Christian McBride possesses a fistful of Grammys, has appeared on more than 300 albums and has played with anyone who's anyone, including Paul McCartney and Sting, but the bassist, who visits New Zealand as the main attraction at the Wellington Jazz Festival, still gets starstruck.

He famously shared the stage in 2010 with three of the greatest of the jazz greats, Roy Haynes, Sonny Rollins and Ornette Coleman. Even now, McBride struggles to find the words to explain what that was like.

"To be on stage ... I realised I was on stage with probably the most celebrated living kings of jazz. To this day, more than anything, People are always asking, What kind of music ... Who wouldn't be awestruck? I was grateful to be up there."

McBride was always destined not only to accompany greatness but to reach it himself. Born in Philadelphia, as a kid he earned his first acoustic bass by winning a scholarship and at 14 fell under the wing of another jazz legend, Wynton Marsalis, who became a mentor. But McBride rejects the notion that being a child prodigy brought pressure.


"I went to a high school where all of my peers were as talented as I was, if not more," he says.

It is quite a collection of names: jazz guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel, hip-hop collective The Roots, R'n'B crooners Boyz II Men and the one considered the most gifted of them all, organist Joey DeFrancesco.

"Joey was much more of a recognised teen prodigy than I was," recalls McBride, "so I was just able to develop at my own pace."

That pace was still immensely swift. McBride left Philly for New York and the Juilliard School at 17. By 19, he was playing as sideman with Joe Henderson, appearing on the album Lush Life which is among the most acclaimed jazz records of the late 20th century. It spent two months atop the Billboard jazz chart, won Henderson a Grammy and was named 1992's album of the year by jazz bible DownBeat.

"I have great memories of working with Joe Henderson," says McBride of the saxophonist who died in 2001. "What a monster he was, what a titan. So much of what I try to play as a soloist stems from what people like him did."

The group he brings to New Zealand, New Jawn ('jawn' being Philly slang for 'thing') contains its own fair share of talent. Multi-instrumentalist Marcus Strickland — another whose immense ability was also spotted early — plays reed instruments, Nasheet Waits is on drums, while Josh Evans, described by McBride as "a bad young dude", plays trumpet.

The group swings hard but it's just one of five bands McBride leads. Another, Christian McBride Big Band, won Grammys for its last two albums. The Christian McBride trio also has a Grammy. As well as being a fine player, McBride clearly knows how to spot a sideman. He says the surest way to get work as a jazz musician is word of mouth.

"There's a network of musicians who, when they hear a young person coming up, right away a message goes out. Social media is great but it's nothing like a musician I know, trust and respect calling me and saying, 'Hey, you might want to check this person out'."


It's a given that anyone who joins McBride's band can play but what sort of qualities do they need?

"Don't be an asshole," the bassist says with a belly laugh and the certainty that speaks of experience. "Don't show up late and unprepared and then be indignant because you're some sort of misunderstood genius — I can't get with that."

If he weren't already busy enough, McBride spent four years as creative chair for jazz with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, curating all the jazz programming at the Hollywood Bowl and the spectacular Frank Gehry-designed Walt Disney Concert Hall.

"That was one of the greatest challenges of my life," McBride says. "'Book me a jazz show that can sell 17,000 seats'."

Another belly laugh.

It was rewarding, though, and gave McBride a chance to perform with James Brown just months before the soul great passed away. It also helped lead him to one of the biggest jobs in jazz, artistic director of the legendary Newport Jazz Festival.

"When [festival producer] George Wein asked if I'd be interested in taking over the role, he said, 'I've been keeping an eye on the stuff you've been doing in LA and your other work and I've always appreciated your inclusiveness with all areas of jazz'." He said that's what he wanted from the festival. I was just surprised he knew all the things I was doing away from the bass.

"That just goes to show you, man, you always have to do your best when you think no one's paying attention, 'cause there's always someone watching."

What: Christian McBride's New Jawn
Where and When: Wellington Jazz Festival, Opera House Wellington, June 6; the festival runs June 6 — 10