Photo by David Salafia

Christian McBride and the Power of the Past

By Brad Barker for Jazz.fm

Christian McBride is a creative force of nature. The eight-time Grammy-winning bassist and composer is involved in almost every aspect of what we call jazz. McBride is bringing his epic The Movement Revisited to Meridian Hall in Toronto, where he’ll be joined by his big band, the Toronto Mass Choir and four narrators to paint a musical portrait of the civil rights movement through five very powerful voices. McBride joined us to talk about that project, and how history shapes our present and future.


You wrote the original The Movement Revisited back in 1998, and it’s had a couple of evolutions since then. What’s your perspective on where you were back then when you composed it versus where you are now 25 years later?

In ’98, I was 27 and I was just so honoured and flattered to receive this commission to write something for Black History Month. I did the best that I could with what I had at that time. I had no experience in writing extended works. I knew of some of Ellington’s extended works, Anthony Davis had written an incredible suite for Malcolm X, but I hadn’t tried it myself. It was my maiden voyage in writing a long-form piece. I didn’t know how to do it, I didn’t know what I wanted it to be about. I decided to take four people who I felt were very important to me personally. But then when I was able to rewrite the piece in 2008, I pretty much started from scratch. By that time, I had started to become more prolific in writing for big band. It just came out better. The 2008 rewrite is the way I probably heard it in ’98, but I just had no idea how to bring it out.

You mentioned the four original voices, which became five. Can you tell us a bit about those five people that you chose to include in this work?

Technically it’s still four, because what happened was at the end of 2008, Barack Obama was elected president. I was asked by the Detroit Jazz Festival to expand the piece. They did not specifically say Obama, but I kind of read in between the lines. The moment was so — in a word that’s overused these days — epic. What I did was I took parts of Obama’s victory speech — not his inauguration speech — from Nov. 4, 2008, and I called the fifth movement Apotheosis, in which I have the four voices; they are speaking Barack Obama’s victory speech. So, it’s his words through the voices of King, Malcolm X, Rosa Parks and Muhammad Ali. I feel like Nov. 4, 2008, would not have happened without those four icons. Plus, when I expanded the piece to have that fifth movement, Barack Obama had only been a sitting president for maybe a month. So, I thought it might be a little premature to write an entire movement for him this early in the game.

Do you think now it’s warranted?

I mean, listen: If you put Obama’s legacy against King and Ali and Rosa Parks and Malcolm X… My body tells me no. But I will say he’s certainly the most important person I can think of when it comes to upholding some sort of standard of dignity and excellence in the last 20 years.

You talk about your grandmother being an important influence in making you aware of the history of Black culture. Can you tell me a little bit about that? It seems that it wasn’t just through lectures, but with things that were lying around for you to discover on your own.

My grandmother… I guess the word would be “hoarder.” She never threw anything away. My childhood was being surrounded by these old newspapers and magazine articles, most of which were Ebony and Jet magazines — the two most important magazines in Black America from the ’50s through the ’90s, basically. I looked at all of these old magazines and they were absolutely fascinating to me, just to see what people looked like and what stories were big in the ’50s and ’60s, and to read a contemporaneous piece on Martin Luther King leading the Selma march. We look at this through the lens of history, but looking at it in those old magazines when it was new, it brought a different feel to it. I feel like I learned a lot about Black history by reading those magazines. When I was a kid, my mother and I used to tease my grandmother about them. “They’re all dusty, they’re taking up space, throw these things away,” you know. Thank God she never did.

It seems especially important now to keep history alive in a world that’s moving at a rapid pace. Hopefully history is going to be something that newer generations look back on, but sometimes I’m not sure.

I’m with you. I understand that when you’re between the ages of 16 and 30, oftentimes you’re dissatisfied with the world and the only thing you really want to do is break the whole thing down and start over again. But the older you get and the wiser you become, you start to think, You know, somebody’s already tried that — a lot of times. You realize that the more things change, the more they stay the same. That’s why the more you learn about history — and not just the bad things; there are really some great things that have happened before us — you have to look at those things and put it all in the context, and then let history propel you to make new, fresh decisions. It’s hard to create new things, because this is an old world. We certainly can redress things and take old things and make something new out of them, but something new — new is unfamiliar. And it’s really hard to come up with something that’s unfamiliar.

This interview has been edited and condensed.