Christian McBride: Getting the Inside Straight

Esther Berlanga-Ryan By

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That's what I've always loved about Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea, because they can play very free, esoteric music, but they can still present it in a way that people will embrace it, you know? They try to bring people in; they don't try to be exclusive with their music. They want people to come in and dig it. It's like "this might be a little out, ladies and gentlemen, but you know, just roll with us here, we'll take you with us." They don't kind of have this snooty attitude of "Yes, I am going to do some creative music, if you like it, fine, if not, you are just too dumb to really know what I'm doing anyway." Yeah, I've never liked those kinds of artists.

Christian McBrideAAJ: I always thought Louis Armstrong was more important to jazz music than some people want to give him credit for.

CMB: Oh, man, he's the father. He's the father of all of this stuff. Even the most modern of jazz, you can trace it to some Louis Armstrong recording. The whole art of modern improvisation started with Pops. It is a shame that some people won't recognize that, even after all these years. Same with Duke Ellington, you know? You listen to Duke Ellington, and for whatever modern style of big band that you like, I can guarantee you there isn't a modern chord, or what you would consider modern, that Ellington didn't already play at some point in his career.

AAJ: Well, probably somebody that says that Duke Ellington is not a big deal has never heard Money Jungle, (Blue Note, 1962) for example.

Christian McBrideCMB: Well, you know it's interesting what you told me some time ago about your dad, because that's the exact same thing that happened to me with my great uncle. He would always play Louis Armstrong, and then he would play Pharoah Sanders right after that; then he would play some Sun Ra and then The Platters after that! Or some Weather Report and then play Charlie Parker...and I would go "man, this is wild! All this variety!" And then I realized that this was all part of the same tree. I took my time to try to figure out exactly what was what, and how did this come from that, and how did this go from that to that. And I figured it out. But, you know, it was great that your dad too played so many different styles for you.

When I was in high school, there was a great record store, where all of the guys used to go, and the guy who was the jazz buyer for that store was also a DJ. He knew so much about all of the records. I would go in there once a week, and I would go "Okay, Craig, what do I need to buy this week?" "Okay, buy 'Moanin (Blue Note, 1958), Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers." So I would call my great uncle, and say "How's this 'Moanin' record?" "You'll love it!" "Oh, okay."

So I always had good people around that kinda turned me to a whole lot of different things. Now, that's one thing about my great uncle that I also appreciate now more than ever. There were certainly certain things that he didn't like. I think he was much more a McCoy Tyner man than he was a Herbie Hancock man, but he never said to me "don't listen to Herbie Hancock." I found that that would happen a lot, particularly with older musicians. "Oh man, Herbie don't play jazz, he's a funk pianist, you don't need to listen to him!" How can they say that? How can they listen to something like "The Sorcerer" [from Speak like a Child (Blue Note, 1968)], or the soundtrack to 'Round Midnight (Columbia, 1987) and say something like that? Elvin Jones can't play, listen to Tony Williams! I think, man, it's amazing the opinions that people have, they don't say "someone is different," they would say "don't listen to that cat, he can't play, he is weird," and things like that.

So I was always very lucky that my uncle never did that to me. So he always taught me to have an open mind about all these different players. I can tell when someone has done their homework, and who hasn't—I am talking about musicians. But for the most part, I try to keep an open mind for certain musicians. And I am very glad that you had that as well, we need more people like you!

AAJ: (laughs) Do you ever think of yesterday?

CMB: Well, depending on who you ask, 20 years ago was yesterday [laughs]. It's amazing how people say...Speaking of DJs again, there is a DJ here at home, WBGO, her name is Sheila Anderson, that she said to me not too long ago, "It's really hard to me to realize that you've been in New York for 20 years," because I was 17 years old when I moved here and started working around town. So she said "So many still think of you as a teenager." So "No, I'm not a teenager anymore, thank you," and she is like "Yeah, I know, but everybody in the jazz world is old, so...we have a hard time grasping the fact that you are a grown man." And I'm like, oh man, I don't know if I like that or not [laughs].

But to answer your question, do I look back? [Silence] I guess; I mean, I certainly like to look back about my early days in New York. I don't necessarily look back to kind of get sad about it, like "oh man, the old days are over, I wish those days could be back." I think I am realistic. Things must go on, you must live life, you must live in the moment. That's the only thing you have, really: the moment. It's nice to laugh and think about the old stories, but I'd rather live for the moment and try to prepare for what's coming later, and that's about it.

AAJ: Any gig or recording or something you said no to, and with time you went like "Oh, I wish I would have said yes"?

CMB: Ah...I will tell you...I don't think I've ever said this on print. I don't have many professional regrets at all, but I do have one regret.

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