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Hello, porkpie hat

A best selling author, James McBride could have typed his days away. Instead, he donned jazz attire and hit the road.

October 08, 2003|Lynell George | Times Staff Writer

Some melodies just dog you, harangue you even in your sleep.

James McBride knows what that's all about.

Consequently, he's had little rest in the last few weeks. Long traveling days. Even longer working nights. A host of gritty-eyed mornings. All the while he's chased by a theme or many pieces of them -- living the musician's life. Or sort of.

Most would be quick to associate McBride's name with a landmark memoir, "The Color of Water: A Black Man's Tribute to His White Mother" (Riverhead, 1996), the story of his Polish-immigrant mother -- a rabbi's daughter -- who escaped to the South and then Harlem, married a black man and raised 12 children and sent them through college. His book would have such frank resonance that it would remain on the New York Times bestseller list for more than two years, selling more than 1.5 million copies.

Deep in the flow, another book followed, a novel. "Miracle at St. Anna" (Riverhead, 2002) traced the journey of an African American soldier from the 92nd Division who befriends an Italian orphan boy during World War II.

But somewhere, amid all the expectations of literary life, a theme kept circling back, crowding in, McBride recalls, chain-drinking coffee, seated in a gloomy-dark, LAX-adjacent hotel on a recent afternoon, attempting to jump-start his internal engine. He kept revisiting his other roots, another life: jazz.

Finally, he just gave in. Which is the occasion for this visit to Los Angeles -- something that McBride, also a pianist, saxophonist and composer, has dubbed, "The Riffin' and Pontificatin' Tour" -- his way to reconcile it all: His yearning to tell stories in all the tones and colors available to him.

Speaking and performing at high schools, universities, bookstores, hotel ballrooms -- in other words, wherever they will have him -- McBride, a former journalist, is bent on spreading not just the word, but the power of music, the creative act. "To students, yes, but whoever will listen."

This 30-city, self-booked and largely self-funded tour (with some assistance from Philadelphia-based Comcast Cable to help mount some of the school and community-based events) is to promote his latest project, "The Process: Vol. 1." It is the first of three CDs and a series of performances spotlighting the importance of the creative process and the storytelling value inherent in simply that very act of creation.

"I've always been fascinated with what goes on in the studio before the guy says, 'One, two, three, four ... ,' " he explains, "the stories behind jazz." Leaning into his own story, he fiddles with his road-and-weather-worn porkpie hat, his only blatantly sentimental "jazz-life" concession. "I've always felt that musicians of all types are bonded by their desires to tell stories," he explains. "And it doesn't matter if those stories are told by Freddie Mercury or Freddie Hubbard. The difference is who is listening and why."

McBride's idea was to gather friends and colleagues who were workaday jazz folk, people with family or who have regular day jobs, and have them tell their stories about why they play. "Fortunately for me," he says, the edge of a smile crossing his face, "I'm as anonymous as the next person in my group. In jazz, I'm nobody. No jazz heavyweights are waking up at 3 in the morning and saying, 'Oh, my God, James McBride's in town! I'd better start practicing.' "

He also sees "The Process" as a creative way into the heart of a process that oftentimes feels abstract and enigmatic. Stripped down, there are the specifics: the basic building blocks, hard work, different roads taken, the compromises. And failure, stresses McBride, is just as important as success.

"We just see the outcome," he says. And ultimately, "nobody remembers every Duke Ellington song, but they remember his style and flamboyance. Not many people can call off 10 Miles Davis songs. But they admire his ability to carry the story of his life, just by looking at him...."

It is all about the back story.

Performance mode

Although McBride may downplay his musical chops, this project isn't just a dilettante's turn. And though he would probably find the term a shade too fussy, one could certainly describe him as a renaissance man. At 45 he's cut a wide if not idiosyncratic path: from the Columbia School of Journalism to touring with Jimmy Scott, to writing tunes for Anita Baker and Grover Washington Jr., to being nominated by President Bush to the National Council for the Arts (confirmation pending).

All of it has gifted him with a nonchalant, seen-it-all-gaze and a journalist's difficult-to-ruffle demeanor. Like the best storytellers, he keeps allusion and wry aphorism at the ready. Some of that, no doubt, has come from experiencing things firsthand, not just being the filter for other people's stories.

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