Christian McBride on racism, outrage, hope — and the beauty of jazz

Christian McBride’s list of roles and achievements is nearly endless.

The bassist, composer, arranger and bandleader is a six-time Grammy winner who has recorded 16 albums of his own while appearing on more than 300 recordings as a sideman. He’s also an educator and broadcaster, and he currently serves as the artistic director of the Newport Jazz Festival.

For a long time, McBride has been a voice for social justice. His most recent album, The Movement Revisited, represents his personal dedication to justice with sonic representations of four key figures of the civil rights movement: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Rosa Parks and Muhammad Ali.

McBride joined us for a conversation about what’s going on in the world right now — in particular, the George Floyd protests demanding racial justice across the U.S. and beyond — and about the details of his latest musical projects.

You just celebrated your 48th birthday this past weekend. Happy belated birthday.

Thank you.

I’m guessing it’s one you won’t soon forget.

It was definitely a day of mixed emotions. My mom still lives in Philadelphia, and Sunday evening was when the riots really went up a notch. I spent my whole birthday worried about my mom and all my friends down in Philly.

You’ve been in this for a long time. I understand you were part of a town hall in the Bill Clinton era. So, it’s been almost 25 years, four administrations. I’m wondering if you feel that there’s anything different about what’s happening right now.

I’ve now remembered at least seven or eight major riots and incidents where there’s been some example — and, in many cases, documented examples — of a Black person being killed by the police. Very well-known incidents with Michael Brown, Philando Castile, all the way back to Rodney King, who was not murdered but almost beaten to death, and caught on camera. After all of those incidents, there was always some uproar. The cycle always happens. There’s the outrage, then there’s a riot, and then there’s a healing process. You get everybody from politicians to your everyday citizens saying, “We’ve got to do a better job. We’re going to do a better job. We all need to come together.” And then at some point, everyone goes back to hugging and kissing and we go back to what we had always been doing. However, this really does seem a lot different, and I think it had to do with not just brother [George] Floyd being killed, but that coupled with the Amy Cooper video in Central Park. I think those two things happening back to back… Now, the outrage is genuinely across the board.

You are seeing things in all 50 states. It’s usually particular cities that take the lead. But it really does seem like it’s everywhere. Even here in Toronto, we had a huge demonstration. It’s global, beyond the United States.

I did an interview this morning with a Swedish radio station, and they have protests going on over there.

Are you hopeful?

I think you have to be. If you’re not hopeful, you’re going to live a life of manic depression and pain and anger. You don’t want to live like that. You always have to hope and be the best you can be … At this point, I am so uninterested in what people have to say. I want them to do. I don’t really need to know your outrage. Show me your outrage by changing your behaviour if you need to change it. That’s really all I care about.

George Wein, the longtime head of the Newport Jazz Festival, put out a beautiful statement a couple days ago. Talk to me a bit about that man and what he said.

He’ll be 95 on his next birthday in October. Here’s a man who was in an interracial marriage, travelling through the Jim Crow south when it wasn’t legal. Often you would see a Black man with a white woman; in this case it was a white man with a Black woman. He has seen and experienced discrimination, hatred and racism in his own life. [With] him trying to start a jazz festival in places like New Orleans, which is like the cradle of American musical culture … all the way up to Newport, which is a blue-chip, rich, almost all-white town, George Wein has seen and done it all. That’s one of the beautiful things about music: Notes are sound waves, and those don’t have a colour. A B-flat is just a B-flat. You could have your own little biases on the person who’s playing that B-flat, but the note itself has no colour. That’s why jazz is so beautiful. You have to have empathy when you’re improvising with another group of musicians. So, whatever biases you may have, they go away once you start making music. You have to listen, you have to pay attention, you have to react, you have to respect what that person’s playing. If you choose not to, it’s not going to sound good and no one’s ever going to want to play with you. That’s the beauty of specifically playing jazz. You have to be empathetic.

Amid everything else, how have you and your family been managing over these last few months? Have you found some joy in it all?

We found a lot of joy in this. We obviously don’t like the reason why we’ve had to stay at home — this deadly pandemic that still isn’t over — but we’ve been taking this time to really work on ourselves. My wife Melissa Walker, she’s been moving everything from Jazz House Kids online, like everyone is doing now. The whole world is one big Zoom chat, day after day. We’re planning our annual gala, which is of course going to be virtual. Same thing with the Newport Jazz Festival — we’re planning something. But we’ve actually enjoyed our time at home. It’s nice to not have to rush to an airport for the first time in my life.

On your social media, you’re doing “the week ahead,” and when I watch it, it sounds like that apartment is going 24/7. You’ve got so many things on your plate. It hasn’t slowed you down that much.

I think anyone could probably make a video like that. We’re all hustling and working hard trying to regroup our lives and put it online. I just happen to be officially involved with a couple of different organizations, and I have to get the word out. We’re all hustling, trying to make it happen.

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You just released The Movement Revisited in February, but you also have something new coming as well, a big-band recording called For Jimmy, Wes and Oliver. Tell me a little bit about that. Of all the people on which to put a spotlight, why did these three become the ones you targeted?

Because of Joey DeFrancesco. He’s my oldest friend in music. We’ve known each other since middle school. And for as close as we were growing up as kids, we never really made a full album before. Couple of tracks here and there, but never have we sunk our teeth into a real, serious, full-scale project. So, we played together on the Jazz Cruise a couple years ago, and we just sat down and said hey man, let’s stop messing around. Let’s really do this. And it just seemed natural to salute those two great records that Jimmy Smith and Wes Montgomery did together with Oliver Nelson’s big band. Joey is the heir to Jimmy Smith’s throne — I don’t think there’s any argument about that. He’s our greatest living organ player. And I wish I could be as good as Oliver Nelson with the pen. So we thought, who could play the Wes Montgomery role? And again, Mark Woodfield is another of our oldest friends. It just seemed to be the right thing to do. We didn’t exactly do all of the songs from the Jimmy and Wes recordings — just a few, and then I wrote some new arrangements and a couple of originals. It’s a salute, but we’re not exclusively playing music from their albums.

Is there anything else in the pipeline?

Not of my own, but there are two releases coming out. The reunion of the original Joshua Redman Quartet with myself, Brad Mehldau and Brian Blade, that’s coming out on Nonesuch. And then in January, the next release on my imprint, Brother Mister Productions, is Dan Wilson’s new project, and I produced it.