Christian McBride ain’t nothing but a #@&%? from Philly

I was honored to be invited to speak at the National Arts Club award ceremony in New York City where my main man Christian McBride was awarded the Medal of Honor for Achievement in Music.

Below is a version of the remarks that I gave at the awards ceremony at the National Arts Club in New York City on November 4, 2021 in honor of my main man and former management client Christian McBride who received The Medal of Honor for Achievement in Music.

About this time in 2007, I got a call out of the blue. The voice on the other end of the phone said, “Hey man, can you meet me at the pizza joint on Park Street across the street from the Y in Montclair.”  The timbre, resonance and warmth of his voice was an extension of the sound coming from the instrument that this icon was known all over the planet for playing. Much to my surprise, on the other end of the phone was bassist Christian McBride.

Earlier that year I was working with Sue Mingus helping her to produce her late husband Charles’ magnum opus, Epitaph. She produced four concerts around the country. Christian was one of the two featured bassists. I was surprised that he was calling me because over the course of those concerts, I only had one conversation with him on the bus in Chicago when we were dropping his bass off at storage. Holding the other end of phone to my ear, my mind started filling up with questions: “What did he want?  How did he get my number?”

I didn’t know the answer to either of those questions but a few days later over a slice of mushroom pizza, that same voice uttered a question that would change the trajectory of my life and career.  

“Do you want to manage me?”

Fast forward 14 years, the last two of which have been like dog years - 7 years each - I received a call inviting me to this wonderful evening celebrating my dear friend. “Of course Cheryl and I would love to attend,” I replied. “We wouldn’t miss it for the world.”

Then they asked me another question that caught me off guard:

“Would you mind speaking at the event?”

“What, who, me? Is anybody else speaking?” I wondered.

I later learned that saxophonist, composer, and bandleader, Joshua Redman, and acclaimed actress, singer, and author Gina Gershon were also speaking.

“You’ve gotta be kidding me! I can’t be on the same program as those two.”

I was honored, humbled and I must admit, a bit horrified.

What am I going to say?  What stories am I going to tell?  As I began to roll through my memory bank there were way too many stories to choose from and some of them - well let’s be honest - are not for public consumption. So I procrastinated, knowing that eventually something would come to me.  

When I woke up yesterday, I still didn’t know what I was going to say.  Unfortunately, I knew I wasn’t going to have a lot of time during the day to think about it because I was leading a Vision, Mission and Values session for my team at my new gig at the Fund for the Arts in Louisville.  

I am the new CEO of the oldest united arts fund in the country.  We work to raise funds to help facilitate and promote the vitality and well being of the arts ecosystem for the Greater Louisville region.  

On one of the breaks of my full day session, I figured out what I was going to talk about. It hit me like a ton of bricks.  Shortly after saying yes to McB’s offer back in 2007, I started to think about what it would mean to manage the career of an individual artist.  I had been working with a few musicians prior to this but I wouldn’t call what I was doing for them management.  If you’re not turning down gigs then you don’t really need a manager.  You need someone to help you get gigs.

Quick side note - the first official act as Christian’s manager was for me to go to Sirius to tell them that we were going to turn down their offer for him to do some voiceover work for them for their jazz programming.  

Kinda ironic isn’t it, given that the man is now the voice of jazz for NPR’s Jazz Night in America and has his own show, The Lowdown: Conversations with Christian on Sirius/XM.

I told him at the time, “Trust me, this no is an investment in big yes on their part in the future.”

That’s not true but it sounds good. I didn’t know what the hell I was doing back then and not much has changed. I guess it’s true what they say. It’s better to be lucky than good.

In the past I had worked with arts organizations.  I was CFO and VP and Producer for Jazz at Lincoln Center.  I had done a lot of consulting and strategic planning for arts organizations all over the world but I had never really managed the career of an individual artist.

So I decided to approach managing McB like he was a one-person organization.  I began to brainstorm inside my own sick head about what a Vision and Mission Statement for McB the organization would be.  After pondering it for a few days, I had a Eureka moment.  

McBride is the world’s most versatile musician, but the world doesn’t know it - yet.  A vision statement describes what the world looks like when you are completely successful in doing what you do as an organization.  A mission statement is what you do to bring that vision into focus.  So my vision statement for McB was that the world would recognize him as the world’s most versatile musician and would celebrate him accordingly. And the mission statement was for us to do whatever we could whenever we could, for as often as we could to put him in a position for people to see him as such.

Why is McB the world’s most versatile musician?

I’m glad you asked.

Well in order to be the world’s most versatile musician you have to play a rhythm instrument, because musical genres are defined by rhythm.  You also have to be a jazz musician who can also play classical music, because those two genres are considered by many to be the most difficult to play well.  Well needless to say, McB checks all of those boxes.  But he checks a whole lot of other boxes as well - R&B, Funk, Bluegrass, Hip-Hop, Folk, Rock, Latin, Afro-Cuban, Tango - you name it - he’s played it and at a very high level.

The other thing that makes him the world’s most versatile musician is that he can fit into any setting.  You know how there’s a remake of the Wonder Years out with Don Cheadle in it.  (Oh by the way, McB has played with him as well)  

Well there is a re-boot of the Chris Rock show being made that’s based on McB’s life growing up in Philly, it’s called Everybody Loves Chris(tian).

So from 2007 to 2020, the longest professional relationship I have ever had unless marriage is a business - I’ve been doing that for 31 years. And speaking of marriage, I would be remiss and in a lot of trouble if I didn’t mention that my lovely wife Cheryl joined me in managing McB’s career in 2010.  

During this time I saw firsthand how people began to see the vision.  It wasn’t because of anything that I did, but all because of what he was doing all over the world. And I had a front row seat.  

By the way I never told McB about my personal vision and mission statement for him.  I didn’t want him getting the big head.  I needed him to stay hungry. He needed to keep being versatile.  I needed the whole world to see the vision before he did.

And then one day I was standing on the side of the stage with him as I often did before he was introduced. The person on the stage was presenting McB an award. The guy was going on and on and on and on about how great he was and how many bands and groups and genres he had played in.  I mean he was pouring it on thick and the crowd was loving every minute of it.

I peeked over at McB and I saw him rocking back and forth with this interesting grin on his face. He had this look in his eyes.

I thought, “My God, he’s starting to see the vision. He can’t see it.  It’s too soon.”  

I had to do something.

So right as he took his first step onto the stage, I grabbed him by the arm and whispered something in his ear that I can’t repeat tonight but I will do my best to paraphrase for you.  I went a little something like this - “I know all these people paid to come hear you tonight and I know that you’re about to go accept yet another award that you’ll have to make room for on the mantle next to all your Grammys, but guess what.  None of that means anything.  I don’t care about any of it.  As far as I’m concerned you ain’t nothing but a bleep, bleep, bleep, bleep from Philly.

So I guess the cat is out of the bag.

Evidenced by the fact that I am here talking to you all tonight at this grand occasion, I think it’s pretty clear.

Everyone is seeing the vision now.

So before I take my seat I have one last thing to say to McB.  But I’m going to go whisper it in his ear right before he comes up here to accept the award, like I did that night and almost every night before a gig ever since that night for nearly 14 years.

I love you Brother.  You’re my man 50 Grand!!!  

Congrats on this well deserved honor.