The U.S. considers jazz a national treasure. But its core audience has been gradually shrinking — and aging.
Grammy-winning bassist Christian McBride has been trying to stem that tide by looking at the form in a different way. He tells Tell Me More guest host Celeste Headlee where he thinks jazz should go to reach its audience, and offers his personal insight with regard to how artists should take it from here.
He and his band Inside Straight have a new album titled People Music.
On reaching younger audiences
"We jazz musicians, so-called jazz musicians, we have to be proactive in bringing the music to a younger audience. That means going to play in schools, going to collaborate with other artists who have the ear of the younger generation. And there are a lot of us who've done that in recent years. I think Roy Hargrove has done that; Robert Glasper is certainly doing that now. A lot of people. So we have to take the message to the younger crowd and find a way to meet them where they are. And then slowly bring them to where we are, and then there can be a happy balance between all. There are some minds out there who I think can bring the two generations together — bring the younger generation to this music known as jazz."
On jazz as an exclusive club
"The thinking of the general population is that jazz is an exclusive club. You've got to know something about it; you've got to be a music head; it's not for everybody. And that's about as far from the truth as one can be."
CELESTE HEADLEE, HOST:
I'm Celeste Headlee and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. In the 1980s, Congress officially declared that jazz is a rare and valuable national treasure. But the fact is, since the '80s, the audience for jazz has consistently been getting smaller and older. That's a trend that bassist and bandleader Christian McBride is fighting in the best way that he knows, which is playing sweet, sweet tunes with some of the best in the biz.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GANG GANG")
HEADLEE: That's multiple Grammy award-winning bassist, Christian McBride, and his band, Inside Straight, performing "Gang Gang" from their new album, "People Music." This is the second collaboration with McBride and Inside Straight. And here to talk about the new album is the master himself. Christian McBride, welcome to the show.
CHRISTIAN MCBRIDE: Great to be here.
HEADLEE: It's nice to have you. "Gang Gang," that refers to the time signature, right? The time signature, 12/8?
MCBRIDE: That's correct.
HEADLEE: Okay, so give me a 12/8 rhythm here.
(Vocalization of 12/8 rhythm)
HEADLEE: It gives it that - that kind of urgency and you layer on top just that sweet, sweet sound of the saxophone. But this is not one that you wrote yourself.
MCBRIDE: No, our vibraphonist, Warren Wolf, wrote that song and "Gang Gang" is actually a terminology that most dancers use when they're describing that 12/8 or 6/8 feel. So Warren's wife is a dancer, so he wrote that song in honor of her.
HEADLEE: And you were careful - it seems like you were careful - to include pieces from the other members of Inside Straight. Why?
MCBRIDE: Well, you know, when you've got musicians like Warren and Steve Wilson and Peter Martin, who are all the core members of Inside Straight, you know, why hog up all the compositional space. They should be able to express themselves not only as soloists and improvisers but also as composers.
HEADLEE: Steve Wilson is that smooth saxophone sound that you hear and Peter Martin is on the piano. But let's talk about the title of the album itself, "People Music." Why call it that? Because it's accessible? Because you want it to be accessible?
MCBRIDE: Well, I want to send a message, maybe not so subliminal, that jazz is music for the people. Not that it has been viewed any differently than that but I think that the people that jazz reaches, as you mentioned in your introduction, seem to be getting smaller and smaller and smaller. And I think that the thinking of the general population is that jazz is an exclusive club, you know, you've got to know something about it, you got to be a music head, you know, it's not for everybody. And that's about as far from the truth as one could be. So I want to make people understand that it's also from the heart and it's also from the soul, it's also for fun. You know what I mean? So I want people to understand that this is people music.
HEADLEE: What kind of jazz are you playing on this album?
MCBRIDE: I like to think of my music as toe-tapping and finger-popping jazz.
HEADLEE: It is, absolutely. Let me take this lesson one step further, which is, how do you know when a jazz artist is good? If I'm listening to, you know, one saxophonist then another, how do I say, oh, that guy's really good and that guy's terrible? What am I listening for?
MCBRIDE: I don't know. That's a personal realization. If you get two people in a room and you put on a recording of John Coltrane, one person will like it one person won't. If you put on a recording of Thelonious Monk and Duke Ellington and get two people in the room, one person's going to like Monk, the other person's going to like Duke. The next person's going to like Duke and maybe not like Monk so much. So I mean, it's all about the personal palette.
HEADLEE: All right, but there are things that you definitely don't like. So let's take a listen to the song that you wrote called "Listen to the Heroes Cry" and then we're going to talk about what the inspiration for this.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LISTEN TO THE HEROES CRY")
HEADLEE: First of all, though, for those who are not jazz aficionados, you're listening to an incredible baseline there. I mean, Christian McBride, you have perfect rhythm. But let's talk about this song, "Listen to the Heroes Cry." What motivated you to write this song? I love this story.
MCBRIDE: Well, I was watching television one night and, you know, one of these sort of video music awards. And I saw someone quite popular with, like, no clothes on or almost no clothes on. And...
HEADLEE: Who was it?
MCBRIDE: I can't call any names, she might call me for a gig one day and then I'll tell her about it. So, but no, it was just - it bothered me so deeply that this is what music, quote unquote, has come to, where the image has now taken over the process, the artistic process. And I feel that there was one point in time where the general public knew and cared about the artistic process. Who were the composers, who were the arrangers, and how did that get to the performer?
(SOUMNDBITE OF SONG, "LISTEN TO THE HEROES CRY")
MCBRIDE: It was to the point where I thought to myself, if Sarah Vaughan was alive and could see this or if Ella Fitzgerald was alive to see this or Duke Ellington or Cab Calloway could see this, they would be crying.
HEADLEE: Well, let's hope they would cry less and go up and grab the mic instead.
MCBRIDE: That's right.
HEADLEE: Let's take another listen to some more music. That's what this is about. So this is a song called "Ms. Angelou," which, I think, probably tells everybody who this song is inspired by. So let's take a listen.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MS. ANGELOU")
HEADLEE: A song inspired by the words of Maya Angelou. And that again is saxophonist Steve Wilson playing there with the most incredible control, really, I've heard in quite some time. What is it that you like about this tune? Why'd you include it on the album?
MCBRIDE: Well, Steve is one of the great musicians of our time. I love the melody. I love its unusual twists and turns in the melody and the harmonic progression. Just when you think the melody might go a certain way, it takes this different kind of turn, right where the - where you think the chord changes are going to go, it takes a different turn. And I love songs like that, that kind of always have your eyebrows raising, going, hmm.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MS. ANGELOU")
HEADLEE: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm speaking with bassist and bandleader Christian McBride about his new album, "People Music." Tell me about the moment when you went from being a Grammy-winning side man to a Grammy-winning bandleader. I mean, what an amazing thing that is to finally get that award as the leader of a band.
MCBRIDE: It felt so good. I got to tell you, I've never been one of those musicians that is in it for the accolades or the awards. You know, I've always felt that my greatest award and my greatest reward is getting calls from musicians who I respect.
HEADLEE: Well, if you were in it for awards, Christian, you could have chosen a better instrument than the bass.
MCBRIDE: Yeah, this is true. But when I was sitting at the Grammy ceremony with my wife and, like, all the guys from the record company, my wife kept asking me all day, she says, are you excited you might win? And I'm going, eh, you know, if I win, cool. If not, that's cool, too. You know, I'm just glad to be here. And when they called my name, I was still cool. I said, you know, this is great. I kind of worked out what I was going to say if I won. But when I got up on that stage and I got on the microphone, my usual nerves of titanium suddenly got rattled. And I said, uh-oh, I won. I'm looking out there and I see all these eyes looking at me and I'm thinking, well, go ahead, talk, say something. And it was a tremendous, tremendous feeling.
HEADLEE: So let's get back to a little music here. I want to play a little piece of "New Hope's Angel." This is off your new album, "People Music." Let's take a listen.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NEW HOPE'S ANGEL")
HEADLEE: So this song was inspired by grief and yet it swings. It sounds cheerful to me, especially with those ringing vibes. Tell me about this.
MCBRIDE: Yeah, well, the song "New Hope's Angel" was a song that I wrote after the untimely death of Whitney Houston. She was, in my opinion, one of the last Titans, someone who really had the admiration and respect of everyone across the board. I think people in the pop world loved her, people in the jazz world loved her, classical world. Everyone knew that voice, that distinctive sound. One of those naturally gifted people who really spent the time. I mean, you could tell she practiced. You could tell that she worked on it, you know. Because if you heard Whitney Houston in 1985 and then heard her in 1988, she sounded even more incredible than she did before that. And then you hear her in 1991 you know, she just kept getting better and better. And of course, she wound up having those personal problems, which took her gift, you know, took her gift away.
HEADLEE: Yeah. It really had an effect on her voice.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NEW HOPE'S ANGEL")
MCBRIDE: But I was always hopeful that she would be able to rebound and come back and keep doing it as she had been, you know, in her early career. Sadly, that was not to be the case. So when she passed away, that really disappointed me. So you know, she went to New Hope Baptist Church in Newark, New Jersey and that's kind of where I got the title from, "New Hope's Angel."
HEADLEE: I mean, we still - Aretha Franklin is another artist like that who's respected across all genres. There's - but there're few and far between in each generation.
MCBRIDE: That's correct. That's correct.
HEADLEE: Why do you think she was one of the last? Do you think that there's nobody like that coming up?
MCBRIDE: No, I don't think that - I can't think of anyone on that level who has captured the - who has earned the respect across the board. Maybe Mariah Carey got close. She didn't quite get the respect across the board like a Whitney Houston did. She almost had it, but her wardrobe started taking more precedent over her voice, I believe. So she could get it at some point, but I think Whitney, as far as the timeline is concerned, I'm not sure I can think of anyone after her who has even gotten that sort of general respect all across the board.
HEADLEE: So I'm getting a message here from Christian McBride, which is no more style over substance, right?
MCBRIDE: I've never been into that. I mean, you know, there's got to be a balance. I mean, you know, even great artists have style, you know, so...
HEADLEE: Well, yeah, Cab Calloway definitely did.
MCBRIDE: You know, style master, you know?
MCBRIDE: But I don't think that that ever was the priority.
MCBRIDE: And it seems that now that that's the priority.
HEADLEE: Well, before we - I let you go, let me take you back to where we started, which is the shrinking and aging audience for jazz music. You're not all that old, how do you fix this? I mean, A, is this your responsibility to try and fix it? And B, how do you do it?
MCBRIDE: There's a lot of different ways to do it. I think we jazz musicians, so-called jazz musicians, we have to be proactive in bringing the music to a younger audience. That means going to play in schools, going to collaborate with other artists who have the ear of the younger generation. And there are a lot of us who've done that in recent years. I think Roy Hargrove has done that, Robert Glasper's certainly doing that now, a lot of people. So we have to take the message to the younger crowd and find a way to meet them where they are and then slowly bring them to where we are. And then there can be a happy balance between all. There are some minds out there who I think can bring the two generations together, or bring the younger generation to this music known as jazz.
HEADLEE: Christian, pick a song for us to go out on.
MCBRIDE: Let's see, how about "Fair Hope Theme."
HEADLEE: And this was inspired by?
MCBRIDE: That's a small-group version of the theme song from a documentary film that I scored. The film was created by the great actress S. Epatha Merkerson and the film was called "The Contradictions of Fair Hope." And this is our small-group version of the theme song from that film.
HEADLEE: Okay, we're going to take a listen to that as we go out and as I say thank you to Christian McBride, bassist, band leader. The new album, "People Music," is available now. And he joined us from our studios in New York. Christian, it's always good to talk to you. Thank you so much.
MCBRIDE: Pleasure's always mine.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FAIR HOPE THEME") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.