High education: Cecil McBee's varied paths
When David Weiss talks about the bassist Cecil McBee, who he worked alongside in Charles Tolliver's big band, he gets to what inspires him about all the Cookers. "With all these guys, it comes down to the same thing: they're dead serious, extremely well-studied, well-versed musicians. And they talk about the music that way, with a certain pride: this is what it is, this is the way it's supposed to be."
For McBee, now 76 years old and as hard as ever, stamina is not the issue. "It's something that doesn't even occur to you," he tells me on the phone from his home in Brooklyn. "It's an event, a process, that says you must provide what the music dictates. And that's a very deep, traditional point of view, given that we go back to the mid-'60s, arriving in New York City. It's just the way you play, and that's based on an excitement that provides energy." It's a sensibility he shares especially with his frequent rhythm-mate Hart. "Billy and I, we are very strong on being creative from second to second — everything must continually change."
McBee, who's been teaching at New England Conservatory for 22 years, was originally self-taught as a clarinettist, then a bassist. When he did begin taking lessons in his hometown of Tulsa, Oklahoma, he says, he was "an unstudious student," but with a natural talent, and was "forced" to go to college by his high school band director. There, at Ohio's Central State University, "the sun rose and I have never been so excited in my life to learn and to study and to read and organize my life."
But, aside from the academics, college proved to be tough — the child of a single mother, he lost his scholarship money after one semester. He quit and went to work for a year, and then alternated work and school for another six years until the college president, the esteemed African-American scholar Charles H. Wesley, came to the rescue. "I went to his office one day with tears in my eyes and said, 'Sir, I cannot pay my way through school. My mother is a single parent and she can't help me anymore. I need to go to school.' " Wesley "made a way for me to go to school after that." At his graduation ceremony, after nine years of pursuing a degree, McBee was giddy, talking to a friend, indifferent to the commencement speakers. "I realized suddenly that this voice had been speaking — a very strong, forceful voice." Wesley was deeply involved in the Civil Rights movement, and the speaker was Wesley's friend, Martin Luther King.
As a teacher, McBee is impressed with his students, who he says are far ahead of where he was at the same age. He lends them his broad knowledge of harmony and theory but, he tells them, "I will not show you what to play. Your concern is playing individually. So I try to teach you how to teach yourself."
McBee is full of praise for his cohort in the Cookers ("What a band!"), and he's glad that it's contributed to the growing perception of him not just as a sideman, but a composer in his own right. "I'm very excited about that, because in my music right now, I see music all over the place that hasn't even been heard yet, and I'm hoping I can finally get the opportunity."