Pandemic Strikes Jazz Community NPR's Mary Louise Kelly talks with Christian McBride, the host of Jazz Night in America, about the toll the pandemic has taken on the jazz community.

Pandemic Strikes Jazz Community

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Nightclubs are closed, summer festivals are canceled, and the jazz community is still grieving the loss of several of its greats to COVID-19.


KELLY: There's the saxophonist Lee Konitz. He was a pioneer of cool jazz. He was 92.


KELLY: The guitarist Bucky Pizzarelli played on hundreds of records. He was 94.


KELLY: And there's a pianist who lives on through his many students and his musical sons, like Branford and Wynton - Ellis Marsalis was 85.


KELLY: Here to remember other greats we have lost is Christian McBride - bassist, composer and host of Jazz Night In America. Hey there, Christian.


KELLY: I am all right. I know you're here usually telling us about happier things, but I'm glad to hear your voice again.

MCBRIDE: It's great to hear yours, too. Yeah, we are in a very different time in our lives.

KELLY: We sure are. And it seems - correct me if I'm wrong - but as though the jazz world has been hit especially hard by the coronavirus. Is that true, and why?

MCBRIDE: I certainly feel that's the case. There's been an overwhelming number of jazz artists who we've lost. And many of them have been elderly, many of them have been African American, and many of them have lived in densely populated cities, like New York or New Orleans. And the numbers have shown that those are the groups that have hit the hardest - African Americans, the elderly, and densely populated cities. And that really does equal a large contingent of the jazz community.

KELLY: You mentioned that this has hit particularly with older musicians...


KELLY: ...The elders of the jazz world. And it's worth noting - not unique to jazz, but certainly true of jazz - the whole, you know, respect for elders, the mentorship system, you know, the younger musicians looking up and learning from the older.

MCBRIDE: That's right.

KELLY: They're still very much out there and part of this world.

MCBRIDE: Yes. Jazz has always been a mentor-student kind of community. And we really cherish our elders, you know? So this has taken a lot of our elders away from us. And you don't necessarily need to be in your 70s or 80s to be an elder. Some musicians who we've lost weren't in their 70s and 80s. They were in their 50s, you know? And that's been particularly difficult for somebody like me because although I'm not in my 50s, I am mighty, mighty close.


KELLY: You and me both.

MCBRIDE: (Laughter).

KELLY: I want to ask about one musician who we've lost who I'm told you shared a special bond with.


KELLY: This is the trumpeter Wallace Roney.


KELLY: I'm told you're going to recognize this recording, and you might have a story about it.

MCBRIDE: (Laughter).


MCBRIDE: This is an excerpt from Wallace Roney's CD "Obsession," which was recorded in 1990. And that's the first CD I ever played on.


MCBRIDE: Wallace gave me my first recording session. We were both born and raised in Philadelphia. And when I was coming up in high school, Wallace was one of the premier trumpeters in jazz, along with people like Wynton Marsalis and Terence Blanchard. He's one of the leading voices of his instrument. And so when I moved to New York at the end of the '80s, Wallace was one of the first people to really take me under his wing and show me, you know, some care, you know what I mean? I was still at Juilliard, and I would go to his apartment and practice with him. He would give me some food money.

KELLY: (Laughter).

MCBRIDE: You know, he'd slip me $20.

KELLY: Yeah. That's the kind of mentoring you need.

MCBRIDE: And one of his mentors was Miles Davis.

KELLY: Oh. Well, he learned from the top. Yeah.

MCBRIDE: He was one of very few trumpet players who Miles actually directly mentored.

KELLY: Wow. You also brought us some music from a fellow bassist, Henry Grimes.



KELLY: Tell me about him.

MCBRIDE: Henry Grimes - his story is so incredible. Starting in the late '50s and for the better half of the '60s, he was the most - one of the most in-demand, busiest bass players in all of jazz. He worked with everybody from Sonny Rollins to Cecil Taylor to McCoy Tyner. He was playing on lots and lots of records. And then all of a sudden, he disappeared. He literally went MIA for about 30 years or more, 30 plus years. And, you know, it was a big question in the jazz world, like, whatever happened to Henry Grimes? And sometime in the early noughts (ph), someone discovered him out in LA. I believe he was working as a custodial worker somewhere. And all of a sudden, he reappeared on the New York scene. I mean, it was like he never left.


MCBRIDE: He started getting all these gigs. And he started appearing everywhere with all of these great bands. And...

KELLY: Did you ever get to play with him?

MCBRIDE: I did. We got to play together. We did a two-bass thing at the Vision Festival. And it was just wonderful to stand next to him and make some music.

KELLY: Hmm. Another musician I want to remember - and this is a name I was not familiar with that you have brought to me. This is Bootsie Barnes.


MCBRIDE: Bootsie Barnes was a Philadelphia legend. In every major city, there's always one person who is sort of the guru of that specific city. You know, they don't leave home much, but when you come to that city, you've got to go kiss their ring (laughter). And Bootsie Barnes was - he was that person.

KELLY: He had the ring in Philly.

MCBRIDE: That's right. That's right. He was somebody who I grew up admiring. He really set the bar high for young musicians coming up in the city. And he will be sorely missed.

KELLY: Yeah. I mean, I'm thinking of you and other musicians grieving colleagues you loved and you worked with, and at the same time, you're denied the solace of being able to do your work, of performing.


KELLY: We don't have any concerts. There's no live performances happening right now. How are you getting by? How are you coping right now?

MCBRIDE: You know, I think each day we're finding different ways, different methods of coping with this. There have been a lot of wonderful organizations who have come up with emergency grants and all kinds of things to help musicians be able to make it financially. But, I mean, ultimately speaking, we need to get back out there and play in front of people soon. But that's not going to happen until we know that everyone can be safe.

KELLY: Yeah. That's Christian McBride, the host of Jazz Night In America from NPR, WBGO and Jazz at Lincoln Center. Christian McBride, it's been a pleasure to talk to you. And I'm sorry for all the people who you've lost, who we've all lost. Thanks for coming on.

MCBRIDE: Thank you, Mary Louise. It's a pleasure to speak with you.


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