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Christian McBride: The Long Birth of a Movement

Twenty-two years ago, the bassist started working on a musical project that paid homage to four civil-rights leaders. Seven years ago, he recorded it. Now that recording has finally seen the light of day.

Christian McBride
Christian McBride (photo: Anna Webber)

Christian McBride may very well be the hardest working man in jazz, a title that would certainly please him as a devoted James Brown historian and fan. Arguably the most accomplished bassist of the last 20 years, McBride leads numerous bands—including Tip City, New Jawn Quintet, Christian McBride Big Band, and the Christian McBride Trio—while still leaving time to tour with artists such as Pat Metheny and Chick Corea. He’s also the artistic director for the Newport Jazz Festival and Montclair Jazz Festival. A product himself of some stellar music education programs, McBride pays it forward by overseeing jazz education programs at Jazz House Kids and Jazz Aspen Snowmass. Like one of his mentors, Wynton Marsalis, McBride has become a champion for the music in the mainstream media, hosting the NPR program Jazz Night in America and the SiriusXM show The Lowdown: Conversations with Christian. We’ve likely missed other projects and roles, but isn’t that enough?

Given all those demands, you can well understand why his albums may take a while to get from germination to release. But his latest disc, The Movement Revisited, was a special case—and, as he explained in this conversation recorded recently on The Jazz Cruise, his own schedule was only part of the problem. Originally created in 1998, the project looks at the civil rights movement through the words of four icons in African-American culture: Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, and Muhammad Ali. With the help of gospel legend J.D. Steele, McBride composed and arranged music for a big band and gospel choir to accompany the words of these four very different people. The album is as compelling and powerful as the subjects themselves.

McBride hails from Philadelphia, known to its residents as Philly and never as the City of Brotherly Love. The legacy of that city is central to his outlook on music, culture, race, politics … and, of course, sports—there is no more avid Philly sports fan than Christian McBride, but that’s for another story and another time. This story is about how and why he came to celebrate the work of four major figures in America’s history.

JT: You grew up in a city with a rich history of both jazz and segregation. How did Philadelphia shape you musically and personally? 

CHRISTIAN McBRIDE: I didn’t realize how great a city Philly was until I left, after I finished high school. Obviously I love New York because it’s like the central nervous system of the whole world, especially for jazz, but the longer I stayed away from Philadelphia, I realized what a culturally rich place it is. The history, not just the music. I always say that the first few names you learn when you come from Philadelphia are Ben Franklin, William Penn, Betsy Ross, John Coltrane, and Gamble & Huff.

Because of my family—my father [bassist Lee Smith] and my great-uncle being musicians and my uncle working for WHAT radio—black culture, the civil rights movement, and music were one and the same to me. My grandmother saved all of her old Ebony and Jet magazines from the ’50s, ’60s and early ’70s. That stuff was absolutely fascinating.

That’s primary source material because so much of the events and personalities weren’t covered elsewhere in the mainstream media.

Correct. To read contemporaneous writing of news events that are now historic was fascinating to me. To read the April 15, 1974 issue of Jet covering Hank Aaron’s 715th home run. Or to read the issue from right after Medgar Evers was shot [in June 1963] with fresh details. Or reading stories about black mayors like Walter Washington [of Washington, D.C.], Kenneth Gibson [of Newark, N.J.], Richard Hatcher [of Gary, Ind.], and Tom Bradley [of Los Angeles]. Then there were the local Philadelphia activists like Octavius Catto and Cecil B. Moore.

You were aware then of Catto, who was from the 19th century?

Absolutely. My grandmother didn’t talk a lot about what she saw for whatever reasons, but one thing she did talk about was that there used to be an O.V. Catto Social Club that had live music in the ’40s. I said, “Grandma, who’s that?” So I learned about him when I was nine. Uri Caine has an opera he’s written about him [2019’s The Passion of Octavius Catto].

When did your family come to Philadelphia? Were they from the Carolinas, as many black families were in Philly?

Not that far south. My grandmother was actually born in Philadelphia. Her mother came from western Pennsylvania. My grandfather was born on the eastern shore of Maryland, in Princess Anne. My childhood summers were spent there. Most of my grandfather’s people are now in Tampa or Augusta, Georgia. Funny that I now have relatives in James Brown’s hometown.

My grandfather was in World War II and he was a mechanic in the Army. On the GI Bill he moved to Philly. He applied for this job with an auto service there and got them to hire him as a mechanic. When he showed up for work, they said, “Can we help you?” And he said, “Yeah, I’m McBride reporting for duty.” They said, “You’re McBride?” He said, “Yeah.” Most people don’t think McBride is an African-American name. The guy said, “Wait a second.” He went into the back and then came back to say, “Sorry, that job’s been filled.” “Look, I have a letter right here.” “Sorry.”

What I’ve learned from my grandfather, and what I admire him for, is that he would always tell me these things that happened to him in the military and after he moved to Philly, but he never had a bitter bone in his body toward anyone but those people individually. He never went around saying, “I’ve got to get revenge.” Or “We’ve got to balance this playing field.”