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Christian McBride On Ray Brown's Bass And James Brown's Appeal

Christian McBride performs at the Newport Jazz Festival in Newport, R.I. earlier in 2015.
Eva Hambach
AFP/Getty Images
Christian McBride performs at the Newport Jazz Festival in Newport, R.I. earlier in 2015.

Every month on All Things Considered, Christian McBride sits down with host Audie Cornish to discuss, dissect and deconstruct just about everything in jazz.

From the interplay between the drum and the bass to the holy temples of jazz venues, they've talked about the greatest, the oldest, the youngest. They've even talked about jazz as a family affair.

But this conversation turns the focus around: It's about McBride himself.

Born and raised in Philadelphia, McBride is one of the premier bassists in jazz, and the leader of several bands. He's worked with Sonny Rollins, Pat Metheny and Herbie Hancock — but also Sting, Queen Latifah, James Brown, Chaka Khan, the Sonos Quartet. He's a public radio host himself now; his voice narrates the radio program and video series Jazz Night In America.

McBride recently brought his bass to the Willard InterContinental Hotel in Washington, D.C., where he spoke with Cornish in front of a live audience. An edited and condensed version airs on All Things Considered. Here's the full transcript of their conversation.

Christian McBride speaks with Audie Cornish at the Willard InterContinental Hotel in Washington, D.C.
Paul Morigi / AP Images for NPR
AP Images for NPR
Christian McBride speaks with Audie Cornish at the Willard InterContinental Hotel in Washington, D.C.

Audie Cornish: So here we are face-to-face. And you brought...

Christian McBride: I brought my girl.

Does she have a name?

Two names. I'm trying to figure out which one I'm going to settle on. This bass once belonged to my mentor, the late Ray Brown, and so Rayletta is a working name. And Ola. Remember Ola Ray from the "Thriller" video?

That is the last reference I would have expected. Did anyone see him walk in here and think "Thriller"? Yeah?

Yeah, right.

And, so, help us out. When did you get this particular instrument?

Oh, just a few months ago.



I feel like you would be bonded for life to certain instruments.

Well, this is how it happened. When Ray Brown passed away in 2002, he owned three basses, and I was ... Ray called me and his other great mentee — John Clayton — he called us his two sons. And we had a group called SuperBass. It was a co-op group, and we made two CDs together. And so when Ray passed away, Ray's wife Cecilia said, "You and John have to get these basses," so the bass that I had at the time — I sold it. And then I got one of Ray's three basses. John did something and got one of Ray's other basses.

Now this bass [points to his instrument] was the main bass that he played for the last 30 years of his life. She held on to this. As it worked out, Cecilia called about a year ago and she says, "Christian, I've got to ask you a question. How do you like the bass that you have, Ray's old bass?" And I said, "I love it." And she says, "Really? Do you really, really love it? Like 'love it, love it,' or just 'love it'?" I said, "Well..."

It's sort of a loaded question.

Yeah, I didn't know where she was going. So I was like, "I don't know how to answer this." She said, "Well, the reason why I'm asking is because the Smithsonian wants Ray's bass. Um, now, I could work it out so that you could give the Smithsonian the bass that you have and I can give you the bass that Ray had all the time, or I can give this bass to the Smithsonian and you keep what you have." And I was like, "No, let me have that one." So she sent the bass to me just over the summer, I believe. I had it worked on, and this has been the bass I've been playing pretty much non-stop for the last three months.

Is there something you could play that would remind you of him? Or you think is sort of attached to this instrument?

Any time my hands touch a bass, I think of Ray Brown. I think I have a feeling of — I'll give you an example. So Ray was very bluesy and very folky and very soulful. So if I try to play something abstract, I'll do, you know [plays music]. At some point, I'm going to do something like this [plays music]. You know, just gotta throw a little funk in there. You know what I mean? Ray Brown was all about the "grease," as he used to say.

What makes up the grease?

You know. The grease is where the flavor is. You know what I mean? Ray Brown was one of these ... he was one of the very few bass players where drums seem superfluous, because his beat was so strong. I would talk to various drummers who play with Ray Brown: Grady Tate, Jeff Hamilton, Greg Hutchinson, Karriem Riggins. And they all said that it was a major adjustment to play with Ray Brown. I would have thought, "Now, why would that be an adjustment?" I would think that for a drummer, a strong bass player would be exactly what you want. But they said that sometimes Ray Brown could be too strong, to the point where they would play the drums and they would look over him and go, "Why am I here? You don't need me."

We've talked on the program about that collaboration ... between the drummer and the bassist and how intimate it is. And how it can go wrong.

Ray had this thing how a bass player who walks a bass line could do something, you know, like something as simple as [plays music]. Now, if there was a full band here with a drummer playing, that would be a very good, very functional bass line. But when Ray Brown would play a bass line, it would just be like a [plays music]. You got this feeling of a piston driving, poom poom poom, you know every single note was full throttle. Some of the guys that knew Ray Brown and loved Ray Brown — we used to laugh, because Ray never really knew how to take his foot off the gas.

There's a great record that he made with the late, great vibraphonist Milt Jackson. They're playing the song "Tenderly" — I don't think Ray was paying close attention to the title of the song. And so Milt Jackson's playing this gorgeous introduction, you know, very lush and beautiful introduction [hums music], and then Ray comes in and [plays the bass] and it's just like, "Good Lord."

So let's come back to this, though. I mean, you've told us that you essentially are a funk bassist, kind of masquerading —

Yes. I backed my way into jazz.

Tell me about that. What were you playing before, and how did you in fact back your way into jazz?

My father is a bassist, as well. My whole family is bassists. My father, Lee Smith, and my great uncle Howard Cooper, both professional bassists. And when I was a kid, my father was working with all those great Philly soul groups like the Delfonics, Blue Magic. Then, later on, Major Harris and Billy Paul. And so my upbringing was Gamble and Huff, Philly soul. You know. And that's the first music I heard. That's the music that I fell in love with. Of course, all the great Motown records, and needless to say, once I heard James Brown, my life was destroyed. You know, because he just became my musical muse.

And talk about bass lines — that's very key to that music.

Once I got old enough to really appreciate what my father was doing, by that time he started working with [percussionist] Mongo Santamaria. He played with Mongo from 1977 to '81, and I saw him play. I don't know why, I saw my dad play a bunch as a kid, but there was this one particular show that I saw and it hit me. And all of a sudden, I decided I wanted to play the bass. I don't know if it was because of the way the bass was moving the music or because it was my dad. It was a 50/50 split.

Up until that point, were you rebelling in some — like, I'm thinking of the violin.

No, no. I wasn't thinking of anything. I was just enjoying music. You know? This one particular concert I saw my dad play, I wanted to play the bass. My mother bought me my first electric bass for Christmas. I was 9 years old. And the first song I ever learned to play was [plays the bass].

I'm picturing you at 9 years old doing this. With that hat, though.

So, yeah, "Papa Was A Rolling Stone." It was the first song I ever learned how to play. And I just remember thinking, "OK, I think I can do this." I was so excited. I just asked my dad, "Show me something else, show me something else." So, see if you know the bass line to the second song I ever learned how to play. So 1981 — that will give you a clue. [plays music]

Hall And Oates, "I Can't Go For That."

Did anyone else get that? There are some people with their hands up.

We got to let Hall And Oates know they didn't see enough records in '81. But, yeah, that was the second song I learned how to play.

Wait, would you sing it while you were...

No. No no no no no...

Because if there is a Christian McBride falsetto, I want to hear it.

No, that's after the martini. I actually do have a really good falsetto. I actually do have a really good falsetto, though. I can do the heck out of Philip Bailey.

Oh, really?

Yeah. No no no no. Not without a guaranteed contract. And two martinis.

So you are doing Hall And Oates in your bedroom.

So I fell in love with the music, and then I fell in love with James Brown. I was already in love with James Brown. But then I went deep, deep as far as anyone could go inside that music. So then my mother — because my parents weren't together at this point — but my mother saw that I was really getting serious about this whole music thing. And she decided that it would be best for me to go to a music school and get some formal training. And that's when I went to a place called George Wharton Pepper Middle School in Southwest Philadelphia, and they had one of the most respected music programs in the city. And when I started, first day of orchestra rehearsal they just had you pick whatever instrument you wanted to play. Obviously, I can't play the electric bass in the orchestra, so being a big James Brown fan, I picked the trombone because I wanted to be like Fred Wesley, who took all those great trombone solos on those James Brown records. I grabbed the trombone and I go into the classroom and I'm sitting in the semicircle. And no one told me that to play a brass instrument, you have to buzz your lips. I still can't do it. So I'm just blowing. I thought it was just like blowing, like blowing up a balloon or something. So I'm blowing as hard as I can and nothing's coming out.

Are you just figuring, "Oh, I've got the cheeks, that should be good enough"?

And nothing's coming out. I'm going, "What's wrong?" So the brass instructor's name is Kevin Rogers, and he says, "You play the electric bass? Well, why don't you play the double bass?" And I was like, "Well, I don't know." To an 11-year-old, it didn't make sense to play two basses. "If I already play the bass guitar, why do I want to play the upright bass, too? That's dumb." I was 11 — I didn't know any better. Well, he says, "Do me a favor, play anything other than the trombone."

He said, "Why don't you play the acoustic bass. I think you'll like it. Really, give it a shot." So I said, "OK," so I went dragging myself to the bass room. And this is 1983, so this is where the naive mind of an 11-year-old actually worked for me. So I'm looking at the upright bass going, "OK, well, my guess is that it's a really big vertical electric bass. So the notes should probably be in the same place. So let's see [plays the bass line to Michael Jackson's "Beat It"]. And so the teachers start looking and say, "Wow, you can play that?" And I say, you know, "What's the big deal? It's just [a version of] an electric bass." But then I started taking lessons and I met this very demanding lady here.

But I love that basically your introduction to the music is through pop. You're playing "Beat It." You're playing Hall And Oates. You're like a kid listening to pop radio and then turning to the instrument you love and trying to find a way to it.

Yeah, and then once I started taking lessons on the acoustic bass, then my great uncle came into the picture. He's the real jazz man of the family. He got so excited, he said, "Get over here right away." He sat me down on his favorite chair, and for about seven straight hours he played Mingus, Ray Brown, Paul Chambers, Percy Heath, Jimmy Garrison, Jimmie Blanton, Scott LaFaro, Dave Holland. He gave me a crash course on the history of jazz bass in seven or eight hours. And that time spent with my great uncle — that's all I needed. I fell in love with jazz instantly. I didn't dislike it before, but now I was really into it because he was such a descriptive teacher.

First of all, he's your classic caricature of a jazz musician. He always had his tam, and the horn-rimmed glasses, and the goatee, and the Pall Mall cigarette, shoulder bag, walks with a very hip lean, everybody's "cat" and "baby." He uses words like "expoobident" and "dig" and, you know, very — he's a hip guy. And he was sitting in his chair, way, way down — until his back was almost on the chair — and he'd sit with a cigarette and we would listen to a Charles Mingus record. He would have a cigarette lit, and he would... like, he would sit there with his knees wiggling like, "Phewww, ain't this mean? You dig what Mingus is putting down, baby?"

He's saying this to a preteen at this point.

Yes, exactly. So I was just staring at my uncle laughing. Well, jazz makes him that cool. Then I want to be as cool as him.

So at what point do you start composing? Is it something that starts happening bit by bit as you are teaching yourself these songs? Is it something that you feel more comfortable doing as you get older?

It was easier for me to compose music when I didn't know as much about it because my palette was clearer. My greatest mentor is a saxophone player by the name of Robert Landham. And when I started hanging with Robert — he's a huge Wayne Shorter fan. I would sit at his house all day long. We would listen to all of Wayne Shorter's Blue Note records. We would listen to all the records that Wayne did with Miles Davis, all the Weather Report records. And he very diligently analyzed all of Wayne Shorter's compositions. So he got me to be a Wayne Shorter head. So I started trying to write like Wayne Shorter. I tried to write my best like Wayne Shorter. I was 14 years old, so I would sit at the piano, by this time a functional piano player. I'm trying my best to write these songs that are based off of what I heard Wayne Shorter do. As time progressed, I started learning more about the science of music. Different theories and compositional things.

This is as you are getting deeper into your schooling?

Yes. And I found that the more I listened and the more I learned, it became harder for me to write, because I started questioning myself too much. Because I was saying, "Is this what they say in the book? Maybe this isn't a good chord progression to use." Or, "Is this the right scale or the right mode?" And finally I would just have to slap myself and say, "Just write the music. Stop worrying about all those questions." Ultimately, it's about what you feel, what you communicate. So it's been somewhat painful for me to write.


Yeah, but if I force myself to do it, often it's not quite as painful.

So what were some of your early compositions like? What was the style? What were things you came up with?

If you listen to Wayne Shorter's Blue Note record The Soothsayer, the first six songs I wrote were all songs based off of songs from that album. Songs that had no titles. Because I had been heavily inspired by Wayne's Blue Note albums, Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers. You know, really sort of hard-bop jazz from the '50s and early '60s. That was kind of my early wheelhouse. I was trying to write in that style. And then, of course, later on I started trying to expand and I got into big band. That was really a big jump. The irony is that it is much easier for me to write for my big band than it is to write for my small group. You think it would be the other way around, but if I have to write music for my big band, it's like [rubs his hands together excitedly].

It's so expansive, too. No limit.

Yeah, I don't know what that is, but I love arranging for my big band. Give me my four trumpets, my four trombones, five saxophones and I'm good to go. But give me a trio with just one piano and a drummer, and I'm stuck.

What do you think that is? Is there some pressure to a smaller group?

I think that there's so many options with a pianist. I've been working with this young man named Christian Sands for the last five years now, and he can pretty much do anything in any style. So it's like, "OK, well, how do I write for someone that has that many tools?" You know? So it's like I'm paranoid that I'm not really going to write anything that substantial for the listener, or for someone who has that many tools on the piano.

And I think you've really shown over the years that you have obviously... your virtuosity in many different styles of performing. I don't know if you could give us an example of what you think is your style at this point. Right? I feel like you can do jazz, you can do classical, you can do funk. When you are by yourself and you are playing to please yourself, what do you play?

For the last three weeks now, I've been on the road doing a series of dates with the great Edgar Meyer. You saw us perform last week. We had a pre-concert talk just last night in Atlanta. And someone asked about the creative process and composing, and Edgar made the point which I've heard many musicians say, but it was great to hear him reiterate: that whatever was the thing that got you in the music in the first place — that thing that pulled you in and [made you] say, "I love music and I want to do this" — you should never lose that. So whatever music you write, that should always be in it.

So I say that because I believe my style both as a player and as a composer — there will always be some sort of reference to that feeling I've felt listening to soul music in the late '70s. I most certainly am an admirer and a student of Duke Ellington, Gil Evans, Miles Davis, Wayne Shorter still. Robert [Landham] and I are still the two biggest Wayne Shorter fans in the world. But I can also embrace Gamble and Huff, all of the great Motown writers, Holland-Dozier-Holland, all in the same footing. Along with Gershwin. Along with Little Richard. You know. Along with whoever it may be. I like to soak it all in. To me, the whole notion of genre, I don't think that's something that too many artists think about — that's a business terminology. As a professional musician, and as a lover of music, I want to learn as much about all different kinds of music as I can. But home base for me is still soul music.

Are we gonna hear any soul?

Yeah, it's kind of hard to play solo soul bass.

I should cut you a break because you ...

I told you I do a good Philip Bailey, right? So, I mean, you know [plays music]. That's a famous Earth, Wind & Fire bass line. The No. 1 most recognizable R&B/soul/pop bass line ever [plays music].

I love how you're just popping this out.

Yeah, I mean, I'm just doing a medley right now.

What should we be listening for? For those of us new to jazz or sort of not always sure how to get into music — when we are listening to an instrument like this, help us understand: What are we listening for? What is a good jazz ... what is a good bass sound? I don't know if you could give us a good example of what we're looking for.

You're actually not listening for anything. A bass is meant to be felt, not heard. Now, if you hear it, that's cool, too. But the bass is supposed to come up from here [points to torso] as opposed to the other way around. Bass is something you feel it right here.

I always like making sports analogies. And what an honor to have the great Kareem Abdul-Jabbar sitting out in the audience this afternoon.

I told you he knows everybody. I was not kidding about that.

I always like making a sports analogy with regards to the bass. In football, if you're a part of the offensive line, most of the time people don't recognize you unless you're not doing your job. An offensive lineman is doing his job when nobody recognizes him. When the quarterback is back there throwing and grinning and smiling, and taking up all the spotlight, not getting sacked — that's because the offensive line is doing their job. But the offensive linemen don't really get the ball. They don't score a touchdown. They don't get the spotlight. But they are the most important part of the offense. They have to open the holes for the running backs; they have to protect the quarterback. Everybody follows the blockers. That's exactly what the bass player does in the band. We're protecting the harmony. We are making holes for the soloist out front.

Now, if you do get the ball, i.e. a solo, you should be able to do the best you can and make it musical. But that's not the primary function of a bass player. So I always tell younger bass players — you know, they get turned on by bass players who have quick hands and a whole lot of technique — I always tell 'em, the bass players that are turning down gigs, because they are working all 365 days of the year, are ones who are not getting paid to play with fast hands and flashy technique. They're there to play the bass line.

I always like to use an example. You know how much of a student I am of James Brown's music, how much I love James Brown. If you listen to his song, the original version of "Ain't It Funky Now," it's nine and a half minutes. You know what the bass line is? [plays one note repeatedly] The bass player plays this for nine and a half minutes without a break [finally stops playing]. Now, I know that sounds boring, but when you add the two guitars, you add the drums, you add the horns, you get this puzzle of this amazing funk machine. But that funk machine breaks down if that bass player decides, "Oh, I think I'll put in a little something extra in there."

I mean, it might work, but that's not what the script calls for. So whatever flash a bass player has, you have to know that things like that, that's your primary job.

You mention Edgar Meyer and what was it like then to do those performances, where it is essentially side-by-side bass. And I have to admit, when I saw the poster, I was like, "That's a lot of bass. I'm not sure." And then we got there and you two really did something special, and what was it like kind of crafting your solos for that?

Well, I also felt some trepidation, as well, because I think two of the same instruments, no matter what they are...

Is very rare. Yeah.

And if you hear it for 90 minutes straight, it's going to get monotonous even if you have two pianos, two cellos, two vocalists just a cappella — at some point you are going to want to hear something else. So when Edgar and I were putting our sets together, first of all it was intimidating because here's like maybe one of the world's most celebrated classical bassists in the world. And to stand next to him and know I'm going to get a thorough butt-kicking when he pulls out the bow, that's not a good feeling. You know? So I went and got in shape as best as I could with my bow. And he said he got in shape as much as he could with his pizzicato and his jazz chops. So it was just a mutual-admiration society, every gig.

We did a little bit of classical, a little bit of jazz, a little bit of bluegrass, and actually Edgar came up with the good idea that since we both play piano, we would accompany the other for one song on the piano. So we are actually going to record the CD early next year. It's been wonderful getting to stand side-by-side with that incredible musician. Again, every time he would play one of his solo pieces, or he would play something really beautiful with the bow and then I would have to play with my bow right after him, it was just like, "Oh this is cruel..."

I don't remember anyone going like, "Oh guy No. 2, his bow is terrible" — that did not happen.

It did in my head.

Well, we are going to take a few questions from the audience and before we do, I just want to know, Christian, is there anything you want to play before, a little palate-cleanser?

Well, I don't know what I'd play ...

[plays a jazz standard]

Audience Question: Do you perform with vocalists or mainly other instrumentalists?

I perform with anyone who hires me.

Cornish: You are on the road an incredible amount, and it does get to something about your career I found really interesting, which is I feel like you are one of the best known sidemen, as well as someone who is their own bandleader. And at what point did you say, "I need to do my own thing"?

Even as a bandleader, I will never turn down an opportunity to play with a musician I know is going to challenge me. Even after having my own groups for the last 15 years, actually the last 20 years, but I really, really have been focused on it over the last 10-15 years, I still work with Chick Corea, I still work with Pat Metheny, I still work with Sting on occasion. It's very important for me just to work with musicians who I know are really going to challenge me. And they don't necessarily have to be musicians who are legends. There are a lot of young musicians out there. That's why I mentioned Christian Sands earlier, and some of these younger musicians like Gerald Clayton and Justin Brown and Josh Evans, a great young trumpet player. They keep you on your toes. Even though the younger guys are working in my band, I try to take the Art Blakey approach, where I don't dictate and tell them what to play. I let them bring what they're doing so I can figure out what they're doing and I try to find my place in that. And we come together and make something special. Even when I made the choice to really focus on my own career as a bandleader, I never stopped taking calls as a sideman if it was something I knew would make me a better musician.

Audience Question: My name is Bob Meltzer from Palo Alto, Calif. You said at the beginning of the program that you've only been playing this instrument for a few months, and that you got it from Ray [Brown]. As I understand, your instrument is going to the Smithsonian.

The instrument that I had is going to the Smithsonian. I had three. Yeah yeah yeah.

Audience Question: This brought up the question in my mind whether possibly that you got the Ray Brown instrument because of its sound, rather than just for sentimental reasons. And I think back to the violinists who love the idea of playing on a Stradivarius, and so that brings up the question — are there certain instruments which have a sound that you would really love to play? Or are they really always a question of who's playing them.

Every single instrument has their own personality. There's no definitive make or model or period of instruments that will determine if that instrument's going to be good. There's a general thought that the older the instrument, the better it is. That all depends. Because there are some basses that I've heard that are 200 years old that are absolutely dead. They have no sound. But, because they look gorgeous and they're old, the spotlight gets put on the instrument. Whereas you have an instrument like this, what is actually not very old; the instrument was actually built in the '70s. This bass is, you know, we could play in a 1,000-seat auditorium, acoustically, and everybody would hear every single note. So for me, that first instrument of Ray's that I had, I was actually surprised. You know, for sentimental reasons, it just felt special to have one of Ray Brown's basses. But the bass actually didn't project that much, you know, which explains why Ray didn't play it that often. But he had it and I thought, well, "OK, I won't play it that much, either, but it was Ray's, so I gotta have it." But I know, everybody knew, that this was the bass [points to his own] that Ray recorded on from, say, 1979 throughout the rest of his career. So when I had the opportunity to get this one, I got two for one: a bass that Ray Brown owned that is a really great bass.

Cornish: Christian McBride, thank you so much for sitting down to talk with me.

My pleasure to speak with a legend.

You have taught me an incredible amount this year about jazz. And when I talk to people about the segment, they always compliment me on how much I know, and I have to laugh at myself because it's completely learning everything from you. So thank you for sharing with our audience and taking the time out today.

Always my pleasure.

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