His prospects were shaky in the spring of 1990, when, on the cusp of his 18th birthday, he dropped out of the Juilliard School after two semesters, in part to pursue a gig with the vocalist Betty Carter that ended up falling through. He began working with older masters such as the trumpeter Freddie Hubbard but had to contend with the hazing that was then a rite of passage within jazz. He retains numerous stories of humiliations endured when he was first establishing himself on the scene, like the time a veteran saxophonist pop-quizzed him during a jam session, calling out chords from what turned out to be a nonexistent tune.
But McBride had a sturdy inner core. Growing up in Philadelphia, he’d often been the target of bullying. “I was always getting teased about my size, my teeth — ’cause I had big teeth — ‘fat boy,’ all that kind of stuff,” he recalled in the kitchen of his Montclair, N.J., home, while Ella Fitzgerald, his 15-year-old beagle and Cavalier King Charles Spaniel mix, snored peacefully in her bed and pregame coverage of that week’s NFC Championship matchup played silently on ESPN. “But the thing that made it bearable was basically my family,” a loving, tight-knit unit centered on his mother, grandparents and uncle.
“‘I’m going to be better than you,’” McBride recalled thinking of those who mocked him. “‘I’m going to work hard and I’m going to have good grades and I’m going to get out of school and do something.’ So I think there was a part of me that knew to play the long game.”
Once he picked up the electric bass at age 9 — inspired by his father, Lee Smith, a bassist for acts such as the Delfonics and Mongo Santamaria, and encouraged by his great-uncle, Howard Cooper, who worked with avant-garde musicians around town — McBride began treating it as a life’s calling. Soon moving on to the upright, studying classical technique and performing in a local big band, he arrived in New York in 1989 with an unimpeachable work ethic that has never wavered.
“Say what you want to,” he said at the Carnegie Club, “you can’t get me on the hours put in.”
McBride’s dedication still impresses even his closest collaborators. The drummer Brian Blade has played with him since the early ’90s, notably in a quartet led by the saxophonist Joshua Redman, also including Mehldau, that has reactivated during the past few years. “I still wonder every time we play together — rather, I look in wonder as a witness to Christian’s gift working, and the care and attention which he has obviously given much time to cultivating,” Blade said. “He’s not resting on what he did yesterday; he’s still pushing forward. And in turn, it gives me that same spark and fire.”
Early on, McBride was pegged as a so-called Young Lion, a diligent acolyte of time-tested, bebop-derived jazz. But while he established himself through work with esteemed elders like Hubbard, the saxophonist Joe Henderson, the drummer Roy Haynes and the pianist McCoy Tyner, he revealed the breadth of his personal pantheon on his own albums: On “A Family Affair” from 1998, he played as much funky electric bass as woody upright, nodding to an elemental James Brown obsession, while the sprawling “Live at Tonic” from 2006 found him staking out territory somewhere between the Meters, Herbie Hancock’s early-70s Mwandishi band and Jimi Hendrix’s Band of Gypsys.