In the fall of 1989, saxophonist Bobby Watson introduced a 17-year-old whiz kid from Philadelphia to the world of jazz. Over a decade later, that 17-year-old whiz kid has gone on to make quite a name for himself in the world of music.
Christian McBride has arguably become the most acclaimed acoustic and electric bassist to emerge from the jazz world in the 1990's. While jazz lies at the root of Christian's accomplishments, it is his passion for music in a very broad sense that has made him an esteemed bassist, composer, arranger, educator, and bandleader. His passion for musical diversity has led him to work with everyone from Chick Corea to Pat Metheny, from Kathleen Battle to D'Angelo, from Diana Krall to Bruce Hornsby, from Quincy Jones to Sting. Given the bass is the heart and soul of any style of music, this makes Christian McBride's versatility that much more impressive.
Christian was born on May 31, 1972 in Philadelphia. Having two working bassists in the family proved to be a major influence on him. There was his father, Lee Smith, who played bass for everyone from local Philly Soul superstars like the Delfonics and Billy Paul, to Cuban conguero, Mongo Santamaria. Then there was his great uncle, Howard Cooper, who played bass with members of the jazz avant-garde, including Sun Ra and Khan Jamal. Electric bass was Christian's first instrument, which he began playing at age 9. Two years later, he took on the acoustic bass. While intensely studying classical music, Christian's interest and love for jazz also took flight. At the age of 13, he began causing a buzz around the local Philly jazz scene, sitting in with as many local musicians as possible. The following year, at age 14, Christian would meet Wynton Marsalis who would become a big brother figure and mentor for McBride, outlining a variety of milestones he should strive to achieve in order to enhance his clearly promising career. Marsalis would put the word out on McBride to his fellow colleagues. New York was waiting.
While attending Philadelphia's fertile High School for the Creative and Performing Arts (C.A.P.A.), McBride found himself in the company of other young talents such as members of what would become the first recognized Hip-Hop BAND - The Roots, vocalists Boyz II Men, organist Joey DeFrancesco, vocalist/songwriter Amel Larrieux, guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel, and singer/songwriter Marc Nelson (now a member of Kenneth "Babyface" Edmonds' camp). Upon graduating in 1989, McBride was awarded a partial scholarship to attend the world-renowned Juilliard School in New York City to study with the legendary bassist, Homer Mensch. That summer, before making the move to the Big Apple, McBride got his first taste of the touring life going to Europe with the Philadelphia Youth Orchestra, and also touring the U.S. with the 80's fusion group, Free Flight. He was now ready to tackle Juilliard and New York City.
Interestingly, McBride was already so good, so versatile, and in-demand, that he never had a chance to settle into his Juilliard studies. Within the first two weeks of the semester, he joined Bobby Watson's band, Horizon. He also started working around New York at clubs such as Bradley's and the Village Gate with real hard-core New York stalwarts as John Hicks, Kenny Barron, Larry Willis, and Gary Bartz. After one year at Juilliard, McBride made a decision to leave school and tour with trumpeter Roy Hargrove's first band, electing "experience with as many musicians as possible" as the best teacher. In August of 1990, he landed a coveted position in legendary trumpeter Freddie Hubbard's band until January of 1993. When Hubbard's band was on hiatus, McBride also worked in one of the hottest bands of the early 90's, The Benny Green Trio. McBride's star was quickly on the rise.
In 1991, the legendary bassist Ray Brown heard McBride, and asked young Christian to join "SuperBass," a group Brown tailor made for Christian and John Clayton. This truly solidified Christian's place in the jazz canon. McBride would take full advantage of having Ray Brown as a mentor/father-figure. McBride was also named Rolling Stone magazine's "Hot Jazz Artist" of 1992. The next year, he truly proved it as a member of guitarist Pat Metheny's "Special Quartet" which included the late, great drum master, Billy Higgins, and the then-up-and-coming saxophonist, Joshua Redman. While recording and touring with Redman the following year in his "Moodswing" band, McBride was signed to Verve Records in the summer of 1994, recording his first CD as a leader, "Gettin' To It" - one of the biggest selling jazz records of 1995. The crown jewel of the CD is Neal Hefti's "Splanky," which features Christian in a three-way bass-off with his two father figures, Ray Brown and Milt Hinton. The success of "Gettin' To It" paved the way for Christian McBride to become a bandleader.
Kudos of other sorts were soon forthcoming. Philadelphia's Mellon Jazz Festival of 1994 was dedicated to McBride (along with Lee Morgan, posthumously). He also received a commission from Jazz at Lincoln Center to compose "Bluesin' In Alphabet City," performed by Wynton Marsalis with the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra featuring McBride as special guest. He then toured and recorded in an all-star band with another legend, pianist Chick Corea. In turn, Corea was a special guest on McBride's 1996 sophomore CD, "Number Two Express." The recording reunited Corea with his former Miles Davis bandmate, drummer Jack DeJohnette. It was the first time the two recorded together in over twenty years.
During this time, McBride achieved something that meant more to him personally than any gig or recording session ö he finally befriended his boyhood idol, James Brown ö The Godfather of Soul. For over a year, Brown and McBride talked about collaborating. Disappointingly, the collaboration never happened due to contractual and legal issues. However, McBride was able to co-produce a yet-to-be-reissued CD of James Brown's jazz-tinged LP, "Soul on Top" (King Records, 1969), which was recorded with Louis Bellson's Big Band.
McBride's third Verve CD, the controversial "A Family Affair" (1998), reflected his rediscovery of music from his childhood. Produced by keyboardist and jazz-funk fusion pioneer George Duke, the album found him recording brilliant jazz arrangements of soul classics such as Stevie Wonder's "Summer Soft," Earth, Wind & Fire's "I'll Write A Song For You," Kool and The Gang's "Open Sesame," The Spinners' "I'm Coming Home," and the Sly & The Family Stone smash, "Family Affair," from which the project gleaned its title. The CD also showcased McBride's first attempts as a lyricist on two songs, "A Dream of You" (sung by soul crooner Will Downing), and the cold-blooded "·Or So You Thought" (sung by the vivacious Vesta). This project challenged many of Christian's staunch traditional jazz fans by his choice of material and because he played electric bass on half of the ten selections. The CD was released to mixed reviews from the jazz community, but it introduced a new audience to McBride's artistry. Later in 1998, the Portland (ME) Arts Society, and the National Endowment for the Arts awarded McBride with a commission to write "The Movement, Revisited," Christian's dramatic musical portrait of the civil rights struggle of the 1960's. Written for quartet and a 30-piece gospel choir, the project challenged Christian more than any other up to that point. Collaborating with J.D.Steele (of the renowned gospel family, The Steeles), four very successful concerts were presented late that year. McBride hopes to record the piece one day.
In 2000, McBride released his fourth and most successful CD since his debut "Gettin To It" was released in 1995. "SCI-FI" was released to rave reviews in the fall of 2000. Produced by McBride, the CD was in many ways a perfect blending of all the extremely diverse ideas that McBride had hinted at combining in his two previous CD's. Along with the wonderful Dianne Reeves, it was not ironic that the legendary jazz maverick, Herbie Hancock, were special guests on the CD.
In 2001, McBride took on two projects that took him to even greater levels of musical diversity and popularity. "The Philadelphia Experiment"; was a CD released in the summer of '01, and was an instant success with the younger college "jam band"; crowd. The CD reunited Christian with his former high school running buddy, leader of The Roots, drummer/producer Ahmir Thompson better known to the Hip Hop and R&B world as "?uestlove." The CD also featured the exciting pianist/keyboardist Uri Caine, and the great Pat Martino on guitar.
Later that year, pop star Sting would invite Christian to join his new band. McBride would now become one of those rare artists from the jazz world to be a part of the pop scene. It should have come as no surprise to anyone that an artist with such a broad palette as Sting would summon a talent like Christian. Christian would be a key figure in Sting's 2001 CD/DVD, "All This Time."
In addition to all of his solo recordings, throughout the last decade McBride has been featured on over 200 recordings and has toured and/or recorded with artists such as David Sanborn, George Duke, McCoy Tyner, Bobby Hutcherson, Chaka Khan, Joe Henderson, Betty Carter, Abbey Lincoln, Milt Jackson, Peabo Bryson, Ray Brown, Natalie Cole, George Benson, Benny Golson, Johnny Griffin, and Issac Hayes. McBride has graced the big screen playing his bass in director Robert Altman's 1940's period piece, "Kansas City" (1996), as well as its two soundtracks.
Not content to only play music, McBride continues to challenge himself in other arenas. As a speaker, he participated on a panel for former President Clinton's town hall meeting on "Racism in the Performing Arts." Other speakers included such personalities as choreographer Garth Fagan, and Star Trek's "Mr. Sulu," George Takei. McBride was also a part of Stanford University's panel on "Black Performing Arts in Mainstream America." He also took the plunge into cyberspace by hosting a weekly "jazz chat" series of one-on-one interviews for Sonicnet.com. He has written the foreword for a book by pianist Jonny King called, "What Jazz Is" (Walker & Co., New York). For McBride, jazz education has always been a prime concern. He does numerous workshops and clinics at universities all over the country, and in 2000, McBride was named artistic director of the Jazz Aspen Snowmass Summer Program, and in 2001, was named artistic director of the University of Richmond's summer jazz program, as well as the Dave Brubeck Institute at the University of the Pacific in Stockton, CA.