Christian McBride Has One Funky Hero : The Jazz Sensation Says He Looks to the Godfather of Soul, James Brown, for Inspiration


Go figure. Christian McBride is a 23-year-old sensation on the bass whom some critics are calling a “neoclassicist.” His straight-ahead debut album, “Gettin’ to It” (Verve), finds him teaming on one number with graybeards Milt Hinton and Ray Brown. So who does this seeming jazz purist cite as his main inspiration?

Would you believe James Brown?

“The first time I saw him in person, it really messed me up,” McBride said on the phone last week from his home in the Gramercy Park section of Manhattan. “I already loved his music, but to see him live really flipped me out. I remember the date exactly: Oct. 4, 1982, in Philadelphia.

“James still had some of that energy of his left--doing splits, falling to his knees. I’d never seen anything like that before.”


Actually, it’s not as far-fetched as it may seem that McBride--who plays at the Hyatt Newporter tonight--reveres the music of Soul Brother Number One. Listen to the title track from “Gettin’ to It” (a JB-style title if ever there was one) and you’ll hear the same kind of funky, driving bass lines that have powered the Brown sound for some 35 years. The only difference is that McBride uses the upright, acoustic bass to get things on the good foot.

“One thing that jazz and all James Brown music has in common is the bass’ role,” McBride noted, “holding down a groove for as long as possible. You have to be disciplined to do it. In jazz, the bass player has to play time, be the backbone of the band, and it’s the same thing in funk. It’s all the same concept, but a different style.”

Born in 1972, McBride took up the electric bass at age eight after watching his father, also a bassist. “I didn’t see my dad all that much, but I remember seeing him play with Mongo Santamaria about the time that I was 5. And when I heard and felt what he was doing, I thought, ‘Wow, I really want to do that.’ When I finally had a chance to play the bass, it felt really natural.”


He studied classical bass at the Philadelphia High School for the Creative Arts. There, as a junior, he met and played with Wynton Marsalis. He listened to and studied the recordings of Art Blakey, Herbie Hancock, Clifford Brown and Max Roach. The Charlie Parker-Dizzy Gillespie recording “Jazz at Massey Hall,” he said, “changed my life.”

His reputation was growing so fast that by the time he moved to New York to enroll in the Juilliard School, his reputation had preceded him.

“A lot of people had an APB out on me when I got to New York,” he recalled with a laugh. “Juilliard didn’t have any dorms at the time, so I was staying at the Y. I didn’t have a phone.” Saxophonist Bobby Watson got to him first, and soon McBride was picking up the bottom for Horizon, a group Watson co-led with drummer Victor Lewis.

“My first gig in New York was with Bobby, Victor, [pianist] James Williams and [trumpeter] Roy Hargrove. Bobby did so much, taking people like me and Roy and [pianist] Ed Simon under his wing. The man is unselfish.”

Hargrove was himself an enfant terrible in the jazz world and ready to break out with his own band. When he did, McBride went along. “Roy is my man,” McBride said. “We go back some nine years. I first heard him play at a convention in Chicago where all these bands get together and compete. And I remember being out there in the hallway while Roy’s group was playing in the ballroom and I thought, ‘My God, who is that?’

“And then I saw this little itty-bitty dude playing trumpet. There was an all-night jam that evening, and Roy was there--he never misses a jam--and he and I started playing together, and when 4 a.m. rolled around, we were the only ones left.”

After a year in Hargrove’s band, McBride paid dues with Freddie Hubbard, traveling with the trumpeter’s group for nearly two years. “Before he died, Red Rodney did an interview in which he said that Wynton might win all the awards but when Freddie is on top of his game, he’s the baddest cat out there. I know the rhythm section is supposed to support the soloist, but there were times when Freddie played so strong, he just took over. He could be very overwhelming.”

In 1993, McBride joined forces with Joshua Redman, the popular young saxophonist whose albums not only are popular with jazz nuts but have sparked an interest in mainstream jazz with an age group more likely to favor Nirvana. McBride was a central figure in Redman’s band until 1994, having played on his debut recording, “Joshua Redman,” and the follow-up, “Wish.” (Both Redman and Hargrove make appearances on “Gettin’ to It.”)

The stint with Redman gave McBride new visibility, and soon he was being courted by the Verve label to join its stable of young players. Since the release of “Gettin’ to It,” he has been touring with his own band, which currently includes drummer Carl Allen, saxophonist Tim Warfield and pianist Anthony Wonsey. He also has recorded with Joe Henderson on Henderson’s Jobim tribute album “Double Rainbow” and with singer Betty Carter on “It’s Not About the Melody,” as well as with Pat Metheny, Cyrus Chestnut, Bruce Hornsby and Wynton Marsalis.


Some critics have charged that he and others of his generation are plowing old ground and offering little new to the jazz canon, but McBride said that doesn’t bother him. “I really don’t feel any pressure about those things. I think too many jazz critics and listeners put on a jazz record and expect it to be innovative. For them, it has to be new. Anybody who just wants to get down and blow the blues, he’s thought of as retro.

“Some people think the more wild and crazy it is, the more hip it is. But I don’t buy that. The people who I think were the greatest innovators came by it naturally. I don’t think John Coltrane looked in the mirror every morning and said ‘I’m going to be innovative today.’ It just happened.”

* Christian McBride plays tonight at the Hyatt Newporter, 1107 Jamboree Road, Newport Beach. $15. Pianist Eric Reed’s trio opens at 7:30. (714) 650-5483.