Over the last 3 decades, Grammy-winning bassist Christian McBride has become one of the most requested, most recorded and most respected figures in the music world. On top of a busy touring & bandleader schedule, he also works as a radio host, producer, educator, composer and artistic director.
He agreed to answer some questions on his career and to share some advice for how you, as a jazz musician, might also work to grow yours. Needless to say, there are some real gems!
You’ll find the full interview below, but here are 3 key takeaways that stood out to me:
- How a few simple words to a festival or club promoter can make a massive impact on getting rebooked.
- The importance of the stories behind the music for connecting with listeners.
- “The jazz world has to take a real honest look at itself and figure out why we’ve been saying the same thing about building an audience for 65 years”
I imagine touring as a relatively young musician with the likes of Freddie Hubbard & Roy Hargrove was a big experience musically, but were there any takeaways in terms of how those guys managed their career?
Well, they all managed their career much different from the other.
Freddie Hubbard was much different than Benny Golson. Benny Golson was much different than Joe Henderson and Benny Green…
I learned a little bit from every band leader I’ve ever worked with. You pay attention to how they run their business and how they run their band. You take away the things that you like, the things that you know will be of good use to you, and you don’t take the things that you don’t like, the things that you know won’t be as good use to you.
Almost all of them had managers. I think when you get to a certain point in your career, you need one. Certainly by the time I started playing with somebody who was a legend, like Freddie Hubbard, he definitely had a manager.
But a lot of times these bands didn’t have road managers.
That’s something very different to your career manager, or your business manager, so to speak. It’s somebody out there on tour that travels with you and makes sure everything stays together while you’re on the road. A lot of those bands didn’t have that.
The first time I went on the road with somebody who had a real bonafide crew, a road manager, a merchandise person, their own personal sound technician, that was Pat Metheny.
You told a great story about getting started with Freddie Hubbard and how Benny Green introduced you to him and kind of vouched for you. Do you think musicians today should be thinking actively about how they build their network, or is that something that comes about naturally?
I think younger musicians have been doing that very much, particularly on social media. There are a lot of tools that they can use and it seems to me that they’ve been using them well.
I don’t know how that translates into people showing up to the gig, but there seems to be a really large network of musicians who are corresponding on social media.
But I think no matter what happens, no matter what technological developments happen in jazz, it’s always a challenge to get people to show up, to have paying customers show up and hear your music.
One of these days the jazz world, and probably the classical world as well, the symphonic world, has to take a real honest look at itself and figure out why we’ve been saying the same thing about building an audience for 65 years.
[Matt: Do you have any ideas on the direction that might go, and how we can improve that?]
I have a little bit of an idea, but I don’t want to say it until I come to a conclusion. I’m almost there, but I don’t want to be premature.
I read an interview where you said you urged young musicians to learn everything: improvise, reading, writing, arranging and learning the business. Obviously, there are lots of resources and records out there to learn the music, but how do you think they should go about educating themselves more about the business side, which sometimes gets left behind?
Yeah. It’s not that hard. There are a lot of veteran musicians who as astute about business as they are about music.
There are a lot of books out there you can read, there are a lot of people who teach music business. You can go online and read up on things like music publishing. All kinds of things you can read up on.
I think once you’ve made a couple of big mistakes, once you’ve had a deposit that didn’t come through or a cheque that didn’t clear, you will force yourself to learn about the business.
I saw you posted recently about the legendary Mary Ann Topper who passed away, and you name checked a few other impresarios who you’d known over the years. What do you think makes someone good in that role? Or more specifically, what did you notice about her and the way she worked?
Well, for starters, they all loved the music. They weren’t business people. They actually just really loved the music.
They really just wanted to see musicians be able to thrive and be protected, and make the music that they wanted to make, so I think that’s the first thing.
There are many people in the music business who are business people, but they’re not music people. All of those people were music people. I think that makes a big difference.
You’ve done a lot of work as artistic director for various festivals and events. Does being on that side of things give you a different insight into how musicians should approach their booking work, or how they should work with promoters?
Oh, yes. Being able to interact with people who are on the other side of the fence, it really is crucial to how you are perceived, to how often you’ll work.
I think that there’s a tradition of cynicism that is taught to younger musicians:
“Promoters are always going to steal from you. They always want to give you a bad hotel. They always want to give you a cheap flight. They’re never going to have what’s on your rider, so once you meet this promoter, make sure you’re protecting yourself. Make sure your hands are up and you’re ready for battle, right?”
Some of them are like that, but I find that many are not.
A lot of promoters, a lot of club owners, a lot of festival directors really do the best job they can to make sure that the musicians are taken care of.
They really appreciate it when a musician says “Thank you.”
Very simple, just: “Thank you for having me. Thank you for the gig.”
Those two things, believe me, every promoter or festival director puts a check next to the names of the people who are very nice to them.
They say “they will be back.”
You also host some radio shows including NPR’s Jazz Night in America. Do you think it’s important – in terms of getting more people engaged with jazz – that they hear the stories behind the records, not just the music?
I think so. When you can hear what’s going on behind the scenes, I believe people really, really appreciate that.
It gives music that they may or may not know or understand more of a backdrop, more of an insight into what’s going on.
I enjoy speaking with musicians and letting them tell their stories, and the stories behind the songs, stories about what happened on the road and things like that.
It’s always very insightful.
I know that nowadays you have representation from agents for your touring, but was there a time when you were booking shows for your band?
By the time I went on the road with my first band, with my own band, I had just signed to Verve Records. Mary Ann Topper was already my manager, so I always had a manager from the time that I became a bonafide band leader. But all musicians book their own gigs at some point. Many of them have humorous results.
I can remember one night in New York. Roy Hargrove had booked a gig at this club in Harlem called Perks. Roy called us up. He said, “Hey, man. We got a gig on Friday. I’ll meet you guys at the club on Friday night at around 9.”
All of us show up to the gig, and the club owner, or whoever the bouncer was at the door, said, “Can I help you guys?”
He says, “Yeah. I’m Roy Hargrove, and we have a gig here tonight.”
They guy says, “No. Roy Hargrove isn’t playing here tonight.”
He said, “No, I booked this gig two weeks ago.”
He said, “No. Roy Hargrove is not playing tonight.”
Roy said, “I’m Roy Hargrove. I’m playing here tonight.”
He said, “No, no, no, no. We’ve got another event booked here tonight.”
He said, “What are you talking about?!”
We saw the calendar, and it said Roy Ayers, so we were all looking at Hargrove like, “How did this happen, man?”
He was like, “I don’t know.”
The guy at the door, the security guard, was like, “Well, the owner isn’t here so we can’t clear this up… You might be booked to play another night, but you’re not playing tonight.”
It’s the little things like that that happen. You’ve got a whole band of 20, 21 year old guys ready to play, and we’re out there stuck in the middle of Harlem with no gig.
I booked a gig on my own in Philly another time. I called this one saxophone player, we’ll call him saxophone player A. He never called me back. He never told me if he could do the gig or not. I called him maybe four or five times, and he never called me back.
So I said, “Okay, well let me move on, and I’ll call another saxophone player.”
So I called saxophone player B. He says, “I’m available. I’d love to do the gig. I’ll see you there.”
So we get to the club in Philly, and while we’re rehearsing, saxophone player A shows up. I said, “Man, what are you doing here?”
“You called me for the gig.”
I said, “But you never called me back.”
Now saxophone player A is upset because I moved on to saxophone player B. Now he and saxophone player B start arguing. I said, “Oh, man. No, no, no, no. Come on. Saxophone player A, you go home because you never told me if you could make the gig or not.”
Also, at the end of the gig … Now this is one of these mistakes that you make when you’re a young band leader. The saxophone player says,
“Hey, are you going to reimburse me for the train ticket that I bought to come to Philly?”
I went, “I never heard of that word before, reimburse. No. I’ll pay you for the gig.”
Then somebody caught me. I don’t remember who it was, but somebody poked me in the back, and said, “No, no, no. You need to pay him for his train ticket.”
I was like, “Oh, man!”
Yeah, lesson learned.
Can you pick out one or two recommendations of venues that musicians should check out in your home city? Maybe ones that aren’t so famous but we should be aware of?
I’m not in Philly anymore, so I don’t really know the scene as much as I used to there. There’s a club called South Jazz Kitchen, which is really hot right now. They’ve been booking a lot of straight ahead jazz, a lot of vocalists, a little smooth jazz here and there. That seems to be the new hotspot in Philadelphia.
And we just had a venue here in Montclair that closed. It was called Trumpets. That club stayed open for 22 years. We’re trying to figure out what we can have in Montclair other than our jazz festival. It could be a year round venue for jazz.
And then of course New York… there’s a million places in New York!
Big thanks to Christian McBride for taking the time out to answer these questions and share some stories.
More about Christian McBride
Six-time GRAMMY®-winning jazz bassist Christian McBride can be likened to a force of nature, fusing the fire and fury of a virtuoso with the depth and grounding of a seasoned journeyman.
Powered by a relentless energy and a boundless love of swing, McBride’s path has described a continuous positive arc since his arrival on the scene. With a career now blazing into its third decade, the Philadelphia native has become one of the most requested, most recorded, and most respected figures in the music world today.
Raised in a city steeped in soul, McBride moved to New York in 1989 to pursue classical studies at the Juilliard School. There he was promptly recruited to the road by saxophonist Bobby Watson. Call it a change in curriculum: a decade’s worth of study through hundreds of recording sessions and countless gigs with an ever-expanding circle of musicians. He was finding his voice, and others were learning to listen for it.
McBride is also a respected educator and advocate, first noted in 1997 when he spoke on former President Bill Clinton’s town hall meeting “Racism in the Performing Arts.” He has since been named Artistic Director of the Jazz Aspen Snowmass Summer Sessions (2000), co-director of the National Jazz Museum in Harlem (2005), and the Second Creative Chair for Jazz of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association (2005).
Currently he hosts and produces “The Lowdown: Conversations With Christian” on SiriusXM satellite radio and National Public Radio’s “Jazz Night in America,” a weekly radio show and multimedia collaboration between WBGO, NPR and Jazz at Lincoln Center, showcasing outstanding live jazz from across the country. With his staggering body of work, McBride is the ideal host, drawing on history, experience, and a gift for storytelling to bridge the gap between artist, music, and audience.
He brings that same breadth of experience to bear as Artistic Advisor for Jazz Programming at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center (NJPAC). Completing the circle is his work with Jazz House Kids, the nationally recognized community arts organization founded by his wife, vocalist Melissa Walker. Exclusively dedicated to educating children through jazz, the “Jazz House” concept brings internationally renowned jazz performers to teach alongside a professional staff, offering students a wide range of creative programming that develops musical potential, enhances leadership skills, and strengthens academic performance. This shared celebration of America’s original musical art form cultivates tomorrow’s community leaders and global citizens while preserving its rich legacy for future generations.
Whether behind the bass or away from it, Christian McBride is always of the music. From jazz (Freddie Hubbard, Sonny Rollins, J.J. Johnson, Ray Brown, Milt Jackson, McCoy Tyner, Roy Haynes, Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock, Pat Metheny, to R&B (Isaac Hayes, Chaka Khan, Natalie Cole, Lalah Hathaway, and the one and only Godfather of Soul himself, James Brown) to pop/rock (Sting, Paul McCartney, Carly Simon, Don Henley, Bruce Hornsby) to hip-hop/neo-soul (The Roots, D’Angelo, Queen Latifah) to classical (Kathleen Battle, Edgar Meyer, Shanghai Quartet, Sonus Quartet), he is a luminary with one hand ever reaching for new heights, and the other extended in fellowship—and perhaps the hint of a challenge – inviting us to join him.