Christian McBride—In the Groove and Feeling Good

Christian McBride, top, with fellow jazz artist Chick Corea

McBride on bass with Sting, who played bass for pop group, the Police, before his solo career, on guitar.

Recent Grammy winner, jazz virtuoso and a soon-to-be author Christian McBride is that rare, prized specimen among males: a multitasker.

There’s evidence on his website, where a few clicks lead to discoveries about the non-musical passions for which he makes time even when he’s on the road, which is frequently.

But the best and most irrefutable evidence materializes when you meet him in person.

“Are you hungry?,” the 39-year-old wants to know when this reporter arrives at his Montclair door for an interview on a February morning. Never mind the answer. McBride is starved, so after a brief introduction to Jessie, his bichon frise, and Ella, his beagle, it’s back into the car for steak and eggs at the Pilgrim Diner in Cedar Grove, followed by a run to the UPS store (he’s expecting a package—a jacket ordered online). In two weeks, he’ll head to Russia with a young trio he recently put together. Winter in New Jersey has been mild, he notes, but in Russia he’ll need the extra layer.

Warm receptions—the kind McBride has gotten used to since he started playing bass for audiences as a teenager—can only do so much to ward off an arctic chill.

If you’re not familiar with Christian McBride, the only explanation is that you’re not a jazz fan: Since 1989, when he entered the Juilliard School in Manhattan after growing up surrounded by music in Philadelphia—his father, Lee Smith, is a well-known bassist there, and so is his uncle, Howard Cooper—he has shared stages with some of the biggest names in jazz, including Freddie Hubbard, Herbie Hancock, Betty Carter, Pat Metheny, Wynton Marsalis and Chick Corea. But his acceptance among jazz’s revered old guard hasn’t stopped him from blazing his own trail. In February, he won his third Grammy for The Good Feeling (Mack Avenue Records), his first record as leader of a 17-piece big band.

“I like anything with a hard groove,” McBride says in his car on the way to the diner, turning on a George Duke CD. That explains how he came to play not just with jazz heavy-hitters, his own hand-picked crew in the big band and his quintet, Inside Straight, but also with the Roots, Sting and James Brown—a personal hero and the only artist among McBride’s non-jazz obsessions, a list of which he can tick off without a pause (see box, page 32).

“Anybody who even remotely knows me knows how much I love James Brown,” says McBride, washing down his side of toast with a second cup of coffee at the Pilgrim, then pausing to shake the hand of a woman who introduces herself as a fan. “I remember the first time I met him. I was maybe 11—my uncle had free passes to a lot of the shows in Philly. We went backstage and there he was, sitting in a chair in a red robe, filing his nails. Just filing away. I was in love with him and his music.” McBride is just finishing a book about Brown, despite tour commitments that will take him not just to Russia this spring but also to St. Louis and the West Coast (he’ll also perform April 30 alongside Herbie Hancock in Washington, D.C., on International Jazz Day; and fulfill his regular obligations as co-director of

the National Jazz Museum in Harlem). “I’m calling it, ‘And I Didn’t Even Get to Say Goodbye.’ It’s about my relationship with him—I wanted to chronicle the JB odyssey for those who didn’t know him. I find little holes in the day to work on it,” says McBride. He plans to self-publish the book this spring or summer.

Multitasking his way to authorship won’t come at the expense of expanding his musical horizons after the Grammy win, though. McBride says the best part of accepting the statuette was the recognition it garnered from other musicians: “Two of my biggest arranging heroes, John Clayton and Lalo Schifrin, got in touch with me and told me how much they like my writing,” says McBride, who wrote six of the record’s 11 tracks.  “Now I’m getting calls not only to play bass but to do some arranging,” which is a different experience than when he won his other Grammys, as bassist on McCoy Tyner’s Illuminations in 2004 and with Joe Henderson for Lush Life: The Music of Billy Strayhorn in 1992. “This is the first time I won as a leader, not for playing on somebody else’s project. And this was my first nomination as a leader. It feels different. Really good.”

In addition to the individual recognition, the victory for The Good Feeling is satisfying because of who he’s sharing it with: his wife, Melissa Walker, provided vocals. Walker is a jazz singer and the founder of Montclair nonprofit Jazz House Kids, a jazz education program for area students.

“I’m so proud of her,” says McBride. He serves as artistic chair for Jazz House Kids, and has brought in colleagues including Esperanza Spalding and Pat Metheny to mentor the budding artists. Jazz House “reminds me of Settlement Music School in Philadelphia, an after-school program I went to in high school. You get so much out of a place like that.”

The place McBride himself is getting a lot out of these days is Montclair, where he’s lived since marrying Walker in 2005. But he wasn’t always eager to admit it.

“When I first started dating Melissa, I’d come see her in West Orange, where she lived, and then go back home through the Lincoln Tunnel feeling bad because I actually liked the other side”—the other side being New Jersey, he says. “I always thought of New Jersey as being an old folks’ home, a place for people who couldn’t handle life in the city.” Now he feels differently. Friends and fellow jazz players including Oliver Lake and Steve Turre are locals. Plus, “there’s the rhythm of it—it just feels like New York.”

He can also get a lot done here, he reflects post-breakfast in the UPS parking lot; the jacket, he learned after a dash into the store, hadn’t yet arrived. “It’s not often I get a whole day off, but when I do, everything I need is right here, very convenient,” he says.

With that, he backed out of his parking space and cued up James Brown for the short drive home.

Christian McBride’s Non-Jazz Obsessions 

James Brown

“At this point, do I really need to explain that I have been a junior James Brown authority for quite some time?,” McBride writes in a recent blog post on his website. “Believe me, I know about almost every bootleg recording (audio and video) that’s ever hit the market. There’s probably not one James Brown bootleg you can mention that I don’t have. When someone innocently asked on Twitter if I’d heard James Brown Live at Newport 1969, they might as well have asked me if I had Kind Of Blue. I knew about the Newport concert before it was released. Through my inside sources deep within James Brown land (Brown’s family included), I’m covered on almost everything.”

Especially the Philadelphia Eagles. “I considered playing professionally. Sometimes I still consider it,” says McBride, smiling. Both the performing arts high school he attended in Philadelphia and Juilliard, however, aren’t exactly breeding grounds for athletes.

“Law & Order” 

“I just wrote my first movie score, and it’s for a documentary called Contradictions of Fair Hope. The director is S. Epatha Merkerson, who plays lieutenant Van Buren on Law & Order. I found out she was a jazz fan, and we became friends and she asked me to write the music. I couldn’t believe I’d get the honor to work with her. I love the show, and it’s always on some station wherever I go. I even watch the reruns.”

Fume Cigar Shop and Lounge 

“It’s this cigar bar here in Montclair, on Bloomfield Avenue. It’s a total locker room. My wife once looked in the window and said, ‘No way. I’m not going in.’ She asked me, ‘What do you guys talk about in there?’ I said, ‘Exactly what you think we’re talking about’,” McBride says. “Now she’s never coming in.”

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