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Saxophonist Christopher McBride Embraces The Entire African American Music Experience

 Christopher McBride plays Jazz UpFront in Bloomington Saturday night.
McKinley Wiley
Christopher McBride plays Jazz UpFront in Bloomington Saturday night.

When saxophonist Christopher McBride and his band “The Whole Proof” play Jazz UpFront in Bloomington Saturday night, McBride said they'll bring a "jazz experience that explores the African American landscape”

McBride is a Chicago native now living in New York City. He spoke with WGLT’s Jon Norton about living in the jazz capital of the world, how Miles Davis changed his life, and about his relationship with he 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’re immersed in the music scene in what is considered the “jazz capital of the world,” has or does Chicago ever leave you?

McBride: I think one of the reasons my music and playing is appealing to people is because I want to stay original to 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 came up. When I look at musicians and they're not playing with the music on the stand, it's because the bands we played with in Chicago were trying to rehearse and making sure that we knew the music inside-out. So, Chicago is a big part of who I am.

When you're coming to Bloomington to play Jazz UpFront, you're very upfront about the music that you play with your band, Christopher McBride and the 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, even hip hop. Why is this important that you're incorporating this sound or this sensibility into your music?

I grew up with those sounds in Chicago. My mom and dad didn't listen to jazz until I started making it and started playing. My father grew up in Honduras, and Roatán Central America. My mother grew up in Gary, Indiana, and just wasn't around it a lot. When I was coming up in the house, I was listening to Earth, Wind and Fire, I was listening 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 would listen to. And then at 10 years old, you know, my brother put me on to Biggie and Nas, then I became a real big fan of hip-hop.

So, when I started writing music, I always wanted to stay true to some of those sounds. If you listen to my music, it's inherently swinging. But you can also hear those other influences in the music and my sound, and I don't I don't stray away from that. And I think it appeals to people … the authenticity of that music.

When you hear the idea of hip hop and jazz combined. Some people think of some of the artists that have dipped into the Blue Note Records (jazz) catalog and made some hip-hop music out of that. And then there's people like Robert Glasper, especially that Black radio album, who incorporated hip hop into his jazz along with some vocalists like Erykah Badu, Bilal. When you acknowledge hip-hop is part of your sensibility, is that kind of where you're going?

Hip-hop is such an ingrained part of my musical identity, that influence will come out regardless. I mean, if you really study the history of the music … anybody who's listening to this … I encourage you to … look at how jazz was brought up, why Bebop was invented. Because, it was a counter act to the swing era, and people feeling like the Black voices weren't being heard. Hip-hop started off the same way. If you listen to old lyrics from hip-hop artists, it's just about them describing the conditions around them. They're not saying anything that's not happening in their communities. And it was a way for them to express what they felt like wasn't being heard. Hip-hop and jazz have such a lineage as an artist. I was born in the 80s, raised in the 90s. That sound incorporated into the sound that I know of jazz. Those worlds were going to collide one way or another. And like I said, not every song is like that. Some songs I want that straight-ahead feel, and this is going to stay that way.

You have said that when you were a kid, Miles Davis' album "Kind of Blue" was something that really changed you … really had an impact on you. What was it about “Kind of Blue” that really changed you?

It's funny how I look at that album as an adult now. When people make music … when you think about things that are happening on the radio … normally, you'll hear “happy music” on pop stations or “my girl left me” right? Sad music, right? It's very to the point, which people appreciate that relatability.

I feel like jazz touches on the subtleties of emotion. I've always loved that about the music. And you know, jazz touches on feeling melancholy, or feeling anxious. These subtleties of emotion that take a little more diving into. When I heard “Kind of Blue,” of course, the playing was incredible. That's what happens when you put together one of the best bands in the history of music. But I really felt like it was the emotions that it made me feel … it was like I said, it wasn't happiness. It wasn't sadness. It was those subtle emotions that I've never really processed as a kid, and I was like, man, if music makes you feel like this, this is something that I want to do.

I want to ask you about the word “jazz” and the connotation that it still can have. Miles once told his record company something along the lines of, “If you can't sell me as jazz, stop calling me jazz,” or “stop calling my albums jazz.” You're incorporating all these different sounds or sensibilities into your music. Are you a jazz musician? Are you a musician? How do you view the word “jazz” associated with you and what you do?

That's a great question. For me, personally, I always look to the ancestors of this music and what they say. You know, Duke Ellington had an issue with the word jazz, Charles Mingus had a issue with the word. All these artists that are referenced had had issues with the word jazz after a while. And it's because of the connotation of jazz.

Jazz was based off, you know, J-A-Z-Z got changed from J-A-S-S. And they would describe jazz music as being such when they were talking about Black people who were dancing in the swing clubs. It's like all that jazz music that's before Benny Goodman started playing and then jazz got popular in white America. Once that happened, that's when Bebop became popular as a counter act to the whites embracing this music that that blacks had created, but embracing, of course, the white side. So, there's a lot of history in that word. And when people think of the word is it puts a certain stigma on the music.

So as far as your question, I would say, for me, when when my legacy is talked about, 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 been leaning towards what the great trumpet Nicholas Payton calls “Black American music,” because of the sad reasons that I just talked about, plus a couple more. But I do feel like that word puts you in a box. And sometimes I'll just say I'm an instrumentalist. I play instrumental music. Because, for me, it's all the music people hear when they come and hear my shows. They enjoy the music regardless. One stark difference between New York and Chicago, for me, is that in Chicago, I was bouncing to many different gigs. You know, very early on, I would play a jazz gig at a jazz club, I played gospel gigs at church … play a hip-hop gig, I was on tour with a rock band in New York. When I stepped foot in three jazz clubs, I was a jazz musician. Not that it's bad … I love jazz. And I can swing with the best of them. And it's not to criticize swing music at all, because I play in a variety of swing bands. But when all is said and done, I want to make sure that I have those other credits of what I've done in my musical life on my resume as well. I guess for me, the term musician is better than jazz musician.

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Jon Norton is the program director at WGLT and WCBU. He also is host of All Things Considered every weekday.
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