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Christian McBride Sonically Portrays Black History on ‘The Movement Revisited’ at Grammy Museum

History never goes out of style. It teaches, illuminates, influences and inspires. 

Jazz bassist Christian McBride’s The Movement Revisited: A Musical Portrait of Four Icons embodies all that and more as it re-examines the ‘60s civil rights movement—and its context within today’s roiling social climate. Paying homage to social justice reform pioneers Rosa Parks, Dr. Martin Luther King, Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali, the Mack Avenue Records release (Feb. 7) has been 20 years in the making as McBride explained to a packed Grammy Museum audience in downtown Los Angeles (Feb. 13) during an interview with the venue’s Scott Goldman.

The Movement Revisited began as a longform performance piece commissioned in the late ‘90s by an arts society in Portland, Maine in honor of Black History Month. McBride was given two requests at the outset. The piece had to incorporate history and “feature a choir—and I didn’t know anything about writing for a choir,” McBride recalled. “The other challenge was how to best musically portray history: write a piece that captured an entire era or pick certain people?”

So he chose four people that resonated with him personally, stemming from a childhood spent poring over his grandmother’s extensive collection (“Today, some might say she was a hoarder,” noted a laughing McBride) of the popular black culture magazines Ebony and Jet. In its first iteration, The Movement suite (recorded in 1998) was composed for a quartet and a choir, with four choir members doubling as narrators that would bring the aforementioned civil rights activists to life through their own speeches and writings.

McBride premiered a second iteration of the composition during a 2008 performance at Walt Disney Hall in L.A. At that point, the Los Angeles Philharmonic recruited four actors to portray the narrators: Carl Lumbly (Malcolm X), the late James Avery (Ali), Loretta Devine (Parks) and Wendell Pierce (King).

Referencing Duke Ellington’s 1943 tone-setting opus Black, Brown and Beige, McBride said he had no detailed plan in mind as The Movement evolved over the years. It was enough to just be able to :show how grateful l was to them [Ellington and others] by writing this piece,” he explained. “I didn’t have anything specific guide-wise in mind.”

The latest version of The Movement Revisited still features a chorus and narrators—but they’re accompanied now by a 17-piece big band. The four narrators handpicked by McBride include poet Sonia Sanchez (Parks), and actors Vondie Curtis-Hall (Malcolm X), Dion Graham (Ali) and Pierce (reprising King). The addition of a fifth movement, “Apotheosis,” was inspired by Barack Obama’s election as the first black president of the United States.

“What happened at that moment [Obama’s election] came from the work all those icons did,” said McBride. “That’s why it’s important that artists, writers, actors and musicians engage in social justice. There’s something about the energy that comes from music. It can change something really negative into something positive; counter resistance with beauty.”

Josh Nelson and Christian McBride
Josh Nelson and Christian McBride perform at An Evening With Christian McBride at the GRAMMY Museum on Feb. 13, 2020 in Los Angeles.  Rebecca Sapp/Getty Images for The Recording Academy

Following the interview and a brief audience Q&A, McBride was joined onstage by pianist Josh Nelson. The pair performed a spirited interpretation of Oscar Peterson’s “Blues Etude.” Then, to give the audience a taste of the powerful and moving sonic and lyrical portraits comprising The Movement Revisited, McBride and Nelson welcomed veteran actress Beverly Todd, subbing for Sanchez as Rosa Parks.

Between late February and March, the six-time Grammy winner will be performing a series of concerts overseas. The six-time Grammy Award winner’s itinerary includes Geneva in Switzerland, Paris, London, Amsterdam and Bezirk-Landstrasse, Austria.

But performing and composing aren’t the only things keeping McBride busy. The Philadelphia native hosts and produces The Lowdown: Conversations with Christian on SiriusXM, as well as National Public Radio’s weekly Jazz Night in America. He also serves as Artistic Advisor for Jazz Programming at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center and work with Jazz House Kids, the community arts organization founded by his wife, vocalist Melissa Walker. 

During a chat with Billboard earlier in the week, McBride shouted out Terri Lyne Carrington, Ledisi, Ben Williams and icons Gladys Knight and Dolly Parton as he talked about social activism and his collaborator wish list.

What have you learned about yourself personally and creatively during the 20-year evolution of The Movement Revisited?

Completing The Movement Revisited only further drilled home the fact that I have a lot more to learn. I consider myself a lifelong student; a student of music, culture, history and so much more. One of the reasons it took so long to record this piece is because it kept changing and evolving, and I’m sure the piece will continue to do so. If people can evolve, I suppose an original piece of music can also.

Do you feel artists are as engaged as they can or should be in the current fight for human rights?

There is a very large contingent of musicians, particularly jazz artists, who are raising their musical voices in the fight for freedom and human rights. Terri Lyne Carrington, Jerome Jennings, Ben Williams, Jazzmeia Horn, José James, Nicholas Payton, Ledisi and so many more. Part of the reason it may feel like that’s not the case is because maybe many of us are looking to create a living documentary of the ‘60s. We have to live in the moment. And this moment is brimming with musical activism.

What else is on your wish list to work with moving forward?

I really just want to continue to grow as a musician and a person. Whatever musical opportunities come along, I want to be ready and do the best job I can do. However, I really do want to play with Gladys Knight one day. Some type of hip, acoustic project. Dolly Parton, too.