Interview: Christian McBride on Newport Jazz Festival, Playing with Jennifer Hartswick and More

Dean Budnick on August 3, 2019
Interview: Christian McBride on Newport Jazz Festival, Playing with Jennifer Hartswick and More

photo by Marc Millman

Christian McBride first appeared at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1991. As he recalls, “I was in a group called the Jazz Futures that [festival founder] George Wein curated. It featured myself, Marlon Jordan, Tim Warfield, Antonio Hart, Mark Whitfield, Benny Green, Carl Allen and the late Roy Hargrove. If I’m not mistaken, it was the first time any of us played at the Newport Jazz Festival. I remember walking around the fort, seeing all these great artists and taking in the whole experience.”

Twenty-five years later, Wein tapped McBride as the festival’s artistic director, solidifying the bassist’s longstanding association with the event. And, this summer, McBride will help Newport Jazz celebrate its 65th anniversary, when the summit returns to Fort Adams from August 2-4 (the weekend following the Newport Folk Festival). Once again, McBride will occupy a variety of roles, including a notable appearance with this year’s artist-in-residence Herbie Hancock and drummer Vinnie Colaiuta.

How does your role at Newport Jazz play out over the course of the weekend?

George Wein basically transferred his role to me. I’ve tried to study his blueprint and tried to keep my finger on the pulse of what’s happening in jazz. I deeply respect and appreciate every aspect of jazz, and I think George recognizes that. So George said, “Here are the keys to the car. She’s your baby.”

It’s an all-encompassing role. I’m part artistic director, part maître d’, a little bit of a bass player. When I first got the job as artistic director, I was on tour with Chick Corea, and we were on the bus. Chick is so beautiful. He said, “Hey man, congratulations. You deserve it. But be careful. You’re the artistic director, but you’re a musician first, and we all know you as a bass player. So, if something goes wrong in somebody’s dressing room or if the hotel room isn’t ready, they’re probably going to call you because you’re the person they know, even if you had nothing to do with whatever is going on. So be prepared to be part bass player, part complaint department and part human resources.”

Unlike most promoters, I have first-person relationships with these musicians. But, as a bandleader, that’s what happens anyway, so it wasn’t something I was unprepared for. You have to figure out what kind of environment you want to establish—how do the personalities gel? You’re part boss, part big brother, part dad, part uncle, part good guy, part bad guy. But, as you get older, you need to deal with that R-word that no one really wants to deal with, meaning responsibility. [Laughs.]

How would you characterize George Wein’s contributions to American music?

He literally created the blueprint for the music festival. Every festival that has come along over the last two to three decades took the original blueprint from George Wein—from Bonnaroo to Coachella to any festival that features more than three or four bands.

There’s a reason why Newport has long legs. Think about all the things that have come across American culture that, in many ways, could have just eclipsed jazz since the Newport Jazz Festival started in 1954—the British Invasion, soul music, hip-hop, disco. But, somehow, the music still survives, and George Wein has been at the forefront of helping it to survive.

You also are also an accomplished interviewer [on Jazz Night in America and The Lowdown: Conversations with Christian]. How do you approach that role?

I’ve studied a lot of talk show hosts, and just general personalities—having been on Marian McPartland’s Piano Jazz many times, I studied how she talked to musicians. There’s also a great book by the late drummer Arthur Taylor called Notes and Tones: Musician-to-Musician Interviews—when a musician is talking to another musician, there’s just another level of trust that a general journalist or writer won’t get. I’ve also studied Johnny Carson, Dick Cavett, Terry Gross—a lot of people. And then, sometimes, just like an improvising jazz musician, you have to react on the fly. In general, though, I’ve always tried to do much more listening than talking and interjecting. I want my subject to really have the floor.

You’ve shared the stage with Jennifer Hartswick on a few occasions. How did that come about?

I first met Jennifer at an all-star James Brown tribute gig down in New Orleans at Tipitina’s six years ago. Nigel Hall was on it; DJ Soul Sister opened up. It was a fun night and I remember they both said, “Man, wait ‘til you hear Jennifer Hartswick play.”

I knew about her singing because I’ve always had a peripheral eye on the Trey Anastasio Band, but I had never really heard her play before. So when we got there, we started jamming, and we’ve been besties ever since. It’s been great cultivating that friendship and that musical relationship. She is one of the best musicians on the planet.

Speaking of Trey, you performed with his bandmate Page McConnell at the 2008 Jammys. [The all-star combo also featured Roy Haynes, James Carter and Nicholas Payton.] What are your memories of that evening?

I can’t believe it was that long ago. That was my first time performing at the Theater at Madison Square Garden. I certainly was quite aware of all of these faithful followers that Page and company have had through the years, so it was great to see him in that setting, getting to play with all the cats.

Trey and I also exchanged a quick handshake and a “Hey, what’s up.” Then, we finally played together with Jennifer and Nick Cassarino at Rockwood [in October 2018], which was pretty cool.

There are so many gifted artists at Newport Jazz this year. Is there someone you can single out who might otherwise fall under the radar?

It’s really difficult to select someone, considering everyone on the schedule. However, I will give a particular nod to our nonagenarians. Marshall Allen will be leading the Sun Ra Arkestra. He just turned 95, and that’s incredible. Also, Sheila Jordan will be there with a vocal group called The Royal Bopsters. She just turned 90, and that’s going to be pretty special.

This article originally appears in the July/August 2019 issue of Relix. For more features, interviews, album reviews and more, subscribe here.