Bright Moments with Cecil McBee

The bassist tours his brilliant discography

Cecil McBee in the 1960s (photo by Frances Wolff/Mosaic Images)
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The Cookers: Eddie Henderson, Billy Harper, Billy Hart, George Cables, Donald Harrison, David Weiss and Cecil McBee (from left) (photo by John Abbott)
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Cecil McBee: "Mutima"
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Pharoah Sanders: "Thembi"
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The Leaders: "Mudfoot"
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For the past six decades, bassist, composer and educator Cecil McBee has quietly anchored the rhythm section for bands led by Charles Lloyd, Jackie McLean, Pharoah Sanders, Sonny Rollins, Saxophone Summit and countless others. He currently tours with the Cookers, a supergroup featuring saxophonists Billy Harper and Donald Harrison, trumpeters Eddie Henderson and David Weiss, pianist George Cables and drummer Billy Hart. Their most recent album, The Call of the Wild and Peaceful Heart (Smoke Sessions), features originals by McBee and the other band members, with arrangements that recall the postbop milieu in which they cut their teeth. Most of the 81-year-old bassist’s credits are with saxophonist-led bands, and perhaps that has something to do with his first instrument, the clarinet.

McBee got his professional start with Dinah Washington, while putting himself through college at Central State University in Wilberforce, Ohio, where he had a partial scholarship for clarinet. Later, as an Army bandsman stationed at Fort Knox, Ky., he met fellow clarinetist (and then-aspiring jazz pianist) Kirk Lightsey. After playing the day’s marches, “all I did was practice the bass for two years,” McBee recalled recently at his Bedford-Stuyvesant townhouse. “I found a place, believe it or not, in the latrine, where nobody could hear me.”

After the military, McBee and Lightsey moved to Detroit, where the late bassist Bob Cranshaw heard them in duo at the Hobby Bar one night. Cranshaw encouraged McBee to go to New York, and promised to find him a place there if he did. McBee recently sat down with JazzTimes to reflect on what happened next.

Grachan Moncur III
Some Other Stuff
(Blue Note, 1965)
Moncur, trombone; Wayne Shorter, tenor saxophone; Herbie Hancock, piano; McBee, bass; Tony Williams, drums

I was living on Great Jones Street, between Lafayette and Broadway, in a loft that was owned by a pianist whose name was Nat Jones. One afternoon I was practicing, and I heard this knock on the door to the far right, where Nat lived. I kept practicing, and about 30 minutes later, I’m engrossed in what I was doing—the intent to include a third finger, pizzicato-wise, on my right hand—and suddenly somebody knocked on my door. It was Grachan!

“Pardon me, McBee,” he said. “I came to find you. I heard you were staying with Nat Jones.” He said, “My name is Grachan Moncur, and excuse me, I was standing outside listening to you for a minute, and I really like what you’re doing. Especially that fast stuff.” And he said, in so many words, “By the way, now that I’ve heard you, I’ve got a recording. Can you meet me for a rehearsal next Tuesday?”

When I arrived at the studio at about 1 o’clock that afternoon, it was Herbie, Wayne and Tony. I froze right away. I said, “I’m not ready to play with these guys!” So the hair rose on the back of my neck, and I didn’t have any. But they were very kind.

Grachan put some music on the stand, some chord changes that were all over the bar line, under the bar line, and I said, “What do I do?” He said, “Just play what I heard you play when you were practicing—that fast stuff. Just play it freely, openly.” That was wonderful until, on the second side, he had us rehearse the only tune that was in time [“Thandiwa”], which was in 6/4, in B-flat minor. I knew nothing about B-flat minor in terms of how to articulate that, so I played just tonics and fifths, all arpeggios. So back to the study after that.

Jackie McLean
Action
(Blue Note, 1967)
McLean, alto saxophone; Charles Tolliver, trumpet; Bobby Hutcherson, vibraphone; McBee, bass; Billy Higgins, drums

I remember I was scared to death. I had just arrived in New York City. I’ve never really discussed [Jackie McLean’s] initial call to me for a gig at Slugs’. We had played a birthday celebration in the neighborhood, and one of the owners was there and invited us to play. Slugs’ was then just a neighborhood place to sit and have a drink. Immediately it was a hit, and the club was now announced as a place to hear music.

[McLean] called me in for the [It’s Time! recording] date, and then subsequently we played quite a few gigs locally, and even in Canada once. [It’s Time!] was my third album after having arrived in New York, after Some Other Stuff and then Cathexis with Denny Zeitlin. Grachan’s album as well as Denny Zeitlin’s were more over the edge, insofar as harmony and rhythm, which I felt very comfortable with, because I was just out of college and I was like a triple-A student in harmony and theory. But rhythmically I didn’t feel so comfortable with both [It’s Time! and Action].

Rhythmically, for a bass player, the most important pronouncement of what you do is to understand real clear what that single quarter note is. That one, two—it shouldn’t vary unless expected, and I didn’t know about the dynamic of that, so now that I’m in the studio with Jackie, that realization came to me. But with Bobby and Charles and all those guys, you couldn’t go wrong anyway, so there were some bright moments equal to the more shaky moments. I was just in New York for a minute, and Jackie was very kind.

Charles Lloyd
Forest Flower: Charles Lloyd at Monterey
(Atlantic, 1967)
Lloyd, tenor saxophone, flute; Keith Jarrett, piano; McBee, bass; Jack DeJohnette, drums

When I was with Wayne Shorter at Slugs’, there was Roy Haynes on drums and a guy named Albert Dailey on piano. Wayne had just left Art Blakey and was en route to the next phase, and one night there was this tall guy to the right of the bandstand, at the edge of the bar. He was the only one standing up, shaking his head to the music, having a good time.

When we got off the stage, he approached me and said, “Man, I really loved the way you play.” It was Charles Lloyd! “By the way,” he said, “I have a date in Chicago next February. Would you be available?” I said, “Sure.”

So that’s where I met Jack DeJohnette and Gábor Szabó. In Chicago, we did a really wonderful week. Gábor was leaving for California, so Charles asked Jack if he knew anybody who could play piano with the group. Jack mentioned Keith Jarrett, and he said, “Yeah, I know this 19-year-old dude that plays at Berklee, and, actually, he’s a tyrant of sorts, man, because nobody can get along with him. The teachers can’t teach him anything. He’s always criticizing them. It’s relatively unsettling.” Charles said, “Let’s get him.” So the following March, we ended up hitting at the Jazz Workshop in Boston on Boylston Street, and right away it was like, with Keith, the sun shined even brighter.

Now, when I first heard Ray Brown, I was so humble I couldn’t practice for three months after that. Literally. But the night before the Monterey recording, we were at Shelly’s Manne-Hole, in L.A., with the Charles Lloyd Quartet. The very last night, as I’m reaching over to get my case to put it on the bass, somebody touches me on the back. I looked up—it was Ray Brown! I almost fainted. He said, “McBee, you sounded wonderful.” Then he said, “By the way, would you take me somewhere and show me how to play with that third finger?” And I gave him a lesson. That was my moment of passage. The Forest Flower album happened the very next day.

Yusef Lateef
The Blue Yusef Lateef
(Atlantic, 1968)
Lateef, tenor saxophone, flutes, various world instruments, vocals; Blue Mitchell, trumpet; Sonny Red, alto saxophone; Buddy Lucas, harmonica; Kenny Burrell, guitar; Hugh Lawson, piano; McBee, bass; Bob Cranshaw, electric bass; Roy Brooks, drums; the Sweet Inspirations, vocal group; plus strings

This is one of my first uses of the synthesizer—my very first, and quite frankly, that was overdubbed after the fact. When I heard it, I thought it was just a passing thing. Kenny Burrell was out of Detroit also. They were all brothers and sisters really. It was like everybody was part of the same family, and now I’d become part of the family.

I had concluded the stint with the Charles Lloyd Quartet—this was in ’67—and I began with Yusef Lateef. That came about because of a lady in Detroit whose name was Alice McLeod, who was a celebrated pianist there amongst the many fine, great musicians that emanated from the Detroit area. She was highly respected, and lived in a sizable Victorian house. In those parts of the world, especially during that time, those sorts of edifices were easily come by if you had reasonable amounts of money. This was in 1962. So a sizable place where her living room was—you wouldn’t believe how large it was, centered by a grand piano—and this was the lady who was eventually going to become Alice Coltrane.

Every Sunday, when appropriate, she would have jam sessions there in that parlor—we called it “the parlor.” And whoever was in town—Elvin Jones, Joe Henderson, Yusef Lateef—they would come there and touch base and check everybody out, find out what’s going on and play something. I was always invited, which began my contact with those who were necessary for my survival socially and musically.

Pharoah Sanders
Thembi
(Impulse!, 1971)
Sanders, saxophones, alto flute, various world instruments,
percussion; Michael White, violin, percussion; Lonnie Liston Smith, keyboards, percussion; McBee, bass, percussion; Roy Haynes, Clifford Jarvis, drums, percussion; James Jordan, ring cymbal; plus African percussion

I’m worldwide respected because of [the solo bass track “Love”], so people say. Through that association with Alice Coltrane in Detroit, she called me to do a recording called Journey in Satchidananda, and she introduced me to Pharoah Sanders, who participated in that album. By that time I felt very comfortable, especially modally. During that experience, Pharoah Sanders said, “It was really nice to play with you,” and he went his own way. But then I called him. I said, “Pharoah, I want to play with your band. I must play with your band.” He said, “Come on. I thought about you, too.” So I ended up with him for a wonderful stint of about three years.

Now that we’re in the studio [for Thembi], we were about to play one of his tunes that we had rehearsed, and he said, “OK, take number one. Let’s go!” And then Pharoah said, “Wait a minute! McBee, why don’t you just play something out front? I’m thinking of an intro which I can’t find, so why don’t you just play something?” I had never experienced anything like that. So I simply closed my eyes and went back to my living room on 106th Street and practiced, and just played whatever I was trying to achieve for the future. I just went there, and it turns out, when it was released, lo and behold, after all the previous recordings and performances, the world said, “There’s a new bass player!”

Cecil McBee
Mutima
(Strata-East, 1974)
McBee, bass; Tex Allen, trumpet, flugelhorn; Art Webb, flute; Allen Braufman, alto saxophone; George Adams, tenor and soprano saxophones; Onaje Allan Gumbs, keyboards; Jimmy Hopps, drums; Jaboli Billy Hart, cymbal, percussion; Lawrence Killian, congas; Michael Carvin, gong, percussion; plus Dee Dee Bridgewater, guest vocalist; Cecil McBee Jr., electric bass; Allen Nelson, drums

Mutima was really an album that was very much anticipated by myself, because now I had the opportunity to express, in broad terms, Cecil McBee the composer. Upon entering New York City, I felt very capable of writing music and arranging music, which I had qualitative experience with when I was in Detroit, and with Kirk and other groups.

To this day, there’s one tune on there that I feel is one of the best that I’ve ever come about, and that’s “Mutima” itself, which means “from the heart” [in Swahili]. And I’m looking forward to introducing it to the Cookers. Over the years, occasionally my compositions have been heard and most of the time appreciated. But as a composer, I’m seen as somebody who is more of a sideman.

And to this day, with “Mutima” being my favorite tune, Alternate Spaces is my favorite album. In America it’s not known, but it’s the best thing I’ve ever done. I’m a professor at the New England Conservatory, where “Mutima” and Alternate Spaces are among the favorites, so I understand. The young kids who are now emerging think it’s contemporary, that I wrote the music yesterday, when in fact it’s from the 1970s.

Freddie Hubbard & Woody Shaw
Double Take
(Blue Note, 1985)
Hubbard, trumpet, flugelhorn; Shaw, trumpet; Kenny Garrett, alto saxophone, flute; Mulgrew Miller, piano; McBee, bass; Carl Allen, drums

That is one of the albums that I feel very fortunate to be a part of. Freddie Hubbard had announced that his favorite rhythm section at the time was Elvin Jones, McCoy Tyner and me. So I said a salute to my good friend Jimmy Garrison for that moment in the eyes of Freddie Hubbard. And I’d performed a lot with Woody Shaw, so when they decided to do the album, it was really one of my best moments, because they both chose me to play with Mulgrew and Carl Allen.

It’s a great album, one that I find no criticism of. I use it as an example for my trumpet students at the college in Boston—that level of competence and so forth, not only when playing the music, but the level of creativity and the very powerful urgency of expressing oneself collectively. And I can say no more.

Woody appeared conceptually to have something very similar to what I was working on with the bass, because now that I was more comfortable with utilizing and including my third finger, harmonically he was doing the same thing. We tried to infuse the mystery of the unexpected tone as points of departure and arrival to accent what’s happening before or after the fact. So I heard that in him, and with Freddie being so advanced everywhere, especially harmonically, it was just a dream.

The Leaders
Mudfoot
(Black Hawk, 1986)
Lester Bowie, trumpet; Chico Freeman, tenor saxophone, soprano saxophone, bass clarinet, vocals; Arthur Blythe, alto saxophone; McBee, bass; Kirk Lightsey, piano; Famoudou Don Moye, drums

“Song of Her” was on the second side of Forest Flower. The Leaders was great. It was a group that was very alive, very energetic, and mirrored the thing with Charles Lloyd. We were very much like brothers, but with the Leaders, the expertise, composition-wise, and the ability to play those tunes were broadly diverse from person to person, which made the music even more interesting. We were together about 10 years, traveled all over Europe, and when you play with a group that long, you can close your eyes and play the music and everything’s all right.

McCoy Tyner
Blues for Coltrane: A Tribute to John Coltrane (Impulse!, 1987)
Tyner, piano; David Murray, Pharoah Sanders, tenor saxophones; McBee, bass; Roy Haynes, drums

When you put four people together who haven’t played together in some time—I had never played with David Murray before—and you are now in the studio with no rehearsal, expected to do something, you’re on your toes, right? Here I am again with Pharoah Sanders, and I was with Roy Haynes at Slugs’ for about three years, which was a great lesson from him. But speaking of McCoy, previously we had done an album called Quartets 4 X 4. Previous to that I had never played with McCoy, and I was a little nervous because of the greatness of this man.

So now that we’re in the studio and he has begun to play, I felt extremely comfortable! Why? Because everybody that I played with played just like him! Kirk Lightsey didn’t play like him; Keith didn’t play like him; but everybody else was right in that zone. Just as most people were in Ray Brown’s zone, or Paul Chambers’ zone, Scott LaFaro. So it was very easy. I was surprised that it got a Grammy, and I’m very proud of that.

Elvin Jones
It Don’t Mean a Thing…
(Enja, 1994)
Jones, drums; Nicholas Payton, trumpet; Delfeayo Marsalis, trombone; Sonny Fortune, tenor saxophone, flute; Willie Pickens, piano; McBee, bass; Kevin Mahogany, guest vocalist

It was a grand experience with Elvin Jones. When I was up at 84th Street right off Riverside Drive, I met Jimmy Garrison. We hung out every now and then and I became not only familiar with him as a good friend, but had begun to acknowledge his great addition to Coltrane and also to the music at large. I began to focus on him, past Paul Chambers and Richard Davis, who were my heroes. Richard Davis was the contemporary guy, and Paul Chambers was the one from whence it all comes for me, still to this day, insofar as that pronouncement of tone.

I realized that Jimmy Garrison was very essential to the string bass in terms of what its responsibilities were beyond the other great guys, because the way he placed his tone on the floor on that beat was absolutely perfect for John Coltrane. There was no variance. He was right on it, which is what Elvin Jones needed. And I knew that, so when I played with Elvin Jones, he just loved the fact that I was respectful enough to just put that note right on the button and I would let him let the cat out of the bag. I played with him off and on for some time, and I ended up doing one record with him and John Hicks called Power Trio, which utilized one of my simple tunes called “‘D’ Bass-ic Blues.” He just loved it. After that, every time he saw me, he would want to embrace me. “McBee! Let’s play that blues!” And you don’t want Elvin Jones to embrace you, ’cause he’ll break your back.

The Cookers
The Call of the Wild and Peaceful Heart
(Smoke Sessions, 2016)
Eddie Henderson, David Weiss, trumpets; Donald Harrison, alto saxophone; Billy Harper, tenor saxophone; George Cables, piano; McBee, bass; Billy Hart, drums

Truthfully speaking, it was one of the most difficult albums I’ve ever recorded, because that day I was chemically not connected with myself. I just didn’t feel that good that day—my energy level was lower than expected. And I’m in the studio about to play music that was very demanding, so, as I tell my students, it’s going to be what it is. Just concentrate on who you are at that particular time. Because if you studied and practiced and studied and practiced in search of excellence, only excellence, whatever you do is going to be excellent if you know nothing else. So, especially “The Call of the Wild and Peaceful Heart” was [a composition] that calls for intense concentration, because the notes on the instrument had to be from an upper area to the extreme lower area—back and forth.

George Cables’ “Blackfoot” is a wonderful tune that I love so much. Any time I even think about it I want to sing and dance. And my tune, which is called “Third Phase,” is one that I am proud of. It’s a composition that provides harmony that is related with unusual intervals between the chords, just all over the place, that works really well with a melody that is accented at irregular spots within the measure. It’s called “Third Phase” because when I completed the Army and went back to school and got my degree, it took me nine years to do that. In New York, I entered a situation where for a long time I stopped playing music except for a few clubs and little gigs. I had entertained driving a taxi and washing dishes, but something happened to me for nine years where I was off the stage.

So I was sitting at the piano at the school one day when a student didn’t show up, and I started playing as I usually do, and these things that I just explained came to me, and the more I played the more excited I got about the possibility of a new tune. And when I finished and it was comfortable, I said, “Oh, the third phase,” because I’m happy now. I’m now in front of all of that.