Jazz Bassist Christian McBride Finally Releases His Masterwork Melding of Black Music Meets Black Activism – The Movement Revisited

Written by on March 18, 2020

By A. Scott Galloway

In the world of jazz, few contemporary musicians have more consistently, proactively and provocatively built upon the goals and achievements of each succeeding year as Philadelphia-born Christian McBride. His latest Mack Avenue recording, The Movement Revisited is culminating documentation of a richly inspired piece – begun in 1998 – lauding four key figures of the Civil Rights Movement: Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Rosa Parks and Muhammad Ali. Marshalling his ever-sharpening skills as a composer, arranger, conductor, musician and lyricist, McBride has created a historically and culturally illuminating 5-part suite for 18-piece big band, chorus and narrators that places the motivating forces as well as the goals of the Civil Rights Movement within a powerfully relevant artistic context. It is a one-from-the-heart project McBride was, apparently, destined to undertake.

“Growing up in Philly, everything about Black History – the Diaspora and how it led to modern America – has always fascinated me,” McBride states. “Thanks to my grandmother, we had a house full of dusty old Jet and Ebony magazines – publications dedicated to the entirety of the black community: education, politics, science, show business, sports… She had Jets from `65 after Malcolm was murdered and a special edition of Ebony dedicated to Dr. King after his assassination. I read that one from cover to cover multiple times. Coupling that with what I learned during Black History Month in school, I became fluent in all the major and smaller names of the Civil Rights Movement.”

“When The Portland (ME) Arts Society and The National Endowment for the Arts commissioned me to write a piece in 1998 for Black History Month, I wondered, ‘How would central figures of the movement feel about society now? Was what they set out to accomplish achieved?’ I wasn’t sure if I had the maturity, discipline and information to write an overall picture of the Civil Rights Movement. I opted to focus on four people who inspired me the most: Rosa Parks, ‘the mother of the movement,’ and Dr. King on one side, and on the Nation of Islam end of the spectrum, Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali. I was free to write whatever I wanted. The only stipulation was that I include a choir.” Christian composed the music and lyrics for an initial 4-movement suite for jazz quartet and choir then was paired with J.D. Steele (of Minneapolis’ royal family of gospel, The Steeles) to arrange the vocal sections. “The choir is the heart of the piece,” McBride states. “I could never have and will never do this piece without J.D.”

Following four performances throughout New England, the piece sat for ten years. However, just before McBride’s second season as Creative Chair for the Los Angeles Philharmonic Jazz Series in 2005, Laura Connelly of the organization inquired about the dormant piece and McBride was inspired to revise The Movement Revisited for big band, gospel choir and narrators, The revamped piece premiered at Walt Disney Concert Hall in 2008 and featured narrators Wendell Pierce, Loretta Devine, Carl Lumley and now-departed James Avery. Paraphrasing Dr. King in a glowing review for the Los Angeles Times, jazz journalist Don Heckman critiqued the piece as “admirable…for both the content of its music and the character of its message.”

The exhaustive work McBride has done to realize this piece involved researching, selecting and editing salient passages from the writings of each figure, creating segues where one person introduces the next in a brilliant revelation of connectedness and solidarity, accentuating their sentiments with lyrics, setting all of this to music, and casting the voices.

For this 2014 recording, McBride chose prolific actors Dion Graham (Spike Lee’s “Malcolm X,” “Law & Order”) to voice Ali, Wendell Pierce (“Ray,” “The Wire”) to voice Dr. King, and Vondie Curtis-Hall (“Chicago Hope,” “I’ll Fly Away”) to voice Malcolm X. Prolific Black Arts Movement author and poet Sonia Sanchez was recruited to voice Rosa Parks. Heaping high praise on each contributor, McBride enthuses, “I first became aware of Wendell narrating the title track of Branford Marsalis’ debut LP, Scenes in the City (1984). Deep inside, that New Orleans-born brother is a jazz man! Vondie has always been a favorite – a true craftsman. He asked for his Malcolm text a few days ahead and was in the studio a couple hours giving me his very best read. Dion, who was personally brought to me by J.D., has been my most consistent narrator reading Ali in L.A., Maryland, Detroit, Ann Arbor and other places…always approaching the piece as if it’s his first time. As for Sonia, I’ve been impressed with her since I was in high school. The way she recites poetry is like jazz because she loves working with jazz musicians. I’m not sure people understand how important she is to the progressive, artistic side of the movement. In terms of personality, she’s as different from Rosa as anyone could be yet the contrast of hearing her recite the words of quiet, demure Rosa with the fiery jazz rebel stance of Sonia is really cool.”

Each segment of The Movement Revisited has a distinct sound – from the soul searching spiritual ascension of the classic John Coltrane Quartet for Malcolm and a funky, playful groove for Ali (including a saxophone duel like a prize fight between Eddie Harris and Maceo Parker) to a proud, churchy aura for Dr. King and a light, vibes-kissed swing for ‘Sister Rosa.’ Fans of jazz and Christian McBride will find many familiar faces from his various groups among the 18-piece horn and rhythm sections, including saxophonists Ron Blake and Steve Wilson, vibraphonist Warren Wolfe, pianist Geoff Keezer and drummer Terreon Gulley.

This recording of The Movement Revisited marks the addition of a fifth movement, “Apotheosis,” which acknowledges the election of Barack Obama as the first African American President of the United States. “When I was commissioned to add that movement by the Detroit Jazz Festival, Obama hadn’t even been in office a year. Because that section is not dedicated to the man as much as the possibility and realization of what the man attained on the shoulders of those that came before him, I have the narrators recite portions of Obama’s inauguration speech.”

At 42, 3x Grammy-winner Christian McBride has left indelible impressions on jazz and the arts in the roles of educator, curator, administrator, spokesperson, musician and band leader as well as a coveted sideman/arranger for musicians across the spectrum of music (from Sting and Questlove to Pat Metheny, Isaac Hayes, Kathleen Battle and the Shanghai Quartet). His integrity and ambition are indisputable.

However, The Movement Revisited (once performed at the University of Maryland with Harry Belafonte reciting “I Have a Dream” – see EPK) is a milestone. “Due to its scope, I know I won’t get to present this piece often but I will as much as I possibly can,” Christian McBride concludes. “The sentiments and the spirit are so important for everyone to grasp, especially young people. They need to recognize the dignity and sacrifices made on their behalf by leaders we will never forget.”

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