Christian McBride, Revered in Jazz, Is Playing the Long Game
On a Friday night in late January, it was almost showtime at the Village Vanguard, but Christian McBride, the eminent jazz bassist, had not yet arrived.
Earlier that evening, he had enthused about the gig — part of a week of sold-out shows with a new quintet led by the pianist Brad Mehldau — in between sips of Sandeman port and puffs of Mac Baren pipe tobacco at the Carnegie Club, a Midtown smoking lounge. “It’s starting to sound like a band,” he said.
As the set time approached, he was navigating heavy Times Square traffic in his Lincoln S.U.V., air-drumming along to Bernard Purdie fills on the SiriusXM station Soul Town. Slipping into the venue just a few minutes late, he demonstrated what he’d said earlier, in his smooth rumble of a voice, about not requiring any preshow rituals: “I can show up and hit.”
McBride’s assurance now seems like a given. At 50, he boasts one of the most impressive résumés of any jazz musician in his age bracket: eight Grammy wins; hundreds of recording credits alongside names such as Willie Nelson, Paul McCartney, Abbey Lincoln, Queen Latifah and his high school classmate Questlove; and prominent roles such as the host of NPR’s Jazz Night in America and the artistic director of the Newport Jazz Festival.
He leads a portfolio of groups, including a brassy, hard-swinging big band, the elegant hard-bop quintet Inside Straight and the quartet New Jawn, which is heard on the freewheeling “Prime,” McBride’s 18th album as a leader, out later this month. And among fellow musicians, he’s cultivated a level of intergenerational good will that few other artists, inside or outside jazz, can claim.
“Christian is among the cats who are sure about things,” the guitarist Pat Metheny, a collaborator on and off since the early 1990s, wrote in an email. “There isn’t a moment of indecision or waiting around with Christian. He’s on it and aware of everything that is happening and adjusting and allowing for the moment, but always with a vision of the tune, the changes, the time, and most importantly, the spirit of it all.”
The drummer Savannah Harris works with McBride in a new, not-yet-named project that the bassist has called his Gen Z band. “There’s a few people of his generation that are key folks in that they both hold the respect of the arts institutions and hold the respect of their peers and the generations beneath them in the streets,” she said, characterizing McBride as one of those “bridge” figures. “And of the people that I’m thinking of,” she continued, “he might have the most traffic on his bridge.”
Though he began garnering wide notice in the early to mid-90s, McBride stresses that his ascent was gradual. “Revisionist history says that my career started with a bang,” he said with a laugh. “No, it started with a very slow burn.”
His prospects were shaky in the spring of 1990, when, on the cusp of his 18th birthday, he dropped out of the Juilliard School after two semesters, in part to pursue a gig with the vocalist Betty Carter that ended up falling through. He began working with older masters such as the trumpeter Freddie Hubbard but had to contend with the hazing that was then a rite of passage within jazz. He retains numerous stories of humiliations endured when he was first establishing himself on the scene, like the time a veteran saxophonist pop-quizzed him during a jam session, calling out chords from what turned out to be a nonexistent tune.
But McBride had a sturdy inner core. Growing up in Philadelphia, he’d often been the target of bullying. “I was always getting teased about my size, my teeth — ’cause I had big teeth — ‘fat boy,’ all that kind of stuff,” he recalled in the kitchen of his Montclair, N.J., home, while Ella Fitzgerald, his 15-year-old beagle and Cavalier King Charles Spaniel mix, snored peacefully in her bed and pregame coverage of that week’s NFC Championship matchup played silently on ESPN. “But the thing that made it bearable was basically my family,” a loving, tight-knit unit centered on his mother, grandparents and uncle.
“‘I’m going to be better than you,’” McBride recalled thinking of those who mocked him. “‘I’m going to work hard and I’m going to have good grades and I’m going to get out of school and do something.’ So I think there was a part of me that knew to play the long game.”
Once he picked up the electric bass at age 9 — inspired by his father, Lee Smith, a bassist for acts such as the Delfonics and Mongo Santamaria, and encouraged by his great-uncle, Howard Cooper, who worked with avant-garde musicians around town — McBride began treating it as a life’s calling. Soon moving on to the upright, studying classical technique and performing in a local big band, he arrived in New York in 1989 with an unimpeachable work ethic that has never wavered.
“Say what you want to,” he said at the Carnegie Club, “you can’t get me on the hours put in.”
McBride’s dedication still impresses even his closest collaborators. The drummer Brian Blade has played with him since the early ’90s, notably in a quartet led by the saxophonist Joshua Redman, also including Mehldau, that has reactivated during the past few years. “I still wonder every time we play together — rather, I look in wonder as a witness to Christian’s gift working, and the care and attention which he has obviously given much time to cultivating,” Blade said. “He’s not resting on what he did yesterday; he’s still pushing forward. And in turn, it gives me that same spark and fire.”
Early on, McBride was pegged as a so-called Young Lion, a diligent acolyte of time-tested, bebop-derived jazz. But while he established himself through work with esteemed elders like Hubbard, the saxophonist Joe Henderson, the drummer Roy Haynes and the pianist McCoy Tyner, he revealed the breadth of his personal pantheon on his own albums: On “A Family Affair” from 1998, he played as much funky electric bass as woody upright, nodding to an elemental James Brown obsession, while the sprawling “Live at Tonic” from 2006 found him staking out territory somewhere between the Meters, Herbie Hancock’s early-70s Mwandishi band and Jimi Hendrix’s Band of Gypsys.
New Jawn is one of McBride’s most satisfying bands. Featuring Marcus Strickland on tenor saxophone and bass clarinet, Josh Evans on trumpet and Nasheet Waits on drums, it’s a quartet without a chordal instrument that convincingly encompasses elastic post-bop, dirge-like abstraction and strutting funk, sometimes uniting diverse strategies within the same piece. McBride credits Waits, best known for his role in the pianist Jason Moran’s acclaimed, long-running Bandwagon trio, with fueling the quartet’s adventurous spirit.
“Sometimes we’ll be swinging really hard,” he said, “and the next thing I know, ohhh, here we go — and then we’re gone.”
That love of collaboration has brought him wildly different opportunities. He spoke admiringly of a recent first performance alongside Billie Eilish at a 2022 tribute to the singer Peggy Lee. (“She knew that material like the back of her hand, so I’ve got nothing but big-time, hard-core dap for her.”) And he reflected on the “torturous” but ultimately rewarding task of reconciling the disparate approaches of the saxophonists Ornette Coleman and Sonny Rollins from behind the bass when Coleman sat in at Rollins’s 80th birthday concert in 2010.
For a musician like McBride, who has seemingly played with everyone by age 50, who’s left?
“I have three people left on my bucket list,” he answered without hesitation. “Gladys Knight, Dolly Parton and Mary J. Blige.”
“I want to write for them,” he added. “I would want to do a big-band project with each of them.” Then he doubled back to clarify his answer, showing the combination of determination and nonchalance that’s become a trademark of his. “I mean, it kind of wouldn’t matter,” he said. “I want to just play some notes with them.”