It was more than 25 years ago that Christian McBride played his first Newport Jazz Festival. Now, five Grammys later and considered among the best jazz bass players on the planet, McBride is taking on a huge challenge, following in the footsteps of festival founder George Wein and assuming the mantle as the festival’s Artistic Director.
“I don’t want to let him or jazz history down,” said McBride.
While George Wein is very much a part of this year’s festival, make no mistake about it, Christian McBride has been at the center of putting together a three-day event that celebrates long-time jazz musicians and great artists, and introduces a new wave of musicians, ready to take jazz to the next level.
“He’s a together guy, an organizer. He’s a leader,” Wein said in an interview a few months ago. “When I say a leader, not a band leader – he happens to be a band leader – but he’s a leader of musicians. Musicians follow Christian McBride. Great musician. When I announced his appointment, I got so many calls congratulating me for asking Christian.”
For McBride, this has been a journey well spent. Born in Philadelphia, the son of a professional bass player, Lee Smith, there was no question he too would take up the instrument.
His education took him from Philadelphia to Juilliard School in New York City, where he briefly studied classical music before turning back to jazz. He’s shaped a career around his bands, composing, as an educator, a mentor, a radio host, serving as artistic director or advisor to several important programs.
He hosts and produces “The Lowdown: Conversation with Christian” on Sirius XM satellite radio and “Jazz Night in America” on National Public Radio. He works with his wife, vocalist Melissa Walker, with Jazz House Kids, an organization dedicated to educating children through jazz, and is the Artistic Adviser for Jazz Programming at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center.
All of his experience and artistic talent will be on full display as Artistic Director of the Newport Jazz Festival.
We had an opportunity to interview Christian, mostly about the Festival and what it means to him, but also about his own career. Here’s the first part of that interview.
Question: Let me start off with the Jazz Festival, and how you were named artistic director, following in these “very small footsteps” of George Wein.
McBride: Yeah, you’re right.
Question: I actually had an opportunity to interview George in New York, and he certainly has a great deal of confidence in you.
McBride: Oh, I’m glad. I don’t want to let him or jazz history down.
Question Tell me how it came about, and what it means to you?
McBride: I will answer your second question first. Every festival pretty much in the world, I mean, certainly every jazz festival has been patterned after the Newport Jazz Festival, so this is the most historic jazz festival in the history of our music. To be the artistic director, and to make the call as to who gets presented there is certainly not a one-man job. I don’t think there are any such things as one man jobs, unless you’re a pitcher or something like that. It really means the world to me. I’ve played the festival many many times through the years, and I’ve seen a lot of great jazz artists, I’ve seen a lot of great non-jazz artists, I’ve seen a lot of experimental groups, and, I think it’s probably the wisest thing to keep that template.
I don’t see any reason to be radical and change anything that’s already been so ground breaking and standard bearing for the rest of the festival community.
Question: Do you reflect at all upon the very early days of this festival, when a George Wein was faced with the challenge of creating this jazz festival?
McBride: Sure, I’ve talked to him many times about it, and I’ve read his book. I just find it very interesting how the whole thing came about. I mean, obviously he had some experience, you know, by running a club, but a festival is quite different.
Question: It’s an incredible undertaking after he had Storyville and then he ends up at the festival, and it’s, how many years now?
McBride: This is the 63rd year.
Question: And how many years have you been playing at the festival? I think I see you virtually every year.
McBride: I played the festival for the first time in 1991. That was 26 years ago.
Question: And now you’re up to four Grammys.
Question: I missed one. That’s pretty amazing in and of itself. I want to go back to my first question, and that’s how did this happen that you became the artistic director?
McBride: It was a total surprise to me. In October of 2014 I believe it was, I got called to sit on the panel at the Smithsonian, with George. Soledad O’Brien was the moderator, Dan Morgenstern was also on this panel, and it was about the 60th anniversary of the festival. I was surprised. I thought there were going to be a lot more people on this panel. I thought if George Wein wanted anybody to come and talk about the festival for 60 years, there’s a million musicians he could have thought of other than me. I was certainly flattered to be there, but, I just found it quite surprising that I would be one of the people on this panel.
And George said some really nice things about me while we were doing this roundtable discussion. What a nice gesture. So after it was over I went home and I would say 10 months later, which would have been the late summer, early fall of 2015, I got a call from George and he said “I want you to come over for lunch, I want to talk to you about something.” My wife asked “what do you think he wants to talk about?” I said, ”I don’t know,” and I really didn’t. I said, “maybe he wants to talk to me about me being the Artist in Residence for the festival or something.” She said “if that’s what he wanted he would have told you that over the phone. This might be a little more serious.”
I go over to his house, and, we have lunch, and he tells his assistant to shut the door. I’m still not getting any clues. He starts by giving me a rundown of the history of the festival, which I already knew, and then he says “The Newport Festival went non-profit a few years ago, and it’s been a lot easier to manage since we’ve gone non-profit.” He says, “at my age it’s ridiculous that I didn’t have a successor plan.” I thought he obviously has someone in mind and he wants my opinion. He said, “after talking with my board we all feel that you are the guy for the job.”
I was in total shock. I went, “you mean take over the festival from you?” He said “you’ll be the new artistic director, you won’t be the executive director, I won’t have you handling the money and all of that stuff, but you’ll be the artistic director if you want the job.” He said take a few days, think about it. I took a couple of days to think about it, and I called him back I said, “George, you know, I’m going to do it.” That was in late 2015, and the news became official in March of 2016, and here we are at the dawn of my first festival as the official artistic director.