Jazz Notes: With History Behind Him, Christian McBride Celebrates James Brown, the Godfather of Soul
By Dan Ouellette, ZEAL Senior Editor, November 9, 2016
In the mid ’90s when he was a young, frisky jazz guy from Philadelphia who was taking New York by storm, bassist Christian Scott talked to me for an article in Strings magazine about some of his heroes. On the jazz bass tip, he singled out Ray Brown, who embraced the youngster’s talent, and Ron Carter, who was, let’s say, not as enthusiastic and even mean-spirited.
But even though McBride’s career path had him zeroed in on jazz, he hastened to add that he was a kid of funk pop music. He loved Larry Graham, the original bassist for Sly & the Family Stone, who launched into his own funkelicious solo career, and he was hip to all that was deep-grooved as he told me this fall when I played him a Thundercat track at the live Monterey Jazz Festival Blindfold Test I curate for DownBeat magazine. After listening to the tune “Oh Sheit It’s X” from the electronic bassist’s 2013 album Apocalypse, McBride said, “In the first couple of seconds I was thinking, oh, my, this was something from middle school, but I don’t remember this tune. I was thinking this is right down to 1984 and an MTV classic. It should be something I know, but I don’t. Then after listening to the lyrics, I thought, no, not 1984.” He ended up figuring out it was Thundercat and praised him: “I like that stuff. It’s so funky. Anything with a strong groove, I like. I don’t care what you do on top, as long as the foundation is strong, I’m there.”
Dial back to the Strings interview. Funk was one thing but the soul and strut of James Brown was quite another. He was tops on McBride’s list of pop heroes. McBride has said that JB made him feel “strong, bold, almost immortal” and labeled him as “that rare type of artist that created an impenetrable force around the listener.”
So imagine his pleasant surprise when Brown tuned into his 1995 debut album Gettin’ to It and liked what he heard and invited the youngster to meet him. McBride said that in first talking with JB, the soul god said he was surprised that jazz musicians loved his music. McBride’s response: “Guess what, Mr. Brown? All jazz musicians enjoy your music—at least the ones who like rhythm!”
The friendly JB soon turned ornery and even abusive over the years, obviously souring their relationship—as it turns out not an anomaly given the testimony of former band members who endured abuse from the leader when they were in his employ. McBride kept his distance, only keeping up his communication with his hero through his manager, Charles Bobbit.
Within ten years, McBride’s career soared to the point where he was named the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association’s Creative Chair for Jazz. Part of his job: creatively curate shows. His immediate impulse was to contact JB through Bobbitt in hopes to get the dynamic singer to revisit his 1970 jazz album Soul on Top at the Hollywood Bowl with a full orchestral cast. After a long period of back-and-force communications, Bobbit finally signaled McBride that Brown had green-lighted the event. Much to his delight, Brown performed the work on September 6, 2006 (just a few months before he passed away on Christmas Day 2006). It was a thrill of McBride’s life who not only conducted the band but also played bass.
Now ten years later, McBride has taken another giant step, becoming not only the top go-to bassist in jazz, but also the idiom’s foremost statesman. This has included his artistic director roles—at the Newport Jazz Festival, the New Jersey Performing Arts Center, the National Jazz Museum in Harlem and Jazz House Kids—and his radio shows: NPR’s Jazz Night in America and SiriusXM’s The Lowdown: Conversations With Christian. On the music front he’s a MACK Avenue recording star and a sideman in just about all the major jazz projects going. At the Monterey Jazz Festival this fall, he served as the musical director for the opening night orchestral tribute to Quincy Jones, ”The A&M Years,” and was recently announced as the winner of the Bruce Lundvall Visionary Award to be presented by the Jazz Connect Conference in January.
As part of his role at NJPAC, he decided to pay tribute to his old hero and sometimes-friend James Brown with the “Get On Up” all-star celebration of JB’s music as one of the concerts of the James Moody Jazz Festival in the center’s Prudential Hall. Special guests include Sharon Jones—oftentimes called the female JB…but can she do the splits like he did?—Bettye LaVette and the James Brown Alumni Band featuring such former JB sidemen saxophonist Pee Wee Ellis and trombonist Fred Wesley. To top the evening off, Apollo Theater’s DJ Jess will spin JB music for a funk dance afterparty.
McBride has said that in the Hollywood Bowl event “I lived my dream. I shared the stage with the Godfather of Soul, Mr. James Brown.” At NJPAC he’ll no doubt be remembering that experience which will make this show all the more special.