September 23, 2023
When jazz bassist Christian McBride met Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson in the music room at the Philadelphia High School for Creative and Performing Arts in the 1980s, all he could think of was James Brown.
"He was messing around on the bass, and I just kinda stood there and went, 'Oh really? We got a James Brown up in here now?" McBride recalled on a recent podcast episode of "Norah Jones is Playing Along." "Instant bond, it was an instant bond."
Questlove was new to the school. The future Roots drummer had learned about it after watching a made-for-TV movie and asked his parents to let him transfer from his private school, he said on the podcast.
At the time, CAPA was home to future jazz musicians like Joey DeFrancesco and Kurt Rosenwinkel, and songwriter Amel Larrieux, whom Questlove later took to prom. McBride and DeFrancesco were good friends and often sparred with Rosenwinkel over music. Questlove tended to take the side of whomever was winning the argument.
"I felt really alone because I was hardcore into R&B and funk," McBride said. "Joey could play it, but that wasn't his thing. And Kurt didn't, so I was by myself when it came to Motown, James Brown and Earth Wind & Fire. And then (Questlove) comes to school."
About a week after Questlove arrived at CAPA, a morning talk show hosted by Bill Boggs filmed a show with Miles Davis at the school. A handful of students, including McBride and DeFrancesco, were chosen to play music and receive advice from the jazz legend. For Questlove, watching this unfold "popped the bubble" he was in. Having been raised by musicians, he had believed no other teenagers could perform as well as him.
Questlove described his father, doo-wop performer Lee Andrews, as a "backstage parent," adding that he gave Questlove three options after high school. He could attend the Julliard School, the Curtis Institute of Music or get a job outside of the music industry.
"To this day, people don't believe me when I tell them that my dad didn't find out about The Roots until our second album," Questlove said, to which McBride laughed heartily, insisting that Andrews was not that bad. "I couldn't let my family know that I listened to hip-hop that way."
Questlove said he was nervous to tell his parents about his burgeoning career in hip-hop, but he also was intrigued by Rosenwinkel's insistence that a more "avant garde" jazz movement was beginning to unfold. He said he initialy was happy to go back-and-forth between playing jazz and hip-hop.
It wasn't until he and Tariq "Black Thought" Trotter took a red bucket out to South Street to busk in the summer of 1992 that his decision was made.
"We took that chitlin bucket on South Street and the thing is, if we don't make $120 in four hours, we're not doing it again," Questlove said. "But we made $100 in the first hour and thought we were rich. We were thinking we could get a (TransPass) to get the train for a month, go to the movies, go to Wawa, and knew we wanted to do it again."
Questlove and McBride's careers headed in different directions, with McBride earning eight Grammy Awards for his jazz compositions and Questlove making a name for himself as a member of The Roots. But they collaborated on "The Philadelphia Experiment," an album released with pianist Uri Caine in 2001. The album was the first in a series that brought together musicians from different backgrounds and cities.
During the podcast, Questlove and McBride sat down with Jones for improvisational jams and to cover songs by The Staple Singers, Kris Kristofferson and D'Angelo. In between performances, the musicians discussed their musical styles. Questlove likening himself to a "shapeshifter," his drumming influenced by jazz, hip-hop and old standards.
Check out the trio's cover of "Why Am I Treated So Bad" by The Staple Sisters below. The full podcast episode can be found here.