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July 27, 2017

A Conversation with Christian McBride, Artistic Director of Newport Jazz Festival (Part 2)


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George Wein calls it artistry – that something special that sets musicians apart – that ingredient that Wein would look for when booking an act for the Newport Jazz Festival. Now it’s Christian McBride who is in search of that artistry, finding a balance, “the best of every branch of the tree of jazz.”

Artistry, Wein said, “You can tell whether a guy has creativity in his soul and approaches his music as an artist and not just as a professional making a living. Artistry is what I look for and you can spot it.”

McBride thinks he’s done just that, putting together a diverse festival, introducing a number of young performers, just as he and his generation of jazz musicians were introduced more than 20 years ago.

The first 62 years of this festival belonged to Wein. Year 63 is very much McBride’s. Here is part two of our interview with Christian McBride (here is part one if you missed it earlier this week).

Question: How much input has George had in the selection of the artists this year?

McBride: You know, at the end of the day, as I have told everyone, as long as George Wein is still alive he’s always going to be the boss, but I have to say he’s been very, very fair, giving me lots of room. I would say out of all the artists that are playing the festival this year, I’m not sure George picked more than a small handful, and then all the rest were my suggestions and my desires, artistic desires if you will.

Question: How will this year’s festival differ, at least in overall atmosphere, considering your selections versus maybe one that George had developed?

McBride: I’m not sure it will be that much different. Like I said before, I’m not interested in making any radical changes to the template that’s been established in bringing the best of every branch of the tree of jazz. I mean, we have everyone from Benny Golson and Branford Marsalis who obviously have been at the festival many, many times, Vijay Iyer and Henry Threadgill of a more progressive nature, they’ve been at the festival before. A couple of newcomers like Leslie Odom, Jr. and Andra Day, one from Broadway, one from more of an R&B sort of thing. And we have The Roots coming as our headliners for Sunday, and that’s going be big, and this will be their first time at the festival.

I realized that to a very veteran traditional type of patron for Newport that might be an eyebrow raiser. But I clearly remember playing Newport one year, and Mos Def was the headliner. Again, this is not too much different from anything that George has put on at the festival. You look at the history from Chuck Berry to Mahalia Jackson, to Led Zeppelin to James Brown, to Sly and the Family Stone, I don’t think The Roots is that big of a stretch to have at this festival.

Question: And then you have banjo player Bela Fleck. Some people would think that’s a stretch.

McBride: Well, you know, everybody is going to think something’s a stretch. If you take too much into account people’s fear for artistic expansion you’ll never have anyone.

Question: I saw him at the festival several years ago, and I’ve seen him with the Philadelphia Philharmonic at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center. He’s absolutely amazing.

McBride: Yeah, he’s not your everyday banjo player.

Question: Not Jed Clampit.

McBride: Yeah, or Buck Trent.

Question: The festival now is three days, a new innovation.  Is there anything you would consider to be a real surprise for people? Joey Alexander, as a kid comes up. He was surely the new kid on the block. Is there anyone that you think is really going to surprise the audience?

McBride: When I think of some of the first timers that are coming, I mean The Roots are first timers, but they’re pretty well known. I think audiences are going to get a big kick out some of the vocalists who have been selected to play the festival this year, like Leslie Odom, Jr. He’s from that groundbreaking musical, Hamilton, and, I’ve worked with him a number of times, and he’s a fantastic vocalist. I think he’s going to be a, a great surprise to many. Another up and coming amazing R&B/jazz vocalist, Rhiannon Giddens is going to make a splash on audiences this year. I think both Rhiannon and Andra Day are going to be home run hitters for the festival this year.

Question: There are other female vocalists this year as well?

McBride: Oh, yeah, there’s Cyrille Aimee, she’s going to do a fantastic job as she always does.

Question: Has there been more of a concentration on vocalists? I think also the last couple years have been more vocalists than I can recollect.

McBride:  I do see we have a number of good vocalists, good, strong vocalists who are going to be at the festival this year. If I were to look at the ratio I’m not sure that there’s any sort of spike in vocalists. It could be. I just know that we have some really good, exciting artists that are going to wow the audience. And at the end of the day, people always like vocalists, you know, they just do.

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