008 James McBride
"Joy is kind of self illumination that allows people to see the world in better ways."
James McBride: First of all it's all storytelling. It’s just a different form. Music tells stories, and so do books.
A professional can do a job, any job at any time in any circumstance. Cold, hot, no pay, a lot to play, the professional shows up half hour early. By the time you hit the professional has his instrument out, and he or she is ready to go. If the gig starts at 2 o'clock the professional has his coat off, his coffee is sipped and he's sitting in his chair at 1:30.
Trevor Exter: Here we are with another fine addition of Play It Like It's Music. Musicians in their own words. Today is a great day because I get to speak to my good friend, world-famous author James McBride. I know him as a band leader. You probably know him for his best-selling books, the movies he made with Spike Lee... all that stuff. I went and met him at the source: New Brown Memorial Baptist Church in Red Hook, Brooklyn. If you read his first book “The Color of Water”, then you'll know the place I'm talkin about. Let's go, without any further ado.
James McBride, how you doing?
James McBride: Doing good. Doing very good here in Brooklyn.
Trevor Exter: So we're sitting here in the sanctuary of New Brown Memorial in Red Hook. This is the place. It's where it all began right?
James McBride: Yeah, my parents started this church in 1955. That's a ...60…. I don't know a long time ago, so I'm still here. I run a little music program here for the kids from the projects. Been doing that for five years, teach piano, start them out on drums, and the more advanced ones or the more interested ones we move them into piano.
Trevor Exter: Why do you play music?
James McBride: I play music because I want people to be free.
Trevor Exter: What was your first memory of hearing music before you were ever a player?
James McBride: Well, my first memory of hearing music was in this building. I heard a woman named Helen Lee who was an organist, the organist here who died in 2008. I heard her playing music and it was great, and she was the first person I ever saw read music you know. Like open a book and you know make it happen from the book, and she also swung very heavily, and she played the type of organ that you don't really hear anymore. Where she played with her feet, there were no drums. She just played bass with the left hand and bass with her foot and the right hand played the chords and the melody but the groove, you know that chunk. you know that groove or something that I... That really affected me, and I never forgot that. I always felt like whatever swing a groove I've had I learned right here in this building.
Trevor Exter: When and how did you start playing?
James McBride: I started playing [00:03:00] piano first in my house, and then there was a program in school where they taught you how to play piano using cardboard cutouts of the keys, and you just played the keys, played the cardboard cutout while the teacher wrote the notes on the blackboard.
Then I took clarinet, I started with clarinet in the band and school, maybe like third or fourth grade. I was in the school band we played John Philip Sousa stuff, did that through middle school. And then in high school, I started branching out into flute and saxophone and get my hand on one and then I got into electric bass for a while played bass in an R&B band in high school.
Trevor Exter: I didn't know that.
James McBride: Yeah, man, yeah, yeah, I went into bass because I didn't have saxophone you know my brother had a saxophone, but I you know I couldn't afford horns like that. And then when my family moved out of New York and my senior high school, and I tried to get in the band and the guy he didn't have any... had no saxophones. I didn't want to play clarinet, so I told him I played trombone which I really didn't play. So when he auditioned me on trombone I really couldn't play it. You know, so he put me in like the kids, you know beginning ensemble and after a month or two, I worked my way into the into the senior band and the marching band as a trombone player.
Trevor Exter: All right first time you ever played for money. What was that moment like?
James McBride: First time I played for money was outside of church where you know give me a dollar or five dollars or something from playing, you know. It was... I think it was a a band in Queens. We did a dance or something like that. I'm not sure, it might be... You know what it was? When my family moved to Wilmington, Delaware, I joined the band. I was playing [00:05:00] trombone and saxophone in a R&B band. And we played at a Mason’s Lodge somewhere in Delaware like a the Elks or Mason's one of those black clubs. You know it was a rat hole man. Literally man. If you went in the bathroom. It was like a big hole right under the sink with rats crawled in and out of. It was a funky spot man, but you know we did it and we ended up doing a record, was called the Baja. And it was… actually the band had a bass player and a drummer that were really good, but you know it was one of those things where everybody was smoking and drinking and carrying on I was young you know I was in high school, so it was a little bit of a risque type of deal, so I think that was my first gig where I actually got paid yeah.
Trevor Exter: All right, and so navigating the waters like as a player, as a band leader, as a composer / writer, was there a process of finding your lane, or did you kind of spread yourself out among all those ways for a while?
James McBride: Well, you know I went to Oberlin. I studied at Oberlin and I quickly realized that I never really loved the saxophone enough to become a great saxophone player. I just didn't have the discipline or the desire to practice the hours that were needed and I just didn't really feel like I loved it enough. I like to write music more. So I focus my studies on composition and and jazz of course and then when I got out of school, out of Oberlin… I became very socially conscious when I was at Oberlin so I decided I wanted to change the world so I applied to Columbia University graduate school of journalism.
Trevor Exter: Can I stop you for a second because, you know I hear you as a sax player pretty regularly, and it's rare that we get to hear you cut loose on the sax. The journey with the sax: who were the most influential sax people. Like the the ones you admire the most?
James McBride: Well it had to be Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane. That's easy. I mean when I was young my brother Richie played the saxophone. He was actually a very very talented musician he became a chemist.. a professional engineer chemist type. We used to listen to Coltrane a lot in the house because of my brother Richie and also Junior Walker and Curtis … King Curtis. Because my sister Jack used to live in Harlem and King Curtis was a friend of hers because he used to get his clothes dry clean. And he was living... I don't think it was from Harlem, but Harlem was, you know during that time in the 60s home was quite different. So when I got to college I ended up studying with a guy named Wendell Logan who was the head of what little jazz program Oberlin had. He played saxophone and trumpet, and he also brought in a saxophonist named Candy Johnson who spent many years playing with Count Basie's band. And Candy Johnson was all about sound, he didn't want to hear you playing a lot of Jamie Aebersold shit. I mean Jamie Aebersold was just starting at the time, and you know I was coming to lessons with that and he’d just say “I don't want to hear that! Practice your ass off and come up with something on your own.” You know he didn't want to hear patterns and all that shit.
He wanted to hear sound and he wanted to hear what you did with thirds and sevenths. But he was really about sound and about rhythm you know. He felt the saxophone was more of a rhythm instrument than just the horn. So I got into that you know.
Trevor Exter: Yeah, see. I listen to sax players from before then, players like Illinois Jacquet, Earl Bostic...
James McBride: Earl Bostic was from Philly.
Trevor Exter: Yeah Eroll or Earl?
James McBride: Earl Bostick. And he was an influence on Coltrane as well.
Trevor Exter: To me that sound is like the party band sound. Like from those days where it's really focused on entertainment, people having a good time. And it's really energetic and lively. It's as if there's the intellectual world of music - of ideas in music - and then there's the “delivering a party” side of music. And there's people who navigate both and those people who sort of pick one side. Now I know you as a very well-rounded musician, but did you ever make conscious choices to do one or the other?
James McBride: That's a very good question Trevor. I mean, you know you and I have played together for a long time now. It's been some years now. I think we both agree that if music doesn't move people then what's the point of doing it. I mean I can't count the times I've been to concerts where the thing starts at 7 o'clock. And then you look and three hours passed, and then you look at your watch and it's 7:15 because the guy’s got “blah, blah, blah, blah”. I don't believe in all that. I mean you know that's been covered! Like Miles did that, Sonny Rollins did that. You know Sonny Rollins, Way Out West? He covered all that. I mean, I mean there are only twelve notes to work with.
I think that you have to make music to please people. You have to make music that makes people happy. I mean the whole point - for me personally - I'd rather that music entertain people and give them some joy rather than to try to make music that will illuminate. I think joy is kind of self illumination that allows people to see the world in better ways. If you could connect to them with music that they relate to.
Trevor Exter: Usually I have folks play a little bit. Do you have anything? I know the sax isn't here right now.
James McBride: I don't have anything to play, but I'll set up a piano. We could do a little... you know I can play some, demonstrate what I'm teaching here.
Trevor Exter: All right. Yes let’s take a second.
James McBride: So what we are teaching the kids is like: we start out with a major scale and so forth, but the aim is to really teach them how to do the groove thing that you hear in church. Like oh When the Saints Come Marching In, played like this.
The whole business with a [music] And that's something that I learned from Sister Lee. And I used to ask her about that. I'd say you know, “what did you do for drums when you were you know when you were playing?” She said, "drums?" There was no drums. She raised her left hand and said "This was the drum", and she’d hit the 1-5, you know.
Also, she used to do something called, they call it subdominants: when you take the third, you take the third of the next chord, and you play it as the root. So going from F to an A7 instead of playing A7 and A C-Sharp E. You play an F chord, and then you play, maybe it sounds better with..
[fiddles with keyboard sounds]
So you play an F. So you keep, you play an A, a C-sharp in the bass, and you go to a D minor, and then you play a D-sharp in the bass when you play the D chord. I mean F-sharp in the bass. Going G minor and then go into with the B in the bass and into a C sus. So when you hear someone in church playing this, I'll go to an organ voice. [00:14:00] Nash plays better than I do.
That's what you hear, you know, when someone's talking to church, and you hear the background behind them. “I want everyone to remember to pray on Sunday, we’ll pray for you next week, and then have a good week and don't forget that, you know, God is watching all the time…” and that's what you hear. Sister Lee used to do that quite a bit.
Trevor Exter: You tell the story how you used to have to sub for Sister Lee sometimes, and then you would get in a little bit of trouble [00:15:00] with your mom and Lee's for being too jazzy...
James McBride: Hey, what's up boy?
Young boy: What's all these decorations?
James McBride: For a funeral.
Young boy: A funeral? So church is closed tomorrow?
James McBride: No. No it ain't closed tomorrow. So you got to come tomorrow. Mr. Phil is downstairs what you doing monkeying around up here?
Woman: To say hello to you. Plus he saw a cricket.
James McBride: Oh yeah, you running from a cricket? He's getting tall, man. He's getting tall by the week.
Young boy: Actually Iast time I stepped on a cricket I heard a crack.
James McBride: That's alright. He ain't crying now. He's happy. Oh, so yeah I used to sub for my sister in church, and my sister used to, you know my sister was a really good player, and that was really a problem for me in church because not being a true pianist you know, if someone would sing “what a friend we ha..” or like “we shall overcome” And they would [00:16:00] sing it in the key of D flat, you know. And I couldn't play in D flat, I'd be at please come back to F. And they'd be. I mean it was just a... It used to be a problem, now I can play in you know almost all the keys.
I'm stronger in some keys than the other and I've also figured out that some of this stuff that Sister Lee used to know. See they didn't teach you this, but instinctively, if you grew up in church, you knew there was certain chord movements that people do, you know that you understand, that you learn later.
Trevor Exter: It's great. I know you come in here every Saturday to teach young musicians, new musicians. You know there's a lot of people transitioning out of a professional musical life nowadays into something else and then struggling to find a balance, how to maintain a musical practice, but also finding new reasons to keep playing music that aren't simply professional. So I want you to [00:17:00] talk a little bit about that. The value of music work to a young mind, and likewise to an adult professional mind.
James McBride: Well, I mean I think a person who can do music can do anything. If you have a Fortune 500 company and you want someone to join your company who knows about discipline, teamwork, learning, accumulated learning and how to get along with others, then you want a musician.
So what music teaches you beyond just the actual love of playing something that's beautiful, is it teaches you how to adapt to changing circumstance. So most musicians don't realize that they have enormous skills they can use in other places other than just teaching music. There's computers, there's literature. There's learning, there's history, anthropology, all types of skills that you can apply to other parts of life if you decide that you just don't want a starve.
You know, in my case, the discipline of music helped me [00:18:00] tremendously with writing because you sit down to write a novel man, a novel is a big thing. I mean a novel is a it's a hard thing to do. It requires enormous discipline. You have to sit down every day, and carve away at characters and ideas - most of which don't work.
One of the things that music teaches you says you're just not the best, you are not the best at something. Somebody's always better or they do it better than you or they are doing it in a way that you're unable to do and you learn to appreciate that and not feel…. And if you love music like you and I do, you know you just love what they do. You are just so impressed by their ability to make something happen that you necessarily can't do. So you know the transition for... you know, music is becoming an ancillary thing in our society.
There was a time when you made a record, you actually could sell the record and make royalties and residuals off that record. I've made royalties and residuals off of my Anita Baker records and the Grover Washington records I did, and even from Barney, but they pretty much stopped. I mean people don't buy music anymore. They find ways to get it free or they get it from these YouTube or iTunes whatever. So I've just found ways to make music.
See music makes me happy, and so I've just found ways to keep myself being happy without getting paid for it. And in my case I do it through writing, but if I weren't a musician I would not be a good writer.
Trevor Exter: So going through a period where you made most of your income in music and now being in this period when most of your income is made outside of music and yet you have quite a robust musical practice with the teaching, with the shows that we do - and yet, it's not your primary source of income. How and when did that transformation happen for you?
James McBride: Well, I mean chronologically after I got at Oberlin I was a journalist for nine years. I worked at Wilmington News Journal and The Boston Globe and People Magazine and the Washington Post. And then I quit the Post and I [00:20:00] became a musician for nine years. So I was making a very decent salary at the Post, and then I just went from making, I don't know what it was, it was 50 or 60 grand a year. This is in the late 80s to like fifteen or eighteen thousand a year as a musician, but I was very happy. And I just learned the hustle here in New York. And I just you know because I knew so many people who were journalists, who were just miserable. Music made me happy, so I just kept doing what made me happy, and then you know I was always a strong - I feel I was a stronger writer than I was a saxophone player - so I started writing. And I'd always written songs.
I tried working at musical theater for a while, but that's a closed society, and I just wasn't interested. I did it, but you know you would sit workshop something for six months, and then maybe it pops, maybe it doesn't. But songwriting was just an easier route. So I made some pretty good money working with Anita Baker and Grover Washington, people like that, but at the end of it when I got married, getting on the road was harder and harder because I was you know I was writing songs, I was on the road with Jimmy Scott. Little Jimmy Scott's band, but it was hard. So I had this idea to write a book about my mother so I did it. And it popped. It didn't popped immediately, but it started the groove, and I just got another book contract that mushroomed into a real literary career. And then the music career, I basically have had to just pick up and move from block to block, from house to house, because there's no demand for my music.
And that's the thing musicians have to understand, there's no demand for your music. Especially now. There's no financial demand. You have to create the demand. And I've taken that same mentality into writing as well because in writing there's no real demand. Even now as a best-selling author, I have readers now who read my books, but I'm what you call a literary author, so I'm not a Stephen King where I make millions of dollars. I have to [00:22:00] go out every book, I have to go out to publicize it, you know the new writers coming in younger they got you know you got all that. But music teaches you to adapt. So I continually adapt and the fact that, a lot of this falls under the heading of, “if you build it, they will come.”
Trevor Exter: So that thing with going out and publicizing your book and then bringing the band to do that. I know plenty of bands that go out on tour and they don't bring an author to mix it up there.
James McBride: Well first of all it's all storytelling. It's just a different form. Music tells stories, and so do books. So people who like stories come to see or hear or experience stories. So how you want to translate those stories for people is your business. They thought I was crazy when I started. When I told the publisher that I wanted to take a band, they didn't support it. I did it. I paid for it. Initially I paid for the travel and I paid the musicians, and then eventually they sort of came along and they kind of helped in certain places. And they are still not all the way with-it because they do things in a really antiquated sort of fashion. If I had more resources, there are ways I could do this that wouldn't even involve the publisher, but I just don't have the time or the resources to push it out there. People who read books like music and people who like music often - not always, but often - like books. So you have to figure out a way to reach people and you got to do it by just doing it. You can't just talk about it.
Trevor Exter: I hear those drums starting up in the background. It's a good way to segway into this thing I wanted to ask you about which is: how has your experience been starting up to teaching practice here on the weekends and tell me a little bit about that.
James McBride: Well, this whole thing started out when the organist whom I referred to earlier, Sister Lee died. She died in 2008 and she was a good friend of mine.
I mean she was someone I knew all my life, and they had to get another organist to replace her and they had a hard time. They got this guy. He was a jive cat. He couldn't read. He was just a sissified jive dude. I couldn't stand him. If he didn't know a song, he would just keep his… Someone would stand in front of church and sing, he wouldn't lift his hands on the organ. Even try to find it you know? And they kept him for a long time and finally he just quit which I was glad about. And I kept trying to get somebody else. They couldn't afford anybody else, and I said, "Why are we trying to find some another organ player? We got all these kids in the church, let's just make our own. You know let's grow our own.” So that's what started this program.
And also the idea that the kind of organ that Sister Lee plays, that B3 organ is disappearing.
See, in the old days, Sister Lee who's playing the organ that is sitting right in front of us here in this church, she would show somebody else how to do it, and they would play the next part, but that doesn't happen anymore because young people don't come to churches anymore. Plus this praise and worship bullshit is just taking over church music. So there's a cultural reason as well as a practical reason why I started this program.
Two of the best students in this program come from the projects and go to this church because we need to raise our own organist to do this work we can depend on. So that's what started it. Now training these kids has been difficult, and it's really been about training their parents or their caretakers.
Trevor Exter: So what are the main distinctions between this school of music and the praise-and-worship school?
James McBride: Well this school of music I mean, we're based on making sure the kids know how to read music. That they just don't jam. This school of musical thought is based on the idea that the African-American evolution of music started with Africa and really culminated in the 40s and 50s and maybe early 60s where what we now know as gospel music… [sings] That kind of music.
And after that it began to slow deterioration to where it is now which was praise and worship, which really just gets its inspiration not from so much from God, but from pop music.
So this praise and worship music doesn't last as long. It's bubblegum. It's potato chips. Whereas the old stuff lasts forever because it's good. That's what Sam Cooke and Aretha, all these folks got this stuff out of the true gospel music that came out of the 40s and 50s.
Trevor Exter: So it’s a little bit of a chickens-coming-home-to-roost thing because they went on to become pop stars, and now the pop energy is coming back into the church?
James McBride: Yeah. And that energy is not great you know? “Praise and worship”, a lot of it is just jive. I mean they have these giant choirs, these giant churches. These giant choirs you can't understand a word they're saying. It's more like a Broadway show, it's not really church.
This church had most holds 150, maybe 200 people. And the choir this church is comprised of like five old women, two old guys and a couple of these young kids who are in the youth choir. There's maybe six of them. But those six are learning music. Not just how to play music and to read music, but they are learning songs that if they don't learn them were going to just disappear or just live in books.
Trevor Exter: What separates the professional from the amateur?
James McBride: A professional can do a job, any job at any time, in any circumstance. Cold, hot, no pay, lots of play. The professional shows up half hour early and by the time you hit the professional has his instrument out and he or she is ready to go. If the gig starts at two o'clock, the professional has his coat off, his coffee is sipped, and he's sitting in his chair at 1:30.
Trevor Exter: Now - just a quick aside - sound-wise you know you talked about not being a particularly confident sax player, but then when I hear you play the saxophone I don't hear a hobbyist.
James McBride: Well, you know you always have to surround yourself with really great players. I mean, I make sure I have people in my band like you and Keith Robinson, and you know.
Trevor Exter: That's not necessary. I'll send you that check for that.
James McBride: Yeah. Yeah, well thank you very much, but you know you have to stay in your lane. When you get.. as an older player you know there's certain stuff you'd like to try, but on the gig you don't try it because it's not the place to do it. So you just stay in your lane. If you want to try something new you try it at home and work it out all the way before you actually hit on stage with it, otherwise you sound like an amateur.
Trevor Exter: What should a newer player avoid completely?
James McBride: A newer player should avoid computers. The newer players should not use sequencers and all that other crap because if you're using a sequencer to make music, no matter how good your music, you are using the same sequence and drums that somebody else is making. So you are using the same sequence and drums that a guy from Copenhagen is making, so you're not going to make anything [00:29:00] good. That's the reason why Aretha Franklin's music sounds different than Archie Bell and the Drells because they are using different drummers with different bass players in different room. So I would say to a young player, I would say, don't make your music with a computer. Computers come later. You got to walk. Go acoustic first then learn how to go electric.
Trevor Exter: That serves nicely. James McBride, thank you very much.
James McBride: Thank you Trevor. It's a pleasure to be on your podcast. I'm very happy that you included me.
Trevor Exter: That was James McBride. The man does not do social media which is a good thing. You can find out all you need to know from him [00:30:00] by reading his books. I've read a bunch, but my favorite is Killl 'Em and Leave, all about one man's search for the real James Brown. He also has a new short story collection out now called Five-Carat Soul, which is one of Barack Obama's favorite books this year. Go to JamesMcBride.com to find out more.
That's our show. Thank you for listening, and thank James for sharing the New Brown space with us. This is Play It Like It's Music.