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Christian McBride: Getting the Inside Straight

Esther Berlanga-Ryan By

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I did six master classes throughout the school year. And they said: come up with your own theme, design it however you want to; and that was my first time. And that freaked me out, because half the class was older than me! So I thought, man, I don't have any business being here, but a few people seemed to enjoy what I was teaching, and they had me come back a number of times to do different things at the school, workshops and master classes, and things like that. And not too long after that, I was asked to come to Jazz Aspen and be a visiting clinician for the summer, just for a couple of days, and I guess the staff at Jazz Aspen liked what they saw, and they asked me if I was interested in being their permanent artistic director. So I was like wow...sure! I've been doing that for the last 10 years now.

And I mentioned earlier that when Dave Brubeck opened the Brubeck Institute, he asked me to be his Artistic Director, and to help him format the educational program, and I've been involved with so many different educational things, I am just honored so many people have asked me, because I love doing that. And I don't think, particularly in jazz education, I don't need to stand in front of a black board and go, "Louis Armstrong was born in this year and blah blah blah..."

Education, you have to teach young musicians, you have to give them inspiration, inspiration to work harder, you just can't stick your finger in their face and say "Practice!"—they already know that! You have to give them some type of inspiration, and you give them inspiration through stories. You show them chords you know they've never heard before, you play them records they probably don't know, you watch their faces light up. And you answer their questions; that's how you get them. Somebody else that they see everyday can do the traditional text book route, but I don't think that's my method. I like to teach students through my experiences, and they seem to get a lot out of that.

AAJ: You wear many different hats in your career. Which one is the one that suits you the most, as a human being, or as a musician?

CMB: It's all one and the same. I heard this interview that Herbie Hancock gave not too long ago, and he was talking about his Buddhist philosophy. I don't practice Buddhism myself, but I do believe in a lot of the theories that it teaches, as in you are one with the Universe, because the point that Herbie was trying to make is that he always thought of himself as a musician first. And at some point he realized that he is not a musician first, he is a person first. Herbie said he realized that he is a lot of things, and musician is just one of the things on that list. He says, "I'm a friend, I'm a son, I'm a neighbor, I'm a father, I'm a mentor, I'm a musician."

So being a musician is one and the same with all of that. So out of the different hats I wear this is just one big, you know, fedora.

Christian McBrideAAJ: Do you think the bass is underrated?

CMB: No, I actually think that's a myth. There's been many great bass playing band leaders, from John Kirby in the 1930s, to Charles Mingus, of course, Ray Brown, Jaco Pastorius, I am switching genres here, but, you know Marcus Miller, Esperanza Spalding, Dave Holland, Bootsy Collins.

I think there are quite a number of bass playing band leaders, who get just as much work, and have a significant contribution to the idiom as much as horn players or piano players. John Patitucci has some fantastic projects of his own. Yeah, I think there are some real good, serious bass playing band leaders out there.

AAJ: You mentioned Esperanza Spalding. We all know there aren't as many female jazz musicians. Jazz has always been mainly a male form of art, as far as musicians goes. How does it look like from the inside?

CMB: Well, I'll put it like this. As far as the musicians are concerned, the musicians are the ones that really run the show. There's the industry people, there's the writers, the magazines, the newspapers, the promoters: those are the people behind the scene. But as far as the actual musicians are concerned, there's not enough of us to be sexist or racist. I was hanging out with Branford Marsalis once and he said, "Look, if I met a woman who could play like McCoy Tyner, I'd hire her. I wouldn't care if she's a woman." All musicians I know agree with that. I think all musicians feel that way. I don't think a woman should get special treatment or a greater opportunity because she is a woman, any more than I feel like a black jazz musician should get more opportunities just because he is black.

You need to be good at what you do, you know what you mean? I feel the same way with anybody who wants to use their gender, their age, their sexual orientation, as an excuse to not get better at what it is that they do. That makes things rough for everybody.

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