Just Fooling Around: Christian McBride

Clef Club Music Education Program Founder reflects on the seven-time GRAMMY® AWArd winning jazz bassist.

In the late 1970s, I became the Director of Settlement Music School’s Queen Village branch, and of the Rohm and Haas Jazz Ensemble. Thanks to the mentorship of Odean Pope and Branch Director Mrs. Halialise Miles’ support, the Rohm & Haas Ensemble became an extraordinary jazz education program.

The ensemble attracted some of the area’s most talented young music students. The first generation of students was chosen by audition from students involved in the city‘s six week Better Break Music Camp. Some of the first group of 9th-12th graders included Robert Landham, Louis Taylor, Henry McMillian, Kevin Nathaniel, Kevin Outterbridge, and Joe Patterson. The second generation had the exceptionally talented elementary students Joey Defrancesco and Christian McBride. Christian became the Rohm and Haas principal bassist in this ensemble, which included Antonio Parker and many more talented students. 

This group had a scheduled performance at the African American Museum of Philadelphia. One of my performance guidelines was that students should not play their instruments or appear on stage prior to the performance. Christian arrived early and asked if he could play the piano that was on the stage; the audience had not arrived nor had the other ensemble member players.  I gave him permission to play the piano softly, not expecting much, and I began attending my pre-performance preparations. 

From a distance, I heard this McCoy-Tyner-like rendition of “Giant Steps,” and I had to stop and see who was playing this complex composition so confidently. It was Christian. I inquisitively asked Christian, “When did you learn to play piano?” His reply was, “Oh, Mr. Hines, I was just fooling around.”

On the same engagement, he requested to play his bow instead of playing pizzicato because he was working on his bowing technique. He sincerely promised me he could make it work on all of our jazz numbers. I reluctantly gave in to his request. Not only did he do a masterful job using the bow, but the Ensemble was also a major success, and the students received a standing ovation.

Fast forward to the present and seven Grammys later: Christian McBride.