AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
You know, sometimes we need a pause from the news to rest and reflect. And our moments this year with jazz artist Christian McBride have offered just that. He's the host of NPR's Jazz Night In America. And while we've talked about jazz legends, up and comers and great stages, we've never talked about him. A few weeks ago, Christian McBride and I met face-to-face before a live studio audience here in Washington.
CHRISTIAN MCBRIDE, BYLINE: I'm very glad to actually look at you...
MCBRIDE: ...While we speak.
CORNISH: Yeah. You're very charming.
CORNISH: McBride brought his bass. He calls her Rayletta, an ode to his mentor, Ray Brown. Brown came up with bebop greats in the 1940s like Charlie Parker, and he went on to be one of the most influential jazz bassists of all time.
MCBRIDE: Anytime my hands touch a bass, I think of Ray Brown. Ray Brown was one of the very few bass players where drums seem superfluous because his beat was so strong. You got this feeling of a piston driving.
MCBRIDE: You know, like, every single note was full-throttle. There's a great record that he made with late great vibraphonist Milt Jackson. They're playing the song "Tenderly." I don't think Ray was paying close attention to the actual title...
MCBRIDE: ...Of the song. And so Milt Jackson's playing this gorgeous introduction - (imitating vibraphone). And then Ray comes in...
MCBRIDE: It was just like, good Lord.
MCBRIDE: It's like - oh, Man.
CORNISH: So let's come back to this, though. I mean, you've told us that you essentially are a funk bassists...
CORNISH: ...Kind of masquerading.
MCBRIDE: I backed my way into jazz.
CORNISH: What were you playing before, and how did you, in fact, back your way into jazz?
MCBRIDE: My father is a bassist as well - whole family of bassists - my father, Lee Smith and my great uncle Howard Cooper. And I don't know why. I saw my dad play a bunch when I was a kid. But there was this one particular show I saw. It hit me. I, all of a sudden, decided I wanted to play the bass. And my mother bought me my first electric bass for Christmas. I was 9 years old. The first song I ever learned how to play was...
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PAPA WAS A ROLLIN' STONE")
THE TEMPTATIONS: (Singing) It was the 3rd of September. That day, I'll always remember.
CORNISH: I'm picturing you at 9 years old doing this.
MCBRIDE: Yeah. This...
MCBRIDE: So yeah. "Papa Was A Rollin' Stone" was the first song I ever learned how to play, and I just remember thinking, OK, I think I can do this. And so I was so excited. I - you know, I asked my dad. I said, show me something else. Show me something else. Let's see if you know the bass line to the second song I ever learned how to play - 1981 - that'll give you a clue.
(SOUNDBITE OF HALL AND OATES SONG, "I CAN'T GO FOR THAT - NO CAN DO")
MCBRIDE: Hall & Oates, "I Can't Go For That."
CORNISH: Did anybody else get that? I'm like, what? All right. There's some people with their hands up.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I CAN'T GO FOR THAT - NO CAN DO")
HALL AND OATES: (Singing) I'll do almost anything that you want me to, oh, yeah, but I can't go for that.
MCBRIDE: I just - I fell in love with the music. Then I fell in love with James Brown. Only, I was already in love with James Brown. But then I went deep, as far as anyone could go inside of that music. So then my mother - 'cause my parents weren't together at this point - my mother saw that, and she decided that it would be best for me to go to a music school and get some formal training. And that's when I went to George Wharton Pepper Middle School in Southwest Philadelphia.
And then once I started taking lessons on the acoustic bass, that's when my great uncle came into the picture. He's the real jazz man of the family. He sat me down in his favorite chair and gave me a crash course in the history of jazz bass in, like, you know, seven or eight hours. That's all I needed. I fell in love with jazz instantly because he was such a descriptive teacher.
You know, he - first of all, he's your classic caricature of a jazz musician. You know, he always had his tam and the horn-rimmed glasses and the goatee and the Pall Mall cigarette...
MCBRIDE: ...Shoulder bag, walks with a very hip lean. Everybody's Cat and Baby.
MCBRIDE: He uses words like expoobident and dig and - he's a hip, hip guy. And he would sit in his chair way, way down, like, so his back was almost on the chair. And we would listen to a Charles Mingus record. He would have a cigarette lit, and he would, like, sit there with his knees, wiggling, like, woo.
MCBRIDE: Ain't this mean, you know? He'd say, you dig what Mingus's putting down, Baby, you know?
CORNISH: He's saying this to a preteen, at this point.
MCBRIDE: Yes, exactly.
CORNISH: I want to picture the scene here.
MCBRIDE: So I was just staring at my uncle, laughing. You know, like, well, jazz makes him that cool, then I want to be as cool as him.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
CORNISH: What should we be listening for, I mean, for those of us who maybe are new to jazz or sort of aren't always sure how to get into the music? When we're listening to an instrument like this, what are we listening for?
MCBRIDE: You're actually not listening for anything. You're supposed to feel it. You feel it right here. I always like making sports analogies with regards to the bass. In football, if you're a part of the offensive line, most of the time, people don't recognize you unless you're not doing your job. The offense linemen don't really get the ball. They don't score touchdowns. The don't get the spotlight, but they are the most important part of the offense. They have to open the holes for the running backs. They have to protect the quarterback. That's exactly what a bass player does in the band.
We're protecting the harmony, you know? We're making holes for the soloist out front. You know how much of a student I am of James Brown's music. If you listen to his song, the original version of "Ain't It Funky Now," you know what the bass line is?
The bass player plays this for nine-and-a-half minutes without break.
MCBRIDE: Now, I know that sounds boring, but when you add the two guitars, you add the drums, you add the horns, you get this puzzle of this amazing funk machine. But that funk machine breaks down if that bass players decides, oh, I think I'll put a little something extra in there.
MCBRIDE: You know, I mean, it might work, but, you know, that's not what the script calls for. So for whatever flash a bass player has, you have to know that things like that - that's your primary job.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AIN'T IT FUNKY NOW")
RAY BROWN: (Singing) Ain't it funky now?
CORNISH: Christian McBride thank you so much for sitting down talking with.
MCBRIDE: My pleasure.
CORNISH: Christian McBride, thank you so much for sitting down and talking with me.
MCBRIDE: My pleasure.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AIN'T IT FUNKY NOW")
BROWN: (Singing) Ain't it funky now?
CORNISH: Christian McBride - he's a regular guest on our program and host of NPR's Jazz Night In America produced by NPR, member station WBGO and Jazz at Lincoln Center.
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