Christian McBride uses music to honor Civil Rights heroes

March 4, 2011

Thursday, 03 March 2011
Written by Pheralyn Dove
Philadelphia Tribune Correspondent

Bassist Christian McBride, one of Philadelphia’s finest musical sons, used his original compositions to celebrate the ancestors, praise the wisdom of the elders, acknowledge the contributions of the middle-aged and encourage the hope and promise of youth during Saturday night’s performance of “The Movement, Revisited.”

J.D. Steele served as musical director for the Philadelphia premiere of McBride’s expansive opus, which he created in homage to the courage of civil rights icons. “The Movement, Revisited” was presented by the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Center. Students from the Penn Jazz Ensemble and the New Spirit of Penn Gospel Choir were featured.

Interwoven throughout the piece were excerpts from speeches and writings of forerunners of the Civil Rights Movement that were narrated by distinguished University Pennsylvania alumni: Clemson Smith Muniz, Penn class of 1979, served as master of ceremonies. The role of Rosa Parks was read by Lolita Jackson, class of 1989. Malcolm X’s words were read by Stephanie Renee, class of 1991. Christopher Sample, from the class of 2003, narrated Muhammad Ali’s words and M. Claire Lomax, Esq., class of 1984, narrated the resounding words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

“It’s exciting to be a part of this. I feel honored and privileged to work with such an immense talent as Christian McBride. And the opportunity to do this at a place I know so well is really thrilling,” commented Lolita Jackson.

McBride’s bass provided the soul force, the steady heartbeat, the pulse of Saturday night’s production. His mere confidence and presence magically carried the piece along. It was amazing how all of the moving parts flowed seamlessly, in this production that surprisingly came together quickly over the weekend of the performance. It was a proud night for Philly’s native son and perhaps most proud was his mother and mentor, Renee McBride.

“I taught Chris that God created us all in his image,” she said after the concert. “I taught him to eliminate the word can’t from his vocabulary. I never tried to create what was already there. His greatness was already there. I just encouraged it. I taught him that you’ve got to know who you are.”

Lovett Hines, who was McBride’s music instructor at Philadelphia’s Settlement Music School, said he loved everything about how his former student put Saturday night’s performance together.

“The most important thing about Chris, even at an early age, is his dedication to the music. He’s a strong advocate for education and I’m impressed every time I hear him play. I’m just amazed.”

McBride, who graduated from the Creative and Performing Arts High School in 1989, and went on to study music at the Julliard School in New York, has distinguished himself as one of the most sought after bassists of his generation, and has performed with everyone in the industry from James Brown to Kathleen Battle, from Herbie Hancock to McCoy Tyner, from Sting to The Roots, D’Angelo and Queen Latifah. He has an incredible work ethic.

“In terms of hard work, and my influences, I don’t have to go much farther than my own mother,” he said during an interview. “I bow to her. In terms of musical influences, I could keep you up all night, telling you about people who inspired me. But the musicians whose work ethic inspired me the most were James Brown, whose work ethic was almost pathological and Duke Ellington, who was so prolific you could spend your whole life studying his work.”

It’s almost unfair to call McBride’s opus “jazz” because all of the musical styles were represented. There were elements of European classical, there were references to the traditional African-American spirituals and gospels and there were moments when the music spanned from pop, to swinging jazz, to avant garde, to rock. There was toe-tapping, finger-snapping and hand-clapping, from the audience and from the musicians. Several singers and instrumentalists stepped up to the microphone for solos and gave their all, displaying an admirable array of poise and talent. Pure joy and exuberance would be one way to describe the mood of the happenings on stage. More than anything else, it was evident how much fun the students and alumni were having with McBride and Steele, who not only conducted the choir but added his beautiful baritone solos to round out the production.

Following the concert, Steele said that McBride wrote all of the music and he arranged all the vocals. “I teach by rote, and they picked it up and learned very fast. It’s a lot of fun and that’s really important to me. When you have fun, everybody’s relaxed and the singers absorb more of the music.”

Even as a child, the lives of the icons of the Civil Rights Movement resonated with Christian McBride. He learned all he could about the contributions of leaders like Harriett Tubman, Frederick Douglass, Marcus Garvey, W.E.B. DuBois and a host of others. But it wasn’t just the leaders themselves that fascinated McBride. He was also curious about the thousands of journeymen and sympathizers that the leaders represented. During a pre-concert chat, facilitated by his friend and Penn alum Lolita Jackson, McBride recalled weeping while reading an Ebony Magazine account of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s life, assassination and legacy. He was only four years old at the time. When his mother tried to comfort him, he responded by saying: “They shouldn’t have killed him like that! He was a good man!”

“Black history was so rich in our household and so was the music,” continued McBride, whose upbringing encompassed listened to music by masters including James Brown, Curtis Mayfield, Nina Simone, John Coltrane, Rahsaan Roland Kirk and Charles Mingus, just to name a few.

So as McBride matured as a musician, it was only a natural progression for him to compose an opus dedicated to all the brave soldiers. Initially “The Movement” was commissioned by the Portland, Maine Arts Commission in 1998. It was performed with a quartet and gospel choir and consisted of four sections that focused on McBride’s favorite heroes from the 1950s and 1960s: Rosa Parks, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali. To help with the gospel aspect of the opus, he enlisted the input of J.D. Steele, whom he referred to as “gospel royalty,” during an interview prior to Saturday night’s concert. “J.D. became my foil. The way he works with choirs and voices is the same way a conductor works with musicians.”

In 2008, during McBride’s tenure as “Creative Chair” for the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra, he mounted the work for a big band and choir. The piece has continued to evolve.

“Last year, when I received a commission from the Detroit Jazz Festival, I was able to write a fifth movement for the Obama Election. It is called ‘Apotheosis,” and is about the process, the momentum that happened with the historic election of President Barack Obama. In my lifetime, this is the closest thing I’ve ever seen in an entire community coming together.” That creative collaboration was recorded with Detroit’s Second Ebenezer Majestic Voices, and Sonia Sanchez read the Rosa Parks speeches.