Presenting Presence: Christian McBride and Bria Skonberg on how and when to address the audience

Roy Haynes 90th Birthday, Blue Note,  March 13, 2015

Christian McBride, on the mic, with Jaleel Shaw (left) and David Wong

Sometimes even the most charismatic artists find themselves in a situation where winning over the audience is far more difficult than anticipated. Such was the case at the 2012 Playboy Jazz Festival, when Christian McBride’s big band was scheduled for a set between Sharon Jones and Sheila E.

“The female James Brown goes out there and leaves the audience in an absolute frenzy, and then here we come with our jazz big-band stuff,” McBride recalls. “And people knew that Sheila E. was about to come on, so in my own paranoia I’m scared they can’t wait for me to go off. I’m thinking, ‘Oh gosh, I’m dead. What do I do? Put my bass down and start breakdancing? Light it on fire like Jimi Hendrix?’ That was one of the most challenging moments of my career, and I actually didn’t know how to handle it.”

Typically, though, engaging a jazz audience doesn’t call for extreme measures. Always dapper and affable onstage, McBride points to Dizzy Gillespie and Cannonball Adderley as models to emulate in terms of stage presence. “Dizzy always looked like he was having fun onstage,” the bass great says. “When I hear how Cannonball spoke to the audiences on those old recordings, that to me is the perfect hybrid of highly intelligent, serious music presented with the highest level of showmanship. It addresses both worlds perfectly.”

McBride’s natural gift for speaking onstage has no doubt helped him in his work as a broadcaster on Jazz Night in America, but solid emcee skills can be acquired too. Known for her energetic live performances, trumpeter and vocalist Bria Skonberg says she was a shy kid growing up but has learned to be a “trained extrovert.”

Connecting with a crowd doesn’t require constant chatter, she says—just a few well-timed but engaging moments. “Through experience and some good mentors I’ve learned how to talk less at concerts. I don’t introduce every song; I don’t think that’s effective. I pick specific pivot points in a set, string two or three songs in a row and find a way to tie them together afterwards. That allows the listener a chance to get into the mood and lose themselves in the music without being interrupted.”

Photo of Bria Skonberg
Bria Skonberg (photo by Alan Nahigian)

At the most basic level, introducing the band is essential. Most artists will do this twice during a set: once at the beginning or after a couple of introductory songs, and again just before a closing number. “The first time I talk I acknowledge the musicians,” Skonberg says. “They’re obviously as much a part of the concert as I am, so I think it’s important for the band to know that I know that, and also for the audience to connect with them, because they’ll be staring at them for an hour and a half.”

Humor, naturally, is one trick to break the ice. Both McBride and Skonberg profess their admiration for stand-up comedians, the best of whom have a knack for timing and improvisation to rival a jazz musician’s. It’s important not to mix up the two roles, though: Don’t rely too heavily on jokes or overestimate your comedic gifts. “There’s no show-business rule that says you have to be funny,” McBride points out. “If a person is innately funny and wants to tell jokes, they’ll figure out a way to tell them. It’s all about being completely comfortable with who you are.”

Politics is even trickier territory, especially in our present, intensely divisive era. “If somebody really feels the need to be vocal about that, by all means do it,” McBride says. “Just understand that there could be a heavy price to pay. Don’t assume that everyone in the audience is on your side. There could be some people out there who don’t think the same way you think politically but still love your music. There are some people out there who are apolitical and couldn’t care less one way or the other. And there could be some people who are very much on your side. You have to ask yourself if it’s that important for you to express yourself verbally—instead of musically—and maybe make them feel bad after they paid money to see you play.”

There are ways to broach current events without potentially alienating your audience, Skonberg adds. “I try to gravitate toward the commonalities. I’ll say, ‘Whatever side of the fence you’re on, we can probably agree that this song explains the political climate,’ and then we’ll play something like ‘Don’t Be That Way.’ On a human level, nobody likes the way things are going right now. Our goal is to put out love and positivity and give an experience that feels humanizing. I don’t want to assume my audience’s bias any more than I want them to assume mine.”

However you choose to communicate with an audience, Skonberg says, it’s crucial to remember that they come to a show for a complete experience, not just to hear your music. “Nothing feels better than when the band is cookin’ and the audience feels comfortable enough to let out cheers or applause, to feel like they’re part of the show. Live concerts are an opportunity for those feelings to be shared.”