Vail Jazz Alumni: Jimmy Macbride uses workshop experience to continue learning his craft
Special to the Daily
Jimmy Macbride’s jazz drumming career has reached some pretty lofty heights.
One of today’s most sought-after freelance musicians, he has appeared on more than 40 albums. He’s toured the world and performed with jazz titans Terence Blanchard, Wynton Marsalis, Herbie Hancock and Kenny Barron. Modern Drummer has praised his swinging style on the skins and DownBeat magazine just named him one of 25 musicians with “the potential to shape the direction of jazz in the decades to come.”
Yet, while some would define success through such accomplishments, Macbride thinks of them as waypoints on his never-ending journey to learn and grow musically.
Raised in Hartford, Conn., where his dad taught composition and music theory at the University of Hartford and his mom pursued visual arts, Macbride as a child displayed musical interest and talent playing on pots and pans in the family’s kitchen and listening endlessly to his parents’ cassette tapes of Frank Sinatra. They started him on drum lessons and, as a first grader, he was selected for his elementary school’s jazz ensemble that was typically open only to older students.
As a high school student in 2008, Macbride’s longing to learn more about jazz drumming led him to the Vail Jazz Workshop, where he said encountered some of the “greatest musicians on earth.” Workshop faculty included Director and bassist John Clayton and drums mentor Lewis Nash.
Each August the Vail Jazz Foundation invites a dozen high school-age musicians to the Workshop, to be tutored by six experienced jazz professionals. This year’s workshop was conducted virtually.
The experience a dozen years ago in Vail left Macbride with important lessons that he continues to carry with him today.
Before arriving in Vail, he had only known how to use “matched grip” with his drum sticks. When he told Nash that he had never learned how to play “traditional grip,” Nash said, “Don’t worry, you will.” Sure enough, he soon did.
“I always knew it was something I wanted to learn how to do,” Macbride said, identifying “traditional grip” as “deeply associated with the tradition of the drums, with jazz, and jazz drumming.” Today, thanks to Nash and to Macbride’s own motivation to be a more complete drummer, he switches between grips depending on the sound he’s trying to achieve.
Through Clayton, he learned one of the most important concepts of self-expression in music, the co-existing pillars of “clarity” and “honesty.” Clarity, taught Clayton, consists of all the things musicians practice on their instruments—technical facility, sound, and executing on personal ideas that are presented to the listener and other band members. Honesty is enabling the music to represent one’s own personal life experiences from the heart, in a way that is clear and easy to understand, even when playing the most complex pieces.
Clayton taught that one way to achieve honest expression of the music is to sing what you are playing—a lesson made more difficult for those, like Macbride, who enjoyed chewing gum on the bandstand. Macbride recalls one workshop rehearsal when Clayton stopped the band and asked him, in his mild-mannered style, how Macbride could possibly sing while chewing gum.
“I realized he totally had a point,” said Macbride, who has avoided chewing gum ever since. What primarily stands out to him about the playing of musicians he admired over the ensuing years is that “it’s very sing-able.” He has consistently tried bringing that quality to his own playing as well.
After participating in the Vail Jazz Workshop, Macbride attended The Juilliard School and remained in Manhattan to pursue a career in jazz. He has drummed with a multi-generational array of musicians, most recently including guitarist Nir Felder, pianists Eldar Djangirov and Manuel Valera, and saxophonist Roxy Coss. Being able to support himself through music, live in New York, and travel to different parts of the world gives him opportunities to better himself and grow as a musician and as a person.
Because Macbride derives inspiration and motivation from performing music frequently with many different people and in a variety of venues, the coronavirus pandemic has challenged him. He has stayed active through performing in live-streamed virtual events, performances at New York area restaurants and clubs that have remained open with outdoor or limited indoor seating and continued recording sessions with other musicians.
Last year, before the pandemic arrived, Macbride began to break from working only as a sideman. He organized a quartet playing more of his original compositions, aiming to become a stronger musician and acquire more skills and insight into how music and band leading work. He hopes this will continue once the pandemic is under control.
“I think all of the things that I’ve been part of as a sideman can be experienced from a different perspective as a band leader,” Macbride says. Leading a band involves another level of responsibility and gravity, which he says should not deter him. “At some point in my life I should experience that. I think it would be a learning experience, a growing experience.”