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.”