Jazz Great Christian McBride on the Place Where Fighting and Music Meet - Part 1

“You can't have a tree without the roots” goes the old saying, and where does that ring truer than in music? In today’s musical landscape, what we used to know as just rap has exploded into a thousand different sub-genres, from Trap to Drill to Crunk to Rapcore, and the list goes on. But peel back the layers of rap--or metal, rock, funk, R&B, and country for that matter--and you can’t avoid finding jazz.

One of the most omnipresent figures in the jazz world for the last 20 years has been bassist, composer, and producer Christian McBride. The three-time Grammy award winner is one of the most prolific musicians of his generation. He’s collaborated with James Brown, D’Angelo, Quincy Jones, Sting, Queen Latifah, Questlove, and a list of jazz gods too expansive to include here--but out of respect, to name a few: Sonny Rollins, Freddie Hubbard, Ray Brown, George Duke, Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, and Milt Jackson.

I sat down with Christian, who is also a longtime time fight aficionado, in a recording studio near Times Square, thinking I was going to do another one of Fightland’s “My Walkout Song” interviews. What transpired was a dialogue that touched on race, history, education, art, the narratives of conflict and struggle in American culture, and, of course, Christian’s Philadelphia roots.

After a bit of small talk about Floyd Mayweather’s brilliant use of the signature “Philly shoulder roll” in his recent fight against Canelo Alvarez, we went right into it:

Fightland: What got you into boxing?
Christian McBride:
I remember it well. My childhood was right on the end of the Ali-era, through Larry Holmes and Sugar Ray Leonard, and the beginning of the Mike Tyson era—like, 1978 to 1988.

I always appreciated it but I never really got into it hardcore until I got to New York. I had an apartment in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. I was in Manhattan for something and I was walking around the Fashion District and I came across this video store. In the window, they had an Ali documentary film on sale for like two dollars. I thought, “Man, you know, I wanna buy that.” ‘Cuz I always knew Ali was the greatest. I never knew exactly why he was the greatest other than always hearing he was just one of the greatest boxers to grace the planet. But then once I started paying attention to the documentary film, I was like way deep in it after that.

As a boxer, he was such a genius that--and this is where I think you can tell a true genius--he makes it look so easy that the novice thinks, “Oh, I can do that. He’s making it look so easy.” But just because of my music training I inherently knew it wasn’t quite that easy.  But I said, “Let me at least give it a shot.” So I started training.

There used to be a place called the Times Square Gym. It was right on 42nd St. between 6th and 7th and I went there. I think [trumpeter] Wallace Roney used to go there too at that time. I would go out there and work out, hit the bag, skip a little rope, I learned how to hit the speed bag. And I really got into the discipline of timing, particularly with the speed bag, because you have to learn the rhythm to do it properly. It’s all about timing. It’s all about rhythm. That’s what made me really, really appreciate the sport. But I inherently kind of knew it was about that because, as I said, as easy as Muhammad Ali made it look, I knew that you don’t go into the ring with your hands down and just think you can rely on your own speed to just dodge punches. That’s not very smart--if you throw a punch, to drop your arms, or drop your hand after you throw a jab, like Ali did a lot of times at his peak. I mean he was so incredible he could get away with every mistake in the book. That documentary I saw single-handedly got me hardcore into the art of boxing.

What you’re describing about Ali reminds me of how many people perceive the painter Jackson Pollack.
Yeah. Right, right.

If you were walking out to a ring to fight, what would your ideal walkout song be?
My ideal walkout song would be “Soul Power.” James Brown’s music, on all levels, is a music that comes from the gut. Defiance. It’s about self-pride. It’s about strength. It’s about soul. And “Soul Power” has always been one of my personal favorites. The term “soul power” just … that’s what I believe in. I think to get through life you have to have some soul power.

If you wrote a walkout song, what would it have in it? What does a good walkout song require?
I think it should mirror the person. Whatever song anyone chooses to walk out on, it should mirror who they are. I can remember Mike Tyson was always famous for never having a robe on. He would just come out already bare-chested, with his shorts on, just ready to get into the ring and throw down. At first glance, I thought that was so insignificant, but I realized one of the great traditions of boxers--of being a showman and an entertainer--is having your silk robe with your name on the back. Tyson’s like, “I don’t need that.” I could be wrong about this but I seem to remember him using Public Enemy for walkout music. (Ed. Note: Tyson walked out to Public Enemy’s “Welcome To The Terrordome,” among other songs.)

Particularly as the ‘80s got later in the decade and the ‘90s came around, the show part of boxing, the hype part of boxing, went so far overboard. The music started getting louder. The entrances started getting more grand. I remember when Prince Naseem Hamed had his first fight in New York. I want to say it must have been in ’95 or ’96. I remember [pianist] Monty Alexander called me up because he’s a huge boxing historian and fan. He said, “Man, you gotta see this cat Prince Naseem Hamed. He’s the Charlie Parker of boxing.” And I was like, “Nah, c’mon man.” I saw some of his fights before he came to New York. I said this cat is--you know, it’s the Ali effect. Now, everyone wants to talk trash before they actually prove something. Even though he won that first fight in New York, I remember he got knocked down in the first or second round. It was the first time he’d ever been knocked down but it was, like, get some miles on you before you start talkin’ trash.

What’s the relationship between fighting and music, or with jazz specifically?
Timing and discipline. In any endeavor, you’ve got to have discipline. Unfortunately, there are a lot of people who think of music as a hobby. Just kind of get a guitar and get some guys in a garage and just jam. But there is lots of discipline that goes into making really great art. The same thing with being a pugilist: the timing. Your success is based on accumulating all the knowledge and building all the skills that you can as a craftsman to your art. It’s the same thing with music. You don’t just get in there and just beat somebody over the head. You gotta feel, you gotta react, and it’s the same thing with jazz. 

What other similarities are present in the performance of both music and boxing?
Conflict and struggle. I think, again, what you do as an artist reflects who you are and if people can recognize or they can feel your conflict and your struggle, they’ll support you. They’ll stand by you. They’ll know your story and see and feel the similarities and be able to connect with that. I think there was one point in this country, where the conflict and the struggle--particularly of blues, gospel, and jazz musicians--once that started to become sort of the main soundtrack of American culture, or at least started to have a bigger audience, the reason why that music became so utterly American is because so many people in this country can identify with the conflict and the struggle.

So, I think it’s the same thing with athletes. For as much as I love Ali and think he will always be the greatest, I do understand that Ali’s impact on America in general probably--you got to give Joe Louis his props too because for what Joe Louis was in his era, he was probably a little more important than Ali, at least to his generation, for what he meant for black people in the 1940s. Joe Louis set the stage for Muhammad Ali. No one really set the stage for Joe Louis.

But before Joe Louis, you have somebody like Jack Johnson. Now that cat, man! The more I learn about Jack Johnson, I’m just like, “You gotta be kidding me?!” Ali had people behind him. He had the Nation of Islam behind him because of that time in this nation’s history. He had a lot of allies. Jack Johnson had nobody. No-bo-dy  [laughs]. It was him versus everybody. ESPN did this great documentary on Jack Johnson and they interviewed Ali. And Ali’s talking about Jack Johnson and Ali, he’s talking about how great Jack Johnson was as a fighter and he’s breaking it down and Ali says, “And white women! This man was dating white women!” [Laughs.]

Yup, knocking out white guys, dating white women.
Right. [laughs]

I’ll tell you another person who I’ve greatly admired for his discipline and his intellect, needless to say, is Bruce Lee. I think anybody who has taken a cursory look at his life knows this man was beyond the physical. How he approached his art was highly intellectual. To me, a person who’s highly intellectual is someone who’s able to resolve that conflict between the mind and the heart. Because the brain is always telling you what you should do and the heart is telling you what you want to do. Somehow you have to create some harmony between that. I find that some people who consider themselves intellectuals always listen to the brain. They don’t listen to the heart. So, I’ve always admired people who are able to find a balance and to me, Bruce Lee did that more than most. Much like a musician--like a Miles Davis or a John Coltrane or a Thelonious Monk or a Charlie Parker or a Duke Ellington--there’s a perfect balance.

Check out part 2 tomorrow.

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