Christian McBride: A Master of Jazz Bass and Beyond

Christian McBride: A Master of Jazz Bass and Beyond

Written by Anne E. Johnson

At the age of 50, bassist Christian McBride already has eight Grammy Awards and over 300 album credits. It helps that he got an early start. He was playing in top-level jazz circles by the time he was in his late teens.

Although McBride was surrounded by music while growing up in Philadelphia, jazz was not the obvious path for him to take. His father was an R&B bassist, so Christian naturally took up electric bass first. It was his uncle, avant-garde jazz bassist Howard Cooper, who first put jazz in front of McBride’s young ears. Being a musical sponge, McBride not only started playing upright bass, but also envisioned connections between the various genres he was learning to play. That fluidity of style is one of his great strengths as a musician.

His many early influences included classical music, which he studied with Neil Courtney, double-bassist with the Philadelphia Orchestra. But jazz was McBride’s central focus, and he took every opportunity to play in jam sessions and masterclasses. He was still a student at the High School for the Performing Arts in Philadelphia when trumpeter and jazz educator Wynton Marsalis invited him to sit in with his band. Soon McBride had competing scholarship offers for college. He chose Juilliard, although his career took off so spectacularly that he didn’t stay there long.

Within his first couple of years in New York, McBride was hired to play with a litany of jazz greats, including saxophonist Bobby Watson, trumpeter Wallace Roney, saxophonist Benny Green, and pianist James Williams. By the early 1990s, already having a lot of experience in the studio as a sideman, McBride was ready to launch a solo recording career. Not many bassists can pull that off, but McBride’s musicianship, training, connections, and imaginative approach to multiple genres have sustained and exalted him through the decades.

Enjoy these eight great tracks by Christian McBride.

  1. Track: “Blood Count”
    Album: Lush Life: The Music of Billy Strayhorn
    Label: Verve
    Year: 1992

Lush Life: The Music of Billy Strayhorn is a solo album by saxophonist Joe Henderson, for which Henderson won a Grammy Award. On bass is a 19-year-old Christian McBride. Wynton Marsalis is on trumpet.

This recording celebrates the work of one of the most important ingredients in Duke Ellington’s success: Ellington and Strayhorn worked closely together for decades, often without Strayhorn getting the credit he was due. An already great album becomes even better for including both well-loved hits like “Take the A Train” and lesser-known Strayhorn compositions like “Blood Count,” a heartbreaking, dissonant melody so named because the composer was at the end of his life, dying of cancer. McBride’s contribution is subtle but essential, and wise beyond his years.


  1. Track: “Splanky”
    Album: Gettin’ to It
    Label: Verve
    Year: 1995

Gettin’ to It was McBride’s first solo album. Such a young player, let alone a bassist, would normally have been a hard sell for a top label like Verve, but McBride was already well known to them for his many studio gigs as a sideman. In fact, trumpeter Roy Hargrove and saxophonist Joshua Redman, two of the musicians McBride had played for previously, return the favor as sidemen on this debut.

The tune “Splanky” was written by trumpeter Neil Hefti for the Count Basie Orchestra. Serious bass fans will appreciate this arrangement, which features not only McBride, but also Ray Brown and Milt Hinton on that instrument.


  1. Track: “Open Sesame”
    Album: A Family Affair
    Label: Verve
    Year: 1998

It took courage for McBride to put out an R&B album only three albums into his solo jazz career. But he was, as Shakespeare would say, to the manner born. The title A Family Affair refers not only to the Sly and the Family Stone song included on its track list, but also to the fact that McBride’s dad was an R&B bassist.

Produced for Verve by George Duke, known for his work in jazz fusion with Jean-Luc Ponty, this was the start of a several-year trend for McBride of exploring beyond the world of jazz. He followed this with the pop album SciFi.

Kool & the Gang’s “Open Sesame” has an especially nice arrangement, shimmering with the keyboards of Charles Craig, Tim Warfield on tenor saxophone, and Gregory Hutchinson on drums. McBride has such a light, lithe touch that the huge difference in range between himself and the other instruments seems insignificant. 


  1. Track: “Starbeam”
    Album: Kind of Brown
    Label: Mack Avenue
    Year: 2009

After many years with Verve, and following a six-year hiatus from the studio to concentrate on performing with the Christian McBride Band, McBride switched to Mack Avenue Records. The jazz label based out of Grosse Point, Michigan was 10 years old at the time and actively seeking bigger names to add to its roster. Kind of Brown, its title alluding the Miles Davis masterwork Kind of Blue, was McBride’s first project for Mack. It also happened to be the studio debut for his new band, Inside Straight.

McBride wrote “Starbeam,” featuring a gentle syncopation with a Latin flavor. Steve Wilson is on tenor sax, and Warren Wolf’s fluid vibraphone work pulls the group’s sound together. McBride stays in the background, a sensitive engine.


  1. Track: “When I Fall in Love”
    Album: The Good Feeling
    Label: Mack Avenue
    Year: 2011

McBride’s next musical adventure was to try his hand at leading a big band. Like everything else he had put his hand to, it seemed to come naturally to him. His first recording with the Christian McBride Big Band, The Good Feeling, landed him his first of eight Grammy Awards. He arranged the album’s 11 tracks himself and composed six of them.

Among the covers is the 1952 standard “When I Fall in Love.” The arrangement opens with McBride bowing the famous tune, a hint that this will be something special. The sensuous vocals are by Melissa Walker.


  1. Track: “Down by the Riverside”
    Album: Live at the Village Vanguard
    Label: Mack Avenue
    Year: 2015

Despite the success of his big band, McBride did not turn his back on small-group jazz. With the Christian McBride Trio, he won another Grammy for Live at the Village Vanguard, the first of two albums he has released with that title. Joining him in the trio are Christian Sands on piano and Ulysses Owens on drums.

Well-produced live albums by jazz masters are always a treat, and this is no exception. With humor and joy, the three men tackle the African American spiritual “Down by the Riverside,” building it up until it becomes almost orchestral.


  1. Track: “Sightseeing”
    Album: Christian McBride’s New Jawn
    Label: Mack Avenue
    Year: 2018

According to Oxford Languages, “jawn” is Philadelphia-area slang for “a thing, place, person, or event that one need not or cannot give a specific name to.” In this case, Christian McBride’s New Jawn is a collection of great tunes, written by himself and his three collaborators, trumpeter Josh Evans, saxophonist Marcus Strickland, and drummer Nasheet Waits.

The one exception is “Sightseeing,” by the innovative saxophonist Wayne Shorter (who died in March 2023). Notice that there’s no piano, which is rare for a jazz quartet. The result is a raw intensity perfect for this frantic, angular tune.


  1. Track: “Ms. Angelou”
    Album: Live at the Village Vanguard
    Label: Mack Avenue
    Year: 2021

McBride worked again with his band Inside Straight for this second album called Live at the Village Vanguard. The group has played a three-night gig at the Vanguard every year since 2007 (except during the COVID lockdown). This album was recorded in 2014, although it wasn’t released until 2021.

One of the album’s gems is “Ms. Angelou,” a tribute to Maya Angelou written in 1993 by saxophonist Steve Wilson from the band for his own Steve Wilson Quintet. As McBride puts it in his introduction, the portrait captures the poet’s dignity. 


Header image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Brian Callahan.

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