Jazz bassist and composer Christian McBride recently finished a week-long West Coast tour in Seattle. It reminded him of how great a town it was for jazz, both historically and presently.
"There's always been a very powerful jazz community in Seattle," McBride says, citing the early careers of Ray Charles and Quincy Jones. "Quietly, it's been one of the most important jazz cities."
All Things Considered's jazz correspondent (and the host of the public radio program Jazz Night In America) recently introduced host Audie Cornish to two more names from Seattle: trombonist Julian Priester and vocalist Ernestine Anderson.
Ernestine Anderson, 'A Very Rare Living Example'
Now 86, Anderson graduated high school in Seattle before launching her professional career.
"Ernestine Anderson, kind of, was very similar to Dinah Washington in the sense that she crossed a lot of different genres," McBride says. "She was very well respected — is still very well respected — not just as a jazz singer, also as a pop singer, also as an R&B singer. She had a very, very strong following with the R&B crowd."
McBride says that Anderson's early experience singing in church, from the time that "the basic rhythm of traditional gospel still was a swing rhythm," also affects how she phrases. He theorizes that a young Aretha Franklin (another musician with gospel roots) must have checked out Ernestine Anderson's records.
"Leaving a lot of tension, that other kind of 'church' thing I talked about — I think Ernestine is a very rare living example of someone who can do that in the jazz language," McBride says. "Kind of, bring that sophisticated elegance of jazz to a more earthy and gritty soul singing.
Julian Priester, 'Like A Great Sixth Man'
Trombonist Julian Priester, 79, still lives in Seattle, where he taught music at Cornish College of the Arts. McBride spotlighted the work Priester did in the early 1970s with Herbie Hancock's experimental band Mwandishi.
"This period in music — not just in jazz, but all across the board — it seemed like everything was bleeding into one another," McBride says. "Everybody was experimenting with these other sounds. Everything was on the table."
Of course, Priester's career extends well beyond that time. His credits include Muddy Waters, Dinah Washington, Max Roach, Bo Diddley and Lionel Hampton, not to mention his own work as a bandleader. In all those contexts, he stands out for both his quality and versatility, according to McBride.
"I was thinking of a basketball phrase," McBride says. "He's like a utility player, like a great sixth man. If you need somebody to score you some three-pointers, you always know he's there. You always know you have one of the greatest players in your band — not because he's a virtuoso, but he's just really one of the greatest solid musicians on any instrument throughout the years."
'The Mark Of A True Musician'
That adaptability links the two musicians beyond their geographic roots.
"I've always thought the mark of a true musician was being able to adapt to any style," McBride says. "Any changes that happen, you're able to ride with it but still maintain your musical integrity and identity, while still being flexible enough to change with the times."
Julian Priester was originally identified as actively teaching at Cornish College of the Arts. He retired in 2011, after 32 years.
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
I'm Audie Cornish. And from time to time, we check in with jazz bassist and composer Christian McBride. He's the host of the public radio program Jazz Night in America and our guide to great musicians and performances.
Christian, welcome back.
CHRISTIAN MCBRIDE, BYLINE: Hi Audie, how're you doing?
CORNISH: Pretty good. Now, I heard you've been to Seattle. And were you on tour? What were you up to there?
MCBRIDE: Yes. My trio just finished a two-week run on the West Coast. We did Seattle, Portland, Santa Cruz, Los Angeles and we really - we had a good time out there.
CORNISH: Now, Seattle still has this like, kind of legacy image of grunge and rock music. What kind of jazz crowd is there?
MCBRIDE: There's always been a very powerful jazz community in Seattle. It's one of the most important jazz towns in the country. Quietly, it's been one of the most important jazz cities. You know, Ray Charles spent a lot of time there. Quincy Jones spent a lot of his formative years there. I love Seattle.
CORNISH: And you've actually brought us back two more names to add to that list, right? Ernestine Anderson and Julian Priester.
MCBRIDE: That's right.
CORNISH: Mr. Priester is a trombonist. But I want to start with Ernestine Anderson because she's still performing at age 86, after recording 30 albums, like, four Grammy nominations...
MCBRIDE: Yeah. She's so amazing.
CORNISH: Here she is from a 1958 recording. The song's called "Runnin' Wild"
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RUNNIN' WILD")
ERNESTINE ANDERSON: (Singing) Runnin' wild, lost control. Runnin' wild, mighty bold. Feelin' gay, reckless too. Carefree mind all the time, never blue. Always going don't know where. Always showing I don't care. Don't love nobody 'cause it ain't worthwhile. All alone and runnin' wild. No man is gonna make a fool of me.
MCBRIDE: I think she still - she still sounds like that. (Laughter). You know? And as I was doing some research, I realized that Ernestine Anderson kind of was very similar to Dinah Washington, in the sense that she crossed a lot of different genres. She was very well respected - or is still very well respected, not just as a jazz singer, also as a pop singer and also as an R and B singer because she had a very, very strong following with the R and B crowd, sort of the similar crowd that was kind of digging Dinah Washington.
CORNISH: Right, and she was born in Texas in 1928...
MCBRIDE: That's right.
CORNISH: ...And I read actually sang gospel with her father and grandmother. And I know you have a lot of thoughts about, kind of, what gospel brings to jazz performance, right?
MCBRIDE: Absolutely. At one point the basic rhythm of traditional gospel still was a swing rhythm, you know? So it's - there really wasn't much difference between swinging in a jazz group and in swinging in church. I mean, I know a lot of old schoolers, they're probably - oh, my God, what did he just say? (Laughter). But, you know, but in terms of the feel of the music, it was very much the same, you know? So, people like Ernestine Anderson really exemplified that.
CORNISH: And here is another performance from her. This one's from 1962 and the song is called "Just In Time."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "JUST IN TIME")
ANDERSON: (Singing) Baby, now you're here. Now I know where I'm going. No more doubt and no fear, I found my way, for love came just in time. You found me just in time. Changed my lonely life that of lovely days.
MCBRIDE: Yeah. Now see, for example, if you listen to a lot of Aretha Franklin's early recordings when she was still on Columbia from around this time period, it's obvious to me that young Aretha checked out Ernestine Anderson, you know, and Dinah Washington.
CORNISH: That kind of pulling back just before you launch into a note.
MCBRIDE: Yeah. That sort of, kind of, you know, leaving a lot of tension. That other kind of church thing I was talking about, you know? I think Ernestine is a very rare living example of someone who'd do that in the jazz language - kind of bring that sophisticated elegance of jazz to the more earthy and gritty soul singing.
CORNISH: Christian, I want to move on to trombonist Julian Priester. This is another artist living in Seattle who's had a long career. He's 79. And it's interesting because you're really attached to the music that he did not in the '60s but in the '70s, with of course, Herbie Hancock. Here he is playing on the album "Mwandishi" and the song is called "Wandering Spirit Song."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WANDERING SPIRIT SONG")
MCBRIDE: Oh, I wish you could see my face right now. This period in music - not just in jazz but, like, all across the board, it seemed like everything was bleeding to one another. Everybody was experimenting with these other sounds. Everything was on the table, a really interesting period in American music.
CORNISH: Well, here's the thing about Julian Priester, is that he has played with just about everyone - Muddy Waters, Dinah Washington - who we've mentioned - Bo Diddley, Max Roach, Lionel Hampton. Help us kind of understand what he brought in terms of that sound, the trombone.
MCBRIDE: I was thinking of a basketball phrase. You know, he's like a utility player or a great sixth man. You know, if you need somebody to score you some three-pointers, you always know he's there. You always know you have one of the greatest players in your band, not because he's a virtuoso, but he's just really one of the greatest solid musicians on any instrument throughout the years.
CORNISH: And I'm going to play a little bit from the album "Keep Swingin'." This is from 1960. It was actually produced by the late Orrin Keepnews and this is Julian Priester on the song "Just Friends."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "JUST FRIENDS")
MCBRIDE: This is a great album. It also features a very young Elvin Jones on drums.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "JUST FRIENDS")
CORNISH: One thing that both these artists have in common, other than their longevity, is also their mastery of different genres and styles. Is that in part because of how long they've lasted in the business, right?
CORNISH: They've had to survive a lot of shifts in the music.
MCBRIDE: That's right. And I've always thought that the mark of a true musician is being able to adapt to any style, any changes that happen. You're able to ride with it and still maintain your musical integrity and your identity while still being flexible enough to change with the times.
CORNISH: Well, Christian thank you so much for bringing us these treasured finds from Seattle. Didn't know much about the scene, I appreciate it.
MCBRIDE: It's my pleasure. Always love talking with you.
CORNISH: Christian McBride - bass player, composer and host of the public radio program Jazz Night in America. It's produced by NPR member station WBGO and Jazz at Lincoln Center. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.