He had watched his father play hundreds of times—jamming on his bass guitar with longtime percussionist Mongo Santamaria.
One night changed everything.
A young Christian McBride gazed up at the legendary Lee Smith from where he sat, watching him in his musical ecstasy. It hit him. He turned to his mother, Renee McBride, and requested an electric bass for Christmas.
She obliged, and even allowed her ex-husband to visit her home in Philadelphia for their son’s first lesson. Maintaining a healthy relationship was important, she said, in the interest of both her son’s wellbeing and his musical aspirations.
“My father taught me that day, and I fell in love immediately,” Mr. McBride, now 42, recalled last week during a telephone interview from the road in California. “I’m very fortunate I found my life’s calling at age 9.”
The three-time Grammy Award-winning bassist—widely regarded as a virtuoso and one of the most recorded musicians of his generation—will return to the East End for the first time in more than a decade for the kick-off concert of the fourth annual Sag Harbor American Music Festival at Old Whalers Church, preceding a day-long concert series featuring nearly two dozen free, live performances at various locations in the village.
On Saturday, every half hour will mark at least one new style of music—from singer-songwriters, rock and reggae to blues, cabaret and American jazz itself—pouring into the Sag Harbor streets, breathing life into a musical legacy sometimes overlooked.
It is one that has always reverberated within Mr. McBride, until he joined the middle school orchestra. Unable to play his instrument of choice among the violins and cellos, he went to the next logical choice—“trombone,” he chuckled, in the footsteps of Fred Wesley, best known for his work with James Brown.
“When it became apparent that I had no future for the trombone,” Mr. McBride deadpanned, “my teacher, Kevin Rodgers, said, ‘Well, there’s a rumor. I hear you play the electric bass. Why don’t you play the upright bass?’”
After some convincing—“From an 11-year-old’s point of view, it was like, ‘Why would I want to play the bass guitar and upright? That’s dumb,’” he said—the simple question led Mr. McBride to the bass room. The strings and the fingering were nearly the same, the boy quickly realized, and he was hooked.
“Mr. Rodgers said, ‘We could really use that in the orchestra. Just, whatever you do, don’t play the trombone,’” Mr. McBride recalled. “He’s the man to thank for having that vision for me.”
Proclaimed a teen prodigy, Mr. McBride left Philadelphia and moved to Manhattan, where he studied at the Juilliard School and made his presence known.
“It was when I started working around town, locally, with a lot of veterans, a lot of older jazz musicians, that made me feel like I might have had something special to keep on pursuing,” he said. “These musicians in their 50s and 60s, they wanted a 16-year-old kid playing with them.”
Still, despite his successes—since the 1990s, Mr. McBride has released 12 albums and recorded on more than 300 additional projects—the musician sometimes finds himself daydreaming about a life unlived.
If he didn’t play bass, Mr. McBride would have wanted to play professional football.
“Maybe I can find some senior flag league I can play in,” he laughed. “I’m [Philadelphia] Eagles, all the way. I religiously watch my Eagles, wherever I am. Whether I’m here or in London or Tokyo, I hook up my Slingbox to my laptop and I’m watching.
“Some loyalties never die,” he concluded.
And he could say the same to jazz music naysayers.
“‘Jazz is dying, venues are closing.’ They’ve been saying that for half a century. It’s part of the literature that goes with jazz nowadays,” he sighed. “But music that comes from the soul, that’s impossible to die. It can’t die. Now, it might not be that popular, but there’s always going to be a place for it.”
And, this weekend, it’s Sag Harbor—on stage with Mr. McBride, jazz humming up and down the strings beneath his inspired fingers.
The fourth annual Sag Harbor American Music Festival will kick off with a performance by bassist Christian McBride and his ensemble, jazz pianist Emmet Cohen and drummer Ulysses Owens Jr., on Friday, September 26, at 8 p.m. at Old Whalers Church in Sag Harbor. Tickets are $25. A free, day-long concert series, featuring more than 20 acts, will be held on Saturday, September 27, from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. at various locations in the village. In the event of rain, alternative locations will be available for all outdoor performances. A $10 ticket buys admission to Saturday night’s after-party, featuring Mamalee Rose & Friends, at 9 p.m. at Bay Street Theater. For tickets and more information, visit sagharbormusic.org.