Saxophonist Christopher McBride embraces the full experience of African-American music
When saxophonist Christopher McBride and his band “The Whole Proof” perform Jazz UpFront in Bloomington on Saturday night, McBride said they would bring “the whole African American experience with them.”
McBride is originally from Chicago and now lives in New York City. He spoke with Jon Norton of WGLT about life in the Jazz Capital of the World, how Miles Davis has changed his life, and his relationship with the word “jazz”.
WGLT: You moved from Chicago to New York City just under 10 years ago to pursue a master’s degree. Now that you’ve immersed yourself in the music scene of what is considered the “Jazz Capital of the World”, has Chicago ever left you?
McBride: I think one of the reasons my music and my playing attracts people is that I want to stay original about who I am. I want I want to keep my original voice. You know Chicago was a big part of my plan, and my professionalism the way I got there. When I watch the musicians and they don’t play along with the music on the booth, it’s because the bands we played with in Chicago were trying to rehearse and make sure we got to know the music inside and out. . So Chicago is a big part of who I am.
When you come to Bloomington to play Jazz UpFront, you are very forthright about the music you play with your band, Christopher McBride, and Whole Proof. You say: “it’s a jazz experience that explores the African-American landscape”. And it sounds like you’re talking about R&B, soul and even hip hop. Why is it important that you incorporate this sound or this sensitivity into your music?
I grew up with these sounds in Chicago. My mom and dad didn’t listen to jazz until I started doing and playing. My father grew up in Honduras and Roatán in Central America. My mom grew up in Gary, Indiana, and wasn’t there much. When I went up in the house, I listened to Earth, Wind and Fire, I listened to Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, Gregory Isaacs, Stevie Wonder… all these different R&B and reggae influences, because that’s what my dad and my mom was listening. And then at 10, you know, my brother put me on Biggie and Nas, and then I became a real big fan of hip-hop.
So when I first started writing music I always wanted to stick with some of those sounds. If you listen to my music, it’s inherently swing. But you can also hear these other influences in the music and in my sound, and I’m not straying from that. And I think people like it… the authenticity of this music.
When you hear the idea of hip hop and jazz combined. Some people think of some of the artists who took the catalog of Blue Note Records (jazz) and turned it into hip-hop music. And then there are people like Robert Glasper, especially this Black Radio album, which incorporated hip hop into its jazz with singers like Erykah Badu, Bilal. When you recognize that hip-hop is part of your sensibility, is that where you are heading?
Hip-hop is so ingrained in my musical identity that this influence will be expressed anyway. I mean, if you’re really studying the history of music… anyone listening to this… I encourage you to… look at how jazz was brought up, why Bebop was invented. Because it was a counter act in the swing age, and people felt like black voices weren’t heard. Hip-hop started out the same way. If you listen to old lyrics by hip-hop artists, it’s just about describing the conditions around them. They are not saying anything that is not happening in their communities. And it was a way for them to express what they felt they weren’t heard. Hip-hop and jazz have such a lineage as an artist. I was born in the 80s, I grew up in the 90s. This sound incorporated into the sound I know from jazz. Those words were going to clash one way or another. And like I said, not all songs are like that. Some songs I want to have that straightforward feel, and it’s going to stay that way.
You said that when you were a kid, Miles Davis’ album “Kind of Blue” was something that really changed you… really made an impact on you. What really changed you about “Kind of Blue”?
Funny how I look at this album as an adult now. When people make music… when you think of things that are happening on the radio… normally you hear “happy music” on pop stations or “my girlfriend left me”, right? not ? Sad music, right? It is very to the point, that people appreciate this relatability.
I have the impression that jazz touches on the subtleties of emotion. I’ve always liked it in music. And you know, jazz is all about melancholy or anxiety. These subtleties of emotion that require a little more diving. When I heard “Kind of Blue,” of course the acting was amazing. That’s what happens when you form one of the best bands in the history of music. But I really felt like it was the emotions it made me feel… it was like I said, it wasn’t happiness. It wasn’t sadness. It’s these subtle emotions that I never really dealt with as a kid, and I was like, man, if music makes you feel that way, that’s something I wanna do.
I want to ask you about the word “jazz” and the connotation it can still have. Miles once said to his record company something like, “If you can’t sell me like jazz, stop calling me jazz” or “stop calling my albums jazz”. You incorporate all of these different sounds or sensitivities into your music. Are you a jazz musician? Are you a musician How do you see the word “jazz” associated with you and what do you do?
This is an excellent question. For me, personally, I always turn to the ancestors of this music and what they say. You know, Duke Ellington had a problem with the word jazz, Charles Mingus had a problem with the word. All of these featured artists had problems with the word jazz after a while. And that’s because of the connotation of jazz.
Jazz was based on, you know, JAZZ changed from JASS. And they would describe jazz as such when they talked about black people dancing in swing clubs. It’s like all that jazz music that was out there before Benny Goodman started playing, and then jazz got popular in white America. Once that happened, that’s when the Bebop became popular as a counter act to whites by embracing that music that blacks had created but, of course, embracing the side. White. So there is a lot of history in this word. And when people think of the word is, it puts a certain stigma on the music.
So in regards to your question, I would say, for me, when it comes to my heritage, I want to be known as a musician, not just a jazz musician… a great musician in general. I play other projects besides jazz music. A lot of people in my circles have looked at what the great trumpeter Nicholas Payton calls “American black music,” because of the sad reasons I just spoke about, plus a few more. But I feel like that word puts you in a box. And sometimes I’ll just say I’m an instrumentalist. I play instrumental music. Because to me, that’s all the music people hear when they come to listen to my shows. They enjoy the music anyway. A striking difference between New York and Chicago, for me, is that in Chicago, I bounced off a lot of different gigs. You know, very early on, I was playing a jazz concert in a jazz club, I was playing gospel concerts at church… I was doing a hip-hop concert, I was on tour with a rock band in New York. When I set foot in three jazz clubs, I was a jazz musician. Not that it’s bad… I like jazz. And I can swing with the best of them. And that’s not to criticize swing music at all, as I play in a variety of swing groups. But that’s all said and done, I want to make sure I also have these other credits of what I’ve done in my musical life on my resume. I guess for me the term musician is better than jazz musician.