The first time I saw James Brown perform live I was seven years old. It was on an old TV show called The Midnight Special, and it ruined me forever because I had never seen anybody perform before with that type of intensity, and I'd seen a bunch of great R&B performers by that time, a whole lot of the great Motown artists. But seeing James Brown in front of his band, screaming, and dancing like that... I mean it was just...I just sat in front of the television with my mouth hanging on the ground going "oh my God, what is this?!" So I was literally ruined for life. So the first time I saw him live I think I was 10-years-old, at a place in Philly called The Academy of Music, and I remember being in the audience, scared, before he came on stage. I just had never felt that kind of excitement for a concert before. For a sporting event, like a basketball game or a baseball game, yeah, you get excited, you scream for your team, but for a concert, I was nervous. I remember thinking "I don't know if I really want to be here." It was just too intense.
Even before James Brown came out on stage, you could cut the tension with a knife in the audience. I just sat in my seat like...petrified. But it certainly was one of the most memorable nights ever of my entire life, just being that close and watching this mad man perform on stage. And of course by that time I think he was in his fifties already. Everybody was so much into Michael Jackson, God rest his soul...Michael was great, too, but seeing James Brown then it became obvious where Michael got it from, so Michael didn't seem quite as impressive as everyone else thought he was. Yeah, he was great at what he did, but James Brown was such an original.
AAJ: Were you nervous when you played with James Brown? Did you feel like that 10-year-old kid again?
Christian McBride & Inside Straight
CMB: No, the irony is that when I finally got to play with him I wasn't nervous at all. I've always believed that there was some type of divine intervention when we wind up working together. I was so fortunate to have such a close, personal relationship with James Brown by the time we worked together. When that time came, when we did that concert at the Hollywood Bowl, yes, I was nervous, but I realized that I had a job to do, and I wasn't petrified like I was seeing him as a kid. I feel like I've known his music so well, I have such an intimate relationship with his music that I wasn't nervous at all. I probably should have been, but I wasn't.
AAJ: You mentioned Michael Jackson, what did it mean to you as a musician to lose somebody like him so soon?
CMB: You know, I've always felt bad for Michael Jackson. We know that ever since he was a child he had a spotlight on him. He never really had a moment where he was just able to be an anonymous citizen of the world that could just go out and do whatever he wanted to, because somebody was always chasing him, somebody always had a camera on him. I can't imagine what it feels like to have an overbearing father, just completely towering over your life, and to be that successful at such a young age to where you have no life. So I always felt very bad for Michael Jackson. Yes, he's a great artist, and he did some amazing things as a performer, but there is always a bigger part, at least to me. I always wanted him to kinda retire and get off the scene and have a life, but I guess he was never able to do that.
And then you know, the minute after he died, the second after he died, the jokes came. It was like everything I hoped that it wouldn't happen, happened. The media frenzy, the doctor killed him, that they did it on purpose, his father making a complete fool of himself doing all these interviews... I wish they wouldn't do this, but you know, welcome to America.
AAJ: So back to your music, I know there's probably a reason behind the Christian McBride, as far as why you chose to go electric for so long, for like eight years. Why did you do that? I mean, I have nothing against it, I'm just curious.
CMB: Well, first of all, I actually never thought of that band as an electric band, because I did spend most of my time playing the acoustic bass there. But yes, it was a band that had a lot of layers; it could do a lot of things other than play acoustic straight ahead jazz. Even when we played straight ahead jazz it still had that little shadow of electricity in it, and after a while, especially when we played live and did songs like "Boogie Woogie Waltz," it would get loud, so I've always heard that people only remember the last thing that they hear. So when we would play a song like that for about 15 minutes, playing all this electric, people had already completely forgotten that we played like five acoustic tunes before that. I say all of that to say that I had never thought of that band as an all electric band, but it was fun to play with that band, because that was the only band that I played in that did everything.
We could play straight ahead, we could play fusion, we could play funk, we could go classical if we wanted to, it was an all-in band. And no band that I ever played in was like that, except the Five Peace Band, the tour I did with Chick Corea and John McLaughlin. That was the closest thing I've ever experienced to a perfect band, at least something that I've always dreamt about being in, a band that could go anywhere at any time. That was another reason why Inside Straight made sense to put together, because after I played with Chick and John I didn't need to get back with my guys again, I needed to do something else.
AAJ: Are you going to put that band together again?
CMB: Oh yeah, we'll be back. We will definitely be back. I don't know when but we will be back. Everybody is so busy, doing their things, especially Ron Blake. When he joined the Saturday Night Live Band, that really changed things, because he was no longer available on Saturdays, and what kind of jazz ensemble, what kind of touring band can't work on Saturdays? So, for the longest time I had to keep finding saxophone players to sit in for him, and it became a problem after a while. But yes, sooner or later we will be back, you can believe that.
AAJ: I know you've been busy in the studio before you started touring with Inside Straight. Different collaborations with Dee Dee Bridgewater and others. Tell me a little bit about that.
CMB: It's been so many of them, fortunately. I've actually done a lot of work with Angelique Kidjo. Angelique and I, we struck up a really tight bond about two years ago. We both performed at the grand opening of the Muhammad Ali Center in Louisville, Ky. And it was one of the biggest events I've ever been a part of. Everybody was there! All of the great fighters, Lennox Lewis, Evander Holyfield, George Foreman, all of the great sports casters, James Taylor Quartet performed, I played with Herbie Hancock.
It was an amazing event, and Angelique Kidjo was one of the performers, and I told her how much of a fan I'd been of hers. And my wife, Melissa, she really loves Angelique Kidjo, (said), "go talk to her, get her number, I want you guys to work together." And I was like, well, she already had a band, and I really don't have any projects in mind to do anything with world music, but I rapped with Angelique and she likes James Brown [Laughs]. Watching her on stage you get tired. She has boundless energy. I mean, you lock yourself in a room with Angelique for about 15 minutes, and you'll be coughing, and breathing heavily and going "man, I feel like I just ran off the block," and that energy comes through her music.
I've done a lot of work with her this year. She is a guest on my duets series, Conversations with Christian; I was a guest on her new CD, coming out I think early next year; and I did another project with her, she did a special project for Starbucks, just like two songs, and I performed with her on that as well, so she is one of the people that I worked with a lot this year. And then Dee Dee Bridgewater, James Carter, Melissa Walker [Walker] has a new CD that just came out that I played on...So yeah, I guess there have been quite a number of things that I've done in the studio this year.
AAJ: And what about the Conversations with Christian, how's that going?
CMB: That's going very well. It's a monthly Podcast, that's been going on all year. The first one came out in February. And each month I released a different duet, and in February all of those duets are going to be released in one CD, and it's on unedited form. Right now the podcasts are mainly a snip of the actual performance, and it's me interviewing my guests, so when the CD comes out it will be all unedited duet performances. It's been going really, really well. It's been a dream, because I never thought that so many people would agree to do it. That's the thing I've been more shocked by it, you know? Sting did it, George Duke, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Hank Jones, Dr. Billy Taylor, Eddie Palmieri, Chick Corea, Roy Hargrove, Russell Malone, Ron Blake, Angelique Kidjo, as I mentioned earlier, Regina Carter. So it's been incredible to get to record all of those duets with all these people, and to get to interview them, talk to them. And of course that is all also part of a radio show that I am also working on for Sirius XM. So yeah, this whole thing of performing and interviewing is another new thing that I am getting used to. I blame this on my managerhe is milking me for all of my creative juices, but that's good. I am glad somebody is doing that [laughs].
AAJ: And how did you come up with the idea of the Conversations with Christian?
CMB: I don't know. All of these things kinda unfolded at the same time. The conversations, the radio show, all of it just kinda hit all at the same time. Mainly just because my manager and I were brainstorming about different things to do, and somehow this idea about...well, I know how it sort of started... I've been the executive director for the National Jazz Museum in Harlem for the last five years, and one of the free programs is a series called "Harlem Speaks," where we interview some legendary musicians, mostly from Harlem. That's how it originally started, we interviewed musicians that were based exclusively in Harlem, and most people didn't know their story; they heard them perform, but they really didn't know their stories, so we had people up there like Jimmy "The Preacher" Robinson, and we would interview them. And the series became so popular, my manager said "man, you should have a radio show just on your own, doing this kind of stuff." And that turned into "well, why don't you do a whole album of duets?" And it just spun out of control. I still do Harlem Speaks when I'm in town, I still record my radio show...so yeah there's so much stuff going on right now, it's good.
AAJ: And how is it going with the Jazz Museum of Harlem?
CMB: The jazz museum is going really, really, really, really well. We have a new building that we're going to be moving to probably in 2012. We have been designated for a new spot directly across the street from the Apollo Theater. And we also are going to be sharing that space with the New York City Department of Tourism, so there's going to be some heavy traffic on that building, and we're really, really excited about it.
AAJ: I know I actually found out about the Jazz Museum of Harlem because of you.
CMB: Well, the story goes like this...Leonard Garment is a former White House lawyer under the Nixon administration. He is a huge jazz fan, grew up in New York, played saxophone when he was a teenager, and he is retired now, and wanted to start a museum. He's been a lifelong New Yorker, and realized that there is a museum in New York for almost everything in the arts, except jazz. There are museums that have jazz in it, but there is no place that is an exclusive jazz home, so he got some of his lawyer friends in Washington, D.C., with deep pockets, and they started a board to do a jazz museum.