Five questions for jazz bassist and composer Christian McBride
In 1998, the Portland Arts Society in Maine asked Christian McBride to compose a piece for a large ensemble that included a choir. At 26, McBride was already a star bassist, but with no experience writing for voices, he turned down the commission. He reconsidered on the advice of his manager, and the nascent results have grown into "The Movement Revisited," a suite for big band, gospel choir and narrators that honors four civil rights icons: Rosa Parks, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali.
In 2008, a more seasoned McBride rewrote the piece, which includes his own lyrics and historical texts like King's "I Have a Dream" speech. McBride also added a final movement celebrating President Barack Obama's election. This weekend's Detroit and Ann Arbor performances by the Detroit Jazz Festival Orchestra, McBride's quintet, Second Ebenezer Majestic Voices and others will be recorded by the Mack Avenue label for a 2011 release.
Q: Why a civil rights theme?
A: As far back as I can remember, there was a sense of history in my family. I always had a sense of who the heroes and heroines of the '60s were. I had to whittle it down to something specific, so I picked four people who were not only pivotal figures of the civil rights movement but who meant something to me personally.
Q: Why Ali?
A: There's always been this sense that if you weren't a King ally, you weren't really part of the civil rights movement; you were part of some other movement. That's not true. Obviously, there are direct links between Rosa Parks and King and between Malcolm X and Ali. But after Malcolm X made his pilgrimage to Mecca, he had a watershed moment when he decided we really are all brothers. Ali came to that realization as well later in life.
They were all fighting for the same thing; they just took different roads. Ali's stand against the Vietnam War was a serious pivotal moment in the 1960s.
Q: How did you translate these figures into sound?
A: Rosa Parks had this quiet, peaceful fire. She and King had a very Gandhian sense of non violent action, whereas Malcolm X and Ali were more direct and rhythmic, shall I say. Rosa Parks' music tends to be calm — it's swinging, because she lived in Detroit for years, so she has that swing in her swagger, but it's peaceful.
I chose not to focus on the pre-Mecca Malcolm X because I think it would have been too easy to pick one of his firebrand, Nation of Islam incendiary speeches. I wanted post-Mecca Malcolm because that's where his worldview became more inclusive. People tend not to think about the post-Mecca Malcolm X. That's a shame.
Q: People also overlook that King became more radicalized in 1966-67, particularly speaking out against the Vietnam War.
A: Hello! At one point, you might think that King and Ali agreed on nothing, but both opposed the war. I even found a video clip of King denouncing the boxing authority for stripping Ali of his title.
Q: Do you see parallels between jazz and the themes in the piece?
A: Absolutely. At one time, jazz was influenced directly by the social climate and had an influence on that climate. You think about Duke Ellington's "Black, Brown and Beige," Max Roach, John Coltrane's influence on the civil rights movement, Art Blakey recording "The Core," the song Freddie Hubbard wrote for the Congress of Racial Equality. These musicians were not trying to merely reflect the world but also propel some type of awareness and change.
My in-laws met at the University of Michigan. They were the ultimate taboo couple, an interracial couple in 1954. My wife's dad passed away when she was a baby, but to hear my mother-in-law tell stories about the letters and vandalism they experienced makes my stomach cringe.