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Christian McBride: Getting the Inside Straight

Esther Berlanga-Ryan By

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Of course you wouldn't, when you're 11-years-old, you just want to play pop music, or rock 'n roll or funk music, or whatever all of your peers are listening to. But eventually I learned to love the acoustic bass as well, and that's when my great uncle came into the picture. He turned me on to Paul Chambers, Ron Carter, Charles Mingus, Buster Williams, Charlie Haden, Dave Holland...He's the one that really, really was responsible for turning me on to the great, great bass legends.

And I want to think that I had some sort of small influence on my dad too, because he didn't start playing the acoustic bass seriously until four or five years after I started playing it. He played the electric bass exclusively his whole career, and when I started playing the acoustic bass he started to show some interest in it, and now he is playing the acoustic bass.

AAJ: Do you think you would have been a different kind of person if your father would have been a postman, or a lawyer, that still loved jazz, but didn't play?

CMB: I don't know! That's a tough one because there's always been music in the family in some way; my great uncle also being a musician; my uncle, my mother's brother, worked for a very popular radio station growing up, so I was always going to live concerts for as long I can remember. From the time that I was like four years old, I was very lucky to see people like Marvin Gaye, Wilson Pickett, Gladys Knight, The Whispers, The O'Jays, James Brown, of course, so I think I would have been in the show business in some kind of way.

AAJ: You said "James Brown, of course," what is it with James Brown?

CMB: [Sigh] Anybody who's ever seen him knows the answer to that. [Laughs] Anybody who's ever experienced his music deeply knows the answer to that. James Brown had a line to what makes people move more than anybody, I think, of his generation, and of many generations.

I think we, as human beings, I don't want to sound too deep or silly, I should say, but I think as human beings, there is a natural dance tempo. There is a tempo that all human beings might agree it is a good dance tempo; James Brown figured out what that was. There's not one song of his that doesn't make you dance. You can make the argument that a lot of his music is repetitious, it sounds the same, too derivative of itself. But I mean, you got to admit, when you want some music that's gonna give you some power, and really is going to get you going, James Brown will never, ever, let you down.

Christian McBrideThe 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.


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