new. It was wonderful."

That was all part of the career of a bassist's bassist, who has played and recorded with some of the best that creative, improvised music has to offer. His name hasn't jumped to the forefront over the years, but he doesn't complain. He takes things in stride and continues to apply himself to his art. "With the Saxophone Summit and the Cookers the last six years, I'm existing again," he says, adding with laughter, "I saw [the great bassist] Buster Williams last night and he said, 'Man, I haven't seen you in years.' I said, 'Well, I'm here.'"

"I'm just starting out," says the artist extraordinaire. "I got a few gray hairs, but they're just starting out too... Hopefully, I can continue to evolve, which is my greatest desire. Music is something that never ends if you're thinking and your creative process is healthy."

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