Christian McBride, a musical genius in his own right, has blazoned the international jazz music scene in the last 20 years as an acoustic bass player, composer, arranger, educator, curator, and administrator. A native of Philadelphia, McBride has worked with a long line of musical greats, ranging from jazz to opera, including musicians Wynton Marsalis, Chick Corea, Freddie Hubbard, and Herbie Hancock. He arranged for Isaac Hayes, Chaka Khan, Natalie Cole, and James Brown. He collaborated with Sting and Carly Simon in pop music. He collaborated with Roots and Queen Latifah in hip hop. And he worked closely with opera legend Kathleen Battle. Additionally, McBride serves as co-executive director of the first National Museum of Jazz Music in Harlem, New York, and the artistic director of Jazz House Kids, a jazz music learning center for young people, their families, and teachers, in West Orange, New Jersey.
Maceo Parker, a music pioneer, known for his ‘funky music’ style with his alto saxophone has fueled his forty year career by his sheer love of performing. In his twenties he began his professional career playing with James Brown for more than 16 years, which led to work with George Clinton, Prince, and producing solo projects such as Roots Revisited, Mo' Roots, and Life on Planet Groove. Today, Parker continues to work on projects across the world with his special style of ‘funky music’.
Insight News Contributing Writer, Maya Beecham, conducted interviews with the jazz greats—McBride and Parker—in an in depth conversation with the masterminds behind the music.
Maya Beecham: What part of playing acoustic bass did you fall in love with?
Christian McBride: Well I didn’t want to play the acoustic bass at first, because I was already playing the metric bass at age nine. One of the teachers in my middle school had to convince me to play the acoustic bass, because I had no talent for the trombone. I went over to play the acoustic bass and it was gradual, it actually wasn’t love at first touch. Eventually I fell in love with it. I mean it didn’t take very long, maybe a couple of weeks. I don’t know what I fell in love with, just the feel to have such a big, strong, and deep, resonating instrument up against your body like that. I affectionately call the acoustic bass Mother Earth, because that’s what she is.
MB: What did you learn from the musician and your great uncle Howard Cooper?
CB: That music should be fun no matter how esoteric or how abstract music can sometimes get, it should still also be fun. My great uncle could listen to the most challenging music and still laugh and clap his hands. There was always something in that music that would get some joy out of him. And too many times in the jazz world we tend to take the music and ourselves way too seriously and there is no fun. I always try to keep that fun element in it. You can still be progressive; you can still be far reaching; you can still be as experimental as you want, but it’s got to be fun.
MB: What did you learn from Wynton Marsalis?
CB: I was 15 in 1987. Actually a couple of years leading up to that period of the 1980’s, you think about who was popular in American culture, you know like pop culture; Michael Jackson, Madonna, Prince, Cyndi Lauper, Boy George, and New Edition. And here is a person like Wynton who was antithetical to those images. He was a guy who was wearing a suit, was very well spoken, very articulate, he was playing jazz, he was in his twenties, and he was very successful. So that was quite an eye opener for a very strong group of young men and young ladies at that time to see somebody who can make it in the world playing his music, and not have to worry about some sort of pop culture image that was sort of the norm, you know. It showed us that you could be successful and play a very sophisticated kind of music, or mature sort of music so to speak. So Wynton was very important for musicians of my generation.
MB: What young musicians do you have your eye on today?
CB: Well I have used a number of different young musicians that are coming up on the scene that I have my eye on, young men and young ladies. Gerald Clayton, young pianist who is absolutely incredible, his father is John Clayton, the great bass player; Christian Sands, another fantastic, dynamic young pianist; Ulysses Owens Jr., fantastic drummer; and Jaleel Shaw, great alto saxophonist. There are so many good musicians out there in the world that I really appreciate. I think the music is in a healthy state.
MB: What generally makes these young musicians stick out for you?
CB: The hunger, the enthusiasm, that fire in the eye. They are not looking for you to wait to tell them how good they sound, they really want some feedback. They want you to tell them what they need to get together. And they go to real lengths to let you know that they are serious about that. They have that sense of I really want to be out there playing with the best musicians I can play with. That’s what we look for.
MB: I read that you have a unique skill of memorizing music after hearing it for the first time?
CB: Well you know I am not sure that I can do it quite that easily. I have this habit when I get music I really enjoy; I repeat it over and over again. If you listen to music as often as I do, that would be ad nauseam for most people. If I hear music that I really enjoy I just want to internalize it, because I want to be able to listen to it when I don’t have my headphones on. It’s almost like I burn the song into my own brain. Music that I am paid to play, sometimes if I have to go on tour and work with a particular musician and learn his or her music, I feel it’s my duty to memorize that persons music because I am getting paid to do so. I feel it’s my duty as a professional to at least try to memorize the music.
MB: What do you look for in musicians you work with?
CB: This sounds very simple, but you would be surprised how many musicians don’t do it. I like musicians who listen. People will say, of course all musicians listen that’s a part of what they do. Well that’s actually not true, sadly. A lot of musicians decide that what they do is good enough for anybody else so why should they change what they do when they are playing with you. Everybody has a certain confidence in what they do, there is nothing wrong with that, but if you realize that something you are doing is not bringing music to its full potential than you should change that.
MB: What has been the key to success in your career?
CB: Well you know when I was saying that I don’t take myself too seriously, you know I don’t want to mislead anybody, because I think I am deadly serious about what I do with my music. I enjoy it so much it’s not really work for me. I realize that to be a jazz musician, to be a professional musician, to be respected by your peers and your elders, that’s a lot of work. So I think the love I have for music and the appreciation for what I am able to do for a living. I get to play music every night, see the world, make money, and make a contribution to American culture. So I am happy.
Funkmaster Maceo Parker
Maya Beecham: When did you develop your style of playing music?
Maceo Parker: I got into playing my style, what they call funky, because it doesn’t have restrictions. It invites people to party and have fun, be loose, forget about your problems, and that’s why I like it. It doesn’t have any inhibitions. That’s why I like to play the kind of music I do, because it invites people to party and have fun and have a good time and that’s why I like it. I started listening to all kinds of music styles early on. I was blessed to have a brother to play drums a year younger than me, and a brother who played trombone a year older than me. We started a group with a couple cousins. We had a group in elementary school but we started listening to music early on. As we got older, maybe right before we graduated from high school, I noticed that the funky side of what I thought I was trying to do was present in my thinking so I decided to give it a go with that feeling. And then when I got to college I noticed everybody wanted to play traditional jazz and I wondered why nobody wanted to play funky. I found out it was like a gift, like an athlete that can throw a baseball or run a football, it’s a gift and you have to be born with; the ability to hear funky stuff. And luckily James Brown, who also created funky music, all his stuff came into place and it was perfect for me.
MB: Do you remember the first performing gig for you and your brothers?
MP: I was lucky enough that my mother had a brother who had a band called the Blue Notes and we called ourselves Junior Blue Notes. We would be at their rehearsals all the time and some of the songs they played we tried to play, tried to imitate them. So that means the first time we actually played as a group was probably at one of his night club things where he would take us as little kids and put us in the dressing room and then they would play, and around 10 o’clock at night they would take a break and during their intermission we would come out and do 2 or 3 tunes, the same songs they already played. That had to be the first time we played in front of people who really didn’t know us, or in front of people who weren’t a part of the family. We were probably 12, 13, 14 years old or younger.
MB: Why did you select the alto saxophone as your instrument of choice?
MP: I wanted to be in a marching band. My first instrument, believe it or not was piano, but I do remember being really excited about the marching band. I remember the big hoopla and fanfare of the marching band and I remember being really excited about being old enough to play in the marching band, where a uniform, see pretty majorettes, and seeing the drum majors playing down the street. I had to choose a marching band instrument, and somehow I said the saxophone seems to be nice and I noticed when a lot of people recorded music there was a saxophone solo and even in big bands there are a lot of saxophone solos. They walk from behind the stands and walk to the front and do a little solo and come back and I thought that was cool. So, all of these things made me choose the alto saxophone.
MB: What musician has had the most impact on you?
MP: Probably James Brown because it was with him that I got to be on a stage of that magnitude and travel. I was with him off and on, somewhere between 16 to 17 years. So probably when I perform it’s a lot of the stuff…that I picked up from James Brown.
MB: What life lessons did you learn from James Brown?
MP: Early on he was really particular about the clothes, the way you dress, punctuality, respect, being proud of yourself, being proud of your race, being respectful of women, he preached all these things. Early on these things were important to him and those were the things I learned early on. I was 21 and my brother was 20 and that’s pretty young. Those qualities were things that he preached that were really important to him. Certainly the way you dressed on stage. You couldn’t wear your uniform like you slept in it. Those lessons really stuck with me and I will always be grateful for that.
MB: What is your style as a bandleader?
MP: Similar. I don’t give fines if somebody missed something but I kind of let him know it. James used to wiggle his fingers. He would ball his fist, open it real fast, and bring it back and close it and open it again, that meant you owed like five dollars. Or sometimes he would say hundreds...Somebody would be in the wings counting how many times he would do that. Or sometimes he may change it, he may do it three times for 15 dollars, or he may charge 200, to indicate something didn’t go right. His concept was if you take somebody’s money they will be really alert and learn what they should learn and not make those mistakes too many times. If somebody misses something over and over again, I give them that signal to let them know, but I don’t take their money. I want my guys to have fun, but we still have to be on the same page. You have to be aware that you are not playing too loud or too soft, I have little signals for that too. But I enjoy being captain of the ship and I thought about way back when I was 20, 21 years old just hoping I would have my own group and be in control of it and I really enjoy it today
MB: What has been your most rewarding project to date?
MP: I think perhaps maybe the big band thing I do with the big band out of Cologne, Germany. I did a project with them where I did Ray Charles stuff. I am sort of singing like Ray Charles, and I am also playing a lot of Ray Charles tunes and they did some of my tunes but it is a big band of 20 some pieces or so. I never thought of doing anything like that, but once it materialized I am really proud of the result that we got to the point where I am going to do another project with that same band. It is really something where I can stick my chest out and be really proud, because a lot of people when they hear it think its Ray Charles singing. A lot of people over the world have named their kids, pets, intangible objects, Maceo, because of me, especially a lot of the boys, there are so many I can’t give you a number on that. That ranks up there with something that I recorded. There is a group out of France, a positive thinking group, they call that group Maceo. I could just go on and on, but coming from a little small town, Kingston, NC, to being known worldwide it’s like unbelievable to me. I never set out to achieve these kinds of things but you know it’s all happening, and its great and something I can be really proud of.
MB: What has been your most challenging project to date?
MP: Prince's stuff maybe and that’s because it’s not what I think, it’s what somebody else thinks and I have to go back to hearing it and try to have the concept of that particular leader and I haven’t done that in a long time so that was sort of challenging for me. It was sort of rewarding too to be on the stage with him, a genius. He doesn’t like to be mentioned that much in interviews, but I can say I always love hearing him and I am proud of the fact that I have the relationship that I have with him. But it sparked and awakened a lot of creativity in me. I think working with him was the most challenging.
MB: What do you try to teach your young relatives who work with you today?
MP: My son works with me and he has been working a long time and now my nephew too. My son works with me some of the time. My brother who started working with me in James Brown band, his son is now playing drums with me. He started at the beginning of this year. I try to tell him things that I think are important, to verbally say to him like the things James Brown did early on, the punctuality thing, to be proud. He is straight out of college, from the drum line concept, where everything is really, really loud and really, really tense. My son who plays drums calls it aggressive. Everything doesn’t really have to be really aggressive. Sometimes you have to pull back a little bit with your intensity. Other than that he has been listening for a long time. He is beginning to understand my particular concept. You have to learn the other person’s concept. When you come in you have to be wide open to what styles, volume, speed, and tempo of the person you are working for. That is the same thing I had to do when I worked with Prince or somebody else. You have to go with their concept and forget yours. It’s coming along really fine. He started drumming in 1995 or 1996, and there is still a little bit more room for improvement but he is really good, in fact he is looking better than good as far as playing the drums. When you come to the concert you will see.
MB: What can the audience expect to hear at Minnesota Orchestra on Sunday, May 22?
MP.: I try to put music out there where people forget about their problems. If they need new tires for the car, if their grandparents are getting older, if they got to pay that bill; we try to play music where people forget about their problems and just have a good time.
MB: What do you do to prepare for a concert?
MP: I practice two hours a day, do some walking, and make sure my suits are together.
MB: What keeps you going?
MP: Lots of time I am asked what keeps me going so many years and I think it’s important for people to know that I just LOVE performing, playing the saxophone. It makes me feel good when I look out and see people really enjoying what we do. I just love people to a point where if you are at my concert 6 or 7 times you hear me say on behalf of all of us, ‘we love you.’
For ticket information contact Minnesota Orchestra Hall at www.minnesotaorchestra.org or 612.371.5656.